Do Black Thought Leaders Really Want Change?

President Obama speaking with the young men that would join him on stage announcing My Brother’s Keeper. (Pete Souza)

As the tweets and statements parsing President Obama’s speech announcing the new initiative My Brother’s Keeper started to roll in late yesterday afternoon, I began to remember the antics of one man: Tavis Smiley.

Already a household name with a powerful platform on PBS and in Black circles, Smiley was one of those people who seemed to believe that Barack Obama was going to be the African American community’s penultimate pushback against centuries of slavery, marginalization, and every form of the four circles of racism Jay Smooth talked about on Youtube.

Obama’s aspirations to the White House were to be his ticket to greatness as well, he thought, but when the future President offered to send his wife in his stead to Smiley’s annual State of the Black Union event, Smiley exposed himself as the petulant, nakedly self-interested parody of a Thought Leader that is his legacy, declaring Michelle Obama persona non grata and becoming one of the Obama administration’s harshest, most irrational critics. Then there was that whole Poverty Bus Tour with another high chief of the Marginalized Community, Dr. Cornel West, who at times breathed anger and anti-Semitic rage against this President for not getting him a ticket to his first inauguration, and thus their status as permanent laughingstocks was confirmed.

Six years later, many of those who publicly ridiculed Smiley and West have created solid brands themselves on exactly what they did: bash this President for never in their estimation “doing enough” to help young Black men of color live their lives successfully and safely, always pointing to the the existence of racism and the pallor of white supremacy, things no rationally minded human being would ever dispute.

And when this Executive placed the children we are trying to save on the same stage as he–every varying skin tone, hair style, and age group–seeking to get them into places of future power and success in ways the Legislative branch could collectively care less about before they fall victim to these streets or the end of some Floridian bigot’s gun, and already have the cries of “respectability politics” and “behavioral modification” started.

The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, who attended the event, described just how impactful this was, for both the President and all who were there:

From the moment President Obama walked into the East Room for the “My Brothers Keeper” event, you could tell this initiative was personal for him. For he knows, as all African Americans know, that when you’re a black male you’re not allowed to make mistakes, innocent or otherwise. Youthful indiscretions can turn into lifetime liabilities if they don’t get you killed. And you have to come to terms with being viewed as a problem. One that is best ignored or incarcerated or both depending on where you live.

Capehart went on to further explain what My Brother’s Keeper seeks to do:

“My Brother’s Keeper” is Obama’s two-pronged, public-private effort to make those chances possible and available for young men and boys of color. Over the next five years, foundations will invest $250 million on top of the $100 million already invested in research and proven programs around the country that help young men of color at critical moments in their development. Corporations will also be involved. In addition, Obama signed a presidential memorandum that established the “My Brother’s Keeper Task Force,” which is tasked with determining “what we can do right now to improve the odds for boys and young men of color, and make sure our agencies are working more effectively with each other, with those businesses, with those philanthropies, and with local communities to implement proven solutions.”

As I tweeted yesterday, what President Obama did is singlehandedly the most revolutionary thing any President has done at any time in our nation’s history exclusively for the Black community. In that room, those young men’s stories, who indeed go largely ignored or are simply patted on the head as they are hauled off to prison, were just taken into the body and consciousness of the Office of the President of the United States. Our pain was not merely spoken of; a clear pathway to a life other than misery and poverty was blazed here. After years of upset that Obama had not done this sort of thing in his first term, a solutions-based conversation has finally been started.

President Obama and 19-year-old Christian Champagne heading to the podium. (Pete Souza)

What we have here, O Black “Thought Leaders”, is what you call a start. So when you continually attack this President as someone who does not do “enough”, or who does not use their otherness as a club to maliciously beat others with vacuous, unproductive screams of “privilege”, you reveal yourselves to be nothing more than those with a brand to maintain, a empty Twitter page full of misplaced anger and devoid of ideas that could move us all collectively and progressively forward. As CNN’s Don Lemon said so masterfully yesterday,

I always say stop looking at yourself as other. Yes, we get racism. Yes, we get bigotry… Yes, you can be aware of who you are and you can be proud of your identity and all of those things, but concern yourself with being excellent and then before you know it, all of those things that you thought were hindrances will be your silent motivators and you will have made it and you will be doing it and working in your career and you’ll look back and say, how did I do this?

Cynicism and conflated nobility complexes help no one. Courage and overcoming the odds given in life does. Don’t be the ones that constrain for your own ends.

Don’t be Tavis Smiley.

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