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Operation Reach B.L.A.C.K. is a Pan-African Blog with an acronym that stands for Building Leadership Awareness and Cultural Knowledge.

The goal of this blog is to become a "Blog of Black Thought" focusing on matters of social, economic and political awareness through education (re-education), self-affirmation and cultural expression. Above all, this blog will DEMAND respect and appreciation for one another as black men and women.

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(Opinions, Observations, and Commentary)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

CBC's petty politics and the need to "Press On"

Rep. Maxine Waters
(photo credit: Neon Tommy via photopin cc)
It seemed as though the former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Representative Maxine Waters, rushed to the nearest television camera she could find. What was so important? Apparently, Ms. Waters was concerned about the use of "curious" language.

Of course, the story does not end there - though, perhaps Ms. Waters and the CBC could have saved face if it did. For at least then it would have been possible for the casual viewer to mistake Ms. Waters' campaign against "curious" language as a pushback against something a little more important than bedroom slippers - yes . . . bedroom slippers.

The slippers discussion was made during an MSNBC interview (here), but you can see the video of Representative Waters' CBS interview, here.

If Ms. Waters ended her thought at some nebulous precaution against "curious" language, perhaps a person watching his or her morning news program would have assumed she was speaking out against the "curious" words of the Republican presidential candidates. A viewer might have thought she was speaking of a GOP hopeful who seems comfortable with letting a man die for lack of health insurance, or even the "curious" behavior of a partisan GOP debate crowd that cheers executions and boos a member of our armed forces who happens to be gay.

Unfortunately, for Ms. Waters and the CBC, there's a long list of worthier topics to be concerned with before even beginning to think about the how the president chose to deliver his address last Saturday. If Ms. Waters' penchant for finding the microphone resulted in more talk about the American Jobs Act and less scrutiny over every syllable of President Obama's speech, maybe her recent television campaign would not have proven so petty.

But, make no mistake about it, this contrived debate over bedroom slippers and the president's alleged tone at a CBC event is just that . . . petty.

To be honest, this is not surprising. After all, it was Ms. Waters who pleaded that she and the CBC be "unleashed" to confront President Obama on matters so near and dear to the Black community. Well, at least that's been the CBC talking point for the past month.

Yet, when you listen closely, you'll hear a noticeably passive aggressive subtext to the words of some in the CBC - a subtext, which leads many to question the reasons behind the very odd response to President Obama's speech. Even more, the media stepped in to misrepresent the president's words. Suddenly a pep rally urging CBC support, morphed into an all out attack on the Black community.

The good part about that video - an admirable job by Rachel Maddow to push back against the media narrative. The unfortunate part about that video - the CBC's defensive posture. Representative Barbara Lee showed some support for the president and his policies. However, it seemed that the main purpose for her appearance was to conduct a bit of CBC damage control.

Typical of beltway culture, the CBC's focus on the president's tone or "curious" language does little more than provide an excuse (however temporary) for inaction. Sure, President Obama did everything the CBC asked him to do. He gave a fiery speech recognizing the plight of Black America in a down economy. He pledged his commitment to fight on their behalf. He promoted the jobs bill that the CBC and Democrats asked him to create (forget the fact that it's not the president's job to create legislation).

He did it all. But for not.

The president's crime? He had the audacity to talk about bedroom slippers. He had the gall to ask a room full of legislators to stop complaining and work with him to make the change they claim they want to see.

And it is important to not let critics put words in the president's mouth. The president never said the CBC is lazy or a do-nothing segment of Congress. In fact, during that same speech, President Obama praised the work of members in the room. He recognized the sacrifices of those who worked during the civil rights movement. Far from disrespectful, the president's appeal was simply a request that some in the room remember to focus their energy in a more productive manner. But, apparently even that was too much for the CBC to handle. Oh, the irony, when asked to stop complaining, the CBC stood tall and marched right to the media to . . . complain.

If the CBC had chosen to be adults about the situation, it could have used the president's speech as momentum to accomplish the goals it cares about. The CBC could have said, "Hot damn! Fired up and ready to go! Let's do this." It could have taken the soundbites of President Obama listing the benefits of the American Jobs Act and found every possible television camera and microphone on cable, Internet, and radio news to push the jobs bill.

And what if the CBC did not agree with the president's plan? Can anyone honestly argue that Ms. Waters' criticism was policy based? Seriously? Bedroom slippers? And what of the president's tone - this subjective belief by some that the president holds his own people in contempt? What is the policy criticism behind that? Is the CBC willing to go all Kanye West and suggest that President Obama doesn't care about Black people? Probably not. Why? Because such an outlandish claim would expose this whole "debate" for how childish it truly is.

Let's be clear, the CBC is vulnerable to charges that it helped sustain this media narrative. A foolish headline claiming "Obama tells blacks to stop complaining" would not have any legs if the CBC had not gone along for the ride.

This petty politics allowed the CBC to work a straw man argument against the president. It constructed an alternate universe where the big, bad president started picking on the poor, innocent CBC. And in its defense against something the president did not say, the CBC helped push the unfounded idea that the president was a bully.

Ms. Waters claimed that she could not imagine President Obama speaking to any other interest group (e.g., Gays, Hispanics, Jewish, etc.) the way he spoke to the CBC. It's a claim that lacks merit because those very groups - Gay rights activists, the Hispanic and Jewish communities - have themselves had moments where they expressed offense at something the president did or did not say (this is not to discuss of the credibility of such claims from those communities, but to acknowledge that such criticisms do exist).

This implication by some in the CBC and the media that President Obama is scared to offend other groups, but takes liberty to disrespect the Black community is itself offensive. And such claims of a target on the CBC and racial exclusivity ring hollow considering that the Left is still sore with allegations of disrespect following Robert Gibbs' "Professional Left" remark and Wall Street types expressed displeasure when the president referred to bankers as "fat-cats" (side note - I don't have a problem with either of these characterizations).

Both instances involve communities that are heavily (although not exclusively) White and middle to upper-middle class (or even wealthy). The president is not singling out the CBC any more than he has singled out the hand-wringing Left. And he has not addressed the CBC as part of the problem whereas he rightfully argued and continues to argue that Wall Street needs to do more to create jobs and the wealthy need to pay a fairer share in the tax code.

Now, this is not to argue whether or not the president could or should have been tougher on one group or the other. However, it is to say that many groups have a habit of overreacting to very reasonable statements from this president. Many groups seize upon opportunities to distort this president's words to either gain political advantages or simply change the subject. It's a practice in hyperbole that often pays off in our 24-hour news cycle. Bottom line: Everyone takes their turn claiming the president has wronged them or thrown them under the bus. It is simply the cycle of petty politics. The CBC is not unique.

And those who swear that he is not tough on Republicans must have forgotten the fact that President Obama took on an entire hall full of House GOP members a couple of years back to defend health care reform. Yes, in case you forgot, it was one Democratic president against what was at the time roughly 175 Republican lawmakers . . . by himself . . . literally on GOP turf. Seems clear that the facts prove the conventional beltway wisdom wrong. President Obama is not afraid of confrontation. He just doesn't revel in it as a substitute for action.

And that's where we are at right now. It's the deadly cycle of petty politics that too often grips the Black community and stifles forward progress. But let's be clear, this type of politics has nothing to do with the president. On the contrary, President Obama is currently campaigning all over the country to garner support for the American Jobs Act. The president is putting his money where his mouth is. And while the CBC prides itself on several jobs fairs it has hosted in the past month, don't expect much acknowledgment of the fact that the president and White House have also hosted countless national dialogues on jobs and the economy during his time in office - including a recent forum with Black media, town-hall events, and numerous stops throughout the country to push an actual piece of legislation that he created (even though, once again, it's not his job to write legislation).

Funny thing, unlike some in the CBC, President Obama has not used his push for jobs as a plea to be "unleashed" on anybody.

The CBC could have been mature enough to realize that, in all likelihood, the president was not calling the entire Caucus a bunch of complainers. Merely, the CBC could have shown enough humility to acknowledge the fact that there were most certainly some in that room that needed a little kick in the pants - some who have used the majority of their precious air time to complain about what the president has or has not done rather than explain (or even offer) their own solutions to problems while simultaneously garnering enough votes to pass Congress. Perhaps, in a better world, the CBC could have stopped for one moment to recognize that issue spotting, while important, is NOT a substitute for policy.

But, this is the real world where the media substitutes petty politics for actual policy on a daily basis. What petty politics, you ask? The petty politics that, when given the chance to comment on the president's invitation to "press on," instead chooses to talk about bedroom slippers.

It would be funny if were not so sad. However, there has been a concerted push to distort a CBC address by the president into an attack on Black America. Do not fall for it.

So here is a bit of advice for the CBC. Be mindful of who speaks on your behalf and how that message is received. When your response to a motivational speech is to obsess over tone and slippers, you come off as being more concerned with simply having your chance to bash the president than actually working with him to get things done. My guess is you have members that are not being heard. My guess is you have members that are more than willing to "press on." It is time we start hearing from them.

My advice for the rest of us? The next time you see a member of the Congressional Black Caucus talk about bedroom slippers, change the channel.




Video: Perspective Piece