Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Race issue is kyptonite to Obama White House

By DeWayne Wickham

This never would have happened on Louis Martin's watch.

The political "prestige and the stature of the president of the United States among blacks" was his business, Martin told a senator who in the early 1960s resisted his attempt to get John F. Kennedy to appoint a black to the federal bench.

Helping presidents navigate racially sensitive issues was what the one-time black newspaperman did for Democratic Oval Office occupants from Kennedy to Jimmy Carter. He was their "go-to" guy. Martin had deep roots and was well-connected to civil rights activists as well as black politicians.

It was Martin's job to keep the presidents he served from stumbling into a race-baiting ambush like the one Andrew Breitbart sprung on the Obama administration and the NAACP. The right-wing blogger set off racial shockwaves when he released a 2-minute, 38-second video clip from a nearly hour-long speech that Shirley Sherrod, a regional USDA official, gave to a Georgia NAACP branch back in March.

This craftily selected excerpt, which Breitbart says he got from an unnamed source, left the impression Sherrod bragged about withholding assistance from a white family facing foreclosure on their farm. That was enough to cause the Obama administration to demand Sherrod's resignation - without giving her a chance to defend herself. The full version of the speech showed Sherrod actually went out of her way to help save the white family's property.

But this revelation came too late to save Obama - who apologized to Sherrod days later during a 7-minute telephone conversation - from an embarrassing racial episode that left his administration scrambling to explain why it had been so quick to throw her under the bus. The most likely reason is that when it comes to issues of race, the Obama administration is a basket case.

Its racial paranoia, though not without provocation, is exacerbated by the absence of someone in the president's circle of advisers who has the job - and connections - to protect Obama's flank on matters of race. This is a troubling omission that leaves the president vulnerable to the racial portion of the guerrilla warfare right-wingers are waging against him. Many black politicians and civil rights activists whose concerns get short shrift are frustrated by a White House that handles racial matters like they're political kryptonite.

Obama can't expect his civil rights allies to buffer him from such attacks. The NAACP blamed Fox News for snookering it into calling Sherrod's words in the truncated version of the speech "shameful." That knee-jerk response came before the civil rights group bothered to view the entire video of Sherrod's address to one of its own chapters.

For years Martin helped Democratic presidents avoid such missteps. But in an administration that believes simply repeating that Obama "is not the president of black America" keeps him from hitting the racial tripwire, there is no one in the West Wing with Martin's portfolio.

That's too bad - and might be politically fatal.

In the multi-front war Obama's political enemies are forcing this nation's first black president to fight, he has left his most vulnerable flank lightly guarded. From the moment he emerged from the pack to become a viable candidate his party's presidential nomination, the race issue has been his Achilles' heel.

And if Obama doesn't get someone on his staff soon who knows how to protect it, it'll be his undoing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

NAACP should pressure Obama to help jobless blacks

By DeWayne Wickham

GREENSBORO, N.C. — A day after the NAACP passed a resolution calling on the "Tea Party" movement to condemn unnamed racists in its ranks, I stood inside this city's old F.W. Woolworth, the scene of a truly important civil rights battle.

The lunch counter inside the old department store — now the focal point of Greensboro's International Civil Rights Center and Museum — was the scene of a sit-in demonstration 50 years ago that sparked the greatest chapter of this nation's civil rights movement. The protest led to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The effort to end the store's refusal to serve blacks at its lunch counter was launched by four black college students.

They didn't issue a formal statement condemning the act of bigotry enraging them. They didn't try to fight their battle in the press, though their cause was certainly aided by the news coverage it got. Instead, they did something of substance: They walked up to that segregated lunch counter, sat down and requested service. Within days hundreds of people, black and white, joined their effort — a campaign that pushed Congress to outlaw discrimination in public accommodations.

Of course, if there are racists in the Tea Party movement, the NAACP should track them down and call them out by name — not inference. Ferreting out the racists among us is still important work. But the most important civil rights work the NAACP needs to do is in the economic arena.

Two years ago while campaigning for the presidency, Barack Obama told the NAACP's convention that the federal government has a responsibility to provide employment opportunities for struggling families.He reminded his audience that Martin Luther King Jr. once said the inseparable twin of racial justice is economic justice.

Back then, black unemployment was 9.9%. Today it's a whopping 15.4%. Joblessness among black teenagers in July 2008 was 27%. Now, 39.9% of black youth can't find work. For most of the past decade, black unemployment has been double that of whites.

But 10 months into his presidency, Obama told USA TODAY and the Detroit Free Press he wouldn't do anything special to address the unemployment problems of blacks. "I will tell you that I think the most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is to get the economy going again and get people hiring again," Obama said.

When black unemployment rose while the Reagan administration gave federal aid to troubled American businesses, the NAACP said the Republican president's economic policies were a "virus" that would set back blacks for generations.

So far, the NAACP hasn't challenged Obama's refusal to make a targeted effort to close this nation's black-white jobless gap while he has used federal funds to rescue failing corporations. Instead, the civil rights group announced that it will march on Washington in October to pressure Congress — not the president — to create jobs.

Joblessness is certainly a greater threat to blacks than the bigots who show up at Tea Party movement events. But the NAACP is apparently unwilling to push Obama, whom blacks played a big role in electing, to do what they asked of Reagan — so the organization will pressure Congress instead.

That makes no sense to me. The four students who challenged Woolworth's whites-only lunch counter focused their efforts on the root of their problem — and the NAACP should do the same.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It's time for Michael Steele to return to his roots

By DeWayne Wickham

It’s time for a change, Michael Steele — time for you to find a new political home.

Born into a family of Maryland Democrats, you became a Republican when the most revered members of the state’s GOP were Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin and Charles “Mac” Mathias.

McKeldin was the moderate Republican who gave the nominating speech for Dwight Eisenhower at the party’s 1952 convention, and who later broke with the GOP to back Democrat Lyndon Johnson over Republican Barry Gold-water in the 1964 presidential campaign. A two-term governor, McKeldin was twice elected mayor of Baltimore. And unlike many other Republicans — then and now — he won widespread support from black voters.

Mathias, a liberal Republican who helped draft the 1964 Civil Rights Act, served in the Senate for 18 years before retiring in 1987. For his willingness to put principle above party, he was called the “conscience of the Senate” by Democratic leader Mike Mansfield.

Your political roots are in the GOP of McKeldin and Mathias, not the Republican Party that is now commanded by right-wingers such as Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and Ohio Rep. John Boehner.

There is no room for you in today’s GOP. For all the talk of a “big tent,” the Republican Party is a neoconservative pup tent where those with differing views are forced to kowtow to these ultra-right-wingers. Their political absolutism chased Florida Gov. Charlie Crist from the GOP and has reduced Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe to backbenchers. And more than once, it has forced you to retract something you said — when it seemed you spoke from the heart, not the party’s playbook.

It’s time to “man up,” Michael Steele, time to put your principles ahead of your job as GOP chairman, time to move into another political space — one that will let you be you. It’s time for you to become a Democrat.

As it is now, you’re widely thought to be a gaffe-prone embarrassment to the GOP. You called Rush Limbaugh an incendiary “entertainer,” then you apologized after he turned his media-megaphone against you. You told GQ that abortion is “an individual choice,” and then backpedaled when the anti-abortionists squealed in protest. And as quickly as you said at a Connecticut GOP fundraiser that the Afghanistan war is a conflict of President Obama’s choosing and is unwinnable, you retreated when GOP hawks demanded your resignation.

While many of your views would not prevail in the Democratic Party, you wouldn’t have to eat your words. You could become a member of the party’s conservative “Blue Dog” faction and influence the Obama administration’s policies and congressional legislation.

Sure, the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress is decidedly liberal. But the party has space within its ranks for moderates such as California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, and conservatives such as Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson and North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler. They aren’t forced to genuflect to an ideological litmus test. In the GOP, you’re treated like a malfunctioning dupe of the party’s claim of diversity. In the Democratic Party, you’d be yet another example of the inclusiveness it admittedly struggles with but hasn’t abandoned.

Breaking away from the Republican Party would be a tough move, but clinging to the belief that you can remain in the GOP and be your own man, ultimately, will cause you greater trauma.