A promise and a riddle

Times were so giddy in the winter of 2009. Barack Obama, the first black president, a liberal Democrat, had taken office after a campaign about change. Along with his Democratic majority in Congress, he seemed poised to sweep away the very odor of right-wing malfeasance left behind by the Bush administration.

But 2010 seems to be a winter of discontent. Obama didn't wield a magic wand. Economic turmoil still haunts the nation. Wars are still being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The giddiness is gone and the political realities of how things actually work have settled in. And Obama, whose blackness was questioned by blacks — and even leftist whites — during his campaign, is taking heat for not favoring a black agenda as president. 

"Having been involved in politics, I never get delirious. One person isn't going to make the difference," says Ron Scott, a local political consultant and community activist. "That's a fairy tale. There was a lot of hype. I can understand that people want to see themselves manifested in a chair in the White House, but this is still the United States. ... Obama raised a lot of money from people who were not in the African-American community."

Still, those whose political survival at the local level depends more on the black agenda are concerned. In December, the Congressional Black Caucus chided Obama for not doing enough for minorities hard hit by the economic downturn. The rumbling got loud enough that Obama asked U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a founding member of the group, why he was "demeaning" the president. Conyers told him it was "just an honest difference" of opinion on the issues.

The difference of opinion seems to run deep in political circles. A recent headline on TheRoot.com, a website focused on black issues and edited by Henry Louis Gates (the Harvard professor who was arrested on his front porch last year), asked the question: "Is Obama too bourgie?" Read bourgeois, uppity, intellectual or too white. It's a question that follows every upwardly mobile African-American. Somehow being middle-class, educated and successful translates into not black enough.

"Being elected president is like being elected mayor of Toledo," says Melvin Peters, associate professor of African American Studies at Eastern Michigan University. "He's not elected to deal with the black agenda. When race is forced on his table, Obama can handle it, but at the same time I don't think he's comfortable with it."

That's the reality of politics. We've had black politicians and, in some locales, black political power for decades. But black politicians, for whatever reason, haven't managed to create real economic power in African-American communities. We still suffer disproportionately from the social ills that plague America, particularly economic woes. Unemployment is higher among African-Americans than among white Americans, and the mortgage crisis is like a tsunami in central cities. Not to mention that health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and HIV and AIDS plague black communities at epidemic levels.

The lesson here is that politics is politics, and politicians are politicians, no matter what color the faces. Nobody is going to look out for your community unless you make them. Obama told us that from the start, but the giddy atmosphere of the first black president may have been too intoxicating, and we forgot how he got there — with plenty of ground troops' activism. We've seen this go down time and time again. Detroiters have had black political power since 1973, when Coleman Young was elected mayor, and should know that a black face in power doesn't count for a lot at ground level. Unfortunately, some lessons don't take root even when the evidence slaps you in the face.

Like Obama, Young was elected with a progressive coalition as his base. Young, a longtime civil rights and labor activist, was greeted like a savior when elected. Police preying on blacks in the city, particularly the controversial STRESS unit, was a major issue.

"Being a black mayor gave you an opportunity to really serve the black community directly," Peters says.

Young shut down the STRESS unit. He brought meaningful integration to the police force and appointed blacks to head many city departments. Early on, the black community would have done almost anything for Young. And indeed we elected him to five terms as mayor — even after it was obvious that he had lost his taste for populist causes.

"The Coleman Young campaign became the Coleman Young machine. The same thing with Dennis Archer and Kwame Kilpatrick," Scott says. "It never translated into the people's machine. Young's victory was based on 30 to 40 years of struggle at every level — labor, community, churches and so on. When he and his successors took over, they dropped the ball on the people at the grass roots. ... In terms of political power building a real economic base — that has not happened."

This is no anti-government screed, just a reminder that most politicians must be forced to do the right thing. That's especially true when it comes to economics. That's where real power lies. In the meantime, the symbolic impact of seeing Obama in the White House helps.

"Young black children, the hope that Obama gives them is real," Peters says. "They have a sense of American reality that we never had."

If that can be turned into economic impact, then we're really talking about something.

Sam's riddle:
Closing arguments in the Sam Riddle trial were scheduled for Monday, and, by the time your read this, you may already know the outcome of his federal corruption trial. A couple of years ago I called the now-embattled Riddle for comment on a column I was writing. He carried on about the corruption of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his mother, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick. He said the Kilpatrick name was toxic and the time had come to take them down. A few weeks later, I found out that Riddle's girlfriend, Mary Waters, was running against Cheeks for her House seat. I felt like Riddle had snookered me by denigrating Cheeks when he knew he should have at least told me he had a vested interest in the issue.

Not that he was wrong about the Kilpatricks. However, I wondered if Riddle started as an altruist and later became jaded. You know, sort of like the way you fall in love with a woman, move in together and then end up pulling a gun on her when she catches you in bed with someone else.

I first heard of Riddle when I was a student at Michigan State University in the early '70s and he led a civil rights protest that stopped an MSU basketball game. "He was a fiery speaker, artistic, charismatic and able to motivate people," recalls George White, a Los Angeles-based journalist who was also at MSU at the time. "He had a big Afro that was always well-coiffed. But I knew people who thought of him as an opportunist."

Apparently the Afro had a mouth, and opportunity kept knocking. But whose side was he really on?

I think we know now. He's on Sam's side.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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