Take Me To The Waters

I must confess I've had enough: It is high time for black folk to stop beating down on those of our race who dare lift their voices to offer constructive challenges to the White House. I don't mean personal or mean-spirited attacks; there's no place for that in our public discourse. I'm talking about well-reasoned and principled objections to this policy or that one, or the failure to head in a political direction that benefits our communities. The stakes are high and the situation is critical in black neighborhoods and households across the land. We don't have time for bowing down at the thrown of unbroken racial solidarity when our children are suffering, our elders are vulnerable, and our poor are teetering on the brink of economic and social disaster.

The suggestion that such criticism is "hating" is ridiculous; surely we can make distinctions between bitter attacks and enlightened analysis. And the argument that publicly criticizing our first black president is an act of racial disloyalty is immature. We must be grown enough to know that politics at its best is about engaged citizenship, not tribal worship. You can love black people and do what's best for the race without agreeing with everything the president does or says. If we don't use our public platforms to encourage, solicit and push the president to do what we think is right, we've surrendered both our civic duty and our racial responsibility.

The latest victim of such backward thinking on the matter is Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a remarkable public servant and a political force of nature who has been on the battlefield for our people for more than 40 years. Waters was recently hit by a vicious wave of criticism when she waded into the subject of jobs, or the lack of them, for black folk, arguing that the White House must do more to secure the future of black employment. Waters was speaking in Detroit as part of the traveling national town hall on jobs sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus in the effort to address the crisis of black joblessness. Black unemployment is hovering around 16 percent, nearly 7 percent above white unemployment in the nation.

Predictably, Waters met resistance. But she's a smart woman; she asked her overwhelmingly black audience for permission to honorably and aggressively represent their interests in demanding that the White House pay attention to black people and our issues. Waters pleaded for the crowd to tell her and her Congressional colleagues that "it's all right and you [can] unleash us, and you [can] tell us you're ready for us to have this conversation, we're ready to have the conversation...All I'm saying to you is, we're politicians. We're elected officials. We are trying to do the right thing and the best thing. When you let us know it is time to let go, we'll let go."

You'd think that it would be a no-brainer for black representatives to represent the interests of black people -- and that's all Waters was doing in asking black voters to let the CBC take President Obama to task over job creation and high black unemployment. But the presence of a black president has clearly thrown everything way out of whack. The right to remain silent is only good when you're being arrested and charged with a crime; on the other hand, it would be criminal to remain silent while our economic growth is being arrested by inaction and the neglect of our needs. We are in danger of setting ourselves up to be dismissed by future (most likely, non-black) presidents who can easily cite our failure to speak up now as reason to keep quiet in the future.

I can readily identify with those who are attacked by some blacks because they've taken a principled stand on issues relevant to our communities. Despite knowing our wonderful president for 20 years -- I'm from Chicago, and supported his bid for both the Illinois State Senate and the United States Senate, and even introduced him to my husband, who chose to support Obama -- I chose to campaign for Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. Because I'm from Chicago, where total loyalty is a must and political incest is the norm, I was prepared to be vilified for my difficult yet thoughtful decision. I knew it wouldn't be easy explaining my choice of the "white woman" over the "black man" to southern-bred, silver-haired black men and women who had endured the reign of Jim Crow law, whose hearts were shackled to unsolved cold cases of murdered loved ones where known white offenders got off scot-free, and whose grandchildren endured environments of extreme poverty where inferior education grew like weeds in unkempt gardens. But I took the lashes of many black critics because I was invested in strengthening our political future. Of course, I supported Obama in the presidential contest between him and McCain, but I don't regret at all following my conscience and supporting Clinton in the primaries. Now that he is president, black folk must follow our consciences and offer support where warranted and criticism where needed.

Make no mistake: I have great respect and admiration for President Obama, and I absolutely adore First Lady Michelle Obama who, with her beautiful daughters in tow, gave me goose bumps when they appeared on stage in Chicago's Grant Park on November 4, 2008 to help take up the charge to lead the nation forward. It was as if the veil of being black was rent and the angels of equality and justice for all God's children were set free. I had grown up in Chicago and tasted the bitter fruit of its northern racism. Witnessing the elevation of my elegant and graceful fellow Chicagoan to First Lady was like witnessing a phoenix rising from our city's racial dust.

I'm also mindful of the vicious, repugnant attacks our president has endured, often for no other reason than he's black. We must protect him and guard against the racist bile that circulates through the body politic. Still, we must remember the traditions and icons that nourished our hunger for freedom and our desire for equality. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass helped to abolish slavery, and present day Tubmans and Douglasses must likewise help us abolish our slavish adherence to tribe and clan at any and all costs. While black folk surely have enormous pride in Obama's achievement, we must not permit pride to undermine a deeper virtue: justice. Justice may just have to trump pride when it comes to calling on the president to do what is right for the black masses.

That is the case with Maxine Waters now as she calls on us to unleash her and the Congressional Black Caucus to do what we put them in office to do: represent the best interests of the people, and to stand and fight for us even when it isn't popular or convenient. Maxine Waters has been a brave warrior for decades, and it is time we rushed to her defense to encourage her to stand tall and be courageous in demanding that the president address our plight as black people, and really, as American citizens. To do less would be to savage the memory of our foremothers and forefathers, and to neglect our responsibility to ourselves and to future black generations.

Rev. Marcia Dyson is currently working her book The Rough Side of the Mountain: The Trials on the Trail of the 2008 Presidential Primary.