This Ain’t No Spectator Sport: Black Scholars Fighting For Social and Racial Justice In The Age of Obama

When it comes to discussing my political views or advocating for what I care for, most people who know me know that I do not pull many punches. Over the years, as my understanding of and thinking about racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, materialism, economic exploitation, militarism, violence and various other systems of oppression deepens, I've intensified my activism and become more strident in my critiques.

Indeed, I believe that raising one's voice in opposition to injustices is a moral obligation that falls upon all of us, especially black scholars such as me.

Black scholars occupy a unique position in American society. Freed from the oppressive labor conditions most black people have experienced throughout our presence in America, whether it be the slave plantations and kitchens of white people or the steel factories and manufacturing plants of the North, for those of us privileged to work in the academy – an arena that allows us to teach, intellectualize, and write – we have a special obligation to not sit on the sidelines.

Of course, not everyone in the academy shares my belief about the black scholar's moral obligation or the necessity of struggling against injustices. Instead, most black scholars situated in the academy are spectators; they sit on the sidelines like fans at a football game, cheering for their favorite team and booing the other.

But, W.E.B. Dubois did not sit on the sidelines. Neither did Alain Locke or Mary McLeod Bethune. And neither did other scholar/educator/activists such as Benjamin Mays, Carter G. Woodson, Katherine Dunham, Vivian Harsh, Harold Cruise, and John Hope Franklin.

It is on their shoulders that WE all stand.

While I believe it is necessary, being an agent for social change is not easy. Struggling against a perceived injustice was much easier when we faced an enemy that we could easily identify. During the 1950s and 1960s, Jim Crow segregation was an easy target for black scholars and civil rights activists to organize and fight against.

Even then, there was never complete unanimity around the type of tactics and strategies to be used to topple America's apartheid system. Some preferred to fight oppression in the streets using direct action while others preferred to fight it out in the courts.

By the late 1960s, as the movement spread to the urban ghettos of the North, roused by revolutionary struggles in Africa and Asia, some preferred an armed struggle while others preferred to attack white supremacy and alleged black inferiority through the embrace of African culture, history, and philosophy.

Many black scholars were at the center of it all.

America has changed significantly over the past 40 years. Racism has become more subtle even as racial inequality deepens in many areas of American life. Many black scholars have retreated to the sidelines.

A particularly difficult question for black scholars today is, 'how do we fight for social and racial justice today when a man of color occupies the White House?"

As a black scholar, one of the most difficult conversations for me to have and not feel like I'm being viewed as a traitor to the race is about the policies of President Barack Obama.

Compared to other racial and ethnic groups in America, black people are pretty satisfied with the direction of the country under President Obama.

According to a Gallup poll survey conducted in October, nearly half (47 percent) of blacks say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, as does 51 percent of black Democrats.

By comparison, 10 percent of Republicans, 22 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 38 percent of white Democrats, and 41 percent of all Democrats are satisfied with the direction of the United States.

It is abundantly clear that black people love President Obama. Most black scholars refuse to criticize his policies, I believe, out of respect and love for the President and an earnest desire to protect him against white angst fueled by racism. I also believe that many of us fear being labeled traitors to our race for criticizing the President.

I believe that this is a foolish position to take for black scholars. We must not evade our responsibility to "speak truth to power" no matter what the hue of the president of the nation.

The war in Afghanistan is a perfect example of why loyalty to the President, no matter what he does, can be dangerous.

After nearly a year of escalating the war in Afghanistan and his words from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech explaining why he did it, it is clear that President Obama – picking up from his predecessors in the White House – has become the Chief Purveyor of American Violence in the world.

I was born in 1966. Every decade of my life, the United States has been at war with someone. No matter who occupies the White House (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama), their justification for war is always the same: like President Obama, they argue that the only way to protect America and spread democracy and freedom is through massive doses of violence.

As I reflected on Obama's Nobel Prize speech, I thought about the words Dr. Martin Luther King spoke during his famous Riverside Church speech in opposition to the Vietnam War: "Somehow this madness must cease?"

Unfortunately, because of America's historical appetite for war and the nation's seemingly insatiable desire for revenge against those who attacked us on 9/11, peace may not be a match for the war madness. Perhaps Dr. King was right when he said at Riverside: "The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve."

Whether the issue is Afghanistan, shrinking health care reform, or the bailout of fat cats on Wall Street, as black scholars, we must not hide from our obligation to speak the truth to power out of racial loyalty or for fear of the potential stigma of being labeled race traitors because of our objections to the President's policies. Indeed, with a person of color in the White House, our voices are needed now, perhaps, more than ever.


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