I was among the many who were disappointed that President Barack Obama did not nominate an African American woman to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. After all, there are six white men, two women, one Latina and one white, and a nominal African American man on the Court. Why not an African American woman?
The Black Women's Roundtable, led by Melanie Campbell, was so disappointed that they shared their concerns with the President in a letter that spoke both to the contributions African American women have made and the qualifications of a few good women that President Obama should have considered before nominating Ms. Kagan to the nation's highest court.
I won't even speak on what I perceive as some of the shortcomings of the Kagan nomination. The Solicitor General has earned the support of some colleagues that I fully respect, such as Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree. At the same time, we have to pause at the fact that her definition of diversity is ideological diversity, not racial and ethnic diversity, and that she seemed to make Harvard a more welcome place for conservatives, if not for African American faculty.
The hue and cry about the absence of an African American woman nominee, however, speaks to a greater issue in the African American community and among African American leadership. African Americans are too often in the reactive, not the proactive mode. If we had been thinking long run, we might have projected that there would soon be a Supreme Court opening. Then, conversations about the possibility of an African American woman nominee might have been happening sooner, not later.
Hampered by the reality of the 24-hour news cycle and a decades-long failure to discuss and develop some leadership coordination, the African American community appears fractured and disorganized. Conversations about a black agenda, or lack thereof, that have taken place in the media (and I've been part of at least one of those) reveal good ideas, and little implementation. Many would say it is enough to put the ideas out there, that pundits and scholars are not the same as leaders. Then question, though, is where are the leaders?
I'm not trying to do the roll call or to spark debate about which leader is more influential than another. I am simply asking how the conditions of African American people are to change if the only tools we have in our arsenal are talk and reaction? My most immediate concerns are education and economics; black people are lagging in both of these areas. What are we going to do to make it better?
Unfortunately, there is too much "paralysis of analysis" with far too much conversation focused on this nonsense of post racialism in the Obama era. Too many are tentative in offering feedback to the White House, fearing that they'll be labeled "anti-Obama", or even worse, "race traitors". Other communities are pushing hard for action from the White House, while many African Americans with credibility are being tentative, conciliatory, or short-run and reactive.
To be sure, I understand the tentatively. Some see criticizing president Obama as offering aid and comfort to the tea party crowd who are irrationally critical of the President. That hasn't stopped other perceived Obama Administration allies - gays and lesbians, immigrant Americans, and others from fighting for what they were promised in the 2008 election. All of the angst around whether African Americans can offer President Obama feedback reflects the warped way African Americans are perceived in our society. We aren't homogenous, and our views cannot simply be distilled into "liberal" and "conservative".
Which brings me back to the courts. If we want an African American woman on the Supreme Court, now may be the time to organize around that. How could it happen? Short lists might be developed in the African American legal community, biographies developed, names floated, support garnered. There is likely to be at least one more opening on the court in the next two years, and some advance preparation, planning, and lobbying might well yield the right results.
It is overtime for African American leaders and scholars to take a long view toward black progress. We should stop squabbling about the leaders of tomorrow and start preparing the leaders of two decades from now. And we must learn to be more proactive than reactive. Otherwise, this same debate will recur when next there is a Supreme Court opening, when next there is a reason to react.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.