As radio talk show host and political activist Tavis Smiley prepares to convene a conversation about the state of the Black Agenda and the Obama administration in Chicago, pundits and analysts are abuzz with discussions about whether such a gathering is relevant, especially in light of the fact that an African American occupies the White House. Indeed, the Chicago session is being convened amid controversy over that should represent Black America in discussions with President Obama and to what degree he should be expected to respond to a Black Agenda.
As the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW) was mobilizing/organizing the State of the Black World Conference convened in New Orleans in November of 2008, we explicitly stated that a major goal was to discuss issues of concern to Black people that should be addressed no matter who occupied the White House. At the Conference, we put forth a Priority Public Policy Agenda and announced our intention to create the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission (SCPAC) to monitor how issues of concern were being addressed by the Obama administration.
We should be clear that the idea to create SCPAC was not in response to the election of our first Black president; it was a statement of intent to institutionalize an important dimension of Black politics: the monitoring of presidential administrations and reporting the results to Black America as a basis for promoting and protecting Black interests and aspirations. We called for the creation of the Commission in 2008 because Black America has been in disarray, disoriented and terribly disorganized/dysfunctional as it relates to institutionalized processes for aggregating and advancing a Black agenda. The squabble, which has erupted around the White House meetings and the character of the Tavis Smiley gathering, are symptomatic of this dysfunction.
Implicit in IBW’s presentation of a Priority Public Policy Agenda and the call for the Commission was/is the emphatic view that the myriad crises afflicting vast numbers of Black people will necessitate the development, articulation and aggressive promotion of a Black Agenda well into the 21st century, if not forever. The issue is how to devise a Black Agenda, by what means will it be advanced and how will its implementation be monitored. These issues speak to questions of political principle and to how we function collectively as a national Black community to aggregate and advance our interests.
This is not a new proposition. In the 19th century, beginning in 1830, the quasi-free African community held a series of “Colored People’s Conventions” to debate the goals of the Black freedom struggle and the strategies and tactics that should be employed. In addition, as John Bracey notes in his brilliant work Black Nationalism in America, there were conflicting views about the definition of “freedom” and how it ought to be pursued. Diversity of ideological perspectives has always been present within the body politic in Black America. The crucial point is that the early Black political thinkers and leaders saw the Colored Convention movement as a vehicle to discuss/debate issues of concern to an oppressed people and to develop strategies for advancing the struggle.
Various agenda-building processes were also utilized in the 20th century, but the most notable event in this regard was the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. To my knowledge, Gary represented the most systematic and inclusive process in the history of Africans in America to develop a National Black Political Agenda and propagate the idea that agenda-building processes should be instituted at the local and state level throughout Black America. The Agenda adopted in Gary was one of the most profound statements of Black interests and aspirations in the 20th century. A close read of the document will reveal that some of its provisions are as relevant today as they were thirty-eight years ago. Despite the fact that the Gary Agenda had not been fully translated into public policy, there were Black Agendas developed at subsequent meetings in Richmond, Virginia and New Orleans. Congressman Walter Fauntroy devised a comprehensive Black Family Plan that was adopted by the National Black Leadership Roundtable. The Mission Statement of the Million Man March and Political Agendas developed for the Million Family March and Millions More Movement were also admirable efforts to articulate the interests and aspirations of Black America.
I cite this history to make the point that Black America has never had a shortage of “agendas.” Every civil rights/human rights and political organization on the scene has some kind of policy agenda whether it is the NAACP, Urban League, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, National Action Network or Congressional Black Caucus. Therefore, when people say that Black people need an “agenda,” it is all I can do to keep from bursting out laughing. As Tavis and his panel of notable Black leaders prepare to address the issue of “an agenda” one more time, the question is not what will they agree to, it’s can we prevent every individual ego from posturing to present the agenda to the President and powers that be. Equally important, has the Black community been sufficiently mobilizing/organized, does the Black community have the capacity-power to demand that the President and/or Congress or anyone act on our agenda or else? Otherwise, what we will witness in Chicago will be just another admirable meeting.
What Black America needs are political systems and processes that are institutionalized. As a true believer in the goals of the Gary National Black Political Convention, I have attempted to encourage IBW to be a vehicle to advance this objective. Though we presented a Priority Public Policy Agenda at SOBWC, it largely consisted of a broad statement of principles and proposals that were already being advanced by the NAACP Legislative Bureau, Rainbow/PUSH, National Urban League and the Congressional Black Caucus. In other words, we made no pretense that we were creating the “greatest agenda of all time.”
Second, we did not take our Agenda and go rushing off to Washington to present it on behalf of Black America. The simple fact is that every group with a Black Agenda cannot be jockeying and positing themselves to “represent Black America.” To do so is to invite the divide and ignore strategy. It is far better to have an Agenda forged through a collective process and presented by an entity that a broad range of organizations and leaders trust. IBW elected to submit its Priority Public Policy Agenda to the Black Leadership Forum (BLF) that is an umbrella organization comprised of the major civil rights organizations and a range of other impressive groups. Under the leadership of Marc Morial, President/CEO, National Urban League and the Chairman of BLF, agendas from various groups were to be submitted, reviewed, aggregated and then sent to President Obama’s Transitional Team for consideration. We took these steps because we wanted IBW to model how to engage in a collective political process rather than riding solo as if we have the capacity/power alone to effect change. Black America needs institutionalized political systems and processes.
It is for this reason that we called for the creation of SCPAC and have worked patiently to implement the concept. SCPAC is designed to have a group of stellar scholars, analysts and activists function as the national entity monitoring how this or any administration responds to Black issues. It is an attempt to put in place a permanent mechanism to perform this function, hopefully with the trust and support of a wide range of organizations and leaders in Black America. Like the Urban League’s State of Black America Report, SCPAC will periodically issue Report Cards on the performance of presidential administrations in terms of issues of vital concern to Black America, as well as convene seminars, symposia to discuss pressing issues and formulate recommendations about it.
In short, with the formation of SCPAC, IBW hopes to fill a void in Black America. We are delighted to announce that the Commissioners have been appointed. They are: Dr. Julianne Malveaux, Political Economist, President, Bennett College for Women, Dr. Ronald Walters, Political Scientist and Distinguished Leadership Scholar, James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland, Attorney Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Institute, Dr. Tricia Bent-Goodley, Professor of Social Work, Howard University, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, Associate Professor of Education at Columbia Teachers College and African American Studies, Columbia University, Dr. Annelle Primm, Psychiatrist, Convener, All Healers Mental Alliance, Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, Instructor of African World Studies, Dillard University, African American Leadership Project, Makani Themba-Nixon, Executive Director, The Praxis Project, Dr. Duchess Harris, Associate Professor of American Studies, Macalester College, Dr. Michael Fauntroy, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University, Dr. Boyce Watkins, Social Commentator, Professor of Finance, Syracuse University.
The Commission has commenced its deliberations, and it is anticipated that the first Report Card will be forthcoming in the very near future. It remains to be seen if SCPAC will achieve the necessary legitimacy and credibility to play the role envisioned in the Black political system and process of Black America. That verdict will be in your hands!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.