By Julianne Malveaux
When Beyonce Knowles sang the Etta James song “At Last” at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, the song could have had several meanings. At last we have an African American president? At last, the muscle of the Black vote has been flexed? At last, there is some hope for our country to come together with the mantra “Yes, We Can”.
Watching the President and First Lady Michelle Obama slow dance to the romantic standard reminded us that African American families have not often been positively depicted. This attractive image of an intact Black family had come “At Last”. Thus, the song was symbolic of what many folks, and especially African Americans, believed about the Obama presidency.
Some of us blindly believed that with an African American president opportunity had come “At Last.” Some believed it so fervently that the least criticism of President Obama, no matter how mild and how lovingly conveyed, could cause you to be run out of the race. An alumnus of Morehouse College, Rev. Kevin Johnson, the selected baccalaureate speaker at his alma mater, wrote an opinion piece that was mildly critical of President Obama. As a result, the former director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs and new Morehouse President John S. Wilson, Jr. changed the format of baccalaureate to a panel, not one speaker, as is customary.
The purpose of baccalaureate is to have one speaker to focus on the spiritual dimensions of graduation. There is no way that Rev. Johnson would deliver a political speech. Still, he was essentially disinvited from the baccalaureate because of his views.
President Obama is the president of the United States of American, not the president of Black America, we are often reminded. Yet, it seems that African Americans have been kicked to the curb in terms of focus and attention. Other groups – the LGBT community, the Latino community – have been mentioned explicitly. However, on African American issues, our president has been silent.
Now, some African American people are crooning “At Last.” Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx has been nominated to serve as Secretary of Transportation. If confirmed, Mayor Foxx, an outstanding an eminently qualified candidate would join Attorney General Eric Holder as the second African American to serve in a regular cabinet post.
Similarly, the nomination of Congressman Mel Watt to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency is a step forward. FHFA regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and allows Congressman Watt the opportunity to implement some of the Obama initiatives on homeowner recovery from the Great Recession. The raging right has already come after Congressman Watt. The Daily Caller (a political blog) has reported an unsubstantiated claim by former presidential candidate Ralph Nader that the Congressman disrespected him in a letter. Nader has never produced the letter. Thus, the purpose of the claim is to besmirch FHFA nominee Congressman Mel Watt.
If Watt is confirmed, this represents a step forward for both President Obama and for African American people, and for the entire nation. The issue is, of course, confirmation. Will the White House Congressman, be able to garner the votes Watt needs to be confirmed?
What does the White House gain or lose if Watt is not confirmed. The “At Last” segment of the African American community will credit the president for making the nomination, even if not confirmed. The more critical segment of the African American community will view the ways the White House embraces this nominee, and question commitment. Ask UN Ambassador Susan Rice knows what it feels like to be dropped, when Senate confirmation seemed unlikely.
During President Obama’s first term, his inattention to the African American community was understandable, though not acceptable. He was busy straddling lines, seeking compromise, and leaving a legacy of health care reform. African Americans were patient in the hope that “as last” African Americans would get recognition in his second term. After all, as a lame duck president, he has much to gain, and little to lose in rewarding his most loyal constituency. At last some of us have our disappointment confirmed. Our president’s inaugural speech mentioned every community except the African American community.
President Obama and his supporters should not be thin-skinned. Philadelphia’s Rev. Kevin Johnson should not be “disinvited” from the Morehouse baccalaureate. Nor should a panel dilute his message, when the tradition is to have a sole speaker. Johnson is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Morehouse College, who deserves to be treated with respect. His column pointed out realities – President Clinton appointed seven African Americans to his cabinet, President Bush, four, and President Obama, just one. Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, in a letter to President Obama, wrote, “The people you have chosen to appoint in this new term have hardly been reflective of this country’s diversity.
Are the Foxx and Watt appointments a response to criticism? Based on their appointments, should Black folks sing “at last” or “not yet”?
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.