Senator Barack Obama tries to be all things to all people with his vague language of change and hope. But sometimes he makes the mistake of promising something, only to see it turn out to be an inconvenience when it comes time to actually perform. Obama dazzled the crowd at the National Association of Black Journalists convention last August with a stirring speech followed by a question and answer session. The video of the event has been posted online and you can view it here. Highlighted at the NABJ website post about the event is his call for the black media to spotlight the "struggles that are happening in African American communities."
His rhetoric for the black media to support the African-American community seemed a call to action by a man who wants to be a leader of not just that community but our nation. Of course, at the time it was widely reported that African-Americans were concerned with the "authenticity" of a man raised by whites, with no ancestors who had been enslaved in America.
Perhaps it is worth examining whether his words match his deeds with respect to that community to find out what the rest of us can expect. At about 20 minutes into the video, Cheryl Smith of The Dallas Weekly asked the Senator a question. After noting his previous outreach to the black press she questioned "if elected will the black press receive the same consideration and respect?" In response the senator mentioned his history with local Chicago based black media and the support it provided him on local issues. Obama rattled off the names of a few local black press outlets such as the Chicago Crusader that he had dealt with in the past and told the assembled reporters that "if you all were covering me when nobody wanted to cover me then you should be able to cover me when everybody wants to cover me." The statement received a warm welcome and in response Senator Obama pledged to continue the practice "when I am in the White House".
But it didn't take long for that promise to be forgotten. The Senator's concerns over "authenticity" transformed into concerns about being perceived by whites as a racial candidate, once Bill and Hillary Clinton began their project of identifying him as the ":black candidate."
This man who runs on the premise of being something "new" in politics seems to have a strain of the "old" politics in him. A politician's promise is, after all, nothing but a politican's promise. In April this year a woman named Dorothy Leavell who publishes the Chicago Crusader and helms the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) blasted the senator and his campaign as a pack of "liars".
A writer named Betty Pleasant who writes a column for the Los Angeles Wave, a local LA black media outlet revealed his betrayal and the anger it has provoked in the black media community. Pleasant reports that "Black publishers say they have been locked out of Obama's advertising game plan -- and even shunned in their attempts to cover the Obama operation." Ms. Pleasant writes that black media has chafed "at his campaign officials' insensitivity to, and total disregard of" black people.
To make matters worse, as Pleasant reported, during a March meeting of the NNPA the publishers reminded the senator's staff of his pledge to support them. In response, Michael Strautmanis representing the Obama campaign acknowledged the problem and vowed to correct it by sending ad money and interview opportunities to the black media. By the end of April Ms. Leavell was hopping mad. "They lied to us" Leavell told Pleasant according to the article. Ms. Leavell's papers are based in Chicago and Indiana, the scene of major primary contests. According to Leavell they received no support from the campaign despite her repeated attempts to contact Strautmanis to hold him to the campaign's promise prompting her to declare them "the worst liars".
And Leavell was not alone. Ernie Pitt, a North Carolina black media publisher called Obama's pledge an "easy promise to keep" while remarking that if he breaks a pledge on something so easy the "what can we expect if they get to the White House?" Lenora Carter of Texas complained that the Obama campaign refused access to the black media during the Texas primary. Carter claimed that "Blacks set up a headquarters for him here in the 3rd Ward at their own expense and he never visited it". She also says that he ignored the black radio station just "six blocks from where he was staying."
Leavell summed up the situation thusly "many of our black communities may not turn out to vote in November, no matter who's running." The candidate has not helped assuage these concerns by avoiding campaigning in black neighborhoods ever since the Clintons played the race card.
Many whites support Obama especially because he is seen as the fulfillment of our dreams for a colorblind society. Those whites look to Obama to relieve them of a guilt ingrained in them since childhood that as white Americans they are somehow responsible for the acts of our forefathers.
To see the man who is held out by the mainstream media as the embodiment of a promise to push us over the racial equality finish line treating his pledges to black media so glibly, well what can the rest of us expect from him? Can he be the racial healer when he is the cause of the hurt? Can America expect him to keep his grandiose promises when he won't keep his personal pledges to his base?
Ray Robison is co-author of Both in One Trench.