Op-Ed: Criticizing Obama OK, No Matter Your Race
REBECCA ROBERTS, host: And now, The Opinion Page. Marcia Dyson argued in a recent opinion piece it is high time for black folk to stop beating down on those of our race who dare lift their voices to offer constructive challenges to the White House. The latest example, Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters. As part of a traveling town hall in Detroit this month, the congresswoman complained that President Obama is not doing enough to help black Americans, especially on the issue of unemployment. She asked the crowd for permission for her and her congressional colleagues to represent their views, even if it means publically criticizing the performance of the president.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
Representative MAXINE WATERS: When you tell us it's all right...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's all right.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: It's all right. It's all right. It's all right. It's all right...
WATERS: When you tell us it's all right and you unleash us...
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Unintelligible).
WATERS: ...and you tell us you're ready to have this conversation, we're ready to have the conversation.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Ready to have the conversation. Ready to have the conversation.
ROBERTS: That's Congresswoman Maxine Waters speaking earlier this month in Detroit. And we'd like to hear from African-Americans who have criticized the president. What kind of reaction did you get, or do you try to avoid talking negatively about the president? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Marcia Dyson's opinion piece "Take Me to the Waters" is featured in The Huffington Post's "Black Voices." She joins us now in Studio 3A. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
MARCIA DYSON: Thank you for having me.
ROBERTS: Why do you think Maxine Waters faced such a backlash for speaking out about her frustrations with the president?
DYSON: Well, I believe that Congresswoman Waters, like a lot of African-Americans, really respect and love President Obama. We know that his historic rise as an African-American to the top post in our country is one that is prized, one in which many people dream of as we come off the celebration of remembering Dr. King's memorial dedication this past weekend. And it seems as if an attack on him is an attack on that particular sense of black pride.
And also, we all know that the president has been under attack which seems quite racist in many arenas. And we don't want to be the ones to hurl the stones at him because of the hardships that he suffers around race in America. But I think that what she was arguing if you listen to her piece it really had a church tone to it, that she was asking permission to, as we do a call and response in the African-American church, like, you going to hear me now, which in other words, you know, can I have permission to do this because she understands the sensitivity of the complexity of the president being an African-American man who normally we would see as our pharaoh who in perspective really looks like our prophet, but he really isn't. So she had to ask that permission to unleash them.
ROBERTS: Well, in that call and response, people responded. You heard them say it's all right.
DYSON: That's right. It's all right. I think that the economic situation really put people to set aside that sensibility of the swelling of black pride, which is great. But when you have to look at your children who you're not able to probably feed or to send away to college or the husband who lost his job and, you know, or you may have lost your home, then you have to say stop. But really what she was trying to say and what I was trying to put forth in my piece - which got some criticism - is that if we do not speak to this president regardless of his pigmentation, then we really are setting ourselves up in the future not to be able to speak with power to the seat of power for those future presidents who might more likely be non-black.
ROBERTS: In your piece, you made a point of saying that you had been a Hillary Clinton supporter in the primary process. Why did you think that was an important piece of information for your readers?
DYSON: To let them know that if an African-American woman who was - who grew up in the city of Chicago, one who was very racist, that I had to make a choice beyond pigmentation and even gender, that I wanted to be a thoughtful citizen. And that was what the 2008 campaign was supposed to have been all about, the change message of Senator-then Obama and Hillary's message as well, you know, all the words of hope. And the only way that you could do that is to have not only a revolution of politics but an evolvement of politics as well.
And I want to put that for people who knew me that I did everything black. I mean, I shocked myself by holding this white woman's hand, you know, especially in the South. The reality of how do I take this woman and explain her to black men with silver hair who can remember men swinging from trees like fruit, that strange fruit that Billie Holiday would sing about, or to people who had been, in their memory, have the incisors of dogs barking and water hose on their - you know, on their grandparents. How do I do this? So that's the reason why I mentioned that, that I was thoughtful about it.
And knowing that anyone who knew me well too knew that if I was holding Hillary's hand, that I was also critiquing her, you know? And I don't have to use the words of romance like I love her. Someone asked, was I her fan? No, I respected her just as I respected her husband, but I always able to take President Clinton to task. He was not my first black president, and I wouldn't even say that Obama is my - really my first black president. He's the first president that I hope that I could have a conversation with, with my community, without feeling as if I were stepping on any toes.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Abel in Clemson, South Carolina. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Abel.
ABEL: Good afternoon. You know, as an African-American, I have been somewhat disappointed in the lack of attention that the president has played to black issues. If you look historically, every president from Reagan - Reagan gave us Martin Luther King Day. Bush championed the Civil Rights Act, or civil rights legislation. You had President Clinton saving affirmative action. And then President Bush, the second Bush, appointed more African-Americans than anybody.
But there's nothing you can point to that President Obama has done to champion African-Americans. We have a high unemployment rate. He seems to be ashamed or afraid to take any steps that would identify himself with the African-Americans. That's been the frustration that a lot of people have had. And you know, you get the criticism where you're naive when you say President Obama hasn't done much for African-Americans. And I'd just like to, you know, figure out how do you navigate that minefield.
ROBERTS: And Abel, when you talk about this, do you have people say, don't pile on? He's getting enough criticism from white voters. You don't need to join in.
ABEL: Right. That's the standard line that, you know, as African-Americans, we have to, you know, join forces and to support this man and, you know, and that's a rational thought. But you know, I gave money. I stood in line. I did a whole bunch of things. I expected more from him than I would have gotten from McCain. Right now I'm beginning to think I probably would have gotten more from McCain that Obama as far as, you know, dealing with African-American issues.
ROBERTS: Yeah. Abel, thanks for you call.
ROBERTS: Marcia Dyson, do you think that the president has not done enough for African-Americans?
DYSON: I think that the president has done some things for the African-American community. I think there has been a miscommunication to the African-American community, exactly what they have done. I don't think it's because he's afraid as an African-American descent president to say, hey, give a high-five up to the African-American community. I don't believe that at all.
But then you look at - you know, let's look at the teabaggers. The reason why they can press their, people think(ph) , predominantly white party about their issues is because they raise their voices, which made the Republican Party move in a certain direction that maybe, unintentionally, it really didn't want to go, to the extreme right. But it's because they raised their voices and no one says, look, all those white people are criticizing the white Republican Party or a white president, you know, or the gays, you know, bombarding Obama, which they did, or the Latino community, raising their voices to Obama.
And at those particular times in which they raised their voice, he also raised a concern and addressed(ph) on the issues. So the thing about it is, is that this is another educational moment in politics for American citizens that the people, the constituency base who do not ask for something will not get anything regardless of pigmentation. And the president and his communication offices must do - officers must do a better job in telling us what they have done for that - I know done for the African-American community. I do know that they have done quite a bit around jobs and education and unemployment and even what they're doing with small businesses, but they have not done it, for whatever reason - I hope that they make better in the future of relaying those messages to the people.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Alex in Charlotte, North Carolina. Alex, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
ALEX: Thank you. A great show. My comment was, you know, my family has always been politically involved and informed and so, you know, I criticized the president before for things I think he's doing, and so is family, but mostly about him is the strength of his leadership, you know. But as far as being able to do more for African-Americans, you know, what can he do that isn't locked up by Congress? You know, there's checks and balances. But I think the good thing out of this - what he's doing - is that now he's starting to see more African-Americans become empowered to actually speak, because this is somebody that looks like us in the White House. So we should feel more comfortable speaking to him, speaking our minds about what we want. And when we become a more powerful constituency, the - you know, those benefits will reap themselves no matter what color the president is.
ROBERTS: Alex, thanks for your call. Marcia, do you agree with Alex?
DYSON: Yes. I think people are really asking Obama - you know, we loved his change message. We love his hope message. But what we really want is, like, that audacity to show up. You know, a president is the greatest seat of power in the world and definitely within our nation. So we don't expect for someone to get this power and to be muted on the concerns of the people who are themselves African - American citizens despite their pigmentation. So we just want that audacity, that voice, that strength that we know that he has. He has this quiet strength, but it's time now for him to really flex his muscles.
ROBERTS: Why do you think now is the time? What has changed?
DYSON: Well, I think that there - the whole American landscape is in turmoil around, you know, economics, education. Our ceiling debt is not really over. Our international affairs. You know, we forget that our international policies sort of dictate or will direct our national concerns, you know. So we need a person who's going to actually show this particular strength. If not, then we will all be washed up.
And one thing I know that the president must look at too is that when we talk about poverty, we always talk about poverty and put on the face of that - the poster boy and girl is African-American citizens, but that's not true. In the red states, they're the highest numbers of (unintelligible) amongst the people, and they're in the Republican states. And I think that the president needs to say that and address that. This concern is of all American citizens. It really isn't about pigmentation at this time in history, and it really is definitely not about a party affiliation. It is about the needs of the people. And if we thought that we were tied to a ship - all in one ship called the Titanic - then we're about to sink if we don't come on board to get the conversations across both of the aisles to go toward what is best, not for a party, not for a president, not for an individual, but really for the people of the United States of America.
ROBERTS: My guest is Marcia Dyson. Her piece, "Take Me to the Waters," was featured in The Huffington Post's BlackVoices. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
What has the reaction been to your piece? I saw that The Root did a sort of supportive piece in reaction to it. What have you heard from readers?
DYSON: Well, I've gotten praise, and I've gotten some criticism of my critique of it. But that's OK, because when I participated this week in some of the activities around the memory of Dr. King, when he died he was at his very low popular state of his career. And I was reminded that only 10 percent of African-Americans throughout the nation actually supported him and his work. And if he could do that, then I know that just writing an article, I could take whatever criticism may come. But I've been getting a lot of support because it really hit hard to the people that we - if he can't do something, we at least want to say something.
Because if we say something, then as a president he will respond and won't feel as if it's the limitation or the guarding of one's color or race. It really is talking to the people that he said he wanted to govern well for.
ROBERTS: Do you think that the hesitance to speak out is echoed by the administration? Do you think they discourage black voters from criticism any more than any other voter?
DYSON: I always think that because they are well aware too that you have this, first of all, very precious individual. And the people you see around any president are close advisors or personal (unintelligible) friends. I mean they want to protect the personality and the image and the integrity of the office in which they are employed, and you expect for them to be somewhat defensive. But they have to also remember why they're there in support of him, and that is, again, for the people. So yes, I think that they are sensitive and well to be so, and defensive, well to be so. But right now, put like we had to put down our guards and compromise and to accept extra taxes if need be. They need to put down their defenses as well.
ROBERTS: William joins us now on the phone from Tar Heel, North Carolina. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, William.
WILLIAM: Thank you. Glad to be here. I've got two things I want to talk about. One is the president had the opportunity to make history. He has two Supreme Court nominees that he could have - he had the chance to put a black woman on. He didn't even look their way. And sometimes me and my son (unintelligible) back and forth about three or four times a week on this same the issue(ph) and the others about Obama. He's one of the ones that you shouldn't say anything about him, just, you know, because of his race. I look at it as (unintelligible) Bill Clinton, to me - when you look at his cabinet, he had more black people in his cabinet than Obama does. And we are sometimes creatures of our own surroundings. So I feel like he needs to have more people of color around him. He doesn't know what's going on with the people of color. Because if you don't have those voices in your ear, you're not going to know what's going on. I'm talking about senior advisors, not Al Sharpton. I like him. I'm talking about people that's going to tell him what's going on the hood, and he listens to them, and he doesn't.
ROBERTS: And William, when your son says, you know, support your own, don't say this stuff out loud, what do you say back?
WILLIAM: Well, most of the time I just put my hand in my ears, don't listen to him because he doesn't really know that much about politics. All he knows is that we got a black president in office and we shouldn't say anything. But I'm not like that. I mean, if he - if the president wants the support of the black community, he's going to have to pick it up. We're not going to just support him because he's black.
I'm looking for the person who's going to do the best job. And right now I'm kind of - I'm real disappointed in what he's doing. He don't even reach out. Now, next month - next year when election time starts - oh yeah, he'll reach out. But right now, he hasn't even put it - the other week, when he went on that tour, he could have went to a black community or a Hispanic community and talked about jobs. But where did he go? Iowa.
ROBERTS: William, thank you so much for your call. And Marcia, do you think that this - some of this frustration might translate into lack of votes?
DYSON: Or - yeah, the lack of votes for the president and the un-enthusiasm to actually get up, get past the (unintelligible) figure out what pennies on the cookie jar you're going to use to go get on the bus to vote, as rather to feed your children because you're under this besiegement of this economic time that we find ourselves. And yeah, and that's something that the president would have to address. And I wouldn't say anything against what this brother has said. If you can - you know, you know, we - there's this church song that says while we are waiting, please don't pass me by.
So yeah, you have to go past us, stop by. You know, give us a handshake. You can give us a high-five or, you know, fist bump or something, because we want to be acknowledged, not because we got you into the office of the presidency only, but because we have issues that we want to address and know that you see and hear us as well.
ROBERTS: Marcia Dyson's opinion piece, "Take Me to the Waters," is featured on The Huffington Post's BlackVoices. There's a link to it at npr.org, if you click on TALK OF THE NATION. She joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks so much for coming in.
DYSON: Thank you for having me.
ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.