Criticizing President Obama is a hard sell in the black community. Even with the Great Recession wreaking havoc in every nook and cranny of African-American life, it’s not easy to get a discouraging word from black folks about America’s first black president.

And those who do utter such words often face community enmity and questions about their motives.

Blacks are intensely loyal to the first of their own, but while this strong sense of racial allegiance is understandable, it’s producing a logjam in our political culture.

Note the recent public spat between former presidential candidate and activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley, the commentator and author.

On the popular “Tom Joyner Morning Show,” Smiley told radio listeners: “A chorus of black leaders have started singing a new song, saying that the president doesn’t need a black agenda. I must have missed that choir rehearsal, because I don’t know the words to this new hymn. Do we think we can give President Obama a pass on black issues and somehow, when he is no longer in office, resurrect the moral authority to hold future presidents accountable to our concerns?”

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That good question was prompted by public comments Sharpton made following a White House meeting that he, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and National Urban League President Marc Morial had with Obama.

Sharpton reportedly said the president need not “ballyhoo” a black agenda. He argued that Obama faced political constraints and could best assist distressed black communities with a broader, race-neutral strategy.

Smiley strongly disagreed. And the feud was on.

Expecting Obama to become a “black exponent of black views” is “just stupid,” Sharpton told Smiley in one of many testy exchanges.

At the heart of the disagreement are the following questions:

Is Obama’s race-neutral approach appropriate considering the many miseries afflicting black America? Why should African-American activists stop pressing for attention to their issues just because the president now is black? Wouldn’t it have been perverse to fight for a black president just so he could ignore or downplay the desperate needs of the black community?

Those in the Sharpton camp argue he should avoid black issues lest it enflame white opposition to a point where it could cripple his presidency. If Obama pushed a black cause it would empower conservatives seeking to derail progressive legislation. Let us not forget, they note, that it hasn’t been that long since the days of Jim Crow apartheid.

What’s more, they argue, with tea partiers ominously waving their assault rifles and screaming for Obama’s political blood, now is not a propitious time for a black agenda.

Sharpton took unusual umbrage at the criticism because in some ways Smiley had usurped his traditional role. Sharpton had been the one on the outside throwing rocks. Now he is an insider and a bit uncomfortable with his new role as presidential apologist.

That’s certainly a change for the brash minister who made his name fighting police brutality and racial assaults on black victims. But it’s just one of many changes wrought by Obama’s historic ascension.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of the Chicago-based In These Times magazine ( This op-ed is an adaptation of an article in the May issue of the magazine. He can be contacted at

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It's finally setting in: Trump is Trump and he’s not going to change because of winning the nomination.

The new head of the Environmental Protection has a history of suing the agency for trying to do its job.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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