My friend Courtland Milloy, a longtime columnist for The Washington Post, wrote an interesting column last week questioning whether African Americans refuse to criticize President Barack Obama because he’s black.
“I hope President Obama appreciates the grand bargain he’s getting from African Americans: unwavering support, stratospheric approval rating, muted exasperation when he disappoints, vociferous defense when he’s under attack,” Milloy wrote. “But what do black people get in return?”
Milloy wrote correctly that Obama enjoys overwhelming support from African Americans even while the black unemployment rate is twice the rate of whites.
My problem with Milloy’s column, however, started when I read comments from Robert Johnson, the black billionaire and founder of BET who supported Hillary Clinton over Obama in the 2008 presidential race and has been criticizing Obama ever since.
“Our poll showed that there is great pride in having Obama as the leader of the free world,” Johnson told Milloy after commissioning a Zogby to survey African American attitudes. “But that pride is part of a Faustian bargain we made. We will not push Obama to pull us up if we think that doing so might bring him down.”
“Many black people feel that it would be a betrayal if we tried to push Obama to do more than the system would allow him to do,” Johnson said.
“I don’t think there will be a major effort to call Obama out for black unemployment, income disparities or issues such as glass ceilings for African Americans in corporate America,” he added. “As the first black president, he gets a pass from us.”
But here’s my problem with Johnson: What more is Obama supposed to do?
He has repeatedly convened some of the nation’s most successful businessmen at the White House to discuss ways to stimulate the economy. He has urged businessmen to start hiring more Americans and put folks back to work. He has been a vocal proponent of creating more manufacturing jobs, green jobs and job-training programs that would benefit black Americans.
And for all of Obama’s power of persuasion, nearly every piece of proposed legislation he offers has been blocked by vengeful Republicans in Congress. So he’s completely stymied – and Johnson knows it.
More important, the president has said time and time again that he can’t solve the unemployment problem alone. He can’t strong arm businessmen into hiring black folks, he can only lobby them; he can’t hire people himself, so he needs ideas and assistance from others.
So my question to Johnson is this: Where is your plan for reducing the black unemployment rate? And what exactly do you want Obama to do to about it?
It’s so easy to criticize from the outside looking in, but surely Johnson, a very successful businessman who has hired hundreds – or maybe thousands — of black employees, must have some brainy ideas for spurring employment for black people.
Or maybe not.
Years ago, before Johnson sold BET to Viacom, he was roundly criticized for not offering black viewers any educational programming on BET, but instead relied on booty-shaking videos. He was once reportedly quoted as saying: “The “E” in BET stands for entertainment, not education.”
So now, Johnson, the man who wanted no parts of educating black people, is calling out Obama for not doing enough for black people?
Here’s the real deal: Johnson never liked Obama, and that’s ok. He’s entitled to support anyone he wants for president. But it is the way in which Johnson has disrespected Obama that gives me pause. It’s the reason I believe Johnson lacks credibility in this debate.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Johnson raised eyebrows with one of the more perplexing comments of the race by comparing Obama to actor Sidney Poitier.
“I am frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood that–- I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in his book,” Johnson told reporters.
“That kind of campaign behavior does not resonate with me, for a guy who says, ‘I want to be a reasonable, likable, Sidney Poitier ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ And I’m thinking, I’m thinking to myself, ‘This ain’t a movie, Sidney. This is real life,’” Johnson said.
I’m all for constructive criticism, but there’s absolutely nothing constructive here. I didn’t understand the reference to Sidney Poitier back in 2008, and I still don’t understand it today. Johnson offers bizarre critiques with no solutions, reasonable suggestions or intelligent recommendations.
So what’s the point?
It’s the same old Johnson: He’s still lobbing grenades at the White House from the comfort of his billionaire bunker.