One of the many things I do in my constant attempt to justify my life as a journalist (getting harder to do) is teach a weekly class of seniors at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. "Teach" is too lofty a word -- this is a very lively, sharply political discussion that I mostly referee when I'm not chiming in myself. What started out as an impulse to do community service for a demographic I don't encounter too often has become a weekly visit to friends and confreres that I genuinely look forward to. The service, if that's what this is, is flowing both ways.
But it was clear from the very beginning of this gig that I would hardly be babysitting a bunch of retirees or infirm old people looking to have a nice chat or bend my nominally younger ear with reminisces of their youth. What we talk about and puzzle over, sometimes agonize over, are the same issues I've been writing about for the last twenty years that really come down to a single issue: the black condition. Everybody is in this group is touched by this condition, so the conversations about what's wrong in black communities (a lot), what's being done (not much) and what needs to be done (too many proposals to mention here) are impassioned and the stakes are high. While we don't solve any problems week to week, the sheer amount of energy generated just by deconstructing the problems is encouraging -- the process is a precursor to enacting solutions that exist but haven't been enacted yet. I guess you could call that optimistic.
This being election season, we've been talking a lot about the prospects of President Obama. Of course, Obama has been the center of pretty much all black discussions for the last four or five years, whether we're talking politics or something else. This last discussion we honed in on the somewhat painful subject of the quality of Obama's representation of, or even public empathy for, fellow black Americans. The group was quick to agree that blacks have simply not been part of Obama's dialogue with the rest of the country the last four years, to say nothing of his policies.
But it was equally quick to forgive Obama his sins of omission. Call it paradoxical, but this older generation of black folks made it clear that the price the president would have to pay for even looking in their direction would be too high. In other words, the rules of black assimilation, if such a thing really exists, demand that blacks in high places leave their interest in other black folks at the door. To acknowledge in any way that you are part of the most reviled and disempowered group in America makes you suspect and undercuts your own power. Thus the group forgave Obama his neglect because it felt it had no choice. That neglect hasn't protected him anyway -- racist sentiments against the president are running at a fever pitch these days.
At the same time, the group expressed its fierce belief in the need for racial justice and in the responsibility of black leaders to advance that justice first and foremost. Problem is, few of those leaders actually do that; Obama is hardly the first black elected official to fall down on the job. And whether he is really a black leader is another topic of debate entirely. What was clear to the group is that Obama is a beleaguered black individual that we can all empathize with and get behind. From that standpoint, what he is actually doing or not doing to help blacks and poor people is almost irrelevant. Or it's a discussion that black people feel they don't have the luxury to take up, not as long as racism against the man himself is as obvious as it is.
One last thing: before adjourning for the day, we all agreed that nothing would happen until or unless blacks got together as a group and applied pressure to the White House to act. Power concedes nothing without a demand, as the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said. That will be true no matter who's living in the White House next year.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.