Why Barack Obama should attend the Black State of the Union

Tavis Smiley hosts and annual event called the Black State of the Union. The 2008 version will be on February 23rd in New Orleans, LA.

Last year, a big question around this event was whether or not Barack Obama was going to attend the event. He did not, but he was doing something that was much bigger: deciding to and formally announcing his run for the Presidency. Now, one year later, in the midst of a very competitive primary season, Obama faces the same question: will he go? Should he go?

Obama is not attending. Tavis Smiley is on record saying that he’s cool with that. Roland Martin at Essence Magazine thinks this was the right decision. His primary argument is that Obama must “look forward, not in the past” and that Obama “can’t be defined as the Black candidate.” He thinks that Obama should send his wife Michelle, and continue campaigning in Texas and Idaho.

I think that’s a terrible move and completely wrong, and here’s why.

Barack and Michelle Obama should both attend the Black State of the Union event. Any criticism of their attendance of this day, arguably the most important discussion of the state of this country’s Black affairs, would not only by unfounded and irresponsible, but easily refutable.

Don’t go backwards…

The first criticism, that Obama “should look forward” is off-base and ironically short-sighted. The reasoning for this position is that since Obama already won the Louisiana Primary, he does not need to go back to the state, and should be singularly focused on the upcoming, potentially decisive primaries in Ohio and Texas. The idea that a candidate should not interact with people that already voted for him is unwise. After being voted for and elected, you become an employee of those voters. Ignoring a voter at any time is a bad idea, but ignoring supporters is even worse.

Yes, the event is in New Orleans. Last time I checked though, people from outside of New Orleans attended, watched on TV, and/or participated in the event. I bet that people voters in Texas and Ohio will be tuned into this event. Seems like a great opportunity to address those potential supporters. Another thing: Where did large number of people affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita migrate to? Texas!!! Maybe those Texans care about N.O. after all.

The more sinister, underlying message of this criticism is the frame of a discussion focused solely on Black America as a look backward. I know that Obama has unfairly had to exhibit dazzling acrobatics with regard to his Blackness. However, a decision not to attend this event unnecessarily demonstrates an implicit endorsement of that notion. The fact is that talking about Black issues directly is in no way a step backward. Dialouge that leads to enlightened action is never a step backward, and no community needs such a discussion more than ours.

The “Black candidate” conundrum

Another potential criticism of Obama’s attendance of this event is that he cannot be seen as the Black candidate. This line of thinking is fundamentally flawed. Attending this event does not define him as the Black candidate anymore than going to a meeting of Latin voters defines him as the Latin candidate. Last I checked, Barack Obama was Black. That by definition makes him the Black candidate. The real question though is: why is being the Black candidate a bad thing? Moreover, why is a Black man being the Black candidate a bad thing? Why must that part of his identity be dealt with so tenderly?

Part of Barack Obama’s appeal is based on his message of the broad idea of change. It’s based on the idea of uniqueness, newness, of a new direction, of inclusion, of a new kind of politics. Such a message should actually include all parts of Obama’s identity: the leader part, the Black part, the intelligent part, the change part, the hope part, etc. A lack of attendance to arguably the most important discussion on Black America does not hurt him. Who would it hurt him with? Republicans? No, since any Republican bothered by his attendance wouldn’t vote for him anyway. Latinos? No, since the wedge that is attempted to be driven between Black and Brown is a myth pushed by the Right. Black people? I don’t think so.

What kind of change?

Some may call this view naive. If you do, I challenge your definition of change and the change you want to see if you do not want to see this become a country where a Black man can run for president and not have to think twice about attending an event about Black issues.

It’s clear that Obama, for invalid and potentially valid reasons, has chosen to at least partially downplay his dealings with some outwardly Black discussions/issues (one exception that comes to mind is his statement on the Jena 6). I have always thought that this was not necessary and was out of sync with the messages of hope and change. It actually makes the point that there is only hope and change if we don’t talk directly on too many Black things. That’s not the kind of change that makes me hopeful.

One Love. One II.


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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

8 responses to “Why Barack Obama should attend the Black State of the Union”

  1. Ellen says :


    I agree with you. However, I do not think Barack Obama should attend simply because he is black. He should attend because issues affecting Black America. For the same reason Hillary Clinton and John McCain should also attend.

  2. Garlin II says :

    Ellen, I wholeheartedly agree.

    The reason that I frame this as a race issue is because the primary reason this is even a question is because he’s Black.

  3. Larry 55X says :

    Let that Brother out of this. If the Black race had any strenght in numbers. this might be a doable. Winning this political challage will offer other African-Americans a sense that entertaining/atheletics are not the only goals to reach for. If that is accomplished, we would not need a “state of The Union”. Why spell out our shortcomings when you are only reaching the choir- it long past the stage of doing. I would like to say “I am sorry” to Tavis. He of all people should understand Obama’s situation. He thought that he would have a “real show” in mainstream Amerikka- not that soft “feely good” stuff of education T.v.. It must be painful to see all those shows on FOX, CNN and etc. and not one moderated by a person of color. So continue to wait. When the powers to be feel you are a safe Negro, you WILL BE IT.

  4. Anonymous says :

    Barack needs to continue to focus on getting the support of the masses. If every black registered voter in this country voted for him that would still NOT be enough. This man is grinding 24 hours a day trying to get this nomination. Give him a damn break please! Where’s the uproar because Hillary won’t be there…or McCain even? Would his attendance be proof of his “blackness”? From what I understand, when Michelle Obama offered to attend, Tavist basically told her no thanks. How ignorant is that?

    So what he didn’t show up in Jena. I didn’t and neither did you. That doesn’t mean that we love our people any less or that we’re not concerned about them being treated equally.

    I don’t know about ya’ll, but I thank God that we have Barack in this position. It’s about time that we have a black man in a position of (potential) power that doesn’t have babies mommas and kids conceived outside of his marriage and affairs landing at his feet….a la Jesse, the Reverend Al, and Kwame.

  5. Brandon Q. says :

    Great post G. I think that Barack shouldn’t go to the State of the Black Union and I don’t think it is a question of whether his attending would hurt his candidacy but rather what he would add to the forum. I am of the mind that Obama’s presence would hurt the conference. And if he does come, he would give one speech and probably leave. There would not be extended time for questions and answers, no debate, no real parsing of policy.
    If Obama were to attend, what would “Black America” and the media remember about the 2008 forum? Obama said x and Obama said y. With that said, I believe Obama’s presence would seriously drown out any serious policy discussion.
    What I also fear is that his attendance could be parsed as Obama being THE leader of Black America. To his credit, Obama has avoided such monikers but I wonder how difficult it would be for him to reject this framing.
    Not for nothing, it’s not like the brother isn’t running for President. No matter what though, I believe Obama’s presence would end up doing more harm than good.

  6. Marc J says :

    Great Question. Me, I am of the belief that Obama made the correct call. And I’m surprised that Tavis Smiley did not accept Barack’s offer to have his wife speak instead. As a nation of People that were taken from their homeland in chains, this phenomena reaches more than just the US. It reaches to Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands (Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada), Barbados, the Leeward Islands (Antigua and Barbuda, St. Christopher [hereafter, St. Kitts] and Nevis, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, and Montserrat), and the so-called Northern Islands (the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands), Kuba, South America, North America. All have been permanently influenced by the experiences of colonialism and slavery. Colonialism and slavery has produced a collection of societies that are markedly different in population composition from those in any other region of the world. As a People, we need to think in terms of a Global Strategy. I am from Detroit Michigan. I see opportunities that exist and we would benefit greatly from cooperation amongst the displaced people of the world. Today, the US does not produce anything besides weapons of destruction. Black America produces great individuals, but we do not leverage our position and produce anything else of note. IT is time for us, (BA) to get in the game. In Detroit, the Automakers are after our culture to assist them with designing a car that would be embraced by the World Market. AKA “Pimp my Ride”. Internationally, those are the vehicles that the world sees as being valuable. Yet, we give away our expertise and assist the White Automakers who look for ideas from black sport stars and entertainers that have tricked out their rides. We discount our expertise.

    The Black State of the Union should prepare us for the next step. Whoever is in power, Black America should start preparing us for Today. We have the resources, we have the knowledge, and Black America has the capital. I’m tired of the horse and pony show, it’s time to get it started. Tell the kids to put down the Play Stations and to study hard. If Obama said that, could we handle getting our House in order? I simply say we must be ready. Reparations will never come and if they did, what would we do with it? Buy a New Car? Folks, WE must stop our cycle of consumerism and be about Business.



  7. Fatima says :

    Excellent post. Excellent comments. I think Obama should go now. I think once he is president, he MUST go. But I make a plea to all to not base their vote for Obama on whether or not he goes to the event. Base it on the State of Black America. Here’s one example, a comment in the New York Times:

    It seems that if Hillary were to be ready on day one, that she would find the Oval office already occupied by Obabma staffers…
    …”Hi Hillary. Would you care for a donut?”

    It’s way past time. Time for a Black President.

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