The State of OUR Union

Last night, Obama spoke. Now it's our turn.

By Tammy Johnson Jan 27, 2010

January 27, 2010

Brothers, sisters and all of those in transition,

I come to you today not as your elected leader, but simply as a Black woman striving for justice, a single voice delivering a few words of caution and hope about the state of our union.

Some of you may think that we should reserve this moment for our duly elected President. The Constitution does suggest that from time to time the President should “recommend measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” And there should be an acute sense of urgency when it comes to our situation. With poverty and unemployment rising as quickly as wealth is falling in communities of color, it is critical that we hear President Obama’s plan and vision for our future.

But I say that the weight of this moment is too substantial to leave to one man, or to the gum-flapping of partisan spin doctors and Madison Avenue desk jockeys. The state of our union deserves a broader, more grounded assessment that includes the role we have played in nation building.

Let’s be honest. As a movement, we have engaged in a great deal of in-fighting between those propelled by the hope of the 2008 election and those deflated by the realities of the 2009 administration. Some trumpeted the signing of SCHIP while others raged at the lack of care for immigrants and women in the health insurance bill. The push and pull among us has gone far beyond a healthy dialectic that nurtures our work.

Many seem to have forgotten that what is most important is not the man, but the mission.

The Applied Research Center’s Compact for Racial Justice reminds us of what we want and how only we can get from here to there.

The seismic shift from institutionalized racial inequity to institutionalized racial equity requires a radical reorientation in policies and practices, a fundamental reordering of economic priorities, and, underlying these two things, a shift in culture and values. A movement of that magnitude comes about only when millions of people have begun to believe that change is possible and have been set in motion to bring it about. It has long been a political truism that the power of wealth can only be overcome by the power of the people.

In the past year, some of us lost hope and began seeing ourselves more as victims than visionaries. Some of us gave up and gave in to inertia. And some of us forgot from where our real power comes. But some did not.

Some said, “I’m not going to let you take my job!” The Chicago Republic Windows and Doors workers took over their factory, confronting bosses and banks to win back their jobs.

Some said, “You are not going to take this house!” Thousands of community members from groups like Take Back the Land, ACORN and others went toe-to-toe with the sub-prime swindlers in order to save the family home.

And some said, “You are not going to mistreat us anymore!” Targeting police misconduct through text-message, email and video the NAACP’s Rapid Report System makes the cell phone a weapon for justice against racial profiling.

And there were countless others whose sense of agency was not stifled by a strategy debate dogged by the limitations of elections, provincial racial philosophies and fear. They took action.

These are lessons we must learn and relearn until we get it right. When those communities said “no” to losing their jobs, homes and wellbeing, they were not just protecting themselves. They were forging change in the structures that expected them to lie down and take it. They did not allow the naysayers to dictate to them what was and was not politically viable. They did not, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from his jail cell, accept someone else “paternalistically setting the timetable for [their] freedom.” At every point of resistance, they were expressing a belief that change is possible, by upping the ante on their demands, not compromising them. They led with their values, supplanting racism, dishonesty and greed with fairness and racial justice. They were change agents, a source of power to contend with.

And what about our President?

Obama is neither a savior nor a failure. He is the President of the United States, and in all respects the movement should treat him as one. As our nation’s leader, President Obama no doubt anticipates our petition. We should not fail to put forth demands worthy of our communities; the stakes are much too high and the need too great to do less.  

We, the movement and the President, have inherited racist, antiquated systems that will be our undoing if not addressed very soon. If President Obama has neither the power nor the will to smash them, it does us little good to debate the intention. Our communities are counting on us to lead, so we must.

Saying “no” when the rules are wrong, we must be an unstoppable force that breaks down walls and lays new foundations. We are the ultimate game-changers, leveling systems that don’t serve us and building a new nation for peace and justice for all.

Tammy Johnson is a writer, trainer, thinker, doer and dancer living in Oakland, California. She’s also the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Applied Research Center. Read her blogs and watch her vlogs by clicking here.