I attended Circle of Sisters 2009 on Saturday. In addition to workshops led by Steve Harvey and the fabulously ageless Ann Tripp, the program included a hearty perennial, the “State of Black America.”
The panelists included the Rev. Al Sharpton, president and founder of the National Action Network, TV and radio personality Jeff Johnson, and C. Virginia Fields, president and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS.
Tripp asked the panelists:
We’ve got a black president. Is that it?
We’re in the best of times and the worst of times. We are in positions we were never in before. But on the ground, life has not fundamentally changed.
Sharpton pointed to the black unemployment rate, education achievement gap and prison industrial complex. He noted that “putting black faces in high places” is not enough:
Some of us are still celebrating the inaugural balls while others are cutting deals in boardrooms … Those that lost their jobs are still unemployed … We have to hold those in position accountable.
Citing the experience of former New York City mayor David Dinkins, Sharpton said:
We’ve seen this movie before. We should make sure that it doesn’t end with us on the ticket line while others enjoy the popcorn.
Fields, a former president of the Borough of Manhattan, agreed the black community is in crisis:
We are in a pitiable state in just about any indicator you think about … We have an opportunity … Let’s step into the space of transformation and make some real changes.
Johnson cautioned against “deifying” President Obama. He sparked a spirited exchange about whether Obama deserved to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
While Sharpton agreed that Obama should not be deified and must be held accountable, he declared:
If de Klerk can get an award for shaking Nelson Mandela’s hand, then Barack Obama can get an award for shaking up America and ending the era of Bush.
Given the emotional state of black America, Sharpton’s comment brought the house down.