Can Barack Obama Charisma Save the Inner City?


Barack Obama has charisma by the bucketload, but will charisma save cities like Detroit?

Last year in 2006 when Obama was the keynote speaker at the annual Detroit NAACP Fundraising Dinner, my wife and I were in the audience. For those who haven’t been to one of these functions, believe me when I say that it is billed as the world’s largest sit-down dinner for a reason. Imagine attending a formal dinner in a facility the size of your average football superdome, and you’re starting to get the idea.

And just like the time several years ago when Vice President Al Gore came to be the keynote speaker (we were there for that one too), there was all kinds of excitement simply because it was Gore and he was actually coming to talk to us. And this year – next month in April, in fact – when former President Bill Clinton comes to deliver the keynote address, there will be the same joyful feeling vibrating through the massive crowd. Clinton has always had a strong rapport with black audiences, mostly because he doesn’t speak to us like he’s overly aware that we’re black and he’s not, but rather like one human being talking to some other human beings. You don’t get the sense – and trust me this is a rare feeling for blacks – that this is a guy who probably talks one way when he’s with his white buddies but then dips into his ‘negro-friendly’ repertoire whenever we’re in the room. You get the feeling – and who knows if it’s accurate – that Bill is Bill with whoever he’s talking to. Consequently he comes across as relaxed, and relaxed is good.

So where were we? Oh, right. Little early in the article to be veering off point, so here’s the thing; from what I’ve seen and heard of Sen. Barack Obama, the man obviously has tremendous potential, although I’m not the only one to be a little concerned about his lack of experience when it comes to running the most powerful nation on the face of the earth. But beyond the experience issue, what I need to hear more about is some detail about his ideas and plans for retooling cities like Detroit.

For the record, I strongly applaud Obama’s early opposition to the war, and I agree this gives him a level of credibility that Hillary and others who initially voted in favor of that mess simply can’t lay claim to. And as for that ignorant non-issue that he can’t be considered a true African American who understands the African American experience because he is the son of  a black African father and white American mother from Kansas, all I can say is that if an African father and an American mother don’t equal African American then I don’t know what does. Enough already.

But here’s what I am concerned about; once Obama becomes president and finds a way to bring all the soldiers home, what’s he going to do about Detroit? No, it’s not the only American city that matters, or that needs help, but I can’t think of a more potent example that more adequately demonstrates how rust-belt economies are being allowed to rust away. Detroit currently leads the nation in home foreclosures, and last I heard it was damned close to leading the nation in joblessness too. The tax base is eroding beneath our feet because the tax-paying populace is heading for the hills.

On and on it goes. And to be sure there are some wonderful signs of rebirth happening in this city too. new businesses. New clubs. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s State of the City 2007 speech was the best he’s ever given and has even former detractors daring to hope that just maybe he knows a way out of this.

But even Kilpatrick acknowledges he can’t do this alone. And although he admonished us not to expect anyone to come and save us – good advice – we still have a right to expect our government to care whether or not we live or die. Granted, President Bush showed we couldn’t expect much concern from him, but this is all the more reason why those who are so anxious to anoint Obama as the second coming of a kid from Hope should first hold his feet to the fire on what he’s got in mind to repair this fractured house he plans to inherit.

He’s got the look, he’s got the voice, and he’s got the smarts. As writer David Ehrenstein said in a very provocatine March 19, 2007 Los Angeles Times editorial entitled “Obama the Magic Negro”, “Obama’s fame right now has little to do with his political record or what he’s written in his two (count ’em) books, or even what he’s actually said in those stem-winders. It’s the way he’s said it that counts the most. It’s his manner, which, as presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Biden ham-fistedly reminded us, is ‘articulate.’ His tone is always genial, his voice warm and unthreatening, and he hasn’t called his opponents names.”

Now he needs to show us he’s more than a comforting voice, that he has the tools we need, and that he knows how to use those tools to put this house back together again.


~ by Keith A. Owens on March 18, 2007.

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