They were known as “the Big Four” back in 1958, and after a White House meeting with President Dwight Eisenhower this headline in the news magazine JET captured their mood: “Negro Leaders Say President ‘Lacks Grasp’ Of Race Problem.”
Back then the president knew that to gauge some semblance of what was on the minds of black people it was wise to talk to those best informed. So he met with leaders of organizations that were on the ground and in constant touch with the people. He invited A. Philip Randolph, founder of a union of black railway workers and then a vice president of the AFL-CIO; Lester Grange, director of the National Urban League; Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and the new kid on the block: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., described by JET as “the Alabama crusader.” This was a couple years after the successful year-long Montgomery bus boycott for which King had become the public face.
Leap with me, if you will, to 2018, when, except for the archaic word “Negro,” that headline might have been written after the singer Kanye West met with President Trump last week.
Mr. West’s mess of a stream-of-consciousness message touched on his sleep deprivation misdiagnosed as bipolar disease; his regret that he had no father figure when he was growing up; the need to repeal the 13th Amendment, which in 1865 abolished slavery; liberals; meditation; welfare; school reform; bringing jobs to his Chicago hometown; the success of his own Yeezy brand of sneakers and an “alternate universe.” Then his theatrical “I love this man” embrace of the president smacked of a Shirley Temple-era little black boy showing off for Massa Trump’s invited guests.
The coonery immediately brought to mind the image of a similar embrace of President Nixon by the uber entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. in 1972. The backlash from black America was swift and harsh. Davis himself later seemed to have regretted the momentary insanity that sometimes strikes when Hollywood meets Washington.
Back in 1958, the issues included securing voting rights for Southern blacks. But Eisenhower was stuck on what he perceived as a lack of gratitude on the part of black people for what his administration had done for them — including hiring blacks in prominent government posts and outlawing segregation in Washington, D.C. He was also ticked off that more blacks were not strongly supporting the Republican Party, as they once had done so as predictably as they now support the Democratic Party.
The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has a similar partisan lens. He did not win the presidency with the support of an overwhelming number of black Americans. So he has felt little need to reach out to the kind of black people who actually know something. Some of them are conservative; some of them are even Republican. Yet he prefers the advice and counsel of a Kanye West.
In Trumpian fashion, Mr. West boasts that his Yeezy brand at Adidas is “the 2nd fastest growing company in history.”
As with much of what the president says, that might not be true, according to Business Insider. Business acumen aside, one is hard-pressed to understand what Mr. West has to add to public policy discussions about the criminal justice system, educational initiatives, access to mental health services, international trade or anything else.
One of Mr. West’s main requests of the president was clemency of Larry Hoover, a founder of a murderous Chicago street gang who is serving six life sentences in a maximum security federal prison. He has been convicted on homicide and drug charges, but Mr. West assured the president that Mr. Hoover is incarcerated “for basically an economic crime.”
The president has a strange mutual admiration society, starting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (“We fell in love. He wrote me beautiful letters,” the president says in his stump speech.”) and including Mr. West and his wife, Kim Kardasian West.
Since he eschews more establishment black opinion leaders, I have some suggestions if he wants popular, but sensible, black advisers. He might try a Luvvie Ajayi, who pens the popular Awesomely Luvvie blog, or he might consult with any of the Very Smart Brothas.
But that makes too much sense. That’s probably why the president prefers the “alternate universe” of Kanye West.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.