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Read an excerpt of Tavis Smiley's 'Accountable'

Read an excerpt of Tavis Smiley's book, "Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise."

Excerpted from Tavis Smiley's book, "Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise."


The most important political office is that of the private citizen.
— Justice Louis Brandeis

In the introduction to the landmark 2006 work, the Covenant with Black America, Tavis Smiley tells a poignant story about the legendary African American labor organizer A. Philip Randolph. After dinner at the White House with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on September 27, 1940, Randolph was invited to the president’s study for cigars, after-dinner drinks, and conversation. There, at Roosevelt’s urging, Randolph talked about the dismal conditions for Negro workers and outlined an agenda for government action designed to empower his struggling people.

Roosevelt, after fully acknowledging the validity and merit of Randolph’s arguments and the merits of his substantive proposals, challenged the well-known activist with the following words: “Now, go out and make me do it.”

While Smiley left the story there and moved on to discuss its powerful implications—namely, Roosevelt’s demand that Randolph mobilize the necessary political force so that the president would have no choice but to act—it is time we bring the story full circle by picking up where Smiley left off because the rest, as they say, is history.

On June 18, 1941, at the First Lady’s prompting, Randolph, accompanied by NAACP president Walter White, returned to the White House. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book No Ordinary Time, notes that Roosevelt tried to set a lighthearted tone for the meeting, offering charming stories, but was interrupted by Randolph. “Mr. President, time is running out,” the focused organizer said. “What we want to talk about is the problem of jobs for Negroes in defense industries.” Randolph, as recorded by the White House Historical Association, continued, “We want something concrete, something tangible, positive and affirmative.” He then gave the president an ultimatum: either introduce an executive order to desegregate the defense industry, or 100,000 black workers would march on Washington.

Alarmed by the prospect of a Negro march on the capital, Roosevelt agreed to draft an executive order desegregating the noncombat areas of the defense industry. A relentless Randolph helped draft and edit the order until he was satisfied with its wording. Goodwin notes that Joseph Rauh, a young lawyer assigned to work on the executive order, once quipped, “Who is this guy Randolph? What the hell has he got over the President of the United States?”

Executive Order 8802 was signed into law on June 25, 1941. It declared that “There shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”

Despite his own socialist leanings, Randolph understood the concept of an active democracy. No matter how sensitive or charitable the president was personally, he was a public official who had to be held accountable. As the primary representative of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” Roosevelt was obliged to account to the masses of citizens and taxpayers over whom he presided. Randolph in turn could be successful in his efforts to affect the actions of the occupant of the highest office in the land only if he first held himself accountable and believed that, as a private citizen, he had the power to do so.

ACCOUNTABLE: Making America as Good as Its Promise celebrates and invites readers to exercise the power of the private citizen. It is the logical successor to two bestsellers: the Covenant with Black America (Third World Press, 2006), which sets forth 10 issues critical to our democracy and challenges our public officials to address them, and THE COVENANT In Action (Smiley-Books, 2007), which offers a tool kit to help everyday citizens effect change.

The Covenant was a groundbreaking effort that drew the focus and energies of the African American and larger community toward critical areas affecting black life—from health to housing, from crime reduction to criminal justice, from education to economic parity. It combined information from six years of symposia and research that empowered African Americans by explaining how individuals and households could make concrete changes to improve their circumstances. The Covenant brought experts and professionals in varied fields together at the annual State of the Black Union and at regional symposia to collaborate on its issues. It galvanized community members across the nation—from pulpits to boardrooms—around the major issues affecting their daily lives.

THE COVENANT In Action capitalized on the success and direction of its predecessor by prompting the African American community to act on the goals outlined in The Covenant. It encouraged readers to become agents of change in their respective communities and outlined steps they could take to organize, connect, and act to effect change.

The Covenant is the “what”; THE COVENANT In Action is the “how”; and ACCOUNTABLE is the “whether”—the yardstick for measuring whether elected officials and citizens have fulfilled or are satisfying their respective duties in our democracy. Building on these first two installments, ACCOUNTABLE serves as a timely report card, one holding public officials accountable for what they have promised to date; too often politicians talk and promise but do not deliver. It also holds the community responsible for its actions . . . or the lack thereof.

ACCOUNTABLE informs citizens how they can help politicians deliver and make democracy active. It tells ordinary people how they can track the performances and promises of their elected leaders, maintaining that these public figures actually represent their interests and ensuring that they, as private citizens, civically engage with government in ways that improve their communities. It is a tool that provides one of the most precious commodities in a democracy: information.

A critical goal of ACCOUNTABLE is to identify how citizens together can plant a flag in that land we know as Common Ground. We flesh out that goal by opening each chapter with stories of individual citizens facing the challenges our country is grappling with as a whole. Too often we talk abstractly about health care, the environment, education, and criminal justice. Stories remind us that we are not alone in the world, that we should not consider the problems facing our nation without trying to understand and empathize with the people dealing with these problems.

Another goal of ACCOUNTABLE: to help readers answer, “What obligations do we, as citizens, have to—and for—each other?” Author Peter Block defines accountability as the “willingness to care for the whole,” one that “flows out of the kind of conversations we have about the new story we want to take our identity from. It means we have conversations of what we can do to create the future.”1 In ACCOUNTABLE, we use stories to illustrate the struggles of our neighbors and others, to generate empathy for their difficulties, and to challenge us to do something to resolve these difficulties. Equally valuable, these stories—ours and theirs—melt into an active and collective American narrative, reflective of the underpinnings of America’s promise.

A final goal is to help readers connect between their individual lives and their political institutions. We commonly speak about government in the abstract. We feel isolated from the larger political process, repeatedly electing the same representatives and expecting a different result. The timely and actionable information in ACCOUNTABLE will empower us as citizens to evaluate and have an impact on the politicians and institutions that shape all our lives.

ACCOUNTABLE asks: “How can we create an America as good as its promise?” It strives to set a new standard for those who lead and those who follow by holding our elected officials accountable for what they’ve promised, and ensuring that they’ve lived up to the aspirations enshrined in The Covenant and acted on in THE COVENANT In Action. It also endeavors to hold the entire American community accountable for our own actions within this process.

Each chapter of ACCOUNTABLE addresses one or more of the original 10 issue areas outlined in The Covenant. Chapter 1 analyzes health care and well-being, presenting a number of reflective cases, both tragic and triumphant, from the field of health. It sketches the development and current status of American health care, highlighting its disparities, its accomplishments, and its potential.

Chapter 2 considers America’s system of public education by assessing the impact of standardization efforts, to see if they actually represent an effective method of scholastic accountability. It also considers the racial digital divide, parsing the effects of technological access—or the lack thereof—on individuals and communities.

Chapter 3 explores criminal justice administration, community policing, and civil rights in America. It uncovers the disparities in dispensing justice, argues for more effective and reflective policing policies, and considers the implications of criminal prosecution from a civil rights perspective.

Chapter 4 examines the U.S. economy in light of the current crisis. It analyzes some of the key indicators causing the present crisis and suggests ways to steer our financial ship back on course. It also presents stories that demonstrate how average Americans are struggling to cope financially.

Chapter 5 tackles environmental justice, energy, and infrastructure, describing class- and race-based disparities in the placement of toxic landfills and factories and holding out a vision of livable neighborhoods. It addresses the energy crisis and what our leaders and communities have done to either improve or exacerbate it.

Chapter 6 puts democracy and the electoral process under a microscope, with a particular focus on voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and vote tampering. It proposes key electoral reforms to hold public officials and elected leaders, as well as citizens, accountable for protecting the right to vote—the most fundamental right of our American democratic process.

ACCOUNTABLE concludes—following A. Philip Randolph’s lead—by urging Americans to hold their president and other leaders accountable. It reminds that exercising the right to vote is only one part of the democratic equation. We must also ensure that our new president delivers on his promises. Accordingly, ACCOUNTABLE includes a series of “Promise Charts” to compare the actions of our highest elected official with The Covenant’s 10-point agenda. These charts equip citizens with the tools and information necessary to analyze the performance of our new president and to hold President Obama accountable for his actions. By working with him to ensure his promises are fulfilled, our community is, in fact, holding itself accountable. Together, we all work toward an America as good as its promise.

ACCOUNTABLE also addresses our evolving American identity, encouraging us to resolve deep-seated issues that divide us as a nation. It acknowledges the need for a more representative, collective American story constructed by an aware citizenry that understands the nuances, varying interests, and give-and-take of the democratic process. It promotes a more mature American identity, one that regards our differences as an asset and our disparate interests as more a matter of negotiation than contention.

Many of the stories highlight what happens in a democracy when its citizens fail to hold public officials accountable. One describes a boy whose mother could not afford an $80 dental extraction. Because of barriers to timely health care, the boy developed a toxic abscess that ultimately led to an infection in his brain. Tens of thousands of dollars and a hospital stay later, the boy died from the infection. His death was both preventable and unacceptable in a country as wealthy as America. While his story is heartwrenching, talking about it, alone, is not enough.

ACCOUNTABLE, consequently, is prescriptive. Each chapter has an “Assessment Checklist” that evaluates whether government and individuals are doing all they can to realize the goals in The Covenant. ACCOUNTABLE equips everyday citizens with tools and enough information to evaluate their public servants. It also allows citizens to evaluate their own efforts in maintaining and improving their life chances.

The notion of accountability is much more than a report card or even some vigilant watchdog process that holds its subject’s feet to the intense fires of consequence or induces the reddish blush of ridicule. Accountability, like progress in general, is rooted in the belief that we are significant, a belief that we are worthy and deserving of all the democratic values that condition our national psyche, a belief that encourages an exceptional American consciousness, and that we recite each morning in our public school classrooms. Ensuring that we are doing everything within our power to actualize this belief is the large task at hand.

Cartoons and quotes are interspersed throughout ACCOUNTABLE to inject a lighter, reflective, or inspirational touch. Humor and satire can set or shift the tone; drive home a point; or capture a political moment in a way that policy descriptions never can.

Reaching beyond its predecessors, ACCOUNTABLE focuses on issues facing communities outside the black community, realizing that rescuing our democracy is bigger than any one of us, bigger than any one group, one community, one culture, or one race. It affirms that we must join forces with people of all cultures, hues, ethnicities, income levels, and ideologies to tell a new common American story—to bring about a new American dream, forged from common concerns and brought to life by common action. We can act together or fall apart; either way, the choice is ours. Either way, we will be held accountable for our pain or prosperity by our children, by our times, and, if we are honest, by ourselves.

The prize may be closer than we think. Many things we thought would never happen in our day have happened. King transformed the conscience of a nation. Nelson Mandela was upgraded from a small prison cell to a presidential suite. And in four years, an African American with a unique name went from relative obscurity to become the “leader of the free world.” To transform the world, a community, or even a heart, a person must have the fundamental belief he or she holds the power to do so. A. Philip Randolph was known to rally his workers by telling them, “You possess power, great power.”

The thought of such power can be frightening. An excerpt from Marianne Williamson’s classic poem, “Our Greatest Fear,” puts it best:

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

Perhaps, as they say in horror movies, we should “be afraid, be very afraid.” Because if we are, in fact, more powerful than we know and if we fail to account for our own power, and if our communities crumble and our elected officials turn their backs on us, we will have only ourselves to blame.