Valerie Jarrett’s ties to Wall Street earned her the label “elitist” from many blacks in Chicago, who are suspicious of her strong relationships with right-wing luminaries as diverse as Rupert Murdoch and Condoleezza Rice.
WASHINGTON — The meeting at the White House in the spring of 2012 was not going well.
Running neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney in the polls, President Obama had his closest advisor, Valerie Jarrett, summon nearly 20 progressive activists to the White House to defuse the tension surrounding his administration’s deportation of more illegal immigrants than any in history. Left unsaid was the obvious: what the president wanted was to be reelected, while the activists wanted Obama to sign an executive order suspending the deportations, similar to the one he had issued earlier that year for immigrants brought to the country as minors.
One of the activists, Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, one of the largest and most established Latino rights groups, had even delivered a speech months earlier excoriating Obama as “the deporter-in-chief.”
As reported in a lengthy article in the New Republic magazine:
[Obama] was in a foul mood, spending most of the next two hours lecturing the activists. You guys are turning on me, Obama said, according to several attendees. That’s what Republicans want, you’re taking the pressure off Boehner. If I was a GOP strategist, I’d be thrilled by what you’re doing. When some of the activists pointed out that the situation in the House was hopeless, Obama would interrupt and talk over them.”
The magazine continued:
Finally, when it was Murguía’s turn to speak, she tried to put her earlier remarks in context. She explained that, while she’d been critical of the administration, she had also criticized Republicans and had urged her community to elect a more amenable Congress. ‘It took him what felt like ten minutes — it was probably thirty seconds — to compose himself. You could just feel the tension,’ says one activist in the room. Whereupon Obama fell into an extended monologue: You’ve been around this town.You know the press will only report criticism of me. The La Raza president looked on the edge of tears as he spoke.
Meanwhile, ‘Valerie was sitting next to him, staring, giving Murguía stink eye,’ says the activist.”
Just days before Independence Day, Obama reversed course, promising to sign the sought-after executive order, though he would later back away from that pledge. Murguía, however, was noticeably absent from the Rose Garden ceremony announcing the administration’s deportation ban; Jarrett had left her off the list of invitees.
Said one of the activists to the New Republic: “It was such a shitty thing to do.”
The comedian Roseanne Barr’s racist pre-dawn tweet comparing Jarrett to an ape raised the ire of African-Americans across the country this week, and deservedly so. But in weighing a response, perhaps Blacks — who constitute the country’s most progressive voting bloc — would be well-advised to consider that, throughout her public life, Jarrett served the Empire and not the people, African-Americans least of all.
All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk, as the saying goes.
A Chicagoan and corporate attorney who went on to manage the housing and transit agencies for Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, Jarrett was widely seen as the Obamas’ closest advisor during the couple’s eight years in the White House. If Obama’s cashiered pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was his link to black Chicago, then Jarrett, a mainstay on corporate and nonprofit boards, “is the liaison between the white North Shore elites and the black South Sides elites,” a source told David Remnick in The Bridge, a biography of Obama.
It is in fact, her ties to Wall Street that earned her the label “elitist” from many blacks in Chicago, who are suspicious of her strong relationships with right-wing luminaries as diverse as Rupert Murdoch and Condoleezza Rice. Said former Obama Chief of Staff John Podesta to the New Republic:
She has very strong relationships with Facebook and Google.”
Quite the opposite is true, however, when it comes to African-Americans who offer leftist critiques of Obama’s imperialist war record, avid support of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, and the dispossession of African-Americans who lost more of their wealth on Obama’s watch than at any time since the collapse of the Freedman’s bank in 1874.
In a 2012 New York Times profile, the black intellectual Cornel West described Jarrett’s response to his description of Obama as the “black mascot of Wall Street,” as “ruthless.”
According to the Times, West “recalled a phone call in which she dismissed his criticism as sour grapes for not receiving a ticket to the inauguration, and said he later heard from friends that she was putting out the word that “one, I was crazy, and two, I was un-American.”
It was a matter of letting me know that I was, in her view, way out of line and that I needed to get in line. I conveyed to her: ‘I’m not that kind of Negro. I’m a Jesus-loving black man who tells the truth, in the White House, in the crack house, or in any other house.’ She got real quiet. It was clear that she was not used to being spoken to that way.”
Jarrett was also the chief executive of Habitat Co., which managed federally-subsidized housing developments in Chicago between 2001 until 2008. So poor were the living conditions at one housing complex managed by Habitat that it was seized by federal authorities in 2006, after city inspectors found widespread problems. In a 2008 Boston Globe article, one resident, Cynthia Ashley, said, “No one should have to live like this, and no one did anything about it.”
Barr’s odious racism aside, Jarrett, like Obama, can best be understood as Frankenstein monsters, engineered by madmen — this country’s mostly white corporate elite — to neutralize the radical black polity that resulted in transformative political figures such as Chicago’s first black Mayor, Harold Washington, who died in 1988 just as Obama was beginning to calibrate his political ambitions.
According to the New Republic and several other sources, it was Jarrett who extinguished Obama’s occasional populist impulse, like a firefighter hosing down a small fire. When Obama proclaimed in late 2009 that “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat-cat bankers” — Jarrett coaxed his political team, led by former Washington advisor David Axelrod, to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric. Said Axelrod in an email to the New Republic:
Valerie viewed Wall Street and the business community as a constituency and was generally uncomfortable with expressions of chastisement toward Wall Street.”
Said another former aide of Jarrett:
You could tell she felt at home with private-sector business leaders. Even healthcare—it was a presidential priority, the entire White House was involved. But I’d never seen her animated until it was CEOs talking about health care.”
The African-American blogger Boyce Watkins may have summed up the betrayal of the black community by leaders such as Jarrett and Obama — what W.E.B. DuBois called the “talented tenth” — in a 2012 column referring to the public spat between West and Jarrett. He wrote:
Those who feel compelled to attack Cornel West, a scholar who has been one of the most consistent and relentless fighters for the black community over the last 25 years, might want to think about what they are doing. By going after West for asking Obama to address the statistically-documented issues of extreme (and worsening) poverty and mass incarceration, you are trading in an authentic leader who loves you for a more popular and powerful leader who has ignored you.
This is nothing less than the slave mentality, which leans on validation from white Americans as symbolic evidence of our own self-worth. Black people don’t just love Barack Obama for being a great man….they love him because white people have crowned him to be our king.”
Top Photo | President Barack Obama talks with his personal aide Reggie Love, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, and Director of Political Affairs Patrick Gaspard, aboard Marine One. Aug. 9, 2010. (Pete Souza)
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”