Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Voice of Reason: In the Shadows of Barack vs. West, Joe Feagin Explains Why President Obama Must Be Ninja on All this Race Business

There are levels upon levels of complexity and nuance in the Cornel West vs. Barack Obama fracas. As I hinted at earlier, there is some serious inside baseball going on here that will inevitably come to light--especially as more public intellectual academic types join the rumble.

Some have suggested that the election of Barack Obama was a moment wherein the old guard of the Afrotocracy was forced to face their obsolescence. From Jesse's desire to crush Obama's nuts, Reverend Wright's powerful truth telling, to Dr. West's hurt feelings and wanting to son the President for "not being a free black man," divides between the Civil Rights and post-Civil Rights generation are inevitable. The question remains unanswered if these differences are either healthy and/or helpful to the long, glorious Black Freedom Struggle.

Moreover, the West vs. Obama episode does not signal the end of "identity politics" as some have over-reached in suggesting. As long as there are White people there will be identity politics in this country. As long as there are Black people there will be black politics, black political interests, and a black agenda. And with the "browning" of America race will remain salient, precisely because it is a cognitive map that we use to navigate the world. Ultimately, the "race business" is really a reflection of how deeply white supremacy structures this country's social and political institutions.

Eminent Professor Joe Feagin (an amazing sociologist and all around nice guy by the way who I finally met a few months ago while he was here in Chicago) has some words of wisdom and measured reflection on President Obama's challenge in navigating the perilous straits of being the first President who happens to be black. On his site Racism Review, Dr. Feagin makes the sharp observation that:
Over at The Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry, also a Princeton professor, is very critical of West for his personalizing attack on Obama’s heritage and whitewashed background, even as a hypocritical West himself has lived in a mostly white world since adulthood, especially as a professor at elite white universities. However, like several others, her critique is almost entirely about West’s own life and personal situation, but she mostly ignores West’s on-target structural critique of Obama’s (obligatory?) selling out to corporate America.

Indeed, West is correct that working class and strong progressive, especially independent and forthright black, Americans have very few prominent voices in the top ranks of the Obama administration, including just one cabinet member not from the political or economic establishment. What the critiques of West leave unsaid is that what West is focusing most on how individual black success in U.S. politics, as for Obama, has not meant significant advances for black Americans as a group, nor for Americans of color collectively.

Indeed, what is missing from West’s own critical analysis is the next obvious question: Why does the “not independent” Obama play up to the interests and issues of the dominant white elite and larger white population? This is not a character flaw, but rather about the foundational reality and continuing strength of the white racist system. That is the elephant in the room that not even West calls out.

As I and my colleagues have argued before, black candidates for state and national political offices, like President Obama, cannot adopt, even occasionally, a black counter-framed perspective on the action necessary to deal with the extensive discrimination and severe socioeconomic problems faced by black communities and other communities of color, and expect to win. Even in part, black candidates cannot articulate what they will do to deal with extensive racial discrimination and related racial problems if they are elected, yet when white candidates tell white communities what they will do for them, almost no one accuses them of “playing the race card.”

In contrast, black candidates need only to touch on issues of developing anti-discrimination and desegregation programs for black Americans and other people of color, and they are often called out as biased or extremist...

White candidates and elected politicians regularly take action openly benefiting white communities. Although Obama has not ignored the needs of communities of color in his presidency, he has had to take modest action, and that quietly, to benefit the black community, such as on improving funding for black colleges.
The questions surrounding race, identity, group interests, loyalty, and the symbolic power of America's first Black President--and his obligations (if any) to the African American community--are not going away anytime soon. At times, it is necessary to state the obvious. President Obama is not perfect. He is a man who happens to be both black and the President of the United States. He is not a magical salve or a superhero. And as hard as this is for some to hear, Obama's blackness and his presidency are coincidental--and given America's history, almost mutually exclusive to one another.

I have thought much on the following point and am surprised that more have not signaled to it: Obama as a "first" carries the burdens and dreams of so many on his shoulders. Sadly, realpolitik demands that he disappoint even as he blazes a trail forward. Obama is a consummate politician. His success in that milieu is a twisted sort of progress, for in a way he is just like all the others. That my friends is the unintended (or was it intentional?) consequence of the triumph of "colorblind" politics in the post-Civil Rights moment.

In total, disappointment knows no boundaries of color, race, or creed, for disappointment and compromise are the cement of politics both before and after the Age of Obama. That is a reality which will not change anytime soon. We should learn to accept it, even as we push Obama to be more true to the progressive vision he offered during the campaign.

10 comments:

CNu said...

The very fact that upset geriatric kneegrows need the obvious explained to them speaks volumes to the what, why, and wherefore of their collective systemic failure to effectively lead the generations of Black folk born after the CRM...,

yet these impotent ass-clowns still refuse to STFU and move out the way.

Plantsmantx said...

We should learn to accept it, even as we push Obama to be more true to the progressive vision he campaigned on.

To me, that means that in terms of black people, his Presidency is pretty much just symbolic and not that meaningful, and that I should basically view him as a Democratic President.

Oh Crap said...

I have thought much on the following point and am surprised that more have not signaled to it: Obama as a "first" carries the burdens and dreams of so many on his shoulders. Sadly, realpolitik demands that he disappoint even as he blazes a trail forward.

Holla. Having been a first Black/only Black from minute one, let alone first female/first black female, first out queer, etc. the trajectory has always fascinated and disgusted me (imo, the path is not worth the personal cost; we were sold a bill of goods regarding all the supposed doors we were opening.)

Do you know of decent studies of the "first"/only phenomenon? For a while, I was looking at it in classic film, beyond Lena/Dorothy/Harry/Sidney but of course encompassing them.

Oh Crap said...

@Plantsmantx

To me, that means that in terms of black people, his Presidency is pretty much just symbolic and not that meaningful, and that I should basically view him as a Democratic President.

Followup on what I posted...that's all the "first black only black" social role is: strictly symbolic.

But that's not to say symbols don't have meaning, just the opposite. Symbols help us derive meaning. Without them, there can be no meaning.

From there we can get into tokenism (overtly, literally symbolic) and conditions of expectations (based on such perceptions as the bigot equation of black=failure, or the integrationist model of first black=hope for something more [no matter how delusional the hope], or first black/only black as automatic sellout)....all these things are in play not just with Obama but everyone who has been shoved into this social role since Black people have been on these shores.

It's not very glamorous to talk about, but I do find it interesting, especially as a teaching tool for Black children in the Obama and what will be the post-Obama age.

Thrasher said...

West's talking points create a presidency that values the future of Black America beyond the arc of Obama's tenure..


In an Obama white house where FREE BLACK MEN do not exist we have a ME speech where our State department and DOD is absent of any FREE BLACK MEN our kids can die in Middle East Wars and Deals are made in emerging nations but in an Obama White House FREE BLACK MEN are not apart of these decisons

Black men in Obama's white house play jazz and pick up championship photos and handshakes..

During the OBL kill the MSM floated a photo of the war room and the only Black Face in the place was Obama's of course he could put credentialed Black folks in that room but as West stated in an Obama inner circle FREE BLACK MEN are not present..

Today after Obama's super ME speech the major jewish donor groups threaten to withdraw funds form Obama's reelection of course when the chips are down BLACK Folks will be there for Obama despite him not allowing FREE BLACK MEN like me and West and others in the room

Thrasher said...

As usual our Black Punditry and Black Academia is falling all over themselves to make some salient point about West & Obama they are good for reactionary tomes van't catch these perps being pro-active..

To many seek that dinner or jazz invite from the Obama white house...WTF

One revealing aspect of this entire sage is yet again Obama's silence when Black America has a discourse about him Obama can tell jokes about Trump etc but when our concerns are front and center he runs from us like he has NEGROPHOBIA..

West was right of course FREE BLACK MALES like me look like Field Niggers to Obama can't have a respectable negro like West and Thrasher on the premises

Plantsmantx said...

West's talking points create a presidency that values the future of Black America beyond the arc of Obama's tenure..

I don't know if I agree about West's talking points, but I do think that when it's all said and done, Obama's Presidency will have no significant effect on the arc of Black America. That's why one reason why the symbolism of his Presidency is really pretty hollow.

CNu said...

Obama's Presidency will have no significant effect on the arc of Black America.

rendering the impotent and shrill old guard obsolete and ushering them off center stage and toward the political and historical door is no small feat.

if he succeeds in holding his ground against the supremely tiresome whining and bellyaching of the AIPAC money crowd, then he will have accomplished an historic MOVE BITCH, GET OT THE WAY!!! two-fer...,

Plantsmantx said...

CNu, It seemed to me that the old guard was being ushered off center stage before Obama came on the scene nationally. Besides, I'm not really looking at it from the perspective of black "leadership", but from the perspective of the black rank-and-file. His Presidency will have no real effect on our success or failure. That's not a criticism, that's just the way it is.

CNu said...

Sadly, many of them retain a disproportionate influence in local politics ranging from school boards, city council, county commisions up through state legislatures and that's the typical path to national elective office.

Freedom Inc. Is the local old guard organization in KC to whom Cleaver and his ilk are long beholden. The Hon.Bro.Preznit Double-O brought in his own street team to KC and mopped the floor with Freedom and its minions like Grant took Richmond.

Freedom had to my knowledge never previously had its whole black electoral franchise just plain jacked like that before. I'm looking forward to a repeat next year