Sunday, September 4, 2011

President Obama, The Compromiser in Chief and the "Too Black, Too White Presidency"

Every campaign enlists its own meta-language. As Randall Kennedy reminds us in his provocative and richly insightful new book, “The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency,” the Obama forces disseminated several messages intended to soothe the racially freighted fears of the white electorate.
On one channel, they reassured voters that he was not an alien, but a normal American patriot. They also made clear that he was a “safe,” conciliatory black man who would never raise his voice in anger or make common cause with people, living or dead, who used race as a platform for grievance. On yet another wavelength, the candidate proffered his bona fides as a black man to ­African-Americans who were initially wary of his unusual upbringing, his white family ties and his predominantly white political support.
The press viewed this courtship of black voters as largely beside the point for a “post-racial” campaign that had bigger fish to fry on the white side of the street.
I hope you are all having a restful and good weekend. I came upon this piece in today's NY Times Book Review and thought it quite fitting for some of our recent discussions about President Obama, race, respect, and identity.

Randall Kennedy and others were spot on during the election of 2008 when they described Obama's candidacy as one where he was in an awkward position as a bound man who had to balance Black expectations, desires, and dreams, along with White anxieties and fears. Obama danced that fine line well enough to win the presidency.

However, the very personality traits and his experiences of upbringing that helped Obama to win the office of the presidency have been liabilities to his leadership while there. The structural limitations aside--and the racially motivated hostility of the Tea Party GOP fully noted--Obama's personality, identity, and personhood are the lived embodiment of an idealistic type of compromise. Consequently, America has a Compromiser in Chief who is not liberal enough for the Left and is too liberal for the Right; he is "too black" for some white folks and simultaneously "too white" for some blacks.

Barack Obama truly is a bound man, and for that reason (and many others) he is teetering on the edge of a failed presidency. Ironically, in one of his greatest moments as a candidate, the American people were offered a preview of Obama's dilemma and how it would lead to difficulties in his leadership and decision making as President.

Here, Kennedy's new book notes:
The widely held notion that the now-famous race speech, “A More Perfect Union,” ranked with the Gettysburg Address or “I Have a Dream” strikes Kennedy as delusional. The speech, he writes, was little more than a carefully calibrated attempt to defuse the public relations crisis precipitated by the Wright affair.
Far from frank, it understated the extent of the country’s racial divisions and sought to blame blacks and whites equally for them, when in fact, Kennedy writes, “black America and white America are not equally culpable. White America enslaved and Jim Crowed black America (not the other way around).”
The speech was in keeping with the candidate’s wildly successful race strategy, which involved making white voters feel better about themselves whenever possible.
Lauded at the time for its delivery and Obama's mastery of language and poise under pressure, the speech has not aged well. Even then I would urge people, my students in particular, to read the text of the speech as by doing so the utter ridiculousness of its premises are made clear.

Black Americans and white Americans are not equally culpable for the ills and evils of racism and the colorline. Obama equated white anger with black justice claims on full citizenship and opportunity. What is a laughable position. In reality, the latter is moral and just, and the former bitter and wrong.

Why did Obama choose to distort both history and the present by knowingly taking such an absurd and intellectually dishonest position?

While genius and smart, Obama is not a truth teller. He is more invested in compromise and finding a "middle ground" (even when to his own disadvantage) than in winning and fighting the good fight.

Ultimately, there is a great amount of pressure placed on "the firsts" in any endeavor. Like Jackie Robinson, Obama may not have been the best choice, but he was the right person at the right time. Moreover, Obama also has a racial temperament that would soothe white voters just enough to cast the ballot for him.

Brent Staples is spot on in this regard with his point that "...two-fistedness is not his nature. He would never have been elected had he run as, say, a brown-skinned version of the leg breaker Lyndon Johnson. The white electorate might one day be ready for a black president like that, but not yet."

The American people needed a leg breaker to correct this country's direction in a time of declining empire and the Great Recession. Sadly, it seems that with President Obama we got a soother and massage artist. The Tea Party GOP are going to enjoy Obama's services all the way to the end, because like any good masseuse he guarantees them a happy ending every time.


Nancy LeTourneau said...

I disagree with you on a couple of things. But the most significant is that I did not hear Obama equating black/white culpability in his speech on race.

What I heard was a validation of the anger each side feels. That's a totally different thing. As a therapist, I can tell you that it is never appropriate or a good idea to deny anger. It is real - no matter the origin or culpability.

I would NEVER make an argument for moral equivalency between the two. And I doubt very much that Obama would either.

But a look at history will show that poor whites got played on this one. I don't have any illusions that most of them know it yet. But they did.

Here's Tim Wise explaining how.

That is more in line with what Obama was saying.

Plantsmantx said...

He would never have been elected had he run as, say, a brown-skinned version of the leg breaker Lyndon Johnson. The white electorate might one day be ready for a black president like that, but not yet."

Some of the black electorate wouldn't have been ready for it, either.

nomad said...

Obama's "boundness" is not the reason he is teetering on the edge of a failed presidency. Obama has been cynically using race to manipulate the public from the beginning of his campaign. He is not a liberal being thwarted by the opposition, forced to compromise. He is a conservative using the attacks of extreme conservatives and racists as cover to make his own anti-liberal policies more palatable. This great black hope image is a myth. A marketing coup.

He's not failing because America needs a leg-breaker type. His conciliatory could have been effective if he had pursued a progressive agenda. It was his choice of policies, not his style that has caused him to lose popularity with his base. As Stoller says in his Salon article:

"It would be one thing if Obama were failing because he was too close to party orthodoxy. Yet his failures have come precisely because Obama has not listened to Democratic Party voters. He continued idiotic wars, bailed out banks, ignored luminaries like Paul Krugman, and generally did whatever he could to repudiate the New Deal. The Democratic Party should be the party of pay raises and homes, but under Obama it has become the party of pay cuts and foreclosures. Getting rid of Obama as the head of the party is the first step in reverting to form."

Constructive Feedback said...

My Beloved Bother Chauncey DeVega:

YOU are the proverbial "Black Man"!
That's what I like about you brother - always defending the "Black Permanent Interests" against all usurpers.

With this post, however, I believe that you have slipped up in a few material areas. Since I am always working with you to strengthen your argument in preparation of that fateful day in which our beloved brother Ed Schultz pits you against a "Tea Party Racist" on his show - you will be prepared for all of their dirty tricks

1) You say Obama is at risk of a FAILED PRESIDENCY.
Since this blog apparently is about BLACK PEOPLE - I am forced to challenge you to provide the evidence that Black people believe that Obama's presidency is anything close to a "Failed Presidency"

* Is this by Black opinion polls?
* Is this by Black intentions to invest their "Equal Black Ballots" into the Obama 2012
* OH here is the best one - Is it evidenced by the Black Community constructing a DIFFERENT CHANNEL for their Black Community UPLIFT that is distinct from the American Political Domain - them refusing to be the "Special Teams" in the Malcolm X Political Football game?

2) [quote]The press viewed this courtship of black voters as largely beside the point for a “post-racial” campaign that had bigger fish to fry on the white side of the street.[/quote]

Brother DeVega:

I am going to ask you to vent Prof Kennedy's words on this one.

There was not a COURTING by Obama for the Black vote.

Back in 2008 there was a CONVERGENCE of the cogs in the "Black Racial Services Machine" upon the Progressive Democratic Party. The fact that there was a BLACK MAN running for President as a Democrat merely increased the volume of Black votes.

Thus I argue the opposite. The Black Gravitational Pull converged at a fulcrum and lifted Obama UP into Office.

I have pictures from Urban malls where Obama t-shirts displaced Lil Wayne and Jay-Z to become the top sellers at the Korean owned urban fashion stores.

I have copies of Ebony, Jet and Essence, Black Enterprise - all of whom said that they had not previously endorsed a Presidential candidate before - Before Obama that is.

The proper mindset for you (and Brother Thrasher) to take is the FUTURE VIEW!!! Brother DeVega - the primary conversation for Black America to have at this point is:

IN THE FUTURE who will be the GUARDIANS of the "Black Community Development Consciousness" - never again allowing it to get affixed to a vehicle that not only takes our "Equal Black Ballots" but at the critical check point in the journey where those who are LOOKING OUT FOR THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE BLACK COMMUNITY are seen demanding EARNEST MONEY before TAKING ANOTHER STEP FORWARD!!!

Instead, My beloved Brother Chauncey - they are heard telling of the CONSEQUENCES to the Black community if we do not CONTINUE TO INVEST.

You see, we have a violated set of INTEGRITY PROTECTIONS of our COMMUNITY INSTITUTIONS - used for the profit of the embedded confidence men.

chaunceydevega said...

@Smarty. I hear you. Please tell me what white folks have to be angry about towards black folks in the post CR era or before? I don't legitimate unrighteous anger. Thus, my point is that Obama elevated white grievance mongering over having to give their fellow Americans some semblance of equal rights to the justice claims of a group that have been systematically excluded from the full fruits of American democracy. I see this alot in my classes and lectures, seminars, talks, etc. I don't play the all sides are equally bad game. I call folks out.

There are always a few in the audience waiting for a "white folks have a right to be upset and this is all shared pain" moment. They don't get it from me. They look sad and frustrated when that happens. They will continue to do so as I don't believe in lying to create fictions of legitimate white what? Having to surrender some privileges?

@Plants. You got that right.

@Nomad. What next? Lets the gopers get in and say we told you so, or pursue a failing effort to replace the O-Man with a primary?

nomad said...

blow up the system

nomad said...

"There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."

"Obama can't fix the problems the country faces because he's owned by Big Business and Wall Street. Everyone knows that. But to continue to pretend that the Democratic Party is a viable alternative to the GOP, is beyond misguided; it's delusional."

"Knowing what you know now, a vote for Obama in 2012 would be an enthusiastic vote of support for torture, extrajudicial assassinations, drone attacks, corporate healthcare, doing nothing about jobs and staying in Iraq. Your eyes are open. A liberal who votes for Obama would be directly responsible for the torture, the killings, and the suicides of the desperately unemployed."

Just some relevant quotes for not continuing with the less-evilism, Kang or Kodos conumdrum.