Thursday, August 29, 2013

Why? Barack Obama Decides to Publicly Scold Black Americans (Again) During His March on Washington Anniversary Speech

Being the country’s first black president, and speaking on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s iconic “I Have a Dream Speech”, is a task of almost unimaginable difficulty.

Dr. King is now a legend more than a man. He is American royalty and a myth. As such, the complexities and radicalism of Dr. King’s vision have been washed away in order to fit him into America’s panoply of heroes.

For a variety of reasons--ranging from practical politics, personality, history, to temperament--Barack Obama cannot compete with Dr. King.

There are glaring contradictions and complexities that come with comparing Dr. King and Barack Obama.

Dr. King was a pacifist and anti-militarist who believed that America was the greatest single cause of violence in the world. Barack Obama, while giving his own March on Washington anniversary speech, has already, or soon will, order the United States military to attack Syria.

Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement were subjected to harassment and spying by the United States government under COINTELPRO. Barack Obama presides over a surveillance apparatus that routinely violates the American peoples’ constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Dr. King was a staunch critic of American imperialism. Barack Obama is the “black face of American Empire”.

Barack Obama is an amazingly gifted public speaker and was largely able to sidestep these problems and contradictions in his March on Washington anniversary speech.

To that end, Barack Obama made a series of choices about what type of speech to give, and what topics to discuss therein.

In his soaring rhetoric, Barack Obama chose to return to an old trope, and what is for him, a comfortable narrative. He would speak about his dream of a post-racial America, one that is still a work in progress. And as Obama has done in previous speeches, he would choose to play the public scold of Black America, a rhetorical choice that serves to free white folks from any personal responsibility for centuries of American racism.

That Barack Obama would decide to lecture and scold Black America on the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s speech and the March on Washington is disturbing. There, Obama references the many thousands of black folks across the generations from slavery to freedom, people who are quintessential examples of black respectability, personal responsibility, and yearning for excellence and success in a society where the color line deemed them less than equal and fully human.

Rather than draw connections from that legacy to our current moment—and to celebrate such ties—Obama instead chose to talk about black folks as racial grievance mongers, possessed of bad culture, criminality, and who are a people that somehow lost their way, and that need to work harder at holding up their end of the civic and cultural bargain in America.

If Dr. King is really American royalty, and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington is a celebration of how the Black Freedom Struggle helped to transform a nation (and the world) for the better, then Obama sullied that moment--just as he did during an earlier speech to the graduates of Morehouse College—by summoning the tired bogeyman of black pathology instead of singing the many successes of Black America high to the mountaintops.

In following a “colorblind” post-racial script where African-Americans are hurt more by their “bad culture” than by structural and systemic white racism, Barack Obama dredged up caricatures and cartoon images of African-American history.

To point. President Obama suggested that black folks have strayed away from Dr. King’s vision by rioting. 

Despite being a talking-point better suited for Fox News and its obsession with “black criminality” and “racist” assaults on innocent white people, Obama’s playing with symbolic racism (and the coded racial appeals of Republicans and “centrist” Democrats from Nixon onward) is a dishonest use of history.

Black folks are not hyper-emotional civic children and brigands who sit around waiting to spontaneously riot and engage in wanton destruction...despite what the Tea Party GOP and the Right-wing media would suggest.

As Obama most certainly knows, race riots in the United States have overwhelmingly been committed by whites against black and brown folks.

Obama is a smart student of American history. He would most certainly know that the Kerner Commission report written in the aftermath of the urban rebellions of the 1960s detailed how those “riots” were caused by predictable variables such as police brutality, economic desperation, racism, geographic isolation, a sense of gross racial and class injustice, and other factors that speak to the power of institutional inequality along the color line.

The Los Angeles Rebellion in 1992 was driven by a similar sense of alienation and justified rage at how police brutality and extra-legal violence against people of color is a recurring fixture in American life. George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin is a recent example of the semi-permanence of that fact.

In those rare moments when black folks have rioted, they were for wholly understandable, and in many ways, quite rational reasons: African-Americans are no more violence prone by virtue of skin color than any other group.

In his March on Washington anniversary speech Barack Obama also talked about how “..racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination.”

Who is Obama speaking of? What agents are engaging in such theatrics and politics? Is Obama alluding to kente cloth and kufi wearing black radicals who haunt the dreams of "respectable" Middle America? Is Obama talking about “angry” black people who scare white folks by talking about racism and white supremacy? Does this group include the great legal scholar Derrick Bell, one of Obama’s mentors, who brilliantly and incisively researched and wrote about the relationship between the American legal system and white racism?

Here, Obama’s allusion to “recrimination” is so broad that it becomes an empty vessel which can only be filled in with a two-dimensional parody of those black and brown critics of white racism and white supremacy.

This is the “angry black person” who hurts white folks’ feelings, is “too emotional”, “sees racism everywhere”, irrational, and unwilling to accept that Whiteness is benign. The "angry black person" will also not give white people the benefit of the doubt by accepting that racism is really about intent, as opposed to outcomes and/or social structures.

Consequently, the "angry black" is a stock character in post civil rights era America because he or she is a convenient way of silencing, marginalizing, and ignoring the justice claims made by African-Americans.

In total, the trope of "the angry black person" is also a way to create a false equivalence between the anger of black Americans at white racism, and white folks’ resentment at having to be held accountable for white racism, and to being forced to consider, just for a moment, that they may have to surrender just a little bit of their unearned power and privilege for the Common Good and social progress.

In his much praised “Speech on Race” in 2008, Barack Obama made a similar move:
That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings…That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races. 
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. 
They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
In his March on Washington anniversary speech, Obama legitimated white racial resentment when he suggested the following:
And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. 
Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself. All of that history is how progress stalled. That's how hope was diverted. It's how our country remained divided.
Moreover, while Obama wants action on the part of black folks to improve themselves, there is no equivalent demand that white people take responsibility for white racism.

The President’s March on Washington anniversary speech is a crystallization of the price of admission Barack Obama paid in order to become the country’s first black Chief Executive.

For example, Obama talks in broad and inclusive ways about the racial progress made in America, while continuing to remind the public of the work that remains—all the while not proposing any race specific solutions to these problems.

Obama avoids talking about the particular struggles and concerns of the African-American community because in his own words, he is “the president of all Americans.”

And the country’s first black president publicly scolds African-Americans, with the sum effect being to legitimate a narrative and logic that black and brown folks somehow share in the responsibility for how white racism, both structural and inter-personal, has negatively impacted people of color's life chances.

Barack Obama is in his second and final term. He does not need to worry about being reelected. 

History is his most important audience now. 

Will President Obama be remembered as the country’s first Black President? Or alternatively, will Obama be remembered as a President who happened to be black? This is a subtle distinction; it is also very important as we attempt to locate Barack Obama relative to the long Black Freedom Struggle and the Civil Rights Movement.

Barack Obama’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I have a Dream Speech” would seem to suggest that he is more comfortable with the second title. Ultimately, Barack Obama’s public scolding of Black Americans is not being done for some short-term political goal, i.e. to win a presidential election by having an obligatory for Democratic candidates “Sister Souljah” moment. Given his habit of publicly calling out black folks’ perceived and imagined cultural and moral failings, on some level, Obama must believe such things to be true.

Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a deep and abiding love for black people. He died for our freedom. I believe that Barack Obama also loves black folks too. But, his love is of a different nature and type than that of Dr. King’s. Such a difference helps to explain why Barack Obama is the country’s “first President who happens to be black” as opposed to being “the United States’ first Black President”.


Vittoria Falconer said...

Maybe he thought he would try the "Return of The King" Speech from the Boondocks (cartoon by Aaron MacGruder) *shrug*. That's all I got. He's tickling my funny bone as well as of late. (-_-)

kscoyote said...

1) There is no evidence that the Constitutional Rights of anyone is being routinely violated. This is a right wing trope pushed by fringe Right Wing supporter Glenn Greenwald, who is becoming more fantastically cartoonish each and every day.

2) I scold the Cornel Wests and the Tavis Smileys who expect a "King" (pun intended) as President without having to go through the hard work of changing opinions of the public consciousness.

3) I don't expect White People to do anything or be anything other that what they are. Perhaps it is low expectations on my part. But they will not move unless they are pushed outside of their comfort zone. The best anyone can hope for from such people is awareness that other people are people, too.

The President - No matter who or what the President is does not have that ability. The President does not make Law, Congress does.

Shady Grady said...

If I were the first black POTUS and got re-elected, I imagine it would be very difficult not to think I was pretty freaking special and had some insights that people needed to hear. The question is why PBO never seems to have the need to share his insights about white people but just black ones.

Vic78 said...

He needs a majority in the House and Senate. Telling white people about themselves rarely works.

chauncey devega said...

And scolding black folks pays electoral dividends. Sad but true.

chauncey devega said...

He is a bound man. To even show empathy towards black people causes an uproar...but Obama must surely know that there are die hard racists and Tea Party GOP types who hate the fact that he is alive. Why surrender to them?

chauncey devega said...

NSA much? Stop and Frisk much? Come now stop playing. I appreciate the good and honest schoolhouse rock version of political change. It is much more complicated than that in what is a corporate democracy where the will of the People is routinely and consistently disregarded.

I hear the realpolitik. That doesn't change the fact that Obama loves to use black people as whipping posts to publicly scold to win over white folks by not being "too black". But, Obama is silent on white accountability.

chauncey devega said...

Season 4 is coming soon. There is still hope that through a trick of the universe my spec script for the Boondocks will be magically transferred to the shows execs. Universe are you listening!

kscoyote said...

There is Realpolitick, and there is Reality. My parents would be upset with me if I scored less than 95% on exams, or brought home less than an A. I was never allowed to be an average student, because a C student of color is worth less than a flunkie who is white.

This is reality.

I could whine about it all I wanted, but it's reality.Even in the age of Obama.

Stop and Frisk is not Federal Policy.

Everything from supposed direct access to warrantless spying has been debunked within the materials snowden and Greenwald released. In fact those materials came from Cout and OIG oversight, and the corrective actions are also within the reports. the violations, if you read the actual documents date to 2007 and 2008.

Please educate yourself Chauncey. I'd hate to see you on a panel with the Southern Avenger, along with Greenwald, and Ron Paul, all wearing tinfoil pirate hats.

chauncey devega said...

I come from similar stock. Obama knows that most black folks are not ghetto underclass cartoon caricatures of humanity.

Stop and Frisk and other types of racial profiling are "federal policy" to the degree that Holder does not intervene and stop those gross injustices. Nevermind the national stop and frisk policy that muslims and others have been subjected to post 9-11.

If you want to believe that the rise of the surveillance society and the NSA and other organization's spying on the American people is "constitutional" because a secret panel of unelected people and others along w. Obama (and other presidents) want to "protect" the American people so be it.

Look up the concept known as inverted totalitarianism. I would suggest it is you who need to "educate" yourself my friend.

DeistPaladin said...

I remember during the 80s, a Bloom County cartoon had one of its characters predict that "the first black president will be a conservative."
That prediction has proven accurate.

kscoyote said...

If indeed that were the case, but the NSA is subject to Court, Congressional and Executive Oversight - Just as any other agency is. The reports and corrective actions are among the materials released by Snowden.

Thunkdubious said...

What good is speaking out about white accountability going to do? Are we expecting white people to say, "Gee, we have been f-ing horrible. We should take steps to address that."? It's up to black people to start holding themselves accountable. We've got to get our kids to class, we've got to get the drugs and guns out of our communities. Not by organizing rallies after someone gets shot but by infiltrating and subverting the political structures designed to oppress people of color. What we need is revolution. Non-violent, preferably.

Thunkdubious said...

I don't know if the world is ready for that much truth:) Sticking with TV, you watch Scandal? I'm late to the party but I'm wondering if you think the SPOILERS - revelation that the Grant presidential election conspiracy is too cynical or not cynical enough? The show is basically saying that democracy is a convenient lie we tell ourselves so we can look our children in the eyes at night when we tuck them in. After, Dole in the Philippines, Haiti, Gulf of Tonkin, Watergate, S&L, Iran Contra, Gulf Wars I would have little trouble believing that governance in America is a huge pre-determined boondoggle. Thoughts?

Todd Britt said...

There is also the very real impact of being cloistered among the powerful and privileged. The inner circle of the Democratic Party is hardly know for its candor or progressive values. They're too busy subscribing to the economic and social values of financial and industrial elites.

Gable1111 said...

I have said since 2008 that Obama is a president who happens to be black, and the distinction though subtle does carry considerable significance. I wrote it off to the politician in him realizing that's what it took for a black man to win. But now, in his second term, he's not bound by the same constraints, and yet he continues on. A lot of us thought that the second term would reveal "the real Obama," but instead of "Trouble Man" we get Irkle; instead of swinging for the fences he's humbly bunting with the lowered expectations of just getting to first base, only to continue to get kicked in the teeth by those who's favor he seems to seek. That he continues to do this at a point in time when he clearly doesn't have to says this is not a feint; this is who he is.

Dr. King had not just love but an obsession for his people. He talked about the "Beloved Community." Is it not possible for Obama for just once to celebrate black folk? Is the only context he will ever speak of his people is to scold?

For a lot of us the problem is with the "first black president," we thought we were getting W.E.B. Dubois, but instead we're getting Booker T. The March on Washington speech makes that even more apparent.

Learning is Eternal... said...

Until we have a president whose parents are both black w/no lineal ties to presidents/vp's past, from the Southside of anywhere in the united snakes, we only have a black pres. In theory.

You can take the 1st part loosely but hear me out. I wonder how or if the narrative would've played out had he been from 2 dark skinned folks who weren't felons, hardworking, decent mannered yet lower middle class/upper lower income (if @all possible)? Will we ever have a black or brown pres. Under these, what I call, normal conditions? You'll never get a bi-racial individual to say/scream/yell Black Power & mean it. Not that it's a requiem for office.

King started seeing the world Malcolm's bi-focals. Malcolm after Mecca could empathize w/King to a degree. Obama won't become neither.

Miles_Ellison said...

All too true. The real tragedy is that people who were motivated to participate in the political process, many for the first time, were for the most part not motivated to support the agenda that they wanted and needed. When Beyonce finished singing at Obama's inauguration, people pretty much stopped paying attention, allowing malignant bigots to hijack the conversation.

gn said...

This is unfair on so many levels. First, President Obama has never aspired to become MLK or Malcolm. He sought to use what there were of democratic processes to improve the lives of the least of these. If there's a critique that he's playing too deeply into the Bill Cosby book (dark-skinned son of two working-class Philly parents, that Bill Cosby), fine that's a critique. But noting his mixed race lineage and using that to cast doubt upon his connection to the black community? Come on. And solidifies my thought that many of those criticizing the most recent speech are people who find PBO suspect and are merely looking for confirmation...

DeistPaladin said...

I see it as a damned-if-we-do-and-damned-if-we-don't situation we progressives find ourselves in these days. We are stuck with a two-party system and one has moved into right-wing Crazytown and the other chases after the GOP, running further to the right in an effort to find that elusive center. Even when the latter comes into power with a substantial mandate, you never hear them speaking of "political capital". They tread lightly, always searching for that unicorn of bipartisanship. Barack Obama didn't create that problem by any means. Harry "The Jellyfish" Ried is arguably doing more damage than the president with his refusal to reform the filibuster. John McCain can cause the government to come to a screeching halt just by raising his finger and walking out the Senate chamber. No need for phone books, sleeping bags or catheters in this Senate.

Understand, I get that we have a two-party system and a vote for a 3rd Party is a vote that could have stopped the GOP. I've always held my nose and voted for the conserva-dem candidate because he's better than the Tea Bagger alternative. I also encourage everyone else to do so.

At the same time, I worry about the long term effect of blindly voting Democrat. The Democrat leadership continues to drift right because they know they can take us for granted. Case in point is the way Obama bitch-slapped his own base prior to the election of 2010, telling us to "buck up and stop whining". If we can't punish them at the polls, how can we punish them at all?

I also get a little irritated when Obama-bots make their rounds wagging their fingers at us and asking if we learned our lesson from 2010. When you lose a battle, you first blame the generals before you blame the troops. Maybe some of that finger-wagging could be directed at the people who actually make policy? While I held my nose and voted for the conserva-dem in 2010, I can't judge those who can't take off work as easily, to go out of their way for the people who will cave to the GOP anyway.

I get a little irritated when Obama-bots bandy around the straw man that we're just sulking because we "didn't get the pet unicorn Obama never promised." We're not angry because we didn't get everything we wanted. We're angry because they won't fight. Obama came in with a huge mandate and big majorities in both houses of Congress, all of which he squandered in his quest for the Holy Grail of bipartisan harmony.

And before you say "but the Senate...", If Harry Ried could have summoned the spine to insist on even the most mild of filibuster reform (a return to the Mr.-Smith-Goes-To-Washington rule comes to mind), we wouldn't need 60 votes to accomplish anything. But then again, maybe it wouldn't have done any good since Obama has a strange style of negotiation. He gives away half the store before even arriving at the table, apparently in the hopes that the GOP will be impressed by his magnanimity and meet him at that halfway point.

And yet, not voting and letting the Dems lose not only promotes the GOP's power but apparently causes the Dems to learn the wrong lesson. "I guess we were too liberal" if oft heard as they drift further to the right.

I'm hoping others wiser than I have some ideas how we stop the Dems' rightward drift. I'll continue to hold my nose in the meantime but we need to do something more proactive. How do we make what is supposed to be our party listen to us?