Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Does Obama subject African Americans to "targeted scorn"?

Yesterday I put up some thoughts about Obama's commencement speech at Morehouse College, in blithe and admittedly self-imposed ignorance of what others had said about it (I plead lack of time, fatigue and eagerness to get my thoughts down -- and will also cop to not wanting to complicate that quick-stream).  I thought it was an awesome speech, in the pre-colloquial sense of awesome, as in awe-inspiring.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, however, greets the speech (and a parallel commencement address by Michelle) with a powerful indictment. In response to a passage in which Obama admonishes the Morehouse Men, "there's no longer any room for excuses" -- e.g., being held back by racism, Coates writes:
This clearly is a message that only a particular president can offer. Perhaps not the "president of black America," but certainly a president who sees holding African Americans to a standard of individual responsibility as part of his job. This is not a role Barack Obama undertakes with other communities.

Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people -- and particularly black youth -- and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that "there's no longer room for any excuses" -- as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of "all America," but he also is singularly the scold of "black America."
There is undoubtedly a lot of truth to this. As Fallows notes in response, though, Obama has to walk a razor-thin tightrope when addressing African Americans directly or matters of race generally -- or, better, as Fallows put it, "a tiny, little rope suspended across a Grand Canyon." By way of additional mitigation, Fallows notes,  "We all take a different tone in setting expectations for "our own."

I would add three further mitigating thoughts. First, in his admonishments throughout the speech, Obama was channeling the historic messages of Morehouse itself -- including in the passage Coates focused on:

We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you've learned over the last four years is that there's no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there's a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: "excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness."

We've got no time for excuses -- not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven't. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that's still out there. It's just that in today's hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven't earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured -- and overcame.
Second, Obama was not immediately addressing the whole African American community --he was addressing black men who had just graduated from a prestigious college. He addressed them more or less as peers -- speaking as one who, like them, had been unusually lucky or relatively privileged.  Fallows' point about being tougher on your own is relevant here.

Finally, Obama did not so much single out his audience for specialized scolding as call them to a higher destiny -- in a passage that reached beyond the African American community to members of all oppressed groups (the passage that so moved me in my prior post):
As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination.  And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share.  Hispanic Americans know that feeling when somebody asks them where they come from or tell them to go back.  Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love that they share.  Muslim Americans feel it when they’re stared at with suspicion because of their faith.  Any woman who knows the injustice of earning less pay for doing the same work — she knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need.  If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy — the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you’re not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple.  It should give you the ability to connect.  It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers.

And I will tell you, Class of 2013, whatever success I have achieved, whatever positions of leadership I have held have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of connection and empathy — the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who need it most, people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had — because there but for the grace of God, go I — I might have been in their shoes.  I might have been in prison.  I might have been unemployed.  I might not have been able to support a family.  And that motivates me.  (Applause.)

So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern — to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody.  Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world.  To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table; that everybody, no matter what you look like or where you come from, what your last name is — it doesn’t matter, everybody gets a chance to walk through those doors of opportunity if they are willing to work hard enough.
Coates might reject that exceptionalism too, or protest that it rings hollow for those who -- as Obama acknowledged -- have been denied the opportunities enjoyed by Morehouse graduates:
if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that too few of our brothers have the opportunities that you’ve had here at Morehouse.  In troubled neighborhoods all across this country — many of them heavily African American — too few of our citizens have role models to guide them.

Communities just a couple miles from my house in Chicago, communities just a couple miles from here — they’re places where jobs are still too scarce and wages are still too low; where schools are underfunded and violence is pervasive; where too many of our men spend their youth not behind a desk in a classroom, but hanging out on the streets or brooding behind a jail cell.
I think, though, that Obama addressed his "no excuses" challenge mainly to the college graduates standing in front of him rather than to the beleaguered inner city youth he exhorted the graduates to reach out to. 

The "tightrope" I saw Obama walking in my prior post was between the particular and the universal -- the problems and challenges of the young black male graduates before him and the African American community one one hand, and those of the nation as a whole, and all people, on the other. It strikes me here that he walked another tightrope, between alleging collective and individual responsibility -- exhorting the graduates to take responsibility not only for their own lives but for mitigating the evils we create collectively. He wriggled out of the paradox of responsibility in the only way available to humans -- urging his audience to take responsibility, regardless of where it ultimately lies. 

Coates' indictment went beyond this particular speech, to Obama's habitual mode of addressing African Americans.  In my view his point has more force with respect to Obama's post-Newtown comments regarding gun violence:
Visting his grieving adopted hometown of Chicago, in the wake of the murder of Hadiya Pendleton, the president said this:
For a lot of young boys and young men in particular, they don't see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up in respect. And so that means that this is not just a gun issue; it's also an issue of the kinds of communities that we're building. When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child's heart that government can't fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.
Two months earlier Obama visited Newtown. The killer, Adam Lanza, was estranged from his father and reportedly devastated by his parents divorce. But Obama did not speak to Newtown about the kind of community they were building, or speculate on the hole in Adam Lanza's heart.
There does seem to be a double standard here. But there's also a difference between communities. Hold responsible whom you will, but the people of Newtown had not created a community in which a sizable proportion of the youth engage in habitual violence.  The people of Newtown are partially responsible --as are we all -- for creating a larger society in which guns are readily available to those who would commit mayhem. But that is one front on which, for once, Obama has dropped his habitual elected official's impulse to relentlessly flatter us all and has instead held us collectively responsible -- as here, at Newton in the shooting's immediate aftermath:
This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?

Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?

Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return?

Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change. Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.

And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose -- much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.
It's true, as Coates charges, that Obama hectors the African American community about personal responsibility more freely than he does the country at large. This post is not a rebuttal per se. It is rather an elaboration of Fallows' point: that Obama walks an impossible tightrope -- woven of political necessity,  his personal beliefs, and his efforts to move policies that will foster justice and opportunity -- with extraordinary dexterity.

Beyond excoriating Obama's rhetoric of personal responsibility aimed at African Americans, Coates accuses Obama of failing to hold government responsible enough for that community's disproportionate suffering in our current economic woes -- that is, failing to bring the power of government fully to bear to mitigate that suffering:
[Future historians] will see a president who sought to hold black people accountable for their communities, but was disdainful of those who looked at him and sought the same. They will match his rhetoric of individual responsibility, with the aggression the administration showed to bail out the banks, and the timidity they showed  in addressing a foreclosure crisis which devastated black America (again.)They wil weigh the rhetoric against an administration whose efforts against housing segregation have been run of the millAnd they will match the talk of the importance of black fathers with the paradox of a president who smoked marijuana in his youth but continued a drug-war which daily wrecks the lives of black men and their families. In all of this, those historians will see a discomfiting pattern of convenient race-talk.
This, too, is true but partial. It leaves out the quietly effective measures to mitigate poverty built into the 2009 stimulus -- the boosts to rental subsidies and food stamps and unemployment benefits, the "making work pay" and payroll tax cuts. Also, one thing I've learned from working with corporate lawyers: from a corporate point of view, the Obama administration has been relentless on behalf of labor generally and disadvantaged groups in particular; the Department of Labor, EEOC and NLRB hae been zealous in enforcement and active in creation of new regulations and rulings that "tilt the field toward labor and employees" -- notwithstanding Republican efforts to starve these agencies of funds and keep them unstaffed via filibuster. 

I am as frustrated as any progressive by the ground Obama has yielded since 2011 on government spending, and his administration's efforts on behalf of beleaguered homeowners have indeed been tepid and ineffectual.  But "historians" will weigh those failings in the balance with more successful efforts to mitigate the effects of still-galloping income inequality.

Obama gets personal at Morehouse
Kierkegaard, Julian, Obama

1 comment:

  1. TNC posted a column at the NY Times on May 5 called Code of the Streets in which he claimed he and 3 other successful professionals, who were each late thirties, black men felt a strong childhood pull to violence when confronted by 'disrespect'. This picture is something that many racists would be happy to agree with. 'They' just are that way. I think TNC is making several other points, about how we are molded in early childhood, about what is self-protective in one circumstance becomes self-defeating in another, etc. etc. But before he wrongly accuses Pres. Obama of singling out the black community for scolding, TNC ought to look to how his own writings about he and his black friends can be generalized and used to support the worst beliefs of racists.