Michael Eric Dyson and Eddie Glaude Jr., two well-respected black intellectuals and professors, make the same argument in books they have released over the last month: President Obama hasn’t done enough on policy to help fellow African-Americans and regularly uses rhetoric that is overly critical of blacks.
“Obama energetically peppers his words to blacks with talk of responsibility in one public scolding after another,” Dyson writes in The Black Presidency. “When Obama upbraids black folk while barely mentioning the flaws of white Americans, he leaves the impression that race is the concern solely of black people, and that blackness is full of pathology.”
“Obama’s reprimands of black folk also undercuts their moral standing,” he adds.
Glaude, in Democracy in Black, makes claim that under Obama, “black communities have been devastated.”
“And Obama’s most publicized initiative in the face of all of this, even as the spate of racial incidents pressured him to be more forthright about this issue, has been My Brother’s Keeper, a public-private partnership to address the crisis of young men and boys of color—A Band-Aid for a gunshot wound,” writes Glaude.
These books, released as Obama’s tenure nears its end, are the most comprehensive versions of a case against the president’s leadership style that a number of prominent black intellectuals have made.
In his 2012 book The Price of the Ticket, Columbia professor Frederick Harris argued persuasively that Obama felt less compelled to act on behalf of black Americans in part because African-American leaders were unwilling to apply pressure to the first black president. In contrast, other liberal-leaning constituencies, particularly gay rights activists, treated Obama like any other president, aggressively pressing him to adopt their policy goals.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the award-winning author and writer for The Atlantic, wrote in 2013 that Obama was the “scold of Black America.”
What Glaude, who teaches at Princeton, adds to this debate is a broader context for viewing race in the Obama presidency. Glaude’s book helps explain the phenomenon of the last two years, in which a movement called Black Lives Matter has gained strength while a black man lives in the White House.
Glaude argues that Obama emerged and entered the Oval Office at a time of decline for institutions that had once been vital to black political and culture life: historically black colleges, well-established black churches and black-owned newspapers. In a previous era, writes Glaude, the leaders of those institutions would have provided an alternative voice on racial issues during the Obama years, including criticizing the president himself and holding him accountable to the broader black community.
In part because of those weakened institutions, Glaude concludes that the strategies of a previous generation of black leaders are now outdated. Black leaders from Martin Luther King Jr., to Jesse Jackson to Obama, Glaude argues, have used a model that assumes that America has the right values, and blacks and other disadvantaged groups should simply press for the country to live up to its ideals.
That model worked for breaking barriers to blacks voting and more recently in getting people who are gay the right to marry. But Glaude believes the racial problems of today require a total overhaul of how black Americans try to influence American society.
Glaude’s book concludes with the professor taking a trip to Ferguson, Missouri, where he meets with Black Lives Matter activists. The activists openly criticize veteran civil right leaders like Jackson and The Rev. Al Sharpton for using bland, old-style tactics, and Glaude embraces their view.
“We often find ourselves reaching for political language and strategies developed under one set of conditions (primarily that of the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s) to speak to circumstances that result from another set of conditions transformed by economic and political forces,” Glaude writes.
Dyson is more narrowly focused on Obama, with one chapter alone dissecting the moving speech the president gave last year in Charleston, South Carolina, after the murder of nine African-Americans in a church there. Both President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to the professor for his book, and addressed racial issues in more blunt terms than either man usually does in public.
“I’m not his ‘Inner Nigger,” Holder told Dyson, refuting the idea that his blunt rhetoric on racial issues while serving in the Obama administration was Holder articulating thoughts the president had as well but was too scared to express because of the potential political fallout. (Cultural critic Richard Benjamin had originated that term.)
Holder added, “If he were attorney general of the United States, he would be an attorney general in my mold. And if I were president–and that’s a frightening thought–I’d probably be a president like him.”
Both books were released in time for Black History Month, and while that timing may have been coincidental, it fits with the narratives of Dyson and Glaude. Both men in effect write compelling histories of the post-King era of black American life, showing the reader how much of black politics is not about Barack Obama.
The books suffer from two similar flaws. First, both over-personalize the presidency, and suggest Obama’s role in leading the country is singular. Names like Geithner, Axelrod, Emanuel, Gibbs, Plouffe, Pfeiffer, Summers, Pelosi, Baucus, and Reid are virtually unmentioned in these accounts.
Glaude and Dyson are academics, not journalists, and neither man is trying to tell a Bob Woodward-style narrative of the Obama administration. That said, they are oversimplifying Obama’s actions on racial issues by not highlighting the roles of those who influenced, shaped and in some ways set those policies.
Obama didn’t get to the presidency by himself. In late 2006, a number of prominent figures in the Democratic Party, worried Hillary Clinton couldn’t win the general election, urged him to run. Obama’s race helped in some ways, because party officials who were anti-Clinton would not be accused of trying to replace her with a traditional white male candidate.
But Obama was embraced by the overwhelmingly white Democratic establishment because he was already a part of it. The institutions on his resume before the White House included Columbia, Harvard, the University of Chicago and the U.S. Senate.
Obama ran for president aided by a team of veteran political advisers, the plurality of whom were white, and wealthy donors, many of whom worked on Wall Street and in the financial industry.
Obama didn’t promise to reform health care as president simply because he liked the idea. It was essentially a requirement of the Democratic primary in 2008 — if you wanted endorsements from labor unions — to write up a detailed health care proposal and declare it one of your top goals. Liberal-leaning African-American groups didn’t have the sway to make such big demands, and therefore didn’t get major commitments from the candidates.
SOURCE: PERRY BACON JR.