You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What Are President Obama’s Black Critics Talking About?

The idea that Barack Obama has let black America down can be sonorous, as attested to by a recent article by Columbia’s Frederick Harris in the New York Times and Cornel West’s long-established critique of the President. It is also backwards.

Voting for Obama on the basis of his commitment to black America is a questionable premise to begin with. But for those who subscribe to it, there shouldn’t be any doubt President has more than earned the black vote. Oddly, this is harder to see for many of black America’s deepest thinkers than for the ordinary folks on whose behalf they claim to write.

The fashionable take is that Obama has not wanted to seem too “racial.” And that’s true: He hasn’t. Yet it would have been a futile and even tacky thing for him to even try.

For one, black people are not the only ones in America with serious problems today. The idea that black people remain the country’s poster children, a standing indictment of America’s civic morality requiring special address with all deliberate speed, is obsolete.

That’s not because it “got old,” but because of statistical realities. Teenage pregnancy is down among black girls since the nineties, and single motherhood is becoming as common among poorer whites as blacks and Latinos: family breakdown is no longer a “colored” problem. The dropout rate among Latino youth is higher than among black youth. It’s true that black unemployment rates are 13 percent compared to 7 percent of whites. However, in this grim recession, amidst which Americans of all colors including prosperous ones typically know several people who are out of work, it is hardly unjust that few Americans will process the black unemployment rate as demanding separate attention.

Meanwhile, we have a President who has touted extra billions of dollars to community colleges; has states competing for Race To The Top funds to improve public schools where No Child Left Behind failed; has barnstormed the country pushing a jobs bill, and created the beginnings of a national health care system after 70 years of failed attempts. On what basis is this not a pro-black President? Have the results been dramatic? No—but a Republican establishment bent on keeping Obama from accomplishing a single thing has played a certain role in that. How Obama was supposed to have “blacked” his way past this obstructionism is decidedly unclear.

Most of black America understands this. When black people (and countless others) took to the streets over the Trayvon Martin controversy this spring, there were those asked why black America sits silent over black people murdering other black people. Yet in fact, black people stage “Stop the Violence” protests against the gangbangers infesting their neighborhoods all the time, as Ta-Nehisi Coates, with whom I agree quite seldom, deftly illustrated.

This illustrates what’s off in Obama’s black critics’ take on black America in 2012. Black people know racism exists, but also know that today black America’s problems are as much cultural as structural. It’s a cliché on black talk radio and barbecue conversations that “It isn’t anybody white shooting all these people in our streets,” and that there isn’t much that a President could do, black or not, to turn such things around. The black barbershop reality—and I’m basing this on actual time getting my hair cut in them—is that for every guy complaining “Obama ain’t done nothin’ for us,” there are three who object “Come on man, he’s the President of America, not black America!”

In other words, once you get beyond a segment of the ivory tower and scattered fellow travelers, most black people know that black America’s problems are not all about racism—institutional or not—the way they were fifty years ago. Obama indicates that he understands this in his speeches to black audiences urging responsibility—which black audiences eat up, Jesse Jackson’s suggestions of genital mutilation aside.

It would seem that those who still can’t help wishing Obama had done something “blacker” feel that anything of true import on racial justice must entail a certain drama. These people yearn for a new Civil Rights catharsis: marches, fury, craven whites forced to cave in. But what if after all of that happened once, the rest of the way to the mountaintop will be about incremental steps forward (and occasional ones backward)? What about when black problems gradually become ever less distinguishable in degree from those of other groups, such that the issue becomes more one of—gasp—class than race?

We’re there already. This kind of analysis, which gained ground this year with Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and last year with Occupy Wall Street, gets the usual suspects’ hackles up. But in the end, this is less because of empiricism than discomfort with idea of race losing its primacy to class in the national conversation. That discomfort is predictable, but turfiness cannot dictate how we address injustice.

Given that the usual suspects tend to wax indignant that black people are stereotyped as poor, might it not be time to welcome, rather than look askance upon, a new agenda in which America sees “poor” as multihued? Or, the usual suspects will claim that the impending demise of race-based Affirmative Action in university admissions is a reversal of the Civil Rights victories. But in the history books, it is they who will look peculiar in their dismay at a policy aimed at taking disadvantage into account rather than skin color.

The idea that Obama has not been a meaningfully “black” President applies the politics of 1966 to a very different America. To most it will seem tinny, and it should. Barack Obama has been an okay President and, within that, as okay a black one as he possibly could have been. Hopefully, he will get a chance to improve in both realms starting next year.