Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Severe Limits of 'Tough Love' Rhetoric: President Obama Speaks At NAACP Centennial Celebration But Forgets the Larger Context


I have a great deal of personal respect and even admiration for President Obama and was more than happy to firmly support him and his campaign in his quest for the Presidency as you all well know. I am very pleased he was elected (as opposed to McCain). HOWEVER absolutely no one is immune from criticism--especially in politics-- and it is in that mature and engaged spirit that the following remarks are made. As always it is imperative for Barack Obama and the rest of us to fully recognize and acknowledge that HISTORICAL AND SOCIAL CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. To not engage in this critical discourse (both in either provisional support or opposition) is to abdicate our real and paramount responsibility and to act as mere syncophants and mindless cheerleaders instead of truly engaged, intelligent, and informed CITIZENS:

So first with respect to Obama's ongoing, highly suspect, highly selective, and intellectually disingenuous "tough love" speeches to the national black community:


The president, for all of his many obvious gifts and strengths like intelligence, charm, compassion, and savvy, has absolutely no business constantly lecturing black people on what our individual moral and ethical responsibilities and obligations are or should be--especially in absence of a thoroughgoing critique, deep analysis, and active resolution of the massive structural, systemic, and institutional obstacles, problems, and issues facing not merely African Americans but the entire nation and by extension much if not most of the world. It is patently absurd, condescending, and dishonest for Obama to keep telling us what our personal morality should be when at the same time he hasn't done so with respect to White Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans as well. But of course it would be the height of political folly and simpleminded hubris for the President to go around to all the various ethnic and "racial" groups and lecture them on what their moral shortcomings are or are perceived to be. This doesn't mean that the President's "bully pulpit" shouldn't be used from time to time to speak firmly and openly about our collective failures as a nation or to sharply remind us what our obligations and responsibilities are as citizens in the general society (which does indeed sometimes include necessary references to our moral and ethical faults, lapses, breakdowns, and stupidities). Obviously, the President can and must perform this service under certain specific circumstances and situations. But to constantly single out one general national community for what is frankly a rather theatrical and self serving series of public performances and admonitions that too often treats us as a bunch of errant, mischevious children in dire need of Daddy's spankings is not only only deeply insulting but an affront to what the President's relationship to us--and all other American citizens!--should actually be. That relationship is or should be that of a committed politician and public servant engaging and paying attention to its citizenry. After all, Obama is not a preacher/minister/pastor/rabbi and we are not his flock! And thank God/Allah/Buddha for that! The last thing the black community needs at this point in our history is yet still another arrogant preacher and/or fundamentalist and overly self righteous church telling us what to do!

This speech before the NAACP often leaves one with the starkly false impression that every public encounter between our paid professional public servants and the African American population is or should be an endless black Baptist church service. It's hightime that somebody strongly reminded all these politicians--Barack included--that their relationship to African American citizens is that of someone who needs to deal with domestic and foreign public policy matters and concerns in the areas of employment, healthcare, education, housing, social and economic democracy, and corporate responsibility, etc. If Obama wants to lecture a wildly irresponsible and deeply immoral demographic of the American population he needs to seriously go after the corporations, banks, insurance companies, and their 'gangsta' criminal acolytes on Wall Street. I suggest that even there he goes equipped with a detailed political, ideological, and economic agenda of what they need to do to truly "get right" before their fellow citizens (or is that 'suckers'?) and stop trying to resolve his deeply personal conflicts with the memory of his absent father (which in my view is the real source of Obama's ongoing angst and psychological projections in this area). We need a President who will address and try to meet our real needs and desires as citizens in the general society. Our individual moral and ethical responsibilities (which are of course always very real and necessary) are and MUST REMAIN private and not mere rhetorical cannon fodder for the racist media, conservative right wing politicians and pundits of every ethnicity, and perverse entertainment for far too many clueless and ignorant white, Latino, and Asian Americans too caught up in the reactionary throes of racial and ethnic stereotypes and their own twisted allegiance to the deadly lies and distortions of the doctrines of racism and white supremacy to see past the reductive, cynical, and false postures of media soundbites.

I will be writing a much longer and intricate essay on President Obama's NAACP speech and its many implications soon and will share my extended thoughts and feelings with all of you once that piece is completed. But in the meantime I felt deeply that I needed to say what disturbed me about it and what I think our collective response to it--however "well meaning" or even self-serving Obama's actual intentions were or are.


Obama Gives Fiery Address at N.A.A.C.P.

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

President Obama addressed the N.A.A.C.P. convention on the organization's 100th anniversary in New York on Thursday.

Published: July 16, 2009
New York Times

President Obama delivered a fiery sermon to black America on Thursday night, warning black parents that they must accept their own responsibilities by “putting away the Xbox and putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour,” and telling black children that growing up poor is no reason to get bad grades.

President Barack Obama spoke to fellow black Americans during the N.A.A.C.P.'s 100th anniversary convention in New York on Thursday, saying "no one has written your destiny for you."

“No one has written your destiny for you,” he said, directing his remarks to “all the other Barack Obamas out there” who might one day grow up to be president. “Your destiny is in your hands, and don’t you forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children! No excuses! No excuses!”

Mr. Obama spoke for 45 minutes to an audience of several thousand people, most of them black, clad in tuxedos and ball gowns, who had gathered in a ballroom of the Hilton New York to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s largest civil rights organization.

He was one part politician and one part black preacher as he spoke in lilting cadences, his voice quiet at times, thundering at others, in unusually personal terms. At one point, when his audience shouted back at him, repeating his words, he threw back his head and laughed, saying, “I’ve got an amen corner back there.”

Mr. Obama spoke directly about his own upbringing, crediting his mother (who was white) with setting him straight, and departing from his prepared text to talk about how his life might have turned out had she not. “When I drive through Harlem and I drive through the South Side of Chicago and I see young men on the corners,” he said, “I say there but for the grace of God go I.”

It was an unusual moment for a president who has sought to transcend race and has only reluctantly embraced his unique place in history. Six months into his presidency, Mr. Obama has seemed more comfortable embracing his identity as the first black American president overseas than at home, as was the case during his trip to Ghana last week, when he declared, “I have the blood of Africa within me.”

At home, though, Mr. Obama has largely avoided talking about himself in racial terms. As a candidate, he jumped into the issue of race relations when his campaign was threatened by the controversial remarks of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and delivered a pointed speech to black fathers on Father’s Day in 2008.

But the White House was low-key in preparations for the N.A.A.C.P. event. When a reporter tried to cast the speech as Mr. Obama’s first to the black community, the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, demurred, saying, “I think the first speech to black America and the first speech to white America, the first speech to America was the Inaugural Address.”

But there was no mistaking Thursday night that Mr. Obama was speaking directly to black America. In part, it was a policy speech.

Mr. Obama told his audience what it wanted to hear on housing, the criminal justice system, education, health care, and jobs — all issues central to the N.A.A.C.P.’s agenda.

Even as he urged blacks to take responsibility for themselves, he spoke of the societal ills — high unemployment, the housing and energy crisis — that have created the conditions for black joblessness. And he said the legacy of the Jim Crow era is still felt, albeit in different ways today.

“Make no mistake, no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America,” Mr. Obama said, by African-American women who are paid less for the same work as white men, by Latinos “made to feel unwelcome,” by Muslim Americans “viewed with suspicion” and by “our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.”

Mr. Obama paid particular attention to education, declaring that more than 50 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark segregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, “the dream of a world-class education is still being deferred all across this country” as African-American students lag behind white classmates in reading and math.

The organization’s president, Benjamin T. Jealous, said afterward that the address “was the most forthright speech on the racial disparities still plaguing our nation” Mr. Obama has given since moving into the White House.

But as much as a policy speech, it was a personal one. Details of the address were closely held, partly because Mr. Obama was still working on it through the afternoon.

Aides said he intended to make the case for personal responsibility — a frequent theme of his presidency — in the context of the civil rights movement and how it has shaped his own life. But he also wanted to send a message to black parents, and especially to black children.

“They might think they’ve got a pretty jump shot or a pretty good flow,” Mr. Obama said, “but our kids can’t all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne. I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers. I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court justice. I want them aspiring to be president of the United States of America.”