Race is the stealth issue as a black president downplays black rights

Obama uses his “black cultural vibe when it serves his purposes” stoking a sense of black pride and community.

"Part of Obama's genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites," writes Coates [AFP]
"Part of Obama's genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites," writes Coates [AFP]

Race is the stealth issue in the political campaign. No one talks about it as if having a mixed race president says it all.

The Republicans prefer coded language. They seek to suppress the black vote at the state level, or make it harder for minorities to register or take part in elections but always with the claim that they are defending the integrity of the electoral process by blocking voter fraud – a problem that didn’t really exist until they decided to make it an issue.

The Democrats are also nervous to be too explicit about race for fear of a backlash, especially if Obama gets cast as an “angry black man”. To avoid that racially tinged stereotype, many in the black community say he must pull his punches, avoid sharp counter-attacks and wait for his adversary to make mistakes.

Writing on Dominon in Huffington Post‘s Black Voices section, Kelly Virella asked why Obama seemed to go soft on his opponent in the recent debate.

“A lot of black people in social media are saying it’s because the President has to avoid looking like an angry black man. No one (and by no one, they mean white people) wants the specter of a black man threatening or sassing the good, smart white businessman who only wants what’s best for us. Sigh.”

Other writers suggest that there is still a great deal of fear of a black president and perhaps fear by a black president as well. That may be why he has appointed a limited number of African Americans to high office and avoids racially conscious statements unless he is at an all black event, as he was at Harlem’s Apollo theatre where he chose to sing an Al Green song and play to a “just-us” vibe. Presidents are also actors, we must remember and always customising their performances to different constituencies. (Bill Clinton was a master of that manoeuver.) 

Black cultural vibe

Obama uses his black cultural vibe when it serves his purposes stoking a sense of black pride and community, but it is his low profile on issues that the black community is angry about like disproportionate joblessness, continuing discrimination and the growth of incarceration rates for black youth that makes many blacks feel betrayed. 

Another black writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has written that Obama has to tread lightly on what are perceived as black issues and avoid situations that could rebound against him as did his membership in Reverend Wright’s black liberation-oriented church in Chicago. Many felt he then threw Wright, who had been his preacher and patron, “under the bus” to craft a non-racial image even after using him first to gain the black community and “street cred” that his Harvard credentials contradicted.

Yet, his real target was never getting blacks comfortable with him. He knew he would have their loyalties.

“Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites,” writes Coates. 

“Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.” (Roker is a popular but totally apolitical black TV weatherman.)

I appear regularly on Reverend Jesse Jackson’s weekly Keep Hope Alive Radio show where many callers ventilate frustrations about Obama’s lack of responsiveness to black concerns, but, then, when he is attacked by white politicians, they rally to his defence. Veteran civil rights organiser Jackson is careful not to publicly criticise him, even as he has clearly been pushed away by Obama’s more centrist advisers who identify more with a middle class  professional elite and want him to as well. 

The far right still charges that Obama was not born in America or was/is a communist/Muslim terrorist/Kenyan radical etc. Those charges are belied by Obama’s style and quiet conservatism and do not seem to have been accepted beyond the ranks of the haters and harassers. 

At the same time, leading black intellectuals like Cornel West, Travis Smiley and Glenn Ford of the Black Agenda Report are so sour on the President conservatism and opportunism, and accuse him of not just betraying the black community but all of his supporters. They are critical on every front about what Obama hasn’t done,  as well as  his hardline foreign policy, wars, drones, and pandering to dictators and Israeli leaders. 

“Presidents are also actors, we must remember and always customising their performances to different constituencies.”

Invisible debate 

This often invisible debate within the black community has worked its way into mainstream outlets and black publications like The Root where David Swerdlick wrote:

“There’s no shortage of folks who say that President Barack Obama – our first black president – hasn’t done enough for African Americans. So to help them out, I’ll sum up exactly what Obama has done for black people: 

Nothing. And that’s exactly the way it should be.”

But, not according to Columbia University’s Fredrick Harris, who wrote at great length in the Washington Post that “far from giving black America greater influence in US politics, Obama’s ascent to the White House has signaled the decline of a politics aimed at challenging racial inequality head-on”.

In other words, a President seen as a symbol of civil rights progress has become the very person who has dampened the civil rights movement, giving ammunition to critics of those citing racial grievances as racist, or dismissing them for using what’s called “the race card”, however legitimate their concerns.

I wonder how Martin Luther King would have considered how black consciousness is now dismissed as a playing “card”.

Post-racial is in at the highest level of our government and black identity is out, at least publicly. Race & Class magazine says it is deliberate:

“Obama is fully aware of what he’s doing when he doesn’t mention race or racism. As someone who attended an African American church on the South Side of Chicago, listened to the weekly sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright for years and knows his wife’s working class family’s origins, Obama decided that not talking about racial divisions, especially to Congress, is the ‘safe’ way forward.”

Playing it safe is often an Obama characteristic but it is this larger media influenced cultural context, and not just Obama’s clear decision to downplay race, that explains the irony of a black President marginalising, rather than leading, the struggle for black rights.

News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at newsdissector.net. His most recent books are Blogothon and Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street. He hosts a radio show on ProgresiveRadioNetwork (PRN.fm). Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org.

Follow him on Twitter: @dissectorevents

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