In my previous post, I took up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “Fear of a Black President,” writing that “Obama has at best settled for accommodation — for telling us what too many of us want to hear, and for not telling us what we don’t want to hear,” and concluding “As Coates suggests elsewhere in his essay, there are interesting parallels with Obama in America’s past.” To wit:
“[Obama's] approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity.”
That sounds about right to me — extremely sad, at best, but about right: someone who (despite slogans of “Hope” and “Change”) routinely settled for a situation instead of setting out to fundamentally change it.
Sad at best, because Obama has considerably less justification for cautious, tactical, “temperamental” conservatism than Booker T. Washington had. And unlike Booker T. Washington’s constituency, 21st century Democrats have considerably less justification for settling for it either. Washington was an unofficial leader of a besieged, impoverished people facing not only the daily indignities of prejudice and racism, but brutal ethnic cleansings, unspeakable lynchings, widespread debt peonage and a vicious convict labor prison gulag. It wasn’t that unreasonable to prefer cautiously building strength to the shorter, more dangerous choice of confrontation.*
Obama, by contrast, is the President of the United States of America; he took office after an electoral landslide that solidified his party’s control of both houses of Congress; he was inaugurated before an adoring, mobilized throng of millions. The ongoing ‘racialization’ political handicap that Coates discusses is no figment of the imagination – but it also can not have suddenly become a decisive handicap to President Obama’s political ambitions once he had reached the Oval Office.
Mr. Obama Goes to Washington
Instead, it’s fair to reflect (yet again) on what, precisely, those ambitions are or ever were — not for high office, but for what Obama would do and how he would do it when he got there. David Sirota’s 2006 piece “Mr. Obama Goes To Washington” remains one of the most useful analyses of that question. In Sirota’s judgment,
…[Obama] appears to be interested in fighting only for those changes that fit within the existing boundaries of what’s considered mainstream in Washington, instead of using his platform to redefine those boundaries. This posture comes even as polls consistently show that Washington’s definition of mainstream is divorced from the rest of the country’s (for example, politicians’ refusal to debate the war even as polls show that Americans want the troops home).
This being a time when he was still courting progressive voters, Obama valiantly… tried to have it both ways. Sirota reports:
““You should always assume that when I cast a vote or make a statement it is because it is what I believe in,” he said. “The thing that bothers me is the assumption that if I make a judgment that’s different from yours, then it must mean I am less progressive or my goals are different, meaning I must be not really committed to helping people but rather I am trying to triangulate or drift toward the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council].”
My takeaway from Obama’s statement (and the ensuing 6 years) is therefore that when Obama adopts some neoliberal Beltway conventional wisdom, then that’s what he believes in — and meanwhile he’d like us to believe his goals are ours.
The trouble for Obama is that now that he’s president, the “shared goals” part is easier to disprove, starting with the extrajudicial drone assassinations and terror strikes Coates put front and center in his own essay. The Obama administration has also given up on any prosecution of torturers; it’s allowing detainees to rot and die in indefinite detention –uncharged, unprosecuted, even approved for release. It has engaged in unprecedented, punitive investigations, harrassment, and prosecutions of national security journalists and whistleblowers. It has pushed for renewals of the egregious PATRIOT and FISA Amendment Acts. And Obama notoriously co-designed and then signed the NDAA and its indefinite detention provisions — with the signing conveniently timed for the evening of New Year’s Eve, 2011.
And even if you’re bored with mere human rights, civil liberties, or rule of law issues, there are plenty of bread and butter reasons to be skeptical of Obama’s leadership and policies, or even outraged by them: income inequality growth that was worse under Obama than Bush; a pitiful mortgage relief program intended to “foam the runway” for banks instead providing real relief to struggling homeowners — and intentionally leaving $300 million in potential mortgage relief unspent; a White House triumphantly touting a debt ceiling agreement that “Reduces Domestic Discretionary Spending to the Lowest Level Since Eisenhower” — at just the time when Keynesian domestic spending was urgently needed to revive a strangled economy; taking Bush era tax cuts off the table prior to the 2010 election; repeatedly putting Social Security and Medicare benefits ‘on the table.’
Indeed, where at least “economic progress in exchange for political impotence was the touchstone of Washington’s creed,” as W.E.B. Du Bois biographer David Lewis has put it*, Obama’s bargain may be the preservation, even exacerbation of a failing economic and political status quo in return for his own political stature — but ongoing progressive/liberal impotence.
I think the common denominators are more important, though: elite support for the political aspirations of a conveniently conservative, charismatic black leader. In both cases, the rise to fame and power began with a nationally celebrated speech, one that served constituents less than the speaker’s own relentless climb up the ladder.
In Washington’s case, it was his 1895 Atlanta Cotton Exposition speech — an eloquent call for racial peace, an argument to focus on economic growth …but arguably also a surrender speech to white supremacy. Not surprisingly, Washington was suddenly white America’s — and (thanks in part to the “without strikes and labor wars” line) especially white business America’s — favorite black spokesman. Washington was able to set up an increasingly powerful nationwide black political machine from his desk at Tuskegee Institute, fueled by the dollars of magnates like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, John Wanamaker, and George Eastman, to name a few. Benefactors and recipient shared a common outlook on what to do with those dollars: hire or support those who didn’t rock the racial boat, deny those, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who would not accept long term second class citizenship, social inequality, and racial terror.
Similarly, Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address launched Obama onto the national stage. And in retrospect, like Washington’s Atlanta speech, it succeeded less by telling hard truths than by flattering its listeners that the country was basically fine, they were basically what was right with it, Obama was basically the proof, and all that was required was pretending we all agreed with each other. The upshot was to “affirm the greatness of our Nation” in light of Obama’s own “unlikely” and “improbable” presence on the podium, and (just as Washington established in his 1901 autobiography ‘Up From Slavery’) in light of his compelling biography.
There’s another parallel between Booker T. and Barack H. that’s closely connected to the elite support they received: their frequent validations of outsider critiques of and attacks on their constituencies. Even Jesus just said “turn the other cheek” – he didn’t say “agree with the one who slaps you.”
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