What’s Wrong with Obama’s Speeches on Race

(cross posted at Forbes Avenue)

Well, first. There are so few.

No, seriously — let me start by saying that the fact that we have a president who talks about race seriously at all is a huge step in the right direction.

That said, I am frequently distressed by what the president actually says when he does speak about race. Because I think he is (perhaps unintentionally) intellectually dishonest about how race truly operates, what life is actually like as a Black person, and what it will take to really create equality of opportunity and an equitable division of resources (which are two very different things that require two separate, but specific, approaches).

Unlike most people, I thought the Philadelphia speech was terrible, ahistorical, and dangerous. I thought in his attempt to appeal to both White and Black, he made a crucial mistake that many people make when discussing race — equating Black and White feelings about, and experiences with, race symmetrically. Meaning White people’s resentment at Black progress was the same as Black frustration with being oppressed.

Simply – though both are legitimate, they are not equal.

To suggest, as he did, that they are, I think is dangerous. I think it contributes to a feeling of fatigue in America. Fatigue with remedies for past wrongs. Fatigue with talking about Black people when we can talk about White people. Fatigue fatigue fatigue.

This is perhaps unavoidable. He is a politician and there are many more White people than there are Black people. He must say what will allow him to stay in power and do what he wants to do to help everyone. I get that.

But because race operates the way it does, what any prominent Black person says carries enormous weight. In this case, what he’s saying is incredibly detrimental to a concerted, real fight to end racism (it’s great, if you’re goal is bettering race relations…but yea, that’s a different goal).

We’ve got to find language that talks honestly, directly, and passionately to the specific and unique experience of being Black in America without it being assumed that, by doing so, we ignore everyone else.

I think Obama attempts to find this language in his speech before the NAACP last week:

The first thing we need to do is make real the words of your charter and eradicate prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination among citizens of the United States. I understand there may be a temptation among some to think that discrimination is no longer a problem in 2009. And I believe that overall, there’s probably never been less discrimination in America than there is today.

But make no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America. By African-American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and gender. By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country. By Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion for simply kneeling down to pray. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.

On the 45th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, discrimination must not stand. Not on account of color or gender; how you worship or who you love. Prejudice has no place in the United States of America.

But we also know that prejudice and discrimination are not even the steepest barriers to opportunity today. The most difficult barriers include structural inequalities that our nation’s legacy of discrimination has left behind; inequalities still plaguing too many communities and too often the object of national neglect.

Lovely language, but later in the speech he says something he’s never really said before:

We need a new mindset, a new set of attitudes – because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way that we have internalized a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little of ourselves. (emphasis mine)

This is the part of the speech that has been missing from all his other speeches regarding race. And boy – it’s beautiful to see. Even more beautiful to listen to.

See, the problem I’ve always had with Black conservatism, particularly as embodied in Obama, is the silly belief that Black self-reliance is so Herculean that it can fix all problems that Black folks face. They didn’t always pay the proper attention to just how damaged Black folks really are.

Here though, Obama nods at something that few public Black figures speak enough on – the psychic dimension of racism. He acknowledges that so much of what being Black is is about wrestling with a legacy of racism that manifests in subtle, specific ways all damn day long. That takes its toll on a person.

The problem then, in this speech, is that he doesn’t expound on this idea more. He doesn’t talk about the daily bombardment with anti-black images and ideas that black folks have to deal with. He doesn’t talk about the fact that Black boys do well until about 4th grade and that it could have something to do with the fact that a racist White America is still largely in charge of his education.

But he does immediately follows it up with the usual, “get off your ass and change,” undercutting the weight and importance of his statement about the psychic damage of racism. So much so, that no one has mentioned it.


Were it that easy for us to collectively pick ourselves up, dust off the racism and keep it moving, we’d have done it long ago.

The sad truth is that even if you work really hard and play by the rules all the time, as a Black person, you are still more likely to “fail.” Even if you “succeed,” you have to be like Obama and pretend that you aren’t the exception that proves the rule that you are.

Either road isn’t good for Black psyches. Either road perpetuates the dominant narrative that if there is a problem in Black communities, it’s Black folks’ fault. Either road doesn’t eradicate racism.

Continuing to deny that Black people are profoundly damaged, that life is hard for us no matter how “well” we do, that the end of Jim Crow, slavery and lynching isn’t the same as the end of racism, that the burden for ending racism has as much to do with White folks as Black folks will doom us to repeat the past.

As evidenced by Pat Buchanan’s unrepentant racism, the tea parties, caricatures of the First Family, racism is alive and well. Resurging, even. Now might be a good time to start talking about it for real.

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