09 August 2012

Is 'black America' missing a President?

A small controversy has been stirred up among African-American opinionators by the President's statement in an interview with Black Enterprise magazine that "I'm not the president of black America. I'm the president of the United States of America." He went on to argue that his policies have been a "huge benefit" for blacks because they've targeted "those folks who are least able to get financing through conventional means, who have been in the past locked out of opportunities that were available to everybody." Nevertheless, his interview proved controversial less because of what he said than because people hear or read it through semantic filters of inclusion and exclusion. The obvious implication of the President's quote was that "black America" was included in "the United States," though it was also a reassurance, I presume, to readers outside the black community that his policies were not designed to benefit "black America" exclusively at the expense of the nation as a whole. Non-black readers probably understood what he was trying to say, whether they chose to believe him or not. But some black readers don't take the inclusive implication for granted. The opinionators who've criticized the President this time (here's one example; read the comments for more) see his statement as a fresh if not redundant illustration of Obama's failure -- or, worse, his refusal -- to acknowledge blacks as a specific constituency with specific concerns to be addressed. They compare Obama's attitude toward blacks unfavorably with his solicitude towards homosexuals, in his promotion of marriage-equality and equal rights in the military, and undocumented immigrants, in many forms. His endeavors on behalf of these groups don't seem to force a choice on his own part between being President of all the people and being "President of gay America" or "President of immigrant America." Yet critics perceive, though most understand his reasons, an unjustified reticence on Obama's part in publicizing persistent injustices faced particularly by blacks and or promoting remedies to them. In short, those who criticize Obama believe that "black America" still has claims on justice of equal urgency or priority to those pressed by the constituencies the President seems less embarrassed to embrace. For some of these critics, the idea that Obama is addressing those claims in some stealth fashion seems disrespectful. Others may believe that economic policies have little to do with the justice issues that the President has seemed not to raise. Either way, they feel excluded, taken for granted, etc., just as they do when the Democrats show them a white face. Dr. Boyce Watkins gets to the heart of blacks' dilemma in terms familiar to any reader of this blog.

The saddest thing about the experience of the black political orphans in America is that when you ask them why they support the Obama administration, a large majority of them can only say "they're better than the Republicans." That's like a wife saying "I'll never divorce my husband because he's better than the man who used to beat me."... The very same broken, two party political system that the Obama Administration complains about is the one that's keeping them in power. The black vote is held hostage with fear of a Republican presidency, not hope for a better future. Rather than being able to point to any evidence that black quality of life has improved over the last four years, they simply win the black vote by default. There is not much to celebrate about that and more should be expected from any politician who asks us for so much.

According to Watkins, Bipolarchy allows Obama to exploit black voters -- the "so much" Obama asks "us" for is votes --  without having to earn their support. But despite what black critics may see as their typically unique mistreatment by a politician, almost every constituent group within a major-party coalition can make similar complaints, albeit with different degrees of vehemence. As long as they all play the two-party game there'll always be a moment -- except perhaps for the money powers -- when the party tells them that they have to settle for what the party deems sufficient, or else take their chances with the unendurable rule of the Other Party. You can almost certainly find people within the constituencies blacks take to be Obama's pets who feel that he could do more for them and is cynically manipulating them, or taking their votes for granted. If some blacks think they can get a better deal by breaking the Bipolarchy, they'd be wise to recognize the dissatisfied expectations of other groups, even if they feel that none can be as dissatisfied or as rightly expectant as they. If they have no other platform than "blacks first in line for justice," I won't like their chances of winning elections. They're not the only people demanding justice, nor the only ones who see themselves neglected by the establishment, and they won't change American politics demanding only justice for their own, on their own. If their criticisms of Obama are grounded in a commitment to justice for all, and not in some sort of justice-envy, they might have the makings of a movement not just for the good of black America, but for the good of the United States of America.

1 comment:

Aaron Christiansen said...

There should be no such thing as "black America". People on both sides of the aisle need to STOP bringing race and/color into this. You are either an American or you are not. Skin color has nothing to do with it. There are "black" conservatives as well as "white" people living in ghettoes.
The issues are quite simple: Should one class of people have the right to dominate all aspects of our lives. Should we continue to allow the exploitation of everyone and everything for the benefit of a relatively few "privileged" families? Should we continue to allow religion to have any political power when that power is used to take rights away from those who choose NOT to accept religious "family values". And what should be done to stop the exploitation, alienation and disenfranchisement of American citizens by other American citizens?