Black Critics and President Obama

Are African Americans expected to shut up and suffer? That's just not democratic.

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This takes me to the second point. Postracialism is the latest effort to get rid of blackness; it is part of a neoliberal commitment to color-blindness. And it is often used to insulate Obama from criticisms about racial policy. Here, racial distinctiveness is denied. We are all just human beings. And any appeals to race constitute a holdover from a politics of old.

So we're left with the New Deal rhetoric of "lifting all boats" -- a way of talking that is designed, in part, to evade the scorn of Southern Democrats and leaves intact an idea of whiteness that undermines genuine democratic transformation. Obama, when asked to address black suffering, is called the president of all Americans.

Well, damn, aren't we Americans, too? The challenge in such an environment is how to address issues that actually involve race, and to do so without appeals to crude notions of racial solidarity or ideas that all black people hold the same interests because they're black.

This takes me to the last point: that the combination of race loyalty and postracialism effectively banishes black suffering from public view. We see Hispanic organizations demanding the passage of the DREAM Act; we saw the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community push for the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell"; we witnessed the president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, threaten reprisals for those politicians who refused to support labor's agenda.

In none of these instances have we heard as a response to their demands that the president must be seen as the president of all Americans. Nor do we hear that such appeals are remnants of old forms of bad identity politics. And of course, they are identity politics.

What is going on here? One could be a bit cynical and say that this is just plain old politics. Folks are using race loyalty as way to keep black folks in line. So the Rev. Al Sharpton, Tom Joyner and others appeal to black solidarity as a way of shoring up the base. And yet Obama and the Congress don't have to deliver "the goods" because any race-specific policies are rejected out of hand as holdovers from a time long gone. But I want to resist going there ... for now.

What I do know is that folks are really scared to talk about racial inequality in this country. That fear stems from the belief that any effort to address the suffering of black communities directly would trigger deep-seated prejudices that still animate American life. America would lurch even farther to the right and all hell would break loose.

In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk. He dared to take on the power and influence of Booker T. Washington. Du Bois was concerned about Washington's style of leadership. He believed that it undermined democratic life within black communities. Too many cowered before him. Too many stood by silently for fear of reprisal.

Du Bois wrote: "[T]he hushing of the criticism of honest opponents is a dangerous thing ... Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched -- criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led -- this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society."

He was right. What is at stake here is not some idea of race loyalty. Black people are suffering, and we need to engage that suffering publicly and directly. And that isn't an issue of whether someone is black enough. This is about genuine democracy, about holding to account anyone, including ourselves, who fails to muster the moral and political courage to respond to this crisis.