Black Critics and President Obama

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

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Cornel West; President Obama (Getty Images)

Black America finds itself in an unusual moment. By any measure, many of our communities are suffering heavily during this economic downturn. Black unemployment is officially at 16.1 percent (some believe the real number hovers around 28 percent, making nearly one-third of black America jobless). Even those who have been fortunate to keep their jobs have seen their weekly wages decline.

The foreclosure crisis has also disproportionately affected black communities -- we are 70 to 80 percent more likely to have lost our homes. And it is well known now that there is a direct correlation between racist lending practices and the vulnerability of our communities to foreclosure.

Faced with failing schools (while we wait for Superman) and the destabilizing effects of the prison industrial complex (nearly 1 million of us are locked up; families are destroyed as the rate of black female incarceration skyrockets, leaving many of our children languishing as wards of the state), entire communities -- even entire cities -- have been engulfed in what seems to be spiraling cycles of misery and hopelessness.

And yet we find ourselves embroiled in a heated public debate over whom to hold accountable for the failure to address these conditions. Recently, Cornel West offered a strident critique of President Obama's relative silence on this matter. For him, the president has failed to address substantively the conditions of the poor and the most vulnerable in our society. Instead, West maintains, Obama has been too concerned with appeasing the robber barons on Wall Street.

Many took offense, not only with the personal nature of the criticism but also with the fact that West dared to criticize the president at all. Some African Americans hold the view that this only contributes to right-wing attacks against Obama, making him vulnerable in 2012. Others believe that such criticisms betray an unreasonable expectation that Obama owes something to the black community because he is the first black president -- a troublesome black identity politics, they might say.

Worries about Democrats closing ranks for an upcoming election seem, to me, at least, to be a perennial (and uninteresting) concern. I am more interested in the underlying anxiety about black people criticizing Obama. It is as if we are being told to keep our mouths shut.

Three points need to be made about this issue. First, the challenge to black criticism of Obama reveals the persistence of a certain form of black identity politics. What is at work here is a startling effort to police black dissent in the name of race loyalty. This may be rooted in very different sensibilities.

There are those, as Gary Younge notes in the Nation, who hold that presidents, generally, do not affect their conditions of living. And if we are going to have a president, it might as well be a black one, and we should support him no matter the concrete realities of black communities. American politics don't work, and Barack Obama can't change that fact. One could view this as race loyalty from below.

Others maintain that support of Obama reflects a commitment to racial advancement. To criticize him is, in effect, to turn one's back on the black freedom struggle of which Obama is the culmination. One might think of this as racial loyalty from above. It is the latest version of racial uplift rooted in a particular black-elite aspiration to hold on to the levers of power.

In both instances, criticisms of the president by black people are met with impatience or fierce condemnation. Race loyalty joins with a lingering commitment among the broader public to postracialism.

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