Black Critics and President Obama

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

Cornel West; President Obama (Getty Images)

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.

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.