Bring on More Black Blame, Obama

The president's now-predictable bootstrap shtick actually provides uniquely rich fodder for talk about race.

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After all, I'm one of those people who exist in a constant state of frustration about the shallow nature of our nation's discourse around race and the African-American experience in particular. It's frustrating when racism is oversimplified and individualized and when, despite all of the structural issues and all the insight that's available, we still hear the same broken-record focus on sagging pants, violent stereotypes and bad fathers, along with all their "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" rhetorical relatives.

It's all the more distressing when these ideas are perpetuated by a president -- the first black president -- who, I would argue, has demonstrated that he has plenty of capacity to offer a little more sophistication and nuance.

But you know what? I've decided that I'm not going to hold my breath the same way the next time he gives a speech to a black audience. Here's why: These types of tone-deaf (and, some would argue, hypocritical) remarks -- the ones that can make a cheering crowd go kind of uncomfortably silent -- may be jarring and frustrating, but they also provide the basis for a uniquely rich analysis of race and racism.

 

Here's the public debate to which we're normally treated when a racial statement with problematic undertones (or overtones) hits the news: "Paula Deen wants a slavery-themed event. Some say that's racist. Some say it's not. Some say to forgive her. How 'bout that n-word? Bad or not so bad?"

When someone from whom we don't expect much is at the center of a debate, we cover biases and blame, boycotts and black friends. Maybe we unceremoniously place another checkmark in the "Yes, racism still exists" column, in case anyone is keeping score. Because the nature of the wrong is so obvious, no one feels moved to do the work of explaining why.

But when President Obama -- who, we assume, has good intentions and an informed perspective, as well as a deep understanding of the black experience in America (not to mention the attention of the nation) -- falls short, it's a different story. As Politics 365's Lauren Burke put it in her reaction to the speech, "That's the exact same language clowns like Bill O'Reilly use to keep the welfare-queen theme of their southern strategy alive. But I don't care what O'Reilly is doing, I'm sitting here trying to figure out what President Obama is doing."

When we hear something so unsettling from the leader of the free world, there's no room for dismissiveness and no room for mocking. In the case of the March on Washington speech in particular, the response was immediate, emphatic and detailed:

* Burke pointed out in her piece, "It's hard to imagine a similar paragraph directed at any other group of Americans in tone or substance -- let alone one hit by 400 years of injustice."

* The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, who called the version of President Obama revealed through the events "heartbreaking," explained in great detail why he saw the remarks as "using a tank to bravely plow through an army of strawmen."