Over at the mothership, Krissah Thompson has a story examining the lively debate among black Americans regarding how best to criticize Barack Obama—if they do so at all. Her rather didactic thesis:
As the nation's first black president settles into the office, a division is deepening between two groups of African Americans: those who want to continue to praise Obama and his historic ascendancy, and those who want to examine him more critically now that the election is over.
Oh is it? With cameos from bloggers at Jack and Jill Politics, BET host Jeff Johnson, and radio personality Tavis Smiley, Thompson outlines the supposed crisis of the day: How to hate on history? She recounts a major spat from the primary season, between Smiley (watch his interview on “accountability” with The Root here) and the black Americans holding their breath for Obama’s success—citing this as an example of the kind of wrenching dualism that is confounding African Americans interested in progressive politics and community uplift.
My first thought, made more derisively by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Thompson is overly simplistic in her “two kinds of blacks” analysis. Since the election, some folks have already checked out of politics; some are overjoyed at Obama’s actual policy proposals; some are disappointed in his Iraq policy but impressed with his press-conference erudition; some will celebrate Obama no matter what because of the example his cozy, modern nuclear family provides. I could think of lots of other ways to react to Obama’s first months in office.
Interestingly, this same conundrum animated some of the debates at the conference on Black Power and 1968 that I attended last week. University of Maryland Professor Ronald Walters noted that because “without black votes there would be no Barack Obama…that set up tremendous expectations of accountability. So much so that you couldn’t say anything about Barack Obama without getting kicked in the you-know-what,” he said, adding: “You cannot have accountability except when a black person is running.” Well, I think that seems obvious enough—as Johnson says, rather insightfully, “The person that I believe we voted for doesn't want us to continue to celebrate him.” And I think that feeling is more widespread than Thompson suggests.
Further, I just don’t think this has to do with race alone. If there is a hesitancy to criticize, it has more to do with the desire for Democratic unity (and the need for it, as Jonathan Chait points out rather brilliantly) than racial solidarity. Given how many Republicans followed former President Bush off a cliff, it's hard for a committed progressive to know where to draw the line with Obama. Does one bend over backwards to praise Obama’s Recovery Act as the biggest clean energy bill in US history, or decry it as a halfway measure that traded $40 billion in state aid for a few token GOP votes? Do we cheer the sanity of celebrating Muslim democracies or chafe at the dispatch of more troops to Afghanistan? Do we prod Obama on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Or reserve our breath for cheering his formation of the first federally funded national domestic HIV/AIDS campaign in almost twenty years? This awkward little dance is a function of Obama's broad coalition—from socialists to Obamacans—and no one has the perfect pitch yet.
And, just to flog a more general beef I have with "black politics": Anyone who is suddenly serious about accountability ought to make a bigger point of stressing the same principles on the local and congressional level. Barack Obama is not the first black politician to get a cultural bye—countless ineffectual black elected officials skate by in election after election on the strength of their melanin content (ousted Reps. William Jefferson in Louisiana and Al Wynn in Maryland are two examples; there are more). I say let’s get the good ones in office first—then worry about taking potshots.
Because don't think I won't!
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.