During the Democratic National Convention in Denver, I sat on a panel about hip-hop and politics with a number of well-read and highly regarded thinkers in the black community. At one point a fellow panelist commented that it was impossible to criticize Barack without being considered a sellout. That statement inspired a thread of commentary echoing the sentiment.
Let me say this much: I'm a believer in firm critique and the virtues of skepticism toward anyone who holds a position of authority. I publicly disagreed with Obama's FISA vote and his decision to campaign in Indiana as opposed to traveling to Memphis on the anniversary of Dr. King's assassination. But my response to that line was simply to ask: Why it is that a group of progressives would spend about 40 minutes discussing how to critique Barack and virtually no time discussing how to elect him?
Unless John McCain has suddenly become a more attractive option, perhaps those priorities should be shifted.
The GOP has won 7 of the last 10 presidential elections largely because of the success in creating a big tent. They manage, however improbably, to get an unemployed factory worker to vote for the same candidate as the millionaire CEO who just fired him. Progressives, however, have the opposite of a big tent—we have a funnel. We take the broadest possibilities and narrow them down to just a handful of ideologically correct, if absolutely unelectable also, to mitigate the pain of defeat with the balm of our untainted ideals.
I thought about that conversation again, after I heard Cornel West and Julianne Malveaux savage Barack Obama's acceptance speech. Malveaux went hypertensive because Barack never mentioned Dr. King by name (despite the fact that he had two of MLK's children and Rep. John Lewis speak about the March on Washington and that only the absolute dimmest of bulbs could not know who that "young preacher from Georgia" was.) West fulminated that Obama had left out a critique of white supremacy and missed the symbolism of the moment. And worst of all, he noted, "no one was crying."
Between acting in The Matrix and launching his rap career, Cornel West has gone soft around the middle. The kind of symbolism-laden speech he wanted is what candidates give during their inaugurals, not their acceptance speeches—unless they're 15 points up in the polls. Obama is running neck-and-neck with a GOP cadaver, and he was virtually required to give the kind of nuts-and-bolts speech he delivered on Thursday.
In truth, we've been seeing this strand of thought for months among black intellectuals. My friend and brother-in-arms, Mark Anthony Neal, accused Obama of "cheapening his religion" when he resigned from Trinity, but made virtually no mention of the fact that Obama had put his neck on the line by defending Jeremiah Wright in March, only to see Wright and Trinity ignore that gesture, dismiss Barack as a "politician" and repeatedly inject themselves into the campaign. Jesse Jackson threatened to manually castrate Obama for giving a speech that was far more even-handed than the few lines quoted from it suggest and completely in line with a series of "personal responsibility" speeches Jackson himself gave during his 1988 presidential campaign.
Obama has been giving inspirational speeches. He's built an amazing grassroots machine and brought people into active political engagement who had sworn off politics long ago.
But conventions are about winning elections, plain and simple. (That was something that Hillary's most die-hard supporters missed also—their hopes of a nomination fight harked back to an era when conventions actually had something to do with policy. At this point they are closer to Broadway productions, with everyone memorizing their lines and dancing on cue.) There are still heated arguments in smoke-filled rooms—they just take place in May and June, long before the first delegates have even begun packing.
I was hoping that Obama would avoid the kind of emotive speech we all know he can give and deliver exactly what he did: a basic outline of his policy positions. The measure of Obama's connection to those movements West was talking about is not whether he mentions them in his acceptance speech, but whether he prioritizes the progressive civil rights and anti-poverty platform he's outlined in his platform. (Does the fact that he's the only candidate in eons with a program to employ ex-offenders and reduce recidivism or one where poor pregnant women can receive home visits from nurses to reduce infant mortality mean anything to us?)
Perhaps the most biting irony is a kind of reverse affirmative action, where Obama seems to face a higher bar for support than the white candidates who preceded him. The Congressional Black Caucus and black progressives asked virtually nothing from Kerry (at least not publicly) and not much more from Gore, yet a former civil rights attorney who has litigated employment and voting discrimination cases has to pass a "good faith" test.
On some level, you understand the logic of expecting more from your own people, but not the logic that says you should road-block the path to election.
William Jelani Cobb is associate professor of history at Spelman College and author of "The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays." His blog, "The Delegate," appeared on The Root last week.