Why Barack Obama can talk about black responsibility, and you can't...

Was just thinking some more on this. I think Barack gets leeway to speak the way he does about race because, to put it bluntly, he knows what he's talking about. I mean this in a very specific personal way. For instance, you can talk about Lil Wayne, when you have Jay-Z on your Ipod, when Nas has a song about you, and you can pull the "dirt of your shoulder" move. You can talk about black kids not obsessing over basketball, when you yourself had to balance basketball with school, and you still play. You can talk about black fathers laying down on the job, when your father laid down on the job, while your father-in-law clearly did not. You can critique black communities up one side and down the other, when you've spent a good part of your adult life organizing and working in those same communities, and when you're married to a black woman.

I'm sad that last one is true, but it is. Also, I'm willing to be that it'd be true of any other ethnic group in the same situation. My point, though, is that, Obama has a sort of credibility that, say, a guy who really had spent no time around black people (and didn't seem particularly interested in being around black people) just doesn't have. Furthermore, Obama isn't saying personal responsibility and no policy. He's talking both. There is a real lesson for black conservatives at think tanks and conservative journals. There's a difference between telling a guy he should focus more on school and less on basketball, when you can actually play one-on-one with him, or debate this years Chicago Bulls, and pushing that same message and then turning around and then, before a mostly white audience, talking about the greatness of Jesse Helms.

A lot of this would melt away if people started looking at Obama in the manner in which he sees himself--a biracial black man. To be a functioning black person, you don't have to grow up in Harlem, you don't have to be unacquainted the Queen's English, and you don't have to love Kool-Aid. You just have to not be disdainful of people BECAUSE they grew up Harlem, don't speak the Queen's English, and happen to like Kool-Aid. There really is only one absolute to being black---You must--MUST I SAY--know how to do the Electric Slide. There's no getting out of that one.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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