Color-Blind Policy and Color-Conscious Morality

The morality of meth addiction isn't relevant to Appalachian poverty. The morality of alcoholism isn't relevant to Native American disenfranchisement. So why frame the black community's problems as moral failings?
More

I wanted to circle back to a post I wrote some weeks ago looking at the ways in which the president addresses black America. (Here are two critiques of that piece from Andrew Sullivan and Jim Fallows.) One reason I've focused on the ways racism perpetuates itself in seemingly color-blind policy is to challenge the theory that a rising tide lifts all boats. I think it is important to raise such a challenge as we consider a president who generally advocates for for color-blind policies while arguing for a color-conscious morality.


To wit, here is the president in 2007 at Brown Chapel A.M.E in Selma:

But I'll tell you what -- even as I fight on behalf of more education funding, more equity, I have to also say that, if parents don't turn off the television set when the child comes home from school and make sure they sit down and do their homework and go talk to the teachers and find out how they're doing, and if we don't start instilling a sense in our young children that there is nothing to be ashamed about in educational achievement, I don't know who taught them that reading and writing and conjugating your verbs was something white.
Here is the president in 2008 in Chicago:

Yes, we need more money for our schools, and more outstanding teachers in the classroom, and more afterschool programs for our children. Yes, we need more jobs and more job training and more opportunity in our communities.But we also need families to raise our children. We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child -- it's the courage to raise one... It's up to us -- as fathers and parents -- to instill this ethic of excellence in our children. It's up to us to say to our daughters, don't ever let images on TV tell you what you are worth, because I expect you to dream without limit and reach for those goals. It's up to us to tell our sons, those songs on the radio may glorify violence, but in my house we give glory to achievement, self respect, and hard work. It's up to us to set these high expectations.
Here is the president again in 2008:

We cannot use injustice as an excuse. We can't use poverty as an excuse. There are things under our control that we've got to attend to.
In 2008 at the NAACP convention:

That's why if we're serious about reclaiming that dream, we have to do more in our own lives, our own families, and our own communities. That starts with providing the guidance our children need, turning off the TV, and putting away the video games; attending those parent-teacher conferences, helping our children with their homework, and setting a good example.
In 2009 at the NAACP convention:

To parents -- to parents, we can't tell our kids to do well in school and then fail to support them when they get home. (Applause.) You can't just contract out parenting. For our kids to excel, we have to accept our responsibility to help them learn. That means putting away the Xbox -- (applause) -- putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour. (Applause.)
In 2009:

And I've said it before and I know I may sound like a broken record, but I'm going to say it again: Government alone cannot get our children to the Promised Land. (Applause.) Government can't put away the PlayStation. .. These are things only a mother can do and a father can do. These are things that a parent can do. (Applause.)
And so it goes. I think Barack Obama's defense of his rhetoric would be something like the following: "I am very much aware of the country's long history of racist public policy, a history whose effects continue today. But doing more about those effects requires a political will than cannot be mustered in a country populated by people who have long endorsed those policies. Thinking in a globally competitive context, it is critically important that African-American not just close the achievement gap but excel. We are now in a situation where we have only ourselves to depend on."This is the theory of "Twice as Good," and it has great currency in the African-American community. You can read my thoughts on "Twice as Good" in this essayish profile of Bill Cosby. Toward the end of my reporting, Cosby said something that sticks with me even today:

If you looked at me and said, 'Why is he doing this? Why right now?,' you could probably say, 'He's having a resurgence of his childhood.' What do I need if I am a child today? I need people to guide me. I need the possibility of change. I need people to stop saying I can't pull myself up by my own bootstraps. They say that's a myth. But these other people have their mythical stories -- why can't we have our own?"
I read that and it still stirs me today, in much the same way that Obama's speech stirred Morehouse. The most motivating feature of "Twice as Good" is that it promises agency -- a world where we need not plead and cajole, where we do not have to get our head cracked in order to get white people to do the right thing. When Barack Obama makes a moral appeal, he is not performing a Sista Souljah tactic. He is speaking sincere beliefs that run deep in his community. I happen to think those beliefs elide some difficult truths about the nature of power.
 
In the case of the president, I think they elide the fact that there are actual policy steps he could be taking and isn't. I think yesterday's post on marijuana busts really brings this home. You will not find me among those arguing for deadbeat dads. But putting away the X-Box will not change those incredible arrest numbers. Policy will. As it stands, the president is on the wrong side of that policy:

Recently, there have been increasing efforts to legalize marijuana. The Obama administration has consistently reiterated its firm opposition to any form of drug legalization. Together with Federal partners and state and local officials, the Office of National Drug Control Policy is working to reduce the use of marijuana and other illicit drugs through development of strategies that fully integrate the principles of prevention, treatment, recovery, and effective supply reduction efforts. Proposals such as legalization that would promote marijuana use are inconsistent with this public health and safety approach
Beyond that, I would argue that the current black predicament did not arise because black people lacked sufficient moral will. I would argue that we recognize this in other communities and their own predicaments. It would not be productive for the president to go before a white working-class Appalachian audience and say, "We know that economic unfairness exists, and has long existed, but government programs won't keep your kids off meth and painkillers." The fact that meth and painkiller addiction is higher in those communities, that one in ten kids born in Appalachia was born addicted to drugs, would not be seen as relevant to, say, a jobs program.

Nor would it be productive or wise for the president to go before a primarily Hispanic audience and say "We know that the DREAM Act is the right thing to do, but what you really need to do is keep your babies from having more babies." The fact that the Hispanic community has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country would not be seen as relevant to, say, immigration reform.

And it would not be productive or wise for the president to go before an audience of Native Americans and say, "Yes, this country stole your land and prosecuted a ruthless war against you, but what would really help now is if you stopped your kids from drinking so much." The high rate of alcoholism among Native Americans would not be seen as relevant. And as I've said, it would not be wise for the president to go to Newtown and point to the absence of active fatherhood in the life of Adam Lanza.

But for some reason all of these kinds of statements are appropriate in the black community. Not because of higher rates of anything, and it not even because the president is black. They're seen as appropriate because there a deep belief -- even among black people -- that morality lies at the seat of our troubles. This is why Bill Clinton, in 1993, delivered this speech in Memphis, where he attempted to speak as a modern day Martin Luther King:

"I fought for freedom," he would say, "but not for the freedom of people to kill each other with reckless abandon, not for the freedom of children to impregnate each other with babies and then abandon them, nor for the freedom of adult fathers of children to walk away from the children they created and abandon them, as if they didn't amount to anything."
He would say, "This is not what I lived and died for. I fought to stop white people from being so filled with hate that they would wreak violence on black people. I did not fight for the right of black people to murder other black people on a daily basis. "
This is very similar to the kind of appeal Barack Obama makes when he addresses black audiences today. The neighborhoods where black people shoot at each other are the work of racist social engineering. We know this. But we do not say it, because there is almost no political upside. Instead we hand-wave at racism and pretend that individual black morality might overcome many centuries of wrong:

Folks are complaining about the quality of our government, I understand there's something to be complaining about. I'm in Washington. I see what's going on. I see those powers and principales have snuck back in there, that they're writing the energy bills and the drug laws. We understand that, but I'll tell you what. I also know that, if cousin Pookie would vote, get off the couch and register some folks and go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics.
But Cousin Pookie did vote -- at historic levels, no less. And Cousin Pookie's preferred candidate has taken that vote and continued about the business of busting all the other Pookies out there for things the candidate did in his youth. And those busts are happening at rates well beyond Pookie's other American neighbors. There is no reason to think this will change any time soon. That saddens me. 

I don't think I'll be breaking any news by pointing out that I'm a fan of the president. And I am not a fan simply because he is black and smart. We have a lot of that. I am a fan of his uncommon imagination. I am thinking of that moment in his address on drone policy a few weeks ago when the president was heckled. Instead of shouting down the protester, he acknowledged her point. And it's not so much that this acknowledgment reflected some deep insight, it was that it was the kind of generosity and wisdom that we are not used to seeing from those who wield existential power. And this actually extends to race. Whatever my critique of his 2008 race speech (and I have one), it's very hard to argue that -- within the context of American history -- the speech is not an incredible document. (Very few Americans even know what redlining is.) 

My disappointment with how Obama addresses black people originates in the fact that I believe he, quite literally, knows better and could do better. It is not enough to point out that crowds of black people cheer him on. Greatness demands that you not just make people cheer, that you not just grant them "Oh my people" catharsis, but that you make them think. This is about legacy. This is about asking whether "First Black President" will simply be an accidental honorific. 

I think back to Barack Obama's favorite president -- Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is my favorite, too. What I remember about Lincoln is that, in his last public speech, he committed himself to suffrage for black men who'd fought for their freedom in the Civil War. This would have been (and eventually was) a major step in the long war toward true democracy. The next day, Lincoln was shot for his willingness to make that step. He is my favorite for more than his ability to forge compromise. He is my favorite because he is, at the end of the day, a man who laid down his life in a war against our greatest illness -- white supremacy.

What does such a legacy call those of us who admire Lincoln to then do? Is it enough to make the kind of individual moral appeals we hear at family reunions and church services every year? Is it enough to simply speak words that make those who love us most cheer? Or all we ultimately called to something more?

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

From This Author

Just In