Black Nationalism for White People

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In midst of debating Obama's rhetoric yesterday, this line really struck me:


I am invested in, and emotionally responsive, to the idea of black people doing for themselves.

Yes. So many of us are. Including me. You can scroll back through the archives and look at my response to Obama's Father's Day speech, to his speech to the NAACP, and his invocation of personal responsibility. For those of us of a particular quasi-nationalist persuasion, the idea hits a sweet spot and lives in a long tradition of "doing for self."

The difference between Obama, on the one hand, and Douglass, Garvey, Ida, and Martin, on the other, is that the latter always paired "do for self" with a solid critique of race in America. When Ida Wells was attacking the "manhood" of black men during the height of the Red Summers, she was just as aggressively inveighing against American racism. Douglass's final autobiography is filled with a moral critique of his own community. But it's obviously paired with a recognition of the history and nature of racism.

Obama is only practically capable of delivering on half of that formula -- and it's a half that's very popular in the larger country. The self-help nationalistic strain of black thought resonates with how Americans think about themselves. Consider this:

For all of Malcolm's invective, his most seductive notion was that of collective self-creation: the idea that black people could, through force of will, remake themselves. Toward the end of his book, Marable tells the story of Gerry Fulcher, a white police officer, who--almost against his will--fell under Malcolm's sway. Assigned to wiretap Malcolm's phone, Fulcher believed Malcolm to be "one of the bad guys," interested in killing cops and overthrowing the government. But his views changed. "What I heard was nothing like I expected," said Fulcher. "I remember saying to myself, 'Let's see, he's right about that ... He wants [blacks] to get jobs. He wants them to get education. He wants them to get into the system. What's wrong with that?'"

Fulcher is a white police officer who should be plotting against Malcolm--but "do for self" resonated with Fulcher. With that said, "do for self" -- divorced from a critique of racism--has the convenient side-effect of letting white people off the hook. This is the version of "do for self" that Obama delivers -- a palatable black nationalism, inoffensive to, and uncritical of, white people. Obama's a smart dude, with a serious knowledge of black history. I suspect he knew what he was doing when he went on his bamboozled riff. I suspect he knows exactly what he's doing now.
I am not unsympathetic to his dilemma. There's simply no way he can be president and be honest with the country about race. The one time he tried it, during Gates-gate, he paid for it. 

On top of that, Obama's very presence in the White House has deep symbolic significance to many African-Americans. There's an element of the black Left that would have that symbolism dismissed, and argue that black people have somehow been duped. I think that's wrong. Living with racism is hard. Living with the belief that racism has not changed, and never will change, is even harder. Obama is radical evidence that the latter claim, no matter how much we feel it, is false. That means something.

Of course the result is that Obama gets a pass, on policy, from black people, that Hillary Clinton simply would never enjoy. If you're in the business of pressuring the Democratic Party to be more progressive, this is a source of frustration.

So where does that leave us? Is it wrong for the head of the American government to speak as black citizen out of convenience? What do we say to the crowds of black people in Beaumont, Texas, who cheer his rhetoric on? I think there's something to be learned there. And yet I also believe in applying pressure. 

I watch that clip in Beaumont and laugh. I don't know what that says.
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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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