On Tuesday, Georgetown University hosted President Barack Obama, the columnist E.J. Dionne, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and the political scientist Robert Putnam for a conversation on poverty in America. I found myself most attracted to Obama’s understanding of public policy and personal morality. Specifically, Dionne asked the president to address criticism of his Morehouse speech, as well as his general belief in the alloy of progressive policy and moral uplift.
Here is Dionne’s question:
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote something back in 2013 about your talk about what needs to happen inside the African American community—I know you remember this: “Taking full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people and particularly black youth, and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the President telling the women of Barnard that ‘there's no longer room for any excuses’—as though they were in the business of making them.”
I’d love you to address sort of the particular question about—maybe it is primarily about economics because we can’t do much about the other things through government policy, and also answer Ta-Nehisi’s critique, because I know you hear that a lot.
Here is the president’s response:
It’s true that if I’m giving a commencement at Morehouse that I will have a conversation with young black men about taking responsibility as fathers that I probably will not have with the women of Barnard. And I make no apologies for that. And the reason is, is because I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the cost that I paid for that. And I also know that I have the capacity to break that cycle, and as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off. (Applause.)
And that is not something that—for me to have that conversation does not negate my conversation about the need for early childhood education, or the need for job training, or the need for greater investment in infrastructure, or jobs in low-income communities.
Later the president refers to this as the “both/and” approach—discussing both immorality in the black community and possible policy solutions to its dire straits.
It’s worth considering how the president addresses both of these spheres. When talking morality in the black community, Obama has always been very clear. Obama has argued that black kids, specifically, have a mentality which reflects shame in educational achievement. (“I don't know who taught them that reading and writing and conjugating your verbs was something white.”) He believes that black men, specifically, tend to be more apt to abandon “their responsibilities” and act “like boys instead of men.” He believes that black parents need to learn to “put away the X-Box” and get kids to bed at a reasonable hour.
Obama’s policy message to African Americans does not enjoy this level of targeted specificity. Instead he endorses the sort of broad policies which most progressives support—criminal-justice reform, “investment in infrastructure,” improved healthcare coverage, “jobs in low-income communities.” In 2014, when Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper, he billed it as “not a new federal program,” and stressed that it was aimed not at young black men, specifically, but at “young men of color.”
I endorse all of these initiatives and ideas—but not because they are targeted policy. They are not. And you will hear no policy targeted toward black people coming out of the Obama White House, or probably any White House in the near future. That is because the standard progressive approach of the moment is to mix color-conscious moral invective with color-blind public policy. It is not hard to see why that might be the case. Asserting the moral faults of black people tend to gain votes. Asserting the moral faults of their government, not so much. I am sure Obama sincerely believes in the moral invective he offers. But I suspect he believes a lot more about his country which he chooses not to share.
This affliction is not solely Obama’s. Consider that in a conversation about poverty, featuring America’s first black president, one of its most accomplished progressive political scientists, and one of its most important liberal columnists, the word “racism” does not appear in the transcript once. That is because the progressive approach to policy which directly addresses the effects of white supremacy is simple—talk about class and hope no one notices.
This is not a “both/and.” It is a bait and switch. The moral failings of black people are directly addressed. The centuries-old failings of their local, state, and federal government, less so. One need not imagine what a “both/and” approach might sound like, to understand why a president of the United States can’t actually offer one. At best, one can hope for reference to “past injustice.” But in a country where Walter Scott was shot in the back, where Eric Garner was choked to death, where whole municipalities are—at this very hour—funding themselves through racist plunder, fleeting references to “past injustice” will not do.
At least they will not do as an intellectual proposition. Perhaps the progressive approach, no matter how intellectually dishonest, is ultimately politically prudent. I don’t wish to minimize the difficulty, rhetorical and otherwise, of being the first black president of a congenitally racist country. In that business, Obama has gotten a lot right. But his “both/and” approach has been very wrong. One way around the conundrum is for the president to say as little as possible. I have never been among those who thought President Obama should “say more” about Ferguson, because I don’t believe most of the people who elected him actually want to “hear more.” What these people have never tired of hearing is another discourse on the lack of black morality or on the failings of black culture. It saddens me to see the president so sincerely oblige.