Tavis vs. Sharpton, Cont.

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Adam offering some analysis:

Smiley has taken the same sort of position that Republicans take on national security issues -- Republicans say Obama doesn't say "terrorism" enough, while Smiley doesn't think Obama engages in enough direct public advocacy on behalf of black Americans. Smiley doesn't actually engage on the question of whether or not Obama's attempts to de-racialize black issues have been successful; he just seems to think that if Obama simply talked about black issues more, problems would get solved.

I think that first point really deserves to be emphasized. We talked some earlier this week about how much of the Republican position on national security--waterboarding, military tribunals, miranda rights etc.--was, essentially, cultural. More specifically it's tribal, almost nationalistic.

This started as soon as Obama became president. Think Andy Young complained that there weren't enough HBCU graduates in the administration.

It strikes me that much of the "black agenda" critique of Obama is tribal. Forgive me for banging on my reader's heads. But we had one comment yesterday that lamented that Obama did not--and could not--do anything to honor Black History Month. In point of fact, Barack Obama had done precisely that. We had another comment that lamented that the Obama administration wasn't doing anything about discrimination, when in fact the Justice department has beefed up discrimination prosecution under Eric Holder.


Again, I don't cite these comments to beat up on my audience. (I love you guys!) But I think it's worth pointing out what we hear, and what we don't hear. One of the biggest differences is that Obama isn't a protest leader, so changes don't tend to happen with a lot of flash--there isn't going to be a march that precedes the beefing up of the Civil Rights division in the Justice department. It just gets done. That's the beauty of power.

But more importantly than that, Obama--and I'd add a lot of people in this generation--doesn't speak the language of tribalism. I deeply suspect that were he positioning health care and pitching the jobs bill as an issue of racial justice--and a case (a myopic one I'd argue) can be made for the logic of that--than a lot of this talk would disappear. But not only does that not reflect the reality of the issues, it's also horrible politics.

I want to be clear. There's nothing wrong, and everything right, with black voters--like any voting bloc--having a set off issues that are important. But we shouldn't conflate those issues, those goals, with the rhetoric. Whenever I hear people critique Obama on "black issues," I always hear a lot of black, but very few actual issues. I think a lot of this is, again, existential. We have a deep fear of being left behind, and we're very good at playing the role of the disappointed and disaffected. We know how to cope with failure. We've got to figure out how to cope with success.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/02/tavis-vs-sharpton-cont/36686/