Obama, Cosbyism and Black Nationalism

A conversation below, and this comment from Johnathan, made me think I should post a link from my Cosby story. Here's the comment:

Well it's a conversation that's been going on forever but whites have long clung to the more controversial elements of it. Few white people - and none in the commentariat that I'm aware of - talk about the NOI's attempts to inspire self-respect, dress code, clean living. Now I have my own problems with the NOI (corruption, abuse, criminal ties) but that's neither here nor there. So many movements that were reduced to "anti white" or "anti semitic", "reverse racist" or what have you when often the focus was equally if not moreso focused on self-betterment. Now with Cosby you have a man who has a totally nonthreatening public persona, just using the soapbox to shake his fist at the kids and white folks applaud like crazy. They couldn't applaud for Malcolm, though...

I think this is a great point. There actually is a very long tradition of "social conservatism/moral reformism" among black people stretching back to slavery. This cat Christopher Allen Bracey calls it "Organic Black Conservatism" as opposed to, say, Think Tank Black Conservatism. Think Cedric The Entertainer in Barbershop, not Thomas Sowell.

Organic black conservatism really found a home in black nationalism. Marcus Garvey came to America, inspired by Booker T. Washington. Malcolm's father was a Garveyite. Malcolm himself, if not a black conservative, certainly believed in black moral reform. Farrakhan was (for a time) a student of Malcolm.

Farrakhan's Million Man March had to be one of the largest conservative mass gatherings in recent memory. Remember the theme? Atonement. The whole idea was that black men had basically not been carrying their weight in the community. We'd been piss-poor fathers. Piss-poor husbands. And generally hadn't fulfilled the precepts of honorable manhood. We didn't go to The Mall in 95 to make demands on Congress. We went to get clean.

Anyway, I wrote about all of this last year, when I was profiling Cosby. A quick excerpt:

After Washington's death, in 1915, the black conservative tradition he had fathered found a permanent and natural home in the emerging ideology of Black Nationalism. Marcus Garvey, its patron saint, turned the Atlanta Compromise on its head, implicitly endorsing segregation not as an olive branch to whites but as a statement of black supremacy. Black Nationalists scorned the Du Boisian integrationists as stooges or traitors, content to beg for help from people who hated them.

Garvey argued that blacks had rendered themselves unworthy of the white man's respect. "The greatest stumbling block in the way of progress in the race has invariably come from within the race itself," wrote Garvey. "The monkey wrench of destruction as thrown into the cog of Negro Progress, is not thrown so much by the outsider as by the very fellow who is in our fold, and who should be the first to grease the wheel of progress rather than seeking to impede." Decades later, Malcolm X echoed that sentiment, faulting blacks for failing to take charge of their destinies. "The white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community," Malcolm said. "But you will let anybody come in and take control of the economy of your community, control the housing, control the education, control the jobs, control the businesses, under the pretext that you want to integrate. No, you're out of your mind."

Black conservatives like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, have at times allied themselves with black liberals. But in general, they have upheld a core of beliefs laid out by Garvey almost a century ago: a skepticism of (white) government as a mediating force in the "Negro problem," a strong belief in the singular will of black people, and a fixation on a supposedly glorious black past.

Now this isn't Obama's approach totally--but he's clearly pulling from this tradition. That anecdote yesterday about whipping other people's kids, was pulled right from the Book Of Black Conservativism. The whole notion of black people as "fallen" as needing to be better fathers and mothers goes all the way back to Booker T. and extends up to the MMM--which Obama attended. He came back a critic--like a lot of us who went. But I'm willing to be that Obama, with his parental background, felt a special attachment to the March's rhetoric.

I think it's easy to underestimate how much this Organic Black Conservative tradition resonates. It really is one of things that connects us. It's about going up school to check on your son, and finding out that the kids that are cutting up the most in class, are the one's whose parents are the least involved. It's about walking up Lenox, at ten in the evening on Sunday, and seeing eight year-olds out playing. There's a deep sense, in all of us--even left-wing me--that we aren't doing enough.

I don't know that that sense is rational. I don't think it makes policy. But we have a strong need to believe that we don't have to wait on policy reform (read: the consent of white folks) for change. That if we just change how eat, how we raise our kids, our study-habits, how we talk to each other, then everything will be OK. I feel like that all the time. It is the religious part of me.