How America Works

A "black agenda" isn't the right approach, but it's important to question which interests have it better under the Obama administration

Obama on a targeted agenda:

Obama defended his record, saying he is spending all of his time working to help "some kid on the south side of Chicago that doesn't have a shot right now," and also those living in Los Angeles barrios and Appalachia. But he also refused to say he would target government programs to blacks. 

"That's not how America works. America works when all of us are pulling together and everybody is focused on making sure that every single person has opportunity," Obama said. "And so when we put forward a program like, for example, the health-care bill, our focus is people who don't have health care. Now it turns out that the majority of folks who don't have health care are also working families, and are disproportionately African American and Latino, but that doesn't mean that it's only for them."

Obama also said that when he reflects back on his tenure in the White House, he thinks his administration did not do a good job communicating what they were doing for the American people. 

"I think that the more you're in this office, the more you have to say to yourself that telling a story to the American people is just as important as the actual policies that you're implementing," he said.

I've been fairly clear in my opposition to a presidential "black agenda." Articulating such a thing is precisely what Rush Limbaugh wants. Moreover, it's not an accurate description of the kind of policies that would help the most vulnerable class of African-Americans.

At the same time, I think it's worth noting, in point of fact, how America has worked throughout history, and how it works now. Interest groups trade their votes (or their cash) because they think you're going to pursue policy that's favorable to them. I highly doubt that health insurance companies, for instance, make political donations because they improved their self-esteem. I doubt that Obama's stance in Israel is wholly divorced from interested domestic constituencies. That's America.
But America is also this: a long history of using policy--not just name-calling and thuggish law enforcement--but actual policy to disadvantage African-Americans. It isn't just that it "turns out" that African-Americans are disproportionately uninsured. It's the result of a virtually unbroken run of policy decisions stretching back to the Virginia black codes of the 1650s, through the Illinois black laws of the 1850s, through the redlining of the 1950s.

When the Blair bill died in the 1890s, for fear of generating an educated, and thus empowered, class of blacks, it was policy. When anti-lynching legislation was repeatedly killed throughout the first half of the 20th century, it was policy. When FDR lured Southern senators into supporting New Deal legislation by excluding blacks, it was policy. It's true that it would be unwise for Obama to offer up a black agenda. It's also true that America, to the detriment of blacks, has long had one.

I have been extremely critical of the comments attacking the president emanating from certain quarters. But I have not been critical out of mere affection for our first black president, so much as out of the belief that essentialism and name-calling (black mascot, fear of free black men, more comfortable around Jews and whites) is deeply wrong, and it discredits the critique. I think you play yourself when you claim Obama is "acting white," or you claim you'd like to "cut off his nuts," and you diminish otherwise serious criticism.

But it's important that my disgust with personal attacks, not be conflated with a disgust of all criticism of Obama around race.

I think something like this...

"All I get from the African American community as I travel around the country is, 'We're behind you,'" he said. "And so, I think the main thing I want the African American community to know is just, those prayers are appreciated. Them rooting for me is appreciated."

...needs to be interrogated. The notion that the prayers of corporations elicit bailouts, and the prayers of black people elicit appreciation, should be questioned, as should the entire notion of a "black president." Obama rejects that label, in terms of policy implications. But he has never rejected it when it comes to lecturing black people on their morality in ways that he would never lecture whites or Latinos.

That Obama has been gifted with critics, who are not always wise in their words, is unfortunate. It makes his words, on race at least, look wise, by default.