Saturday, September 3, 2011

Is It Really a Black or White Issue?

Blogger Chipsticks of The Obama Diary, recently highlighted a reply that appeared in the Comments section of Steve Benen's Washington Monthly blog, written by "Tom" on August 11, 2011. I found Tom's post to be well-thought-out and interesting. However, I felt compelled to reply to it in a way that isn't really feasible in the comments section of a blog, so I decided to make my reply into a blog post of my own.

The original author's text is in black. My replies are interspersed in red.

Written by "Tom"
August 11, 2011

The predominately white progressive intelligentsia don’t see Obama clearly because of our racial blind spot. We don’t see the role of race in how he seems to understand himself and how other perceive him.

    While this may be true for some, it certainly isn’t true with the broad brush you’ve painted “us” with.

First of all, we think that he understands himself as one of us. A progressive activist, heir to the radical and New Left movements most of us were raised in. He is not; I think that he understands himself (and certainly his real base understands him) as the first African American President.

    It never occurred to me to make any attempt to try to figure out how Barack Obama “understands himself,” let alone to believe that that understanding would necessarily comport to anything I could possibly imagine.

We’re thinking Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. We should be thinking about Harold Washington, the first African American mayor of Chicago.

    You may be thinking Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, but all I’ve ever thought was Barack Obama. But perhaps I’m the exception to the characters in the landscape you’re drawing. I actually took the time, all the way back in the summer of 2007, to find as much as I could, on and about, Barack Obama, and learn who he was. It’s a fool’s game to try to decide who someone is based on your knowledge of who someone else is.

    And here is what I learned: Barack Obama grew up facing adversity, almost always being surrounded by people with whom he’d have to negotiate his place in order to not only survive, but to thrive.  He was the black son of a white woman in rural Kansas and Hawaii, with an absentee father who was a foreigner. But he was raised by parents (both birth and step) and grandparents who adored him, who showed him the benefit of hard work and education, and gave him an understanding of and appreciation for cultures outside the United States.

    Barack Obama, by virtue of the fact that he was black, faced obstacles that non-black people are never faced with, but by virtue of being from a white family as well, he was afforded many opportunities and open doors that other young black men are not always privvy to.

    But instead of going to extremes and bemoaning the roadblocks, or exploiting the advantages he had, Barack Obama managed to figure out a way to use his good fortune in a way that could empower those who were faced with similar barriers to himself. He became a Community Organizer.

    This experience probably helped “define” him and the man he would become. He taught, and at the same time learned, the techniques and skills that would be necessary to accomplish goals and effect real change in the world around him.

      "The debate as to how black and other dispossessed people can forward their lot in America is not new. From W.E.B. DuBois to Booker T. Washington to Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, this internal debate has raged between integration and nationalism, between accommodation and militancy, between sit-down strikes and boardroom negotiations. The lines between these strategies have never been simply drawn, and the most successful black leadership has recognized the need to bridge these seemingly divergent approaches. During the early years of the Civil Rights movement, many of these issues became submerged in the face of the clear oppression of segregation. The debate was no longer whether to protest, but how militant must that protest be to win full citizenship for blacks."

Washington was elected and immediately faced a solid wall of opposition from most white aldermen in the city. Washington understood his role as breaking down that wall of opposition and assembling a governing majority, which he finally did after his re-election. Unfortunately, he died shortly thereafter. By the way, one of Washington’s political strategists was David Axelrod.

How does Obama break the iron unity of the GOP opposition to assemble a governing majority in the US Congress?

If we progressives were not blinded by our own assumption that our history is the only history, we might see how Obama may be seeing his situation.

White progressives often think that African American elected officials are politically naive.

    I must admit that I have no idea where this notion comes from. I have worked in politics for a dozen years in one capacity or another, and I have never come across this sentiment. Ever. In fact, my experience and observations tell me that African American elected officials are politically savvy; a skill that has earned them enough respect and support that they can actually win elections even in prediminantly white districts.

We will give far more credit to Cornel West, who has never been elected to anything, than to an elected state senator, or even the President of the United States. We think that Obama does not understand the nature of John Boehner, Mitch McConnell or Eric Cantor, as though he has not sat across the table from them. He doesn’t understand how mean they are, we think.

    I will acknowledge that I do come across those—predominantly far Left Progressives—who seem to imagine that President Obama isn’t a Harvard Educated attorney with 12 years of Legislative experience working alongside Republicans, but instead, is nothing more than a spineless “capitulator” who only knows how to “cave.” This not only annoys me, but has been known to infuriate me into meltdowns of epic proportions.

Obama acts entirely within the tradition of mainstream African American political strategy and tactics. The epitome of that tradition was the non-violence of the Civil Rights Movement, but goes back much further in time. It recognizes the inequality of power between whites and blacks. Number one: maintain your dignity. Number two: call your adversaries to the highest principles they hold. Number three: Seize the moral high ground and Number four: Win by winning over your adversaries, by revealing the contradiction between their own ideals and their actions. It is one way that a oppressed people struggle.

    As Obama outlined in his book chapter quoted above, there was an “internal debate” among leaders in the movement as to approach. What we ended up with was the more peaceful protests that brought about the greatest changes. But the tactics weren’t universal or necessarily always agreed-upon.

Obama has taken a seat at the negotiating table and said “There is no reason why we cannot work out solutions to our problems by acting like responsible adults. That is what people expect us to do and that is why we have entered into public service.” That is the moral high ground.

Honestly, I have been reminded more than once in the last few months of those brave college students sitting in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, back in the day. Obama sits at that table, like they did at the counter. Boehner and McConnell and Cantor clown around, mugging for the camera, competing to ritually humiliate Obama, to dump ketchup on his head.

I don’t think those students got their sandwiches the first day, but they won in the end.

Obama is winning.

    Obama has won victory after victory after victory. And he does so in a manner that makes Boehner, McConnel & Cantor think that they won. That’s a sign of a brilliant negotiator.

    Obama won the debt ceiling negotiation, not only getting Republicans to agree to any raises in it necessary through the end of his first term without any further debate, but by heavily weighting the “trigger deal” in favor of Democratic programs remaining intact and enormous cuts in Pentagon spending on the military.

    And Obama even won the latest round Boehner challenged him to; he rescheduled his speech to the Joint Session of Congress for the night after the Republican Presidential debate, stripping the candidates of the opportunity to get free air time for a “rebuttal” by the entire group of them.

    But while all of this is very good, there is still a big problem with it. President Obama does not “employ” a cadre of surrogates to ensure that the message that he actually won these battles gets out there, so not only do Republicans, Boehner, McConnell, Cantor and Republican mouthpieces in the media crow about how they won, Liberal mouthpieces in the media screech that Boehner et al have won and that President Obama has “caved.” “Again.”

    It’s maddening. I have had to shut off MSNBC. I can’t even tolerate Rachel Maddow anymore, and she was one of my favorites for getting it right more often than she got it wrong. But her coverage of the debt ceiling debate on the day of her return from vacation was downright offensive it was so inaccurate. And don’t even get me started on Ed Schultz.

Democrats are uniting behind him, although some white progressives think that they could do the job better. Independents are flocking to him.

    I don’t know about Democrats uniting behind him at this moment. I wish I could see evidence of that. I hear far too many of them calling for the President to be “primaried,” or declaring that if “we” don’t send a message that “we” aren’t happy with a president who is always “caving” and who governs as a “Republican Lite,” that we’ll never get a “truly progressive” president.  

    The stupidity and insanity of this is utterly impossible for me to grasp. How could the far Left Progressives not comprehend that the exact opposite result would be inevitable. If you give the president a Republican Congress, he can’t get any progressive legislation through.

    And yet here we are, 8 months into the Tea Party term and Left Wing Progressives still haven’t learned that lesson. They are still threatening not to campaign for Obama or fundraise for Obama or organize for Obama. Oh, if they have to, they’ll reluctantly vote for him, but they’ll be damned if they’ll actually try to talk others into voting for him. On the contrary, they're organizing a campaign to "primary" him!

    This is a dangerous tack to take in this election. The consequences of losing the Presidency are enormous and will live on, literally, for generations, because whoever the next President is will have at least one, and possibly two Supreme Court Justices to replace. The Court is already stacked to the far Right. A Republican president will solidify that imbalance for decades. The far Left Progressives don't seem to care that the Supreme Court is more important than they are.

    We must find a way to get through to these people that a) they have come to the wrong conclusion that the results of some of these important battles with Republicans were losses, b) that their constant criticism and expression of “disappointment” in President Obama is bleeding into the part of the voting population we need the most—young voters and Independents, and that c) their full participation in this election is of critical import. There can be no “sending messages,” or sitting out.

Even some Republicans are getting disgusted with their Washington leaders. Obama is not telling us about lack of seriousness of the Congressional GOP; he is showing us the vivid contrast between what we expect of our leaders and their behavior. The last two and half years have been a revelation of the essential conflicts in our society and politics.

    I agree that many Republicans are becoming disgusted with the direction their party has gone. But I saw much the same thing in 2003, even gleefully finding and sharing “Republicans for Kerry” websites with my Democratic friends. But we are fooling ourselves if we think that in this political climate that those who are offended by the Tea Party Obstructionists even hold a candle to the massive number of said Tea Party Obstructionists, let alone their die-hard enthusiasm. We cannot count on Republican converts to help propel us to re-election. We need each other now more than ever.

If white progressives understood much about the politics of the African American struggle in the United States, we would see Obama in the context of that struggle and understand him better. And you don’t have to be African American to know something about the history of the African American struggle. The books and the testimony is there. It’s not all freedom songs. But you have to be convinced that it is something that can teach you something you don’t already know.

    White progressives don’t have a corner on not understanding Barack Obama. If they, and “disappointed” African Americans (I’m looking at you, Harry Belafonte), and “loud-mouthed” African Americans (I’m looking at you, Maxine Waters), would all pay attention and actually re-visit all the information that’s out there about who Barack Obama is, and always has been, and actually review the terms of the deals President Obama has negotiated in Democrats' favor, we could stop a lot of this nonsense once and for all. From all Democrats, regardless of race.


The Moral High Ground ~ by Blogger Chipsticks at The Obama Diary
Chapter on Community Organizing ~ by Barack Obama
Harry Belafonte disappointed with Obama ~ by CNN Entertainment Producer KJ Matthews
Rep. Maxine Waters says blacks want Obama to get tough ~ by Michael Muskal at the Los Angeles Times

Another Take ~ by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo
The Democrats' Powerful Negotiating Advantage ~ by M.S. Bellows at Vichydems
Why Obama Won Debt Deal ~ By Craig Crawford at Craig Crawford's Trail Mix
Eric Cantor: A debt ceiling shonda ~ by Michael Takiff at Salon
Why S&P’s Downgrade is No Joke - The real impact of S&P’s downgrade is political, not economic. ~ by Edmund L. Andrews at National Journal
How the GOP lost on the debt deal ~ by Daniel Markovits at the Los Angeles Times

Judge Him By His Laws ~ by Charles Peters at the Washington Post
Call to Renewal Keynote Address ~ by Barack Obama
Republican Legislator Kirk Dillard in a campaign ad for Barack Obama ~ Youtube Video

Please feel free to leave comments below. I welcome the feedback.


  1. Jill, I love you. LOVE LOVE LOVE you! What a wonderful piece.

    And I especially love this: "Obama has won victory after victory after victory. And he does so in a manner that makes Boehner, McConnel & Cantor think that they won. That’s a sign of a brilliant negotiator."

    And THIS: "The stupidity and insanity of this is utterly impossible for me to grasp. How could the far Left Progressives not comprehend that the exact opposite result would be inevitable. If you give the president a Republican Congress, he can’t get any progressive legislation through."

    And this: "The far Left Progressives don't seem to care that the Supreme Court is more important than they are."

    I am going to plaster this everywhere I can!!!

  2. FYI: The article you cite was actually written in the comments section to this article: by someone named Tom. Chips promoted it because it was so awesome, she never claimed authorship.

  3. Thank you so much, bardgal! I'm sincerely flattered and appreciative. And I love you back! :)

    Tien, thank you for directing me to the true author. I'll go make the appropriate correction right away.


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