I’m of two minds about this. Or maybe more than two. But stuff like this always makes me shift uncomfortably in my seat.
Of course, the substance of Obama’s entreaties is sorta irrefutable — is anyone finna argue that what families need is less-involved parenting or a less-conscientious approach to nutrition? So no quibbles there.
But Obama’s speech had many of the same problems (albeit to a far lesser extent) as ‘the pound cake speech’: its tone, the imagery it employed, its aim and its efficacy.
From the NYT:
The address was not Mr. Obama’s first foray into the issue. On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama has frequently returned to the topic of parenting and personal responsibility, particularly for low-income black families. Speaking in Texas in February, Mr. Obama told the mostly black audience to take responsibility for the education and nutrition of their children, and lectured them for feeding their children “cold Popeyes” for breakfast.
The Popeye’s thing was an eyebrow raiser. The good folks over at WAOD, though, point out that he has a penchant for bringing up ‘Popeye’s’ (and ‘ Cousin Pookie’) in his speeches to black audiences. The class implications seem kind of obvious.
There are some other things in there that grate, particularly the ‘eighth grade graduation’ part. It seems like a strawman to me: Obama posits this as the extent of the ambition of these alleged celebrating lazy-asses. But is there a compelling reason why such a thing shouldn’t be celebrated? What’s ‘mediocre’ in some burg where college attendance is a given is certainly not mediocre in, say, North Philly. If they arrived at different expectations about their life chances, it’s probably safe to say that they arrived at those expectations honestly, right?
That Obama is resorting to broad stereotype when discussing this issue is not an accident. It allows him to be indignant and express umbrage at that evergreen source of frustration — the shiftless, lazy black poor. The Times points out that even though it was given in a black church, the speech was meant to appeal to white social conservatives whose votes are up for grabs. It also probably affords him a little distance from Rev. Wright’s condemnations of American racism and assures those voters that black pathology is the reason poor black folks are lagging behind. Who knows if it worked.
A lot of people will pat Obama on the back for this speech, but I’ve always wondered about how effective these things are. Bill Cosby gave his speech at an event at Howard commemorating Brown v. Board of Education. If we buy that Cosby is correct,* one wonders why his speeches are so often at events that are probably not be on the radar of the people he’s supposedly importuning to change their lives.** The same goes for Obama: on a really basic level, I’m not sure the Pookies of the world are are checking for him like that. The rate of black fatherlessness hasn’t slowed even as black churches (and Louis Farrakhan) have been clamoring from the pulpit for men to be personally responsible since time immemorial. However impassioned and sincere the finger-wagging gets, it just doesn’t work. What the haughty lecture act does do is give folks who already agree a chance to nod their head in agreement (or shake it in disgust) at those people’s supposed moral failings, with the added bonus of seeming concern.
*Uh, I don’t.
**April, one of my co-bloggers, once told me that Cosby came to her college — a well-known, elite, all-women’s school in the Northeast — to lecture the black students on personal responsibility. This is presumptuous on a bunch of levels, but I guess, not totally unsurprising.