Obama and 'Pookie.'

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.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Tasha

    Timing is my problem. It’s father’s day, frankly stay positive. You are not president yet attacking and alienating a portion of your constiuents is never a good idea.

  • Tasha: This assumes that ‘Pookie’ votes. One of the reasons the black poor make such easy targets is that there are no electoral repercussions for going after them.

  • Demby- I agree. His main focus was the people in the church cheering him on, followed by the whites with “racial resentment.” The dudes he’s criticizing are not part of the electoral process.

  • LH

    I’m having a difficult time working out why I feel differently about Obama’s finger wagging than I do about Cosby’s. Maybe it’s because Obama’s “sermon” strikes me as pandering.

  • rakia

    Again, I must be in the minority. (I just commented on the other post about Cosby’s pound cake speech.) I thought Obama was on point with this speech. It may not be nice or politically correct to criticize poor parents (e.g feeding their children cold Popeye’s). But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Expectations don’t necessarily deteriorate just b/c you’re in a different tax bracket.

  • LH

    rakia, I’m a Cosby apologist and even I appreciate that his views on poverty vis-a-vis black parents are a series of oversimplifications.

    To wit: Expectations almost must necessarily diminish for some people because of a lack of opportunity that has plagued their forebears for generations. That doesn’t explain away all of Cosby’s criticisms, but it can’t be ignored, either.

  • Ho-hum… business as usual for yet another political candidate running for office. In case we’re forgetting, it’s an election year. The man is still campaigning for votes, so, as far as I’m concerned, whatever he says or does is premeditated and executed strictly to serve that specific purpose. Yes, I’m sure that sounds rather dismal, but I find the entire American electoral process laughable.

    Although, let’s say that I did take all the campaign trail words and actions of candidates like Obama seriously – what would we rather have Obama say in instances like this? Or Bill Cosby on the same topic? It seems to me that we want our so-called black leaders to call attention to and challenge issues that we all agree are demoralizing our communities; but when they do, we react adversely. Cosby has given millions of dollars, as well as time and effort in support of the causes he champions. So, it’s not like he’s just another member of the black elite class speaking ignorantly and carelessly about lives that he’s done nothing to help improve. I think we can all agree that he genuinely means well, and is striving for positive change, regardless of what we might think of his approach. I’d like to say the same thing about Obama, but, I’m not so sure about his motives at this stage of the electoral process. So, I’m curious as to how we would prefer that these men (and women) handle sensitive issues like “absentee fathers in black communities” if we don’t entirely agree with their individual stances or methods. I’m all for criticizing – it’s necessary for progress, but so are solutions.

    And I really don’t think Obama or Cosby make these speeches intent on reaching those people who their words are directed towards. I think their hope is to inspire a “supporting cast” if you will – people like those us in discussion forums like this one… the “each one, teach one” mentality I suppose… or maybe even more specifically, the “it takes a village” ideology – the idea being that, these problems belong to all of us (there’s no “Us” vs “them” here), and so it’s up to all of us to help foster the kind of change we say we would like to see come to fruition. Or we could even call it an evolved definition of Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth” ideology (one he would later abandon) – key words here being “evolved definition.”

    Also, we shouldn’t forget that absentee fathers are not relegated solely to those who from the working or poor class. There are “deadbeat” dads across all socio-economic strata.

  • Intrepidblackman

    From my perspective working daily in poor black communities in Washington DC, I have no problem with what Obama, or Cosby says. Every single day I see the truth of their words. I do not see it as putting down anyone, I see it as descriptive. Without question this is a problem in certain segments of the black community and needs to be addressed. Now what is the argument against that now?

  • Yeah, I found myself kind of taken aback by this, in the context of the ongoing (and tiresome, imho) argument about Black Male Responsibility (or lack thereof). Which always makes me just a wee bit uncomfortable what with its strongly retro Head of Household subtext.

    But (and we’ve talked about this, GD and I), in the context of *Obama’s* own writing, at least, the speech is a lot less nervous-making. Which is to say, it’s one of a host of other issues he’s addressed both directly and indirectly and (I think) sees as being an aspect of organizing and self-help that requires (or at least benefits, majorly, from) external and/or structural support. I.e., isn’t just a question of “you people need to get your shit together” but is rather a question of, “for people in strained circumstances to get their shit together, they’re gonna need some help and some support instead of constant derailment and undermining.”

    That said, it *does* still resonate within the context of pound cake speeches and the like. Which I just dunno how I feel about it. It’s kind of similar, in a way, to the arguments that Wright should have stfu because he was undermining Obama’s campaign: at what point do you say that yes, a lot of people who aren’t in the intended audience are going to misconstrue what you’re saying, in many cases deliberately, but you don’t give a shit what those people are going to think because they’re not the intended audience?

    And I dunno what the answer there is, to be honest.

    (Also, of course, I feel compelled to point out that the problems of “black men” are actually problems of the marginalized poor–you’ve got the same issues in dysfunctional poor white communities, too.)

  • Shawn L.

    Obama has given similar speeches about the need for black men to step us as fathers for years. This isn’t new, only the intensified media coverage is.

    What makes Obama’s speech more palatable to me than Cos’s is 1) Cos just ranted against poor people while absolving the system that helped create their condition and 2) Obama would actually be in a position to change some of the system’s policies and give struggling people more options.

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