NYT: Obama Turns Down Offer to be HNIC.

I imagine that, for the purposes of this piece in the NYT, “some” means a handful of reliable critics and cranks the writer sought out minutes after dreaming up this story idea from the ether:

Some black scholars say Mr. Obama has failed to lead on the race issue. The Kirwan Institute, which studies race and ethnicity, is convening a conference on Thursday to offer policy prescriptions. After analyzing the State of the Union address, the institute’s scholars warned that “continued failure to engage race would be devastating.”

Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University sociologist and longtime supporter of Mr. Obama, is exasperated. “All these teachable moments,” he said, “but the professor refuses to come to the class.”

Obama was excused from class when he got elected president. In fact, he graduated.

Just be glad Rev. Al, of all people, didn’t fall for the okey-doke.

But seriously, there’s a number of problems here:

  1. The most glaring of these problems is the assumption that Obama was elected president of Black America, rather than the United States, and that he must take a particular interest in the fortunes of the nation’s black citizens. I wouldn’t even begin to know how he could do this, and furthermore, he’d likely be better served by helping the working poor and thousands of unemployed Americans. Obama wasn’t elected solely by black people, and further, he wasn’t elected solely to advance our political interests.
  2. Once and again, we have a story that feeds into the mainstream media’s “othering” of black people. Our issues – assuming we can agree on this monolithic “our” – are not unique. We need good jobs, good schools, good credit, safe neighborhoods, etc etc etc. That sounds, pretty much, like the needs and wants of every other U.S. citizen. I imagine Obama could pursue some broad and progressive initiatives to make those things happen rather than tailoring specific programs to black people.
  3. Elinor Tatum. Really?
  4. In addition to figuring out our teetering economy, health care, two wars and protecting the nation’s borders, people also want him to “engage race.” What does that even mean? Should he give a sternly worded-lecture (Stop that, white folks!)? C’mon.
  5. Speaking of white folks, what do they think? Brown people, too? Don’t they have a take on this?
  6. The headline is either lazy or, in its pithy way, racist. “For Obama, Nuance on Race Invites Questions.” Is this headline implying that black people couldn’t possibly handle nuance on racial issues? I doubt it. But you never know.

I probably missed a few things here, but you get the gist.

Anyway, in shorter form, Ta-Nehisi sums it all up with his headline: “Black People Have Opinions About Obama.”

We really shouldn’t have to explain this kind of stuff anymore.


Joel Anderson —blackink —  writes about sports, politics, crime, courts, and other issues far beyond his competence at BuzzFeed. He has worked at media outlets in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Atlanta and contributed to a number of publications, including The Root and The American Prospect, among many others.
  • Seth in LA

    The big problem with this article is that in the convoluted logic of Obama-detractors, the manufacturing of this “problem” will allow them to twist it until it becomes an issue that the administration will then address.

    Mark my words, some opponent, will say that that Obama’s “base” is demanding more fealty and they will claim that is his motivation the next time he does anything that directly or indirectly helps black voters.

    And the basic flaw in this piece is that at any given moment, you can pick a leader and a constituency, find some critics and write an article. Even if the President was “doing more” for the black community, you would still be able to find somebody to provide a negative quote for the article, and that would be the focus of the piece instead of the real story, which is that most people who voted for the President, black, white and inbetween, recognize that he is the President of all of us.

  • aisha

    While I agree with your observations isn’t it the point to vote/support a candidate that furthers your interest? So if they feel that Obama was supposed be “for their interest” that and “race” is their issue why should they not point it his failings? Each person/group has the right to call him out on behalf of their vested interest. I don’t see the problem on what they did. Do I care about their particular beefs? No. If they think they have some power why not wield it?

    • Seth in LA

      It isn’t the individuals who “voted their interest” and “point to his failings” that is the problem. Everybody is entitled to their opinions. But the article cites a 96% approval rating among blacks. Considering that he got 95% of the black vote, such a statistic shows that he is doing pretty well at upholding the faith of black voters. But the article uses that just to set up the conjecture of one individual, totally unsupported by any numbers, that fewer blacks would answer affirmatively to the question, “has he been good for African-Americans?” There is a stunning lack of detail. What learning moments does Dyson feel he has mishandled? How exactly should he engage race and what disaster awaits if he does not? The problem is that the article presents a problem, when the most cursory scratching below the surface shows there is no problem.

  • The Kirwan Institute is one of these places (that I like) that examines things through a racial equity frame. I’m partial to them because their scholars come from the fields of planning and law and are mostly activist-scholars, a position frowned upon in academia, and one I’m happy to see. Sloppy reporting turns a Black History Month event there, featuring Angela Blackwell, who’s definitely going to talk about equitable federal policy (her work), into a referendum on Obama. (Now in March Kirwan is having a conference on “transforming race in the age of obama”, which looks to be a conference on racism, recession and economic recovery.)

    All that is to say that this is all about the article framing. There are legitimate debates to have about universalism vs. particularism (i.e., do we create policies that benefit everyone or do we target programs that assist those most in need) and Obama’s governing style (conciliatory, IMO). And I know many activists, black and non-black, who are rushing the Obama Administration with their progressive goals in the hopes that because he’s a Democrat, a liberal, not George Bush, a former community organizer, an urbanite, and African-American and/or mixed-race (depending on your frame of reference) with an immigrant father and single mother raised by his grandparents to boot, that he’ll embrace their ideas and fund their programs. And I know many progressive activists who think Obama is as bad as Bill Clinton and the rest of the DLC types, as they seem to them.

    I think this article would be immensely helped by specifying what exactly the “race issue” is (and apparently there is only one!). Is it institutional racism? Is it racial inequality? Is it white racism? Is it black unemployment? Is it individual discrimination? For instance, the Kirwan conference wants to talk about both unemployment disparities and shifting how people think about race. What is Obama’s role in this, beyond a conversational trigger?

    • Ditto to Light. I’d just add this:

      “We need good jobs, good schools, good credit, safe neighborhoods, etc etc etc. That sounds, pretty much, like the needs and wants of every other U.S. citizen. I imagine Obama could pursue some broad and progressive initiatives to make those things happen rather than tailoring specific programs to black people.”

      An example of a progressive initiative that would benefit communities of color directly, can be found in SCOPE AGENDA’s green jobs city retrofit programs in Los Angeles. The organization went to the city and proposed a program to train and hire local people to fix up local public buildings. The local-training and -hire requirements help guarantee that it’s the people in the affected communities who see the most direct benefits, and the jobs are unionized, so they’re living-wage.

      If SCOPE-type programs with identical local-hire rules were initiated across the US, the benefits would be most felt in the most disinvested communities. In theory, you could have a race-neutral intention with a race-positive outcome — though in practice, most good programs like this both need and have other equity measures written in.

      I’m just tossing this out as an example of an initiative that Obama could push that would benefit black communities and other communities of color, even without having ‘The Black Community’ in the name of the bill. And right now, the Stimulus money has next to no local hire measures, or race or gender equity measures, built into it, and there’s no good way to enforce equity as a result. In other words, it’s no coincidence that SCOPE’s hire measures are a bottom-up initiative, not a top-down one.

  • J

    Would Obama have been elected without the black vote? If the answer is no, then why should he not “take a particular interest in the fortunes of the nation’s black citizens.”

    • What is the “black vote”?

      • J

        You must be joking. It’s the vote that has put virtually every Democratic president in office since Kennedy. You remember Kennedy, don’t you?

        • blackink

          I’m not joking at all. So is the “black vote” the same as the “white vote”? What about the “brown vote”? And this:



          That said, talking about “black voters” is something very different to me than “the black vote.” If we allow that there is a monolithic “black vote,” does this mean that we all have the same political agenda, same political interests, same political goals?

          The kind of black person who votes for, say, Elijah Cummings or Maxine Waters, might not share the same political sentiment as, say, Cory Booker or Deval Patrick. Now, of course, they might. But you’re taking for granted the differences and specific interests among black voters.

          Which is what I was saying in the first place: we’re not all the same.

          • J

            Two incredibly disingenuous articles, one riddled with errors (Al Gore lost?), the other with faulty logic (using a few examples of blacks who don’t vote to show African-American support for Obama and Democrats is overstated). Would Clinton have won without black support? How about Obama?

            What other ethnic group votes as uniformly as African-Americans? You claim to be opposed to efforts to paint black Americans as monolithic, yet you attempt to undermine the premise of the NYT’s article by playing up its reference to the statistic that 96% of blacks currently approve of Obama, thereby bolstering the claim that blacks are, in fact, monolithic. You can’t have it both ways.

            What irks me about your post is its mind-boggling naivete. The notion that black people need the same things as white people ignores the fact that African-Americans face problems and issues that white Americans don’t have to deal with. I don’t recall, for instance, very many white people getting up in arms over mandatory minimums and the justice system’s divergent treatment of crack and powdered cocaine, for instance–at least not when the victims of these draconian laws were, in the public’s mind, overwhelmingly black (please spare me the few examples). If it were as simple as saying what’s good for white Americans is what’s good for black Americans there wouldn’t be so many glaring disparities between the two groups, obviously.

            African-Americans are an ethnic group. With that comes shared heritage, experiences, language, traditions, ideals, and yes, to some extent, politics. In short, with a culture comes a collective consciousness. You may not feel as though you’re part of that culture, but it doesn’t mean the culture is nonexistent. One monkey don’t stop no show, as they–African-Americans, that is–say. When it comes to politics and voting black Americans likely care more than other groups about issues such as civil rights, racial discrimination, the criminal justice system, HIV/AIDS, poverty, urban development, and social programs. This might be what you call an agenda.

            Your anti-essentialist argument–I get the sense that’s what it basically is–can be pushed to the point of absurdity. Why stop at questioning the existence of a black vote. Maybe black Americans don’t even exist, maybe they’re just a myth too.

            • Also, when was Gore sworn in as president? Did I completely miss what happened from 2000-04?

              • J

                “Also, when was Gore sworn in as president? Did I completely miss what happened from 2000-04?”

                The premise of the article you quoted is that black votes do not translate into victories in presidential elections. To support this claim the author states that despite receiving 90 percent of the black vote Al Gore lost the 2000 election. In fact, Al Gore’s “loss,” if you can call it that, was not determined by votes, but by a supreme court decision known as Bush v. Gore. The argument also ignores the persistent accusations of voter discrimination, particularly with respect to blacks, that bedeviled both the 2000 and 2004 elections. Thus, there are three problems with the article in question: 1) it ignores that the 2000 election was determined by government fiat not votes, 2) it ignores the high probability that votes by blacks were deliberately not counted in 2000 and 2004, and 3) it fails to consider how close or different the most recent elections or those of the Clinton era would have been had the Democratic candidates not received such a significant portion of the black vote. It is therefore not, as it claims to be, an accurate assessment of black voting power.

                • I’ll refer you to my longer response further down. At this point, I’m not really arguing with you because we’re getting way off-topic.

                  (And because I’m over it, I’ll even overlook your reference to the post’s “mind-blogging naivete.”)

                  In the end, what are we talking about here and what’s your solution? Should Obama propose a jobs bill directed at black men? Should he give another speech on race? What are you asking him to do?

                  • J

                    I actually think we’re getting to the heart of the matter, not off topic. If I understand you correctly, you feel that Obama is not obligated to do anything for African-Americans because African-Americans did not elect him and do not constitute a cohesive or substantive group. My counterargument is simply that Obama—or any Democratic candidate, for that matter—would not have won without African-American support and that African-Americans’ overwhelming support for one political party—along with their shared culture, heritage, experiences, and collective memory—represents proof that they form an authentic community, which, of course, does not mean that they’re all the same, that they all know each other, or that they all agree on everything (it seems that this should go without saying).

                    I want Obama to aggressively pursue new legislation in areas that matter to African-Americans. Healthcare is one, and I applaud him for his efforts there. But I would also like to see a robust anti-poverty initiative in America’s largest urban centers, meaning mountains of concentrated federal aid to areas like Brownsville, Morrisania, Highland Park, the wards in Houston and New Orleans, Oak Cliff, and so on. These places are national embarrassments and their continued existence is untenable in 21st century America. They should receive every federal resource available until they are fixed. I would like for him to end the war on drugs and pursue legislation that permanently abolishes the practice of jailing nonviolent drug offenders. I want him to acknowledge that our prisons are nothing but gulags and use that war on drugs money to create instead a government task force to combat prisoner abuse in all its forms (physical, sexual, psychological). I want him to pursue the reinstatement of the federal ban on assault weapons. These are not broad, mainstream policies for all Americans. These are policies that will mostly help African-Americans. And you can bet your bottom dollar that if he pursues them, in any form, he’ll be accused by the American right of damn-near giving out reparations.

                    We cannot afford to think small. And that means we should not resign ourselves to the position that Obama can do nothing to address racial disparities except uphold the status quo and advocate some “we are the world” approach. The status quo ain’t good enough for black people in America. There is nothing wrong with demanding legislative initiatives specifically for black Americans. How do you think we got affirmative action? And let’s keep it real: the African-American middle class would be much smaller today if it weren’t for that.

                    • No. You didn’t understand me. But let’s move on.

  • ashbee


  • Val

    “The most glaring of these problems is the assumption that Obama was elected president of Black America, rather than the United States, and that he must take a particular interest in the fortunes of the nation’s black citizens.”

    You fail to mention that African Americans are Obama’s core voters. So, one has to ask; what politician ignores their base and then expects to be re-elected?

    He is not only the President of America is is Black America’s President too.

    Btw, did you know that the unemployment rate for Black men aged 20 and over is almost 18%? So why doesn’t that require special attention from the White House?

    Trickle down economics does not work and that’s apparently what the President is advocating to help Black people who are suffering more during this economic downturn.

    • blackink12

      Wait. How are African-Americans Obama’s core voters? Show me the numbers on that. Did you read the link in my response to J?

      And where is Black America located?

      I know the numbers on unemployment. And there’s things that Obama can and should do to address them. But how do you propose he sell a jobs program aimed particularly – and solely – at black men over the age of 20? How well do you think that legislation might fare in the Senate?

      • I don’t think Black Americans can be anyone’s core voters a national level because of their overall population size. But I think overall they had the highest percentage of Obama supporters among different demographic groups? I imagine one could also argue that young people are a core support group of Obama as well, given how many voted for him.

        I think it’s a little disingenuous to deny how much black support Obama had coming into office. I remember on inauguration day the swag sold fusing his election with MLK, JR’s leadership. These kind of historical linkages were also made by white liberals (I remember hearing Marshall Gans and Peter Dreier speaking to students, respectively). When discussions like this come up, I think of how I’d have felt if Hillary Clinton had been elected. Would I have expected her to prioritize equal pay for women, better family leave policies that would disproportionately benefit working mothers, discrimination in the workplace, etc.? As SOS, she’s relentless in pointing out how women’s development is key to human development. I doubt she would have been that forthright as POTUS. And I, personally, would have been frustrated, because as a liberal, Democratic woman, I’d expect her to advance these issues.

        Your OP stands that the NYT is ridiculous for treating black Americans as a monolith, and for being sloppy in their reporting about these criticisms of Obama. And I think supporters have assigned historical significance to Obama above and beyond what he’d personally desire. But why isn’t it ok for some Americans, including many African-Americans, incl. prominent ones, to hope that the first black President who was a community organizer in Chicago will pay special attention to the disproportionate economic hardship of African-Americans right now?

        And finally, and again, it’s not clear to me from this article whether they want him to be doing something about a tangible issue like that, or be working to transform entire cultural scripts about black America, racist beliefs, etc.

      • Val

        Well, over 90% of African Americans that voted cast their vote for Obama. Name another voting block with those kind of numbers please. That would I think make Black voters his base.

        Black America is located wherever systematic racism exists that makes life more difficult for us than others solely because we are Black. That’s where it is.

        As for unemployment the first step might be to publicly address the reasons why many Blacks suffer higher unemployment rates than the general population.

        Then go about changing those things or at least attempting to.

        • blackink12

          I think Leigh addresses the issue of how black voters can’t be – alone – the core bloc of a national political candidate. There’s simply not enough votes.

          Sure, black voters threw their support behind Obama in overwhelming numbers, at a rate that slightly exceeds that of previous Democratic presidential nominees. And sure, they are part of the core. But they are not “the core.”

          We’ll have to agree to disagree on the existence of a Black America. You and me, we’re not the same (assuming you’re black). We have some things in common. Maybe it’s the color of our skin. Maybe it’s our place of origin. Maybe it’s in our struggle.

          But that’s not possible to know.

          Is there a collective struggle, a collective discrimination, in some regards? Sure. I’m not denying that at all. But this is hard to get our arms around; I’m not sure what, specifically, President Obama could do to address racial discrimination in any particular way other than to uphold our law, push back in certain areas and expand opportunities for all Americans who are struggling. He’s smarter than me and most anyone else, so maybe he’ll figure that out.

          The problems of “black unemployment” would seem to cover a lot of areas where broad-based policies could do the most help: better schools, better health care, creating jobs, criminal justice reform (particularly punitive measures against non-violent drug offenders) pushing back against our nation’s prison-industrial complex, etc etc etc. Those are the sorts of things that would be beneficial for all citizens, not just our black ones.

          But could they, taken together, address some of the underlying causes of the high unemployment rate for blacks? Sure.

          To my original point, though, the article was ridiculous. And I can’t imagine that Obama could make much headway on a black-focused agenda.

        • Also, this formulation of black America essentially reduces “blackness” to institutional discrimination. You sure you wanna do that? Do you see how problematic that might be?

    • Seth in LA

      Obama the candidate tried to make the concept of a “base” outdated, by going after constituencies and states that others felt were unreachable for a Democrat or a candidate of color, let alone a man who was both. Obama the President has had less success with this approach, but the question is not “who is his base”? The question is, what would he accomplish by doing more specifically for black people.

      95% of blacks voted for Obama and 96% give him a positive performance rating. Those don’t seem like the numbers of a man who has turned his back on his base.

      Considering how much resistance he has run into trying to pass legislation that will help ALL middle class and ALL lower income people, it would seem like passing legislation that would specifically help only minorities would leave him buried forever in partisan politics.

      To me, Obama’s base are the people, black and white, who supported his candidacy and now hold out the faith that his inclusive, cautious, patient approach to governance will eventually yield benefits for all, especially those most in need.

      • This is pretty much the point in a nutshell: “To me, Obama’s base are the people, black and white, who supported his candidacy and now hold out the faith that his inclusive, cautious, patient approach to governance will eventually yield benefits for all, especially those most in need.”

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  • blackink12

    Also, I forgot to add: I don’t have a problem with the various constituencies of Obama’s voting bloc attempting to hold him accountable for his campaign promises on particular issues.

    That’s the only smart thing to do. It’s the reason constituencies even exist, no?

    And I don’t have a problem with the way Rep. Elijah Cummings frames the concern. But Elinor Tatum? GTFO. I don’t even know what the hell she’s talking about.

  • rikyrah

    love this post.