Whether or not he wins the Democratic nomination or the American presidency, Barack Obama is doing something incredibly important that no other presidential candidate could do: He is speaking honestly to the black community about the problems that plague them.
Obama is daring to criticize what African-Americans do to themselves, not to score political points among suspicious white voters, a la Bill Clinton’s famous Sister Souljah speech attacking rap lyrics, but to show what real leadership in the black community should look and sound like. We should all be listening.
In a series of recent speeches, Obama has taken on the dangerous and self-defeatist attitudes that are partly responsible for the dire straits in which so many black Americans find themselves and their communities. “There’s no one else who could say what he said about black people and their responsibility to the larger community,” according to my old friend and office-mate Harvard Professor Charles J. Ogletree, who was Barack’s mentor when he was in law school.
In Selma, Alabama, Obama took on blacks who don’t bother to vote, creating a fictional character called “Cousin Pookie” to illustrate his point. In the wake of the controversy over Don Imus, he criticized rap musicians who use the same language and images that cost Imus his job. He has been especially strong on the culture within the black community that equates academic achievement, professional success, good grammar and good grades with “acting white,” instead of recognizing the need for blacks to embrace the tools that lead to economic success.
Blacks are an extraordinarily important force in the Democratic primaries and caucuses, making up as much as half the voters in certain Southern states. Given that, one might expect the first black candidate to pander to his target voters, not criticize them, to blame everyone else for the problems in the black community, rather than putting part of the blame on those who might prefer to see themselves as victims. That is certainly how liberal politicians and most black leaders have tried to curry favor with black voters in the past, promising more aid and affirmative action, and blaming slavery and discrimination for everything that is wrong in black America. It would hardly be surprising if Obama, who has been endlessly scrutinized about whether he is “black enough,” opted for such a role of flatterer and apologist rather than hectoring his own to do more.
But Barack Obama is not your usual black candidate. To those who argue that his rhetoric is a calculated effort to win votes in this election, from whites if not from blacks, his aides point out that he was making similar points before he ran for president, and takes on similar issues before white audiences.
“It’s what we talk about in the barbershops in the South Side of Chicago,” Obama told an interviewer, noting that he addresses these issues more in the black community because the problems are more pronounced there. “There’s an old saying that if America has a cold, we have pneumonia,” he said.
Indeed, in speeches before white audiences, Obama often notes the need for discipline and clear values, calling on parents to turn off the television sets and supervise their children’s homework instead. But the language is certainly stronger, and the passion more visible, in front of audiences who look more like him.
Speaking before a group of state legislators last month in South Carolina, Obama said: “In Chicago, sometimes when I talk to the black chambers of commerce, I say, ‘You know what would be a good economic development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks weren’t throwing their garbage out of their cars.'”
Current polls suggest that the black community is sharply divided between those who support Clinton and those who support Obama. Prior to Obama’s entry in the race, Hillary’s team would almost certainly have considered black voters a solid part of her base, given her husband’s legendary connection with the community that sometimes called him “the first black president.” But, of course, Bill Clinton was not the first black president.
Blood is thicker than water, as my mother used to say, and many black leaders who know and like Hillary are moving to Obama because their constituents are. How it will all shake out in terms of actual voters is anybody’s guess, but if Barack continues on the track he is on, he has the potential to change not only the way blacks see themselves, but the way issues relating to black Americans are addressed in our political discourse. And it will be a change for the better.
©2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.