It all started when President Obama gave a commencement speech at Morehouse College. Ta-Nehisi Coates responded with a critique. Rather than try to summarize all that, I'll just let you go back and review those for yourself.
On Tuesday, President Obama participated in a forum on poverty in America. During the course of the discussion, the moderator (EJ Dionne) asked the President to respond to Coates' critique. Here's a part of what he said:
It’s true that if I’m giving a commencement at Morehouse that I will have a conversation with young black men about taking responsibility as fathers that I probably will not have with the women of Barnard. And I make no apologies for that. And the reason is, is because I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the cost that I paid for that. And I also know that I have the capacity to break that cycle, and as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off.On Wednesday, Coates responded. He basically made two arguments. First of all, he points to the President's statement about the need for both/and rather than either/or when it comes to moral arguments about responsibility and policy solutions. He sees a difference in how the two are addressed. On the moral questions, President Obama specifically targets those messages to African Americans. But he takes a different approach when it comes to policies.
And that is not something that—for me to have that conversation does not negate my conversation about the need for early childhood education, or the need for job training, or the need for greater investment in infrastructure, or jobs in low-income communities.
Obama’s policy message to African Americans does not enjoy this level of targeted specificity. Instead he endorses the sort of broad policies which most progressives support—criminal justice reform, “investment in infrastructure,” improved healthcare coverage, “jobs in low-income communities.”...On the surface, this is a good point. But then one begins to ponder what a "targeted policy" would look like. How does a president go about crafting criminal justice reform targeted only at African Americans? It seems to me that targeted policies only make sense in the context that Coates wrote about so powerfully a few months ago when he addressed the question of reparations. If Coates and Obama ever have the opportunity to talk directly with each other, addressing that would be a fascinating follow-up.
I endorse all of these initiatives and ideas—but not because they are targeted policy. They are not. And you will hear no policy targeted toward black people coming out of the Obama White House, or probably any White House in the near future. That is because the standard progressive approach of the moment is to mix color-conscious moral invective with color-blind public policy.
Coates' second point about the President's remarks is simply wrong.
This affliction is not solely Obama’s. Consider that in a conversation about poverty, featuring America’s first black president, one of its most accomplished progressive political scientists, and one of its most important liberal columnists, the word “racism” does not appear in the transcript once. That is because the progressive approach to policy which directly addresses the effects of white supremacy is simple—talk about class and hope no one notices.If Coates was assuming that the only way to do that was for the President to channel Malcolm X (what he linked to), of course he's going to be disappointed. But there was one point in the panel discussion when I actually clapped and said, "YES!" particularly because President Obama addressed the historical context of African Americans and poverty. It all happened prior to the point when Dionne asked the President to address Coates' previous critiques. Here's an extensive quote so you get the context.
This is not a “both/and.” It is a bait and switch. The moral failings of black people are directly addressed. The centuries-old failings of their local, state, and federal government, less so. One need not imagine what a “both/and” approach might sound like, to understand why a president of the United States can’t actually offer one.
And when I read Bob’s book, the first thing that strikes you is when he’s growing up in Ohio, he’s in a community where the banker is living in reasonable proximity to the janitor at the school. The janitor’s daughter may be going out with the banker’s son. There are a set of common institutions...and all the things that stitch them together. And that is all contributing to social mobility and to a sense of possibility and opportunity for all kids in that community...I have to say that simply because the President didn't use the word "racism" doesn't mean he didn't address it's importance in the context of a conversation about poverty.
And what’s happened in our economy is that those who are doing better and better -- more skilled, more educated, luckier, having greater advantages -- are withdrawing from sort of the commons..An anti-government ideology then disinvests from those common goods and those things that draw us together. And that, in part, contributes to the fact that there’s less opportunity for our kids, all of our kids...
Now, one other thing I’ve got to say about this is that even back in Bob’s day that was also happening. It’s just it was happening to black people. And so, in some ways, part of what’s changed is that those biases or those restrictions on who had access to resources that allowed them to climb out of poverty...all those things were foreclosed to a big chunk of the minority population in this country for decades.
And that accumulated and built up. And over time, people with less and less resources, more and more strains -- because it’s hard being poor. People don’t like being poor. It’s time-consuming’ it’s stressful. It’s hard...So all that was happening 40 years ago to African Americans. And now what we’re seeing is that those same trends have accelerated and they’re spreading to the broader community.
Overall I appreciate the role Coates is playing in pushing this conversation. But I always get the feeling he's frustrated with something and I can't quite figure out what it is. Perhaps its the same frustration commenter Sheba Lo shared on my post about Michelle Obama's speech at Tuskegee.
How long will blk folks have to prepare their children to live in a racist America...Now THAT's a frustration that I can understand!