Mau-Mauing the white liberals

Ishmael Reed, the African-American novelist, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times taking white liberals to task for failing to appreciate President Obama’s situation as a black man.

Ishmael Reed

Reed recalled all the times he got a “D” in deportment from white school teachers, for doing nothing at all except attending class while black.  He wrote that white liberals who criticize President Obama for not acting tough don’t appreciate the problems of a black man trying to make it in a predominantly white society.

Progressives have been urging the president to “man up” in the face of the Republicans. Some want him to be like John Wayne. On horseback. Slapping people left and right.

One progressive commentator played an excerpt from a Harry Truman speech during which Truman screamed about the Republican Party to great applause. He recommended this style to Mr. Obama. If President Obama behaved that way, he’d be dismissed as an angry black militant with a deep hatred of white people. …

When these progressives refer to themselves as Mr. Obama’s base, all they see is themselves. They ignore polls showing steadfast support for the president among blacks and Latinos. And now they are whispering about a primary challenge against the president. Brilliant! The kind of suicidal gesture that destroyed Jimmy Carter — and a way to lose the black vote forever.

Unlike white progressives, blacks and Latinos are not used to getting it all. They know how it feels to be unemployed and unable to buy your children Christmas presents. They know when not to shout. The president, the coolest man in the room, who worked among the unemployed in Chicago, knows too.

via NYTimes

A black blogger named Sheria had this to say.

See, as a black person I’m so sick and tired of white liberals who have still enjoyed the privilege of being white trying to tell a black man how to navigate in a white world.

You don’t get it and you lack the humility to simply accept that you do not. Instead you attack the President as being weak, without balls, a sellout and any other demeaning, emasculating terminology that you can devise. You don’t understand what it is to be black and walk in his shoes and you’re too damned arrogant to listen to those of us who try and tell you.

By now, you’re all upset because I’ve offended you. Hey, don’t you want us to show our anger? Don’t you have problems with me being so nice and reasonable all the time?

Don’t get hung up on the mistaken notice that I’m taking the position that the president is off limits for criticism. I don’t think he’s perfect and I certainly have problems with some of his decisions. He and I part company when it comes to the continuation of either of our wars.

Read carefully and understand me, I’m talking about the continued hammering at his character. I’m talking about the insulting and demeaning allegations that he is less than a man, some namby- pamby smart guy who doesn’t know how to be tough. What colossal ignorance and arrogance to believe that any black person could achieve what President Obama has achieved and be weak. Until you have walked in our shoes, until you have been marginalized based on the color of your skin in a culture that continues to not only openly express racism but defend its right to do so under cockeyed readings of the 1st amendment, then don’t talk to me about how you think that any black person should behave.

via The Examined Life

I think that everything they say is perfectly true, and also beside the point.

I’m a self-identified white liberal, and I don’t have any problem with President Obama’s temperament and manner.  I like his air of dignity, reserve and thoughtfulness.  His manner of talking and acting is Presidential.  And I agree that as a black man, he faces difficulties and constraints that a white man in his position would not.

But in fact he does manifest anger.  His anger is directed at his original supporters who are disappointed in his lack of visible effort to do what he promised to do in the campaign.

There are two possible explanations for his behavior.  One is that Obama is the equivalent of a Rockefeller Republican, who never really was a reformer, just an advocate of the minimum amount of change needed to put things back the way they were.  The other is that the balance of forces in Washington – the power of money in elections, the power of lobbyists in Congress, the revolving door between government and big business and the new requirement of a 60-vote majority in the Senate – in fact make it impossible for Obama to have accomplished any more than he did.  These two theories are not contradictory.  They could both be true.

My enthusiasm for President Obama would be reawakened if he tried to change the rules of the game so that progressives have a fighting chance – for example, by campaigning to change the rules of the Senate.  It is unlikely that he would succeed.  The opportune moment for this was between taking office in 2008 and the election campaign of 2010.  But he would have planted the seed for a continuing reform effort, and he would have made the American people aware of the situation.

President Obama has frequently expressed respect for the way President Ronald Reagan changed the direction of American politics.  President Reagan sometimes had to compromise on his agenda, but he never left any doubt as to what he stood for or what direction he was trying to move.  President Obama has not made it clear what he stands for or where he is trying to go.

When Jesse Jackson ran for President, he pointed out that African Americans can’t accomplish their goals without the support of liberal white people, but liberal white people can’t accomplish their goals without the support of African Americans.  Therefore we have to work together.

I believe I want the same things that Ishmael Reed and “Sheria” want – low unemployment, equal opportunity, a growing economy, affordable health insurance and good schools.  These are what President Obama promised to strive for in his 2008 campaign. My doubts about him are based on the way he seems to be backing away from his own program.  They are not based on his demeanor and certainly not on his race.

Click on Ishmael Reed Wiki for Reed’s Wikipedia biography.

Click on What Progessives Don’t Understand About Obama for Reed’s full op-ed article

Click on Konch Magazine for Ishmael Reed’s on-line publication. [Added 12/18/10]

Click on Can You Handle the Truth? for Sheria’s full post

This was lightly edited for clarity a few hours after it was posted.

Postscript [12/18/10]  I was taken aback to see how many views this post received yesterday.  I edited it before I went to bed last night to make sure my meaning was clear, but now I think I need to say a bit more.

I understand that black men, in order to succeed in a majority-white world, have to turn down the thermostats of their emotions so as not to alarm fearful white people.  I understand that Barack Obama’s political success was based partly on his ability to show white people how reasonable and conciliatory he was.  If he had the personality and rhetoric of a Frederick Douglass, he could not have done this.

I understand that nothing he can do or say will stop right-wing propagandists from depicting him as an angry black man, or writing books and articles with titles like The Roots of Obama’s Rage.  I wrote a little about this in an earlier post, President Obama and the race card.

I reject the silly criticism of Washington commentators such as Maureen Dowd who regard politics as a kind of theatrical performance, and judge political leaders as if they were actors.  During the BP oil spill, there was a lot of argument as to whether President Obama manifested too little anger at BP, too much or just the right amount.  Of course the question was whether his administration was able to put in place measures to prevent BP-type negligence from happening again, and I not sure he did.

I am glad that the United States as a majority-white nation was open to electing an African-American, but I did not vote for Barack Obama as a favor to black people.  I voted for him because I thought he was the superior candidate, and because I agreed with his platform.

Since he was elected, Mr. “Yes We Can” has turned into Mr. “No We Can’t.”  Maybe some of this is due to the very real objective difficulties of his situation – the power of Washington lobbyists, Republican obstructionism in the Senate.  If so, I would think President Obama would welcome demands from his original supporters that he do more.  This would strengthen his negotiating position.

What bothers me about President Obama is that he does things that hurt working people that he doesn’t have to do.  In return for agreeing to continue the Bush tax cuts, he negotiated a reduction in payroll taxes, which in the long run will undermine the solvency of the Social Security trust fund.  He didn’t have to do this.  If his objective was to put more money into the pockets of working people, he could just as easily have proposed a refund instead of a reduction of payroll taxes.

I sincerely wish I could think better of President Obama than I do, because I don’t foresee the Republicans nominating anybody I could vote for.  I could be wrong about him, but I reject the idea that I have no standing to criticize him because I am white.  Politics is not golf; you don’t get a handicap.  You judge a statesman based on results.

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4 Responses to “Mau-Mauing the white liberals”

  1. Jane Hickok Says:

    I read the NY Times OP-Ed piece too and was not sure what to think. Interestingly, to me at least, is that I went to grade school in Buffalo with Ishmael Reed. I remeber him quite well, as being one of the good guys, but nevertheless I was a bit surprised when he became such a well known author.


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