Thursday, December 20, 2012

Obama: African-American, But Not Black?

One might have expected that America's first biracial president would have been a master at race relations. One might have expected that, being the son of a white mother and a black father, he would have been perceptively attuned to issues of race. But Barack Obama has found the African-Americans to be one of his most challenging constituencies.

There are many reasons why it might be difficult for Obama to connect intuitively with the African-American community. Some arise from his childhood, much of which was spent in Indonesia, where he was surrounded by many Asians and a few ex-patriot Europeans, but not by people of African heritage. The few Africans he might have seen there would not have been African-American, but rather properly African, and therefore not part of the American black experience.

During those few childhood years he spent in the U.S., mainly in Hawaii, his grandmother's wealth - she was the vice president of a bank - ensured that he was sent to exclusive private schools, away from ordinary black people, and away from ordinary public schools.

This childhood did not equip Obama to relate to the culture and experience of African-Americans, whether rural or urban. This inability to connect to black voters gave rise to difficulties in the Obama administration. Maureen Dowd, a newspaper columnist whose ideas are generally similar to Obama's, wrote:

The Obama White House is too white. It has Barack Obama, raised in the Hawaiian hood and Indonesia, and Valerie Jarrett, who spent her early years in Iran. But unlike Bill Clinton, who never needed help fathoming Southern black culture, Obama lacks advisers who are descended from the central African-American experience, ones who understand "the slave thing," as a top black Democrat dryly puts it.

The firing of Shirley Sherrod revealed how badly Obama's administration could bungle race relations. She was fired from the Department of Agriculture based on media reports, on public perceptions, and on urban legend. The administration did no fact-checking. Not only was she fired based on what turned out to be a false narrative, but the White House was not aware of her status as a leader in the African-American community. Dowd write that Obama's staff wasn't

familiar enough with civil rights history to recognize the name Sherrod. And they didn’t return the calls and e-mail of prominent blacks who tried to alert them that something was wrong. Charles Sherrod, Shirley’s husband, was a Freedom Rider who, along with the civil rights hero John Lewis, was a key member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the ‘60s. As Lewis, the longtime Georgia congressman, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he knew immediately that something was amiss with the distorted

narrative percolating through the media. Obama and his staff were utterly out of touch with the intuitive reaction of the larger African-American community. Historian Edward Klein wrote that Dowd's "blistering rebuke of Obama" was a logical consequence of

how badly America's first black president had bungled his relations with black America.

Although the Sherrod incident was indicative of Obama's inability to understand black American, it was not an isolated occurrence:

The Sherrod Case was a turning point in relations between Obama and the black leadership. No longer were blacks willing to bite their tongues when speaking about the black president. By the summer of 2011, the Congressional Black Caucus was openly warning Obama that black voters were frustrated by his administration's unwillingness to address black joblessness, which was more than double the national average, and which rose as high as 40 percent in urban centers like Chicago and Detroit. The message was clear: although Obama would probably still get more than 90 percent of the African-American vote in 2012, he couldn't count on the kind of black turnout he had generated in 2008.

The numbers in 2012 confirmed this: although Obama's 2008 election had been primarily the result of white voters, his 2012 reelection was even more so. A precipitous decline in black voter turnout revealed that the African-American community was no longer enthusiastic about Obama.

"I'm frustrated with the president, I'm frustrated with the Senate, I'm frustrated with the House," Representative Emanuel Cleaver II, a Missouri Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "The president and his White House team [are] trying to minimize the discussion of race as it relates to job creation."

Although his 2008 campaign and election were based primarily on the fact that he was biracial, Obama continued to be tone-deaf to the views expressed by black leaders.

Emanuel Cleaver's complaint was echoed by Maxine Waters, a former chairman of the caucus. "The worry should be that are [black] people going to be enthusiastic about getting to the polls, or are they not going to be as enthusiastic."

African-American leaders were frustrated with Obama; he in turn was frustrated with them. This mutual annoyance arose from a cultural divide. Ann Dunham, Barack Obama's mother, had raised Obama in the company of wealthy white businesspeople: oil executives, bankers, professors. The non-whites in Obama's early life, Asians and a very few blacks, were from the comfortable and educated classes. Whatever vague notion of blackness the young Obama had, it was removed socially, culturally, and economically from the African-American experience.

Obama compounded his problem with African-Americans in August 2011, when he set off on a three-day bus tour through the Midwest to talk about his push to create jobs. With his approval ratings at an all-time low of 39 percent, Obama campaigned before all-white audiences in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. This set off a chorus of criticism from black leaders, who wanted to know why the president had avoided African-American communities.

Obama may have been comfortable with individuals of African heritage - people with dark skin - but many of the one's he'd actually known were not from the United States and not part of America's black culture.

Stung by all this criticism, Obama appeared before the Congressional Black Caucus in September 2011 and gave a no-holds-barred speech chastising his critics. He told the attendees at the gathering to "take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes" and "stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying."

In response, Maxine Waters deftly put the president in his place. "I've never owned a pair of bedroom slippers," she said.

Many African-American leaders came either from the rural south or the urban industrialized north. Obama grew up among wealthy people in Hawaii and Indonesia. More than one black leader noted that Bill Clinton was more able to understand their concerns than Barack Obama. Edward Klein recalls his interviews with various black leaders:

If relations between Obama and black politicians were touchy, they were downright contentious with black businessmen. I spoke with Harry C. Alford, the president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, which represents the nearly two million black businesses in the United States.

"When Obama became president, we were all happy about the symbolism — America’s first black president," Alford told me. "We didn't really care about his position or views on anything. We just wanted a black president no matter what. We should have been more careful, as his views on small business, especially black business, are counter to ours.

"His view of business is that it should be a few major corporations which are totally unionized and working with the government, which should also be massive and reaching every level of American society,” Alford continued. "Thus, his first Executive Order was the reinstatement of Project Labor Agreements in government contracting. PLAs give labor unions an exclusive [option] in construction jobs — all participating firms must use union labor or, at least, pay union wages and abide by union rules. This activity, in effect, discriminates against blacks, Hispanics, and women per se, as trade unions deliberately under-employ them."

Obama is quite comfortable with the leadership of the Democratic Party - a largely white group of individuals. He's also comfortable with the leadership of unions - again, a group the majority of which is white. His experiences in school - all the way through graduate school - were in environments populated mainly by white people. Obama is simply not comfortable around black people.