Monday, May 20, 2013

Scold in Chief

I am in absolute agreement with Ta-Nehisi Coates' discussion about how President Obama talks to the Black community. For all the talk about how President Obama is too solicitous to the "blahs", it is evident that he holds them up to a far higher standard than he does other communities. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is a notable thing, and sometimes it can be a counterproductive thing. As Coates points out, there's nothing intrinsically worse about dreaming to be the next LeBron James as the next Peyton Manning, or the next Kanye compared to the next David Bowie. And I've always wondered how, if at all, the whole "reading a book is acting White" is anything more than a localized instantiation of the more general truth that nerds are unpopular.

Again, perhaps this sort of "tough love" outlook is a net benefit for the Black community. It certainly tracks what White people say they want Black people to say to their own community (though it is perhaps unsurprising that Obama gets no credit for it). But I can't help but note that we are much less approving of this sort of approach when it is directed at ourselves. "Tough love" when directed toward Blacks is "blaming America first" or "politicizing a tragedy" when it comes to Whites.


PG said...

And I've always wondered how, if at all, the whole "reading a book is acting White" is anything more than a localized instantiation of the more general truth that nerds are unpopular.

But there's a difference between "eww, nerd" and "eww, traitor to our group." For example, if white Gentiles were told they were "acting Jewish" or "acting Asian" by being nerds, then I'd see an analogy. But to my knowledge, that doesn't happen. The Interscholastic spelling competition team at my high school was all 5 of the Indian-American guys at the school, plus 1 white guy, and they all got called nerds (mostly jokingly -- for whatever reason the real bullying of nerds seems to have worked itself out in junior high). But I don't think the white guy was ever told that he was less white for participating in that activity, even though he was very visibly the only white guy doing it.

It's hard to explain but there is a different feeling to being bullied about your race or religion than about other things; there's a soreness created by "spic" or "dot-head" that's not like being hurt by "four-eyes" or "fatso" or "klutz." I've never been able to communicate this well to most white conservatives, but it's something I feel based on experience. And I think that difference remains when it's sort of inverted and it's your group taunting you about not really being part of them, rather than the majority taunting you for being in the minority.

PG said...

Also, I just plain disagree with some of Coates's analysis. Hadiya Pendleton lived in a neighborhood where high schoolers are all expected by their peers to identify with a gang. She lived in a neighborhood where minors have access to guns not because their parents took them to shooting ranges and then failed to keep the guns sufficiently secured from them, but because they get them through straw purchasers and older friends. Perhaps most importantly, "Two suspects, Michael Ward, 18, and Kenneth Williams, 20, were arrested and indicted with multiple counts of first degree murder, attempted murder, aggravated discharge of a weapon and many other charges. They told police that Pendleton was not the intended target. The group she was standing with was mistaken for members of a rival gang. A judge denied bail for the two gang members."

Adam Lanza didn't shoot a bunch of elementary school kids by accident. He shot them and their teachers and administrators on purpose. And he went to commit the massacre almost certainly intending to die there himself. It seems disrespectful both of how our country has failed Pendleton and her killers in the lack of a safe, gang-free place for them to live, and of how our mental health system evidently failed Lanza and his mother (his first victim), to conflate the two.

"the aggression the administration showed to bail out the banks" -- a bailout that was of course initiated by the prior Administration, before the election even occurred, and a bailout that was not about helping individuals (lots of people were left unemployed after the government-backed mergers of weaker banks into stronger ones) but about keeping the global financial system from collapsing.

I'm also surprised by Coates's failure to address the extent to which Obama prizes (perhaps mythologizes) the importance of black fathers due to the absence of his own. I think Dreams from My Father indicates that a lot of what Obama looks back on as mistakes, including his drug use, he sees as coming from the "hole in his heart" that was father-shaped. Not being a gendered thinker, I'm kind of skeptical of this, but I can believe that if your society and culture tell you that a father is important and you're deprived if you don't have one, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. To that extent, I wonder in a totally different way than Coates if Obama does a disservice to his black audiences by harping on the importance of father.