The Chronicle Review

Race, Class, and Obama

Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle Review

August 28, 2011

In his latest book, The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage (Ecco), published in May, the journalist Ellis Cose argues that middle-class African-Americans are uniquely optimistic about the future. A few months later, however, the Pew Research Center disclosed that from 2005 to 2009, the racial wealth gap had reached a record high, with wealth falling by 53 percent among black households. That news arrived as President Obama and Congress brokered an end to the debt-ceiling standoff, laying the groundwork for deficit cuts that will disproportionately affect black Americans. Meanwhile, prominent voices in the black public sphere have been urging African-Americans to defend Obama against his detractors. How to reconcile Cose's optimism, Pew's findings, and the appeals of African-Americans to circle the wagons, even as Obama appeases Republicans by sacrificing black constituencies and interests? Simply put, you can't.

The dissonances of the past few months indicate how class complicates black politics. African-Americans have traditionally perceived their fates as linked, so for some, the thinking goes, public criticism of Obama undermines the collective interests of the black community. This view, expressed recently by the Rev. Al Sharpton and the radio personality Tom Joyner, reflects the anxiety and optimism of striving black professionals, many of whom regard the president as a symbol of black middle-class triumph. But their insistence on keeping quiet, however well-meaning, carries dangers that black-studies scholars are well positioned to highlight and critique.

To do so, we need to take a look at how race and class have shaped the Obama phenomenon from the beginning.

As the sociologist Jennifer F. Hamer suggests in Abandoned in the Heartland: Work, Family, and Living in East St. Louis (University of California Press, 2011), Obama's presidential campaign unfolded during a calamitous period for most African-Americans, beginning with the disenfranchisement of black voters in the 2000 elections; the deprivations exposed by Hurricane Katrina; and a staggering black jobless figure that is more than twice the rate for whites. According to "The State of America's Children," a 2011 report put out by the Children's Defense Fund, nearly 40 percent of black children in America lived in poverty in 2009. Predatory loans, turmoil in the housing market, and the scaling back of public-sector professions has now begun to erode the black middle class.

Class and race provided a subtext to Obama's campaign. Projecting an image of black middle-class respectability, Obama understood that displays of emotion, especially anger, put him at risk of being framed as a thug. (Note how the Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann has used this tactic, referring to his administration as "gangster government.") Paradoxically, Obama's opponents also used his Ivy League credentials, cerebral manner, and air of relaxed confidence to accuse him of being, in Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland's words, "uppity"—a term historically used by whites to disparage African-Americans considered too smart or successful for their own good.

But Obama was not simply the object of race and class anxieties. He strategically employed them, too. As Thomas J. Sugrue notes in Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race (Princeton University Press, 2010), Obama admonished African-American audiences for their overreliance on government and their dysfunctional child-rearing. This rhetoric was aimed at white television viewers, who wanted proof that Obama could get "tough" with black people. Yet he was also drawing on a heritage of black "racial uplift," whereby black middle-class professionals assume stewardship of the poor masses—lifting them on their backs as they climb the ladder of racial progress. Those African-Americans who applauded Obama's words weren't castigating themselves; rather, they were making clear that they don't engage in backward behavior, while acknowledging that others in the community were in need of uplift. Obama's performances were, moreover, consistent with the Democratic Party's overall swing to the right.

The narrative of racial uplift was reinforced by the Black Enterprise magazine publisher, Earl G. Graves Sr. In a widely circulated essay, he asserted that Obama's victory proved that black youth had "no more excuses" for not succeeding. From Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, faith in perseverance and victory over adversity have been mainstays of black narrative. Obama's election confirmed that belief, and Graves echoed it. Yet Graves's message, intended as motivation, nonetheless implied that poor blacks were to blame for an economic debacle they did not cause.

Since then, as the right has challenged Obama—sometimes with crude racist mockery, cultural "othering," and political caricature (as in the case of an Orange County Republican official who distributed an e-mail to party members depicting Obama's head on the body of an ape)—entreaties from within the black public to defend the president have grown more boisterous. When Mark Halperin, of Time magazine, used a vulgarism to describe the president, Tom Joyner published an open letter blaming Tavis Smiley and Cornel West—both outspoken critics of Obama—for contributing to an environment in which white journalists feel at ease slurring a black president. By throwing brickbats at Obama, Joyner suggested, Smiley and West effectively legitimized white racism.

Such denunciations capture what Ellis Cose—in an earlier book—characterized as the rage of a black privileged class. Scorned and marginalized in their own professional lives, they identify with Obama as a symbol of self-affirmation. Yet this attitude threatens to distort black discourse at a crucial moment. Emphasizing Obama's heroics prioritizes personal charisma over collective ability and wisdom. Why is the president more deserving of support than members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus, a number of whom have lobbied against Tea Party Republicanism, pressed for jobs programs and public-investment initiatives, and refused to vote for the draconian debt-ceiling compromise? Of what value is the president's virtuosity if it bolsters a longstanding liberal retreat from issues of racial and economic inequality? What good is his "cool" if it masks, as the entertainer and civil-rights veteran Harry Belafonte has claimed, Obama's lack of moral courage?

From the black-convention movement of the 19th century to the freedom struggles of the 20th, the African-American public sphere has been the site of robust exchange about the state of black America. Neither black interests nor anyone else's are served by making the president an exception.

During the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery campaign for black voting rights, when Martin Luther King Jr. turned marchers back at the Edmund Pettus Bridge to avoid disobeying a court injunction, grass-roots activists regarded the act as a betrayal and took King to task. Their disapproval helped push King to higher planes of political consciousness. Likewise, Obama must be held accountable for his missteps. As class and similar intraracial dynamics continue to complicate black opinion, and as scholars of the black experience persist in seeking historical and interpretive meaning in Obama's presidency, the need for such engagement grows ever more acute.

Clarence Lang is an associate professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75 (University of Michigan Press, 2009), and co-editor, with Robbie Lieberman, of Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).