The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates is having a vigorous debate with New York‘s Jonathan Chait. I side with Coates. This post, regarding the erroneous conflation of the “culture of poverty” and “black culture,” is excellent.
However, I still don’t totally agree with Coates’s criticism of Obama’s addresses to black audiences. As I wrote in the comments:
I’m getting from your posts the idea that President Obama can’t speak as a member of “Team Negro” (to use the metaphor that Chait set up and to which you objected) when he addresses black audiences—he’s only to speak in his capacity as “commissioner of the league.” I think this is unfair. Many of the things President Obama says in such addresses are, as you have noted previously, the same things our parents and grandparents have told us. But, IMO, he’s not saying those things as Barack Obama, the president of the United States, but rather as Barack Obama, a black man who succeeded in the face of adversity, racial and otherwise. I’m pretty sure, for instance, that Morehouse College did not invite him to speak at Commencement solely to speak about policy; he’s also there as a role model—arguably, primarily so.** I don’t think that point is acknowledged nearly enough in your posts; perhaps you don’t value this role of President Obama’s, but plenty of black folks, myself included, do. (Hence the capturing of moments such as these.) I don’t see his remarks on things like the importance of fatherhood as “lecturing”; they’re rooted in kinship. I believe that status accounts for the reason that President Obama’s speeches to, say, rural, working-class white communities sound different: he’s not of those communities and hence lacks the standing to make those kind of admonishments to those audiences. I also think RS22 makes an excellent point that Obama’s policy efforts negate the idea that he believes culture is the sole, or even primary, cause for the challenges that afflict black communities.
**I think your summary of Obama’s speech at Morehouse in this post is particularly distorted. He didn’t bring up young black men making bad choices because he thinks Morehouse graduates, despite their degrees, are subject to the same culture of poverty as a high school dropout trapped in the ghetto. He did so to encourage those graduates to be ambassadors for the young men whose point of view is framed primarily (or solely) by that culture. His whole speech was about the importance of reinforcing the policy he seeks to carry out with boots on the ground in those communities. (More of my thoughts here.)