At the Congressional Black Caucus, Obama’s Sister Souljah moment
By Nathan McCall, Friday, September 30, 7:39 PM
Which famous Bill did President Obama try to imitate during his speech to the Congressional Black Caucus last weekend?
Did he pull a page from Bill Clinton’s racial playbook? Or was he impersonating Comedian Bill Cosby’s “tough love” act?
My bet says it was both. And for blacks, given the maddening quandaries of national elections, it’s also likely that Obama will get away with it, too.
Here’s the case that Obama appropriated a legendary Clinton racial tactic during his CBC address: In 1992, when Clinton ran for president, he was desperate to woo white conservatives.
In a speech delivered to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, Clinton launched an attack on Sister Souljah. A rapper and activist, Sister Souljah had made a controversial statement in a Washington Post interview regarding the LA riots.
“If black people kill black people every day,” she said, “why not have a week and kill white people?”
In his speech, Clinton likened Sister Souljah’s
remarks to white supremacist David Duke. By showing toughness against African Americans, a strong base, Clinton hoped to impress Reagan Democrats and other white conservatives.
For Obama, the calculations may be similar. Many polls suggest he needs to recapture waning white support.
Obama’s CBC speech may have been a kinder, gentler version of Clinton’s tactic, but he, too seemed to play the race card in his remarks.
After a rousing speech to his black base, Obama said:
“I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining. Stop grumbling. Stop crying. We are going to press on….”
Complaining? Grumbling? Crying?
It’s true, people applauded. But some were baffled by the president’s choice of words.
“I’m not sure exactly who the president was addressing,” Rep Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said in a CBS “Early Show” interview. “The president spoke to the Hispanic Caucus… he certainly didn’t tell them to stop complaining, and he never would say that to the gay and lesbian community, who really pushed him on ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell…’ he would never say to the Jewish community, stop complaining about Israel. So I don’t know who he was talking to, because we’re certainly not complaining.”
Granted, the reference to complaining was a single statement made toward the end of a speech. Still, shrewd politicians often convey important messages by sprinkling what appear to be offhand comments into their speeches.
Consider the famous 1984 speech by former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young. He used the speech at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Atlanta to vent his frustration with stubborn campaign managers for Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale. In a casual reference during the speech, he characterized Mondale’s handlers as “smart-ass white boys.”
The speech topic was forgotten. That one phrase made headlines nationwide.
The point is, politicians and speechwriters are skilled wordsmiths. They grasp the history and symbolism of words.
It’s hard to believe Obama’s handlers wouldn’t know the racial implications of words such as complaining, grumbling and crying in regard to blacks.
It relates to many whites’ perception of African Americans as people who contribute little to society, but always seem to be protesting – complaining – about what they want from government.
If Obama’s speechwriters made an oversight, then certainly the black president should have made the catch.
Which raises the issue of intent. At the CBC gathering, most of the people in the room were black. But is it possible that, like Clinton, Obama was aiming at America’s whites?
“At that level the politicians are never talking to the people in the room,” said one veteran reporter for USA Today, who asked not to be named. “They are talking to the television cameras, and the nation.”
Indeed, in reading about the speech, whites throughout America could perceive Obama as lecturing to blacks to stop griping. In fact, one newspaper headline characterized the speech as a message of “Tough Love.”
In that sense, Obama may have attempted to pull off a Bill Cosby impersonation. In recent years, Cosby has ignited fierce public debates over his tough love” speeches asserting “lower economic people” are failing the civil rights movement by “not holding up their end.”
Black critics contend Cosby’s messages mirror stereotypes used by white conservatives who claim lazy African Americans fail to take responsibility for their fates.
In that context, Obama’s entreaty to blacks to “take off your bedroom slippers” certainly could be construed as a Cosbyesque image of blacks passively sitting at home, not working.
“We are working,” said Rep. Waters. “We support (Obama) and we are protecting the base because we want people to be enthusiastic about him when that election rolls around.”
Beyond vote counts, there is certainly reason to believe Obama had something else to gain by sending whites coded messages. Throughout his presidency he has been dogged by suspicions that he might somehow show bias toward African Americans.
Before the CBC speech, some African Americans had complained – there’s that word again – that Obama had not acknowledged that black unemployment is the highest of any group in the nation.
As was the case with Clinton in 1992, blacks may be willing to overlook the racial calculations in Obama’s CBC speech. That partly captures the complex dilemma that African Americans face continuously around national party politics: Whites may feel assured their interests are at least partially represented by whichever white person wins a national election, whether Democrat or Republican.
But blacks tend to regard their electoral choices as all or nothing: In perception at least, it’s a choice between conservative Republicans, who seem dead-set against them, or Democrats, who at least might be more sensitive and less hostile.
Throw in the emotional import of the first black president, and the result is an obsession with protecting Obama that sometimes borders on blindness.
“Don’t ask anything of him,” some say. “Don’t criticize him. Just give him our unconditional support.” Any black person who deviates from the script runs the risk of being tagged a traitor to the race.
The mere existence of such logic is troubling. If one makes the argument, so often repeated, that Obama must be president to all Americans, then doesn’t it stand to reason that blacks are included in that equation?
If Hillary Clinton had won the 2008 election, would she have been expected to keep away from women’s issues to prove she harbors no female bias?
Can we not bring ourselves to accept the fact that Obama is a politician who is as calculating as, say, Bill Clinton?
If he lacks Clinton’s scheming cynicism, Obama certainly makes up for it in gall. In the CBC speech, Obama implored blacks to put on their marching shoes. Please. African Americans have never had the luxury of taking them off.
Our inclination to ask so little of “everybody’s president” seems a strange capitulation. On the surface, it appears to suggest black people are willing to allow the entire group’s interests to take a back seat to one man’s re-election hopes.
But maybe that’s precisely the issue: Many blacks see Obama’s success and our interests as inseparable: It’s all or nothing.
So our black president plays the race card, and more than likely, he gets a pass.
Nathan McCall teaches African American studies at Emory University. He is the author of “Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America.”