10 April 2009

How Far Should Black Critics Go With President Obama?

President Obama went on a European vacation, and all we got were some pictures. I guess I'll have to take a cue here from ESPN, the master of made up statistics - "Larry Bird is the most accurate inbound passer of all time" - and declare the Obamas "the tallest American presidential couple of all time." The buildup for this trip was so big it was hard to believe that the world leaders only met for a day. I imagine they wanted to make sure they got back home in time to see the world leader of golf try to snag another green jacket at the Masters in Augusta this weekend.

Then again, I guess it couldn't take too long for them to all announce "we're broke as hell too." I'll leave the parsing of promises that won't be kept to the pros at the Washington Post and The New York Times who get paid the big bucks to tell us, in euphemisms and anecdotes that we don’t understand half the time, why the majority of us don’t really understand the nuances of foreign diplomacy most of the time.

What I want to get into today is the debate that is brewing among the black critics of the Obama Administration.

  • How much criticism is too much?
  • Can you criticize the president and still keep your Afro-American I.D. card?
  • How critically are black people willing to examine the inaction the president has opted for on numerous occasions?

I've been in online writing groups for years. The only reason they exist is to bring writers together to help each other get better by reading and criticizing each other's work. The first critique I got on my favorite writers workshop, Scrawl, stung quite a bit. I'd been writing in a vacuum on and off for a few years, and it showed. But I hung in there, and submitted another story, and then another. Meanwhile, I began critiquing the work of other writers. Doing the critiques, I learned early on that the way to get someone whose work I didn't think was very good to read my stuff was to address their literary deficiencies with some concrete actions, suggestions that were in some cases the same techniques I used to give life to my own work.

Many of us feel that in some ways President Barack Obama and his family are a cherished part of the African American collective, the same way the writers in my writing group felt that the work they submitted for review was an important representation of their artistic perspective. Which means that we who have dubbed ourselves cultural critics owe it to our new president to be as honest and as forthright as possible about his shortcomings as we are about his strengths. What we have to do is be wary of efforts by the mainstream media to delegitimize our commentary.

How much criticism is too much?

It's almost impossible to create a melody with just one note, let alone a whole song. When the critic begins to sound like a one note nancy, the way Tavis Smiley did last year, it's too much. But when the president is having a bad week, or a bad month, it is what it is. The best hitters in baseball strike out more than they hit the ball. The president is kind of in the same boat. Calling a strikeout after an unsuccessful at-bat is expected. But every solid base hit is not a fluke, or a lapse by the pitcher, or an unforced error. When President Obama gets some good wood on the ball, call it "good wood on the ball."

Can you criticize the president and still keep your Afro-American I.D. card?

This metaphorical membership card, not to be confused with the "race card", which is one of the funniest media-fostered oxymorons I've ever heard, does have a similar intent - to place restrictive boundaries around those upon whom these designations are conferred. If you are having a problem with the allegiance to President Obama versus your allegiance to your perceived peer group, you need to think about this - he may look like us all of the time, but he stands for us for only a small part of the time that he is the president. This metaphorical membership card business is more about how you think than who you are. You might not be able to leave home without American Express, but this 'black card" is one you can leave behind.

How critically are black people willing to examine the inaction the president has opted for on numerous occasions?

This is probably the most important area of all. When the president does not address certain issues that disproportionately affect African Americans, it may be for a variety of reasons - lack of political capital, lack of emphasis by his staffers who put together his briefing books, or simply that there are other issues that are crowding the president's bandwidth. It really doesn't matter what the reason is, though, because our responsibility to ourselves should trump any urge to submerge our needs in order to make him look good. For instance, there are many homes in poor and working class black neighborhoods that have been flipped over and over again until they were sucked dry of their equity by unscrupulous investors who took advantage of the relaxed lending standards, or in some cases, committed outright mortgage fraud.

These empty houses, which are a significant part of the "toxic assets" the banks are complaining about, aren't moving, even with new investors out there who are willing to bring as much as half of the purchase price to the table, because the lenders are not willing to write down the debts on these houses to levels that can support current appraisal values. This is an issue which needs to be addressed right now - the people left in these neighborhoods are now being held hostage by redlining because the lenders who are willing to write new loans for buyers won't do business in zip codes with a high number of foreclosed properties. And if the president isn't willing to use his bully pulpit to do something about it, we need to aggravate him and his staff until he does.

Cliches are cliches because they are overused metaphors, but we use continue to use them because they are one of the most efficient distillations of the essence of a literal truth. So I will leave you with my final reason why we need to criticize the president - "the squeaky wheel gets the grease", no matter what color they are.


  1. If Blacks cannot see Obama as President of the United States and not the Black President of the United States who is not to be held as accountable as Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, etc., then they shoot themselves in the foot. Tavis Smiley and Jeff Johnson are right.

  2. BM,
    As i began reading your post, i became worried that you were becoming part of the pundocrity (sp?) that you frequently write about. Thankfully, I read on!

    THE President (notice the lack of any other description) of the United States shoud be evaluated,criticized, praised and/or admired JUST AS ANY OTHER PRESIDENT!...BY ANY INDIVIDUAL...PERIOD

    Keep it up BM

  3. First of all, Robert, your comment presupposes that black folks lack the critical thinking skills to tell the difference, which this African-American (myself) finds insulting. As I was talking to my 73 yr old father today, I and he certainly would like to find out what is mesnt by 'holding the president accountable' means to you, as BM has already articulated what that means to him. Lastly, none has included their congresspersons and senators in this 'accountability party' that we black folks are supposed to join - where do these folks fit in, and why on earth aren't all that are talking about accountabilty give a li'l tap on the shoulders of other elected officials, since they can sponsor legislation to address these issues quicker than the president. Anon said it best: the president should be evaluated, etc. like any other president. I plan on evaluating him based on his term in office,not after 3 months and will hold him 'accountable' at the ballot box, just like any other politician. This will not preclude me from having issues with his stances on certain issues(which I do), but I happen to have a bit more faith in my people than some of y'all, and find this discussion about criticism to be a huge distraction. I will reserve my right to criticize the critics if they come across as condecending(as Tavis does)and agree with those that make sensible critiques(as Brown Man has done)

  4. Um, I'm sorry, but Tavis Smiley and Jeff Johnson? Those two fools are JEALOUS of President Obama. They're hiding behind all of that criticism crap particularly Tavis because he's very bitter and resentful of Obama. So, no, they're NOT right.
    And another thing, when I see white people on fox news talking about President Obama is a fascist who wants to re-educate our kids in camps and that we have to take up arms and all that crazy shit, you're GOD DAMNED RIGHT I'm going to support President Obama all the way without criticism. There are crazy ass people out there that want to KILL HIM. IF anything were to happen to that man, you'd all be singing a different tune right now

  5. Eric:

    I'm sorry. You know as well as I do that many blacks voted for Obama simply because he is "black." I heard it out of their own mouths. No discusssion of policy. Just that he is "black."
    That is all they thought about.

    Holding him accountable is just like Tavis Smiley, the NAACP, the Urban League, etc. held Bush (who I never voted for) accountable.

    Dr. President:

    You are irrational.

  6. I am of the firm opinion that any individual who is in the leadership of the government on any level is open to valid criticism. That would include Obama.

    If we do not speak up and out against policies that we do not agree with then we are doing ourselves an injustice. Our total agreement or silent disagreement is not participating in the process. That was a major part of his platform-getting average citizens to openly participate in the governing of the nation. Either we take advantage of that or we won't. That is on us to decide and act upon.

    Obama can and should be brought to task when it is called for. But I also feel that there are issues that we are going to have to deal with whether there is a Black POTUS or not.

  7. No. Robert, I for one did not vote for Obama just 'cuz he's black - If I just voted for him for his skin color, I would've voted for Cynthia McKinney, since she had stances that I agreed with, but she had no chance of being elected. Yes, many voted for him for the reasons you stated, however, it does not, in my humble opinion, make your commment any more insulting. Many that take this line of arguement attempt to diminish those(like myself)who have issues with the line of criticisms of Tavis or others - we are either personality cultists or worse.
    Again you wanna hold Obama accountable, make your criticisms known by writing him at whithouse.gov, calling your congresspersons or senators, or better yet, local officials - to me, that is more proactive than the all too familiar internet navel-gazing that I see on many sites.

    msladydeborah: you are correct: people getting involved in the process was a major part of his platform, that many seem to have forgot. Why I find alot of this round-and-round about criticism to be ridiculous.

  8. Eric:

    You said "in my humble opinion, make your commment any more insulting." You mean any less insulting, don't you?

    I never accused you of voting for the man because he was black. And my assertion still stands. And furthermore, the hateration dished out to Tavis Smiley just because he would not "get behind the brother" is unjustified.

    You should read www.blackagendareport.com to get some facts about "the brother."

    I'm a writer, my business is to inform. Also too I have written my congressman, a Democrat and Obama supporter, about him.

    I have no problems in keeping Obama accountable because I'm from Chicago. I was there before he got there. I knew about him before everyone else did. I even met many of his friends, including Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Father Michael Pfleger. He even stabbed someone I knew in the back politically there.
    He stole an election in 1995 so that the people did not choose him at all. They all could have stayed home on election day he still would have been "elected."

    If you don't like what I have to say, just ignore it and don't lecture me.

    Otherwise, don't step on my First Amendment right as I have not stepped on yours.

  9. What? Obama can't wiretap folks and do exactly what Bush wanted to do? That is change I can believe in.

    "Obama Moves To Legalize Warrantless Wiretapping!"

  10. Fair enough, Robert. We can agree to disagree, yet your assertion that I am stepping on your 1st amendment rights by questioning your comments is baseless, churlish and idiotic on it's face. Yes, I have read blackagendareport.com, and I agree with some criticisms, disagree with others. What this seems to be about, is that alot of you critics want to sit in your bubble and throw stones from afar without anyone questioning the content of your assertions, then you wanna diminish me with cutting and pasting some link and procede to become an English teacher. If you don't want to be lectured, follow your own damn advice

  11. Eric:

    Is it a good thing that Obama wants to continue Bush's wiretapping policy?

    That is the reason I put that link there.

    Here are more:

    "Obama backs Bush 'state secrets' position" http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2009/04/obama-doj-worse-than-bush

    "Obama Moves To Legalize Warrantless Wiretapping!"

    "Obama backs Bush on terror prisoners" http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0209/19099.html

    "Obama Continues Bush-Era Extremism on Liberties, Secrecy" http://www.boingboing.net/2009/03/15/obama-continues-bush.html

    Did I make these up?

  12. I would think the more relevant question would be: how soon is too soon? and I also think that if this is (as i think) a relevant question, then what does THAT say about would-be commentators?

  13. Daedalus, the time is always right now.

    The one thing I can say is, if you think about politics logically - that is, if you ignore the conventional wisdom and accept whatever realities you find, rather than the most popular ones on the airwaves or around the internet, you will have to conclude that you can find any and all different kinds of motivations for voters and citizens to do what they do, no matter how you want to classify them or reshuffle them.

    The argument that begins with "we know the blacks voted for Obama only because he's black" doesn't hold up when we test it another way - if Obama was the Republican candidate, the way Colin Powell could have been the GOP's choice ten years ago, would black people cross party lines as if drawn by the magnet of melanin?

    Not likely.

    Black people are willing to vote for a certain kind of candidate - one who appeals to whatever it is the individual voter feels are his best interests, whether it is to vote straight ticket Democrat, vote for the pro-abortion candidate, vote for the best national healthcare candidate - whatever they've identified with.

    There are a number of black people who wouldn't vote for the Republican presidential candidate if he were handing out half a million dollar checks.

    But the generalizing does make it easier to talk about things, which is why we do it. It makes it easier to characterize someone, or a group, based upon a single trait that is supposed to be shared by all.

    I've been doing it with the Tea Baggers these last few days, even though I know that for every two loudmouth knownothings who is just happy to have a reason to bash the Negro president, there is one malcontent who has become genuinely disturbed after carefully studying the facts of the matter and coming to his own conclusion about things.

  14. Eric,
    You want who's irrational? GLEN BECK. MICHELLE BAUCHMANN. Those MFers are irrational. I'm supporting my President, that's what I AM. so FUCK YOU.

  15. There are a number of black people who wouldn't vote for the Republican presidential candidate if he were handing out half a million dollar checks.
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