On Friday, June 26, at the funeral of Charleston, South Carolina shooting victim Clementa Pinckney, President Barack Obama closed his moving eulogy for the slain pastor—who was killed along with eight other black congregates at the historic Mother AME Emmanuel Church—by leading the congregation in a rousing rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
Replete with the crowd-pleasing, call-and-response theatricality that has come to define the African American religious tradition, the carefully staged moment allowed Obama to symbolically (re)authenticate his connection to the black cultural experience. Within moments, the performance became national news: CNN referred to the event as a “thoughtful meditation on race in America,” and Yahoo quickly unveiled an affectionate new term for Obama: “The Reverend President.”
Throughout his presidency, Obama has become a master of “performing” blackness in the public sphere, including his now-infamous Jay-Z “shoulder shrug” during his first campaign trail in 2008, his soulful rendition of Al Green’s “Lets Stay Together” at the Apollo Theater, his sermonic commencement address at the historically black Morehouse College and, now, his gospel musical interlude at last week’s nationally televised black funeral service.
The problem is this: these carefully rehearsed, performative identifications with black culture and black suffering have almost never been followed up by a robust public policy response. In this sense, Obama’s performance of race is simply a continuation of the Clinton playbook.
Bill Clinton, who Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison once famously referred to as “America’s first black President,” knew how to use his performative identification with black culture—such as his well-professed love of the saxophone and his voracious appetite for “soul” food—as careful distractions away from what was essentially an anti-black policy agenda. Clinton’s 1994 “Three Strikes You’re Out” Federal Crime Bill paved the way for the racialized expansion of the prison industrial complex, and his 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act was rooted in the trope of the black “Welfare Queen”—disproportionately misrepresenting black women as “lazy” recipients of public assistance. Thus, the gap between Clinton’s public persona as a saxophone-loving Honorary Negro vs. his policy persona as a “tough on crime” president who targeted communities of color through the aforementioned initiatives is something that has rarely been remarked upon in Black America.
With Obama, we have witnessed a similar strategy: blackness has continuously been reduced to a theatrical prop; an entertainment device that keeps (black) audiences believing that the president “feels their pain”—at precisely the same time that he fails to provide a substantive policy response to black poverty and underemployment, over-incarceration, and/or racialized state violence. Indeed, rather than being a period of “amazing grace,” the age of Obama has been a nightmare for Black America in nearly every conceivable area by which social “progress” is measured—whether it be the continued expansion of the prison industrial complex, the staggering decline of black wealth over the course of the past eight years, or the continued obliteration of job opportunities in American inner cities such as West Baltimore.
Quietly and without much public discussion, the Obama administration has been a key player in fueling the prison industrial complex primarily through the administration’s unprecedented funding for the Federal Prison Bureau (including a 4.3 percent increase in 2012 alone, one of the largest of any federal agency)—even in a moment when cuts to public programs such as Medicaid and Medicare prevail. Likewise, due in large part to the administration’s purportedly “colorblind” approach to legislation, the gap between white and black wealth in America is wider now than what it was when Obama took office. “The wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010,” a Pew Research Center study revealed in December. “The current gap between blacks and whites has reached its highest point since 1989, when whites had 17 times the wealth of black households.”
But here is the deeper truth: in many ways, Obama’s relationship to Black America (heavy on singing and preaching, thin on policy and legislation) is the product of the black left’s continued unwillingness to call him out on his policy shortcomings. Presidents—like all elected officials—simply respond to the pressure they receive from their base constituencies. The inverse is also true: when voters fail to apply pressure to their elected officials, their policy concerns are rarely addressed. The Obama years have been characterized by the black community’s messiah-like adoration of the president, which in turn, has made it unfashionable for black folks to critique him in any substantive way. With the exception of a few brave and lonely critics—namely Cornel West and Tavis Smiley—black media pundits continue to “defend” the president’s shortcomings with a series of all-too-predictable excuses (“It’s not his fault, it’s Congress’s fault”; “George W. Bush is to blame”; “There’s only so much one man can do”). These excuses are stained with a lack of democratic vision and a lack of political accountability. If—as Cornel West once wrote, “justice is what love looks like in public”—the best way for Black America to express their “love” for the president is to learn how to hold him accountable.
Obama’s performative identification with black culture continues to be solely and singularly performatic, which is to say: it exists purely as emotional theater as opposed to as an actual political commitment to responding to the black community’s specific policy concerns. Perhaps if Obama were Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, or some other public entertainer, this would not be a problem. But as the head of the American Empire, his ongoing theatricalized “performance” of blackness seems anchored in a kind of political inauthenticity.
To put it plainly: each time Obama speaks to black audiences in public—then turns around in private and expands the prison industrial complex, remains silent on police violence against black or brown bodies, or fails to offer targeted policy solutions to the lived experience of being black in America—he is essentially “hoodwinking” Black America. In the same way that Clinton’s saxophone and fried chicken routine did absolutely nothing for black communities on the ground in terms of policy, the exact same is true for Obama’s singing, dancing, and racialized performance antics.
For those of us who want a president who is willing to deliver substance over style and policy over performance, the time is now to pressure the Obama administration into offering a more significant response to what happened in South Carolina and what is happening to communities of color throughout the U.S. Examples of what that might look like in-action include having the Department of Justice formally recognize (and litigate) the Charleston Massacre as an act of domestic terrorism—rather than simply as a “hate crime”; or calling for greater federal oversight in cases involving police neglect in communities of color. This, rather than the empty singing of songs would constitute the “change we can believe in.”
To accept anything less means that Black America, as brother Malcolm Shabazz once put it, is simply allowing itself to be “bamboozled.”
[Image via AP]