Tuesday, December 13, 2016


My mom used to tell me, you know - I can't use this phrase on the radio - but basically, "Don't be one of those dudes hanging on the corner." And I think the president adopted some of that same language, but took it into the White House. And I think, like, there's a crucial difference between being, you know, Joe Schmo in the neighborhood and being the head, you know, of the government that, you know, in many ways is largely responsible for those conditions in the first place.
Ta-Nehisi Coates "Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates: 'My President Was Black'" NPR.
Unfortunately, the radio interview with Mr. Coates wasn't long enough for an important question. "What's the difference?" What is the crucial difference between Mrs. Coates, Joe Schmoe in the neighborhood and President Obama that the first two can be critical of "some dude [...] outside drinking hanging on the corner" but the third must not? Even if we accept the idea that the United States government is largely responsible for that dude spending his days drinking out on the corner, why does that make it appropriate of the President to be as critical of it as anyone else might be? If seeing people daily lounging on street corners drinking are enough to engender "anger" and "shame" in others over their "irresponsible" behavior, why do we expect the President to be above such things? What do we think that we are going to gain from having the President remain silent? After all, President Obama isn't old enough, by any stretch of the imagination, to have been in government long enough that the genesis of the policies that lead to dissoluteness among those dudes hanging on the corner can be realistically laid at his feet. And he wasn't in office long enough that he could have realistically undone all of them.

Mr. Coates speaks of President Obama as an optimist in this interview, and I, for my part think that his criticisms of Black America are born from that optimism. As much as we may dislike language that we consider pathologizing or even patronizing, the President, I think, hopes that what we'll take from it is inspiration. To a certain degree, we all understand that the American understanding of meritocracy is a lie. Even if we accept that anyone could grow up to be the President of the United States, only one person can hold the office at a time, and no amount of "grit," hard work or determination is going to change that. And so, if there is more than one individual qualified to hold the office at any given point (and in a nation of 300 million people, there most certainly are), someone is always going to be locked out of that role, and their opportunity to show the rest of us what they could have done with it, by the fact that the first person there assumes sole ownership. But that's different than saying that we're all locked in the places where we find ourselves. Even if the policies of the government of the United States are what caused a dude to irresponsibly spend his days drinking on the corner, I think that President Obama believes that we, as a "community" and as individuals can do something about it or rise above it. And he's not alone in that.

The Black population of the United States is not a singular, unified community any more than any other group of millions of people spread across millions of square miles can be. And while we may all see the same things, the disunity that is a natural consequence of being such a large and diffuse group of people uis going to lead to different solutions. And we can agree or disagree with each others solutions. But I don't know that it's useful to police who can voice which ones.

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