(Every status update/blog entry/tweet I write today will have the title of one of Prince’s songs in it in honor of his 51st birthday.)
If you’ve got about ten minutes of free time check out Davey D’s interview of Michael Eric Dyson below:
Michael Eric Dyson is right to question Obama. Right to wonder whether and where his politics coincide with black politics. But his focus is off. WAY off. Dyson is considered one of our foremost black intellectuals and the best he can come up with is that Obama can’t say King’s name out loud? Ta-Nehisi Coates has weighed on this directly. In the wake of Tavis Smiley’s documentary “Stand” (Smiley took a group of black male intellectuals on a tour through the South in order to both tout his new book and to argue that Obama was dismissing King’s legacy) Melissa Harris-Lacewell weighed in indirectly (hat tip to Jelani Cobb) arguing that black politics has “grown up” and that while drawing a straight line from King to Cornel West is hard, drawing a straight line from King to Obama is not:
Smiley and his “soul patrol” seemed to have missed the intervening 40 years between the era of King and the election of Obama. African-Americans are no longer fully disfranchised subjects of an oppressive state.
African-Americans are now citizens capable of running for office, holding officials accountable through democratic elections, publicly expressing divergent political preferences and, most importantly, engaging the full spectrum of American political issues, not only narrowly racial ones. The era of racial brokerage politics, when the voices of a few men stood in for the entire race, is now over. And thank goodness it is over. Black politics is growing up.
The men of “Stand” yearned for an imagined racial past. By their accounting, this racial past had better music, more charismatic leaders and a more-involved black church.
Their romanticism ignores the cultural contributions of contemporary black youth, forgets the dangerous limitations of charismatic leadership and revises the fraught, complicated relationship of black churches to struggles for racial equality. And these men ignored the democratizing effect of new media forms, which revolutionized the 2008 election.
Black people were not duped by some slick, media-generated candidate. African-Americans were co-authors of the Obama campaign. Through social networks, YouTube videos, political blogs and new-media echo chambers, black people were equal partners in shaping the candidate and his campaign. There was no need for the entrenched pundit class to tell black voters what to think or how to behave; they figured it out for themselves.
Still, there is plenty to criticize in the young Obama administration: the refusal to prosecute those implicated in the torture memos, civilian casualties caused by drone attacks, bank bailouts and inadequate defense of gay rights to name a few. But black communities are already engaged in these critiques and many others. Black local organizers, elected officials, bloggers, pundits and columnists have taken substantive, specific positions on a broad range of issues.
Harris-Lacewell is more right than wrong here. The days of brokerage politics aren’t quite over but they’re dying on the vine. The only reason that Al Sharpton still has a job is because the media consistently quotes him, not because black people don’t have the ability to vote and take politics into their own hands. Whereas previous Democratic presidential candidates turned to a variety of black middle men to drum up the black vote, Obama (thankfully) ignored them.
Furthermore the most visible black intellectuals have some combination of job security/tenure (West, Glaude, herself, Dyson, Adolph Reed…who she doesn’t mention), or corporate sponsorship (Smiley, to a lesser extent Jackson and Sharpton), and can’t be said to really be “on the front lines”. It’s hard to claim to BE “hard/authentic” when you don’t really have a constituency to be accountable for or to, and when you don’t have to worry about loot or job security.
Finally she’s right to note that the substance of their critique and praxis is weak as water. Rather than hitting Obama hard on substance–on health reform for example as I am going to do in my next post–they settle. Again, Dyson asking that Obama say King’s name aloud is sick.
But two points stand out for me.
1. It isn’t about King.
Talking about whether King is or isn’t connected to Obama misses the point. And at the end it reads as nothing more than an intellectual version of “set-claiming.” Is Obama down with King (i.e. black people) or is he ain’t? King is dead. He isn’t coming back. We have no idea who or what he’d be down with if he were alive. We should dismiss attempts to say that Obama isn’t connected to King AND attempts to connect him as misdirection, as sleight of hand. “Watch the rabbit fall out of my hat.” They shift discussion to Obama’s place in black history as opposed to Obama’s work for black populations.
2. There is a REASON why West, Dyson, and others are weak on Obama’s actual politics and hard on his cultural politics.
The three most prominent black male intellectuals are Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Tavis Smiley. Smiley is a journalist with limited training. Dyson and West are both trained theologians, though they have (limited) chops in political theory, philosophy, and black studies. (Black Studies as a discipline makes a hard humanities turn somewhere in the eighties, privileging professors like Dyson, West, Henry Louis Gates, and Houston Baker, at the expense of social scientists.) The reason they have no substantive political and economic critiques is because they do not have the skillset required to make them. Similarly, the reason why at least West and Dyson are now household names is because they have the preacher’s gift of gab. Finally it is hard as hell to do real intellectual work when you are on the road lecturing 52 weeks out of the year. It is hard enough to shift from humanities scholar to social science scholar. It is harder if you don’t have the time to sit and think because you’re giving lectures connecting Nas to Nietzsche at a different spot every week.
They fight over King then, rather than engaging in real discusion over Obama because while they can talk King for a million years without repeating a thought, they don’t know much about public opinion formation, public policy creation, federalism, health care, or any of the other detailed political decisions Obama has to make on a day to day basis.
This is a tragedy. I agree with Melissa that we need black intellectuals to deal with the present moment now more than ever. But what we really need are thoughtful social scientists with the ability to break down policy differences and ideological shifts in ways that every day people can understand. While Melissa’s presence on the airwaves is refreshing because she’s young, female, and a race-woman, her support for Obama precludes her from serving as one of the critical voices we really need here. Adolph Reed is brilliant but can’t “media” his way out of a paper bag. And the other political scientists I’d point to–Vincent Hutchings, Cathy Cohen, and Cedric Johnson stand out–are all deluged with too many professional responsibilities to even blog.
I changed the name of my blog from “Dr. lester k. spence” back to “Blacksmythe” sometime ago, because of my colleagues told me to stop blogging.
Maybe I’m the change I’ve been looking for.