On Thursday July 18, David Greene of NPR’s Morning Edition interviewed me for about a half hour or so on the shift in President Obama’s rhetoric on race and racism.
Although I haven’t performed the “for real for real” type of analysis to definitively show that a shift has occurred, it’s worth comparing. Here’s the commencement address he delivered at Morehouse College in May 2013. [foot]Transcript here.[/foot]
Tuesday July 15 (the same day Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me was released)[foot]I noted on Facebook that there are three books I’ve read over the past few years that deserve all the accolades they’ve received–Kiese Laymon’s Long Division, Joe Soss, Sanford Schram, and Richard Fording’s Disciplining the Poor and now Coates’ book.[/foot] he delivered a powerful speech to the NAACP detailing the pernicious effects of the prison industrial complex–the most powerful speech on the issue a president has ever delivered. Below, the speech.[foot]Transcript here.[/foot]
The next day, the show aired.
As I noted in the interview we don’t hear any of the “no excuses” rhetoric when he’s talking about reforming prisons. No sense that prisoners are in jail because they didn’t keep their pants up, no sense that prisoners are in jail because they made excuses instead of doing hard work.
David Greene probably selected me for a couple of reasons. The first is that I was one of the few folk of color to routinely appear on NPR, through my work on News and Notes and then Tell Me More. But secondly he interviewed me on the same subject in March 2012.
The President is undoubtedly constrained. The institution of the presidency was designed to be constrained, by the legislative branch, and by the judicial branch. And he’s [foot]Perhaps “he” until this next election.[/foot] constrained by his desire for re-election, and then even in his second term by his desire to see his party keep the office. These constraints are very real. But these constraints didn’t prevent him from pardoning/commuting the sentences of unfairly imprisoned citizens. These constraints didn’t cause him to spend a significant portion of his time castigating black audiences.[It’s really worth listening to the speech he gave Morehouse graduates in These constraints DID prevent him from promoting an urban new deal that could’ve radically altered the life chances of black men and women. But those constraints didn’t cause him to come up with My Brother’s Keeper. He made choices. Problematic ones.
In the end this President will likely go down in history as one of the greatest presidents of the modern era.
But he had a very very low bar.
P.S. Written more for the historical record than anything else. Later Friday evening I got a chance to perform onstage with George Clinton. (Yes. That Clinton.) I’m sure there’s video somewhere–I don’t have it. To make a long story short, Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” is my fraternity’s unofficial anthem, and we’ve kind of adopted him. He saw one of my fraternity brothers and I performing in the audience and he called us onstage. What I’ve tried to do over the past several years is show folk–particularly but not exclusively black folk–that there’s a way to be productive, to be critical, that doesn’t require embracing the bankrupt trappings of “seriousness”. We all have to do more to get free from the constraints preventing us from doing the work while we live the life.