“Do you support the President?”

I was discussing President Obama and the Trayvon Martin case on facebook and then later on NPR. Although he didn’t take that long to respond in real time—approximately a week or so after the nation became aware of the case Obama noted that if he had a son he’d look like Trayvon after being asked about the case by a reporter—in “internet time” it seemed as if he took forever. And I noted as much online—my one word response to Obama’s answer being “finally”. 

In response to this someone on facebook asked me whether I supported the President. To her, it seemed as if everything I wrote and or said about Obama was negative. And this led her to place me quickly in the “hater” category. I’d become yet another African American proponent of the “crabs in a barrel” syndrome. About two weeks after an NPR interview aired in which I talked about some of the challenges Obama faced in dealing with the needs of African Americans vis a vis the Trayvon Martin case I ran into one of my fraternity brothers, who liked the interview in large part because I didn’t go off on the president like he expected me to. Which is ok…except for the fact that somehow both of them translated “support for the President” into “support for black people”. I call this phenomenon “Obamaphilia”. And in as much as the President, while black, is definitely not “black people”, this is deeply problematic.    

I remember the first time I realized Barack Obama would be President. I was in a hotel suite in St. Louis (at my fraternity’s Grand Conclave), watching the 2004 Democratic National Convention. When I heard his speech and saw his delivery, I knew then he’d be the first. Not only was he charismatic, he was conservative enough for the Democratic Party while not being too conservative as to be deemed out of touch.[foot]Mind you, I didn’t think he would get his shot in 2008. I thought Kerry would beat Bush in 2004, would serve two terms, and then be succeeded by John Edwards who would then serve two terms…and you get the picture. At best I thought Obama would get a good shot in 2020 or so. But I didn’t think his shot would take long because America wouldn’t be ready for a black president until 2020. Rather I thought that the politics would play out differently.[/foot] 

So when he received the nomination in 2008, I knew he’d win. In fact after I watched the first debate, I told as many people as would listen that Obama would beat McCain like he stole something. Although I wasn’t old enough to see the first televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the Obama-McCain debates reminded me of them. Nixon was intellectually prepared for the debate but he did not understand how important his appearance was given the fact that the debate was televised rather than broadcast through the radio. Whereas Kennedy looked youthful and relaxed, Nixon looked menacing and sickly because he didn’t wear makeup and was unshaven. How the two candidates looked had an effect on how people perceived the debate—people who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won, while people who saw the debate on television thought Kennedy won. Seeing the much younger Obama move with so much more swag than the older McCain[foot]Part of this is due to injuries sustained during the Vietnam War, as a result of which, Senator McCain cannot raise his arms above his head.[/foot] I thought there was no way Obama would lose. When I showed my public opinion class the first McCain-Obama debate with the sound off, everyone agreed. 

But Obama’s victory wasn’t preordained because of his debate performance. He didn’t win solely because of his charismatic delivery. It was also because of his organizing. Obama was the presidential candidate to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by social media—by facebook and youtube.[foot]He was also the first to take advantage of hip-hop. When Senator Clinton accused him of being out of touch and too elite for working class (white) voters, she knew she’d placed Obama in a bind. If he responded too harshly, democratic voters would likely turn away from him at the polls believing him to be insensitive. If he didn’t respond at all, democratic voters would likely turn away from him at the polls, believing Clinton’s critiques to be true. When he responded by simply brushing his shoulders off—borrowing the gesture from JayZ’s record—he showed that he was connected to the modern moment and to the populations Clinton wanted to reach, far more than she was. Even if the unemployed blue collar worker from Youngstown was more familiar with her, that workers voting aged children were more familiar with him.[/foot]Obama went after big money donors, but was able to generate millions in campaign funds by using social media to go after small donors, many of whom became campaign volunteers. In addition to the new techniques offered by social media though, he was extremely well-versed when it came to understanding the rules of the various party primaries. Although Clinton filled her campaign staff with experienced experts, Obama outflanked her in the primaries by using his enthusiastic supporters to generate victories in smaller “caucus” states.[foot]States like Iowa didn’t have primaries that were either open to everyone or open to every Democrat. Rather they were caucus primaries, with winners determined by a small number of activist party members. Obama understood this, and used his energetic volunteer base to flood the caucus primaries with supporters, racking up victory after victory in the states Clinton took for granted.[/foot] Finally, Clinton made the significant error of using race in the campaign, thinking that if she implicitly brought up Obama’s race and his seeming inability to attract support among white working class voters, Obama would be unable to counter. She was wrong. 

With all this said, I did not support Obama in the primary until John Edwards dropped out. Edwards was the first major party candidate in a generation to make poverty and inequality the most important part of his political platform. Obama had no poverty platform until after Edwards addressed the issue. Even as it was clear that the economic crisis was coming, Obama’s party platform emphasized that he believed firmly in the ability of the market to solve social problems—something I knew then (and many recognize now) to be false. 

Obama was far too conservative on economic issues, and too conservative on racial issues. In that 2004 St. Louis speech, for example, I remember him implicitly blaming black culture for the achievement gap, railing on black kids who teased smarter black kids for “acting white."[foot]This argument first gains traction in the mid-eighties as a partial result of a 1986 article by anthropologist John Ogbu and education scholar Signithia Fortham. Examining a group of suburban black children in Cleveland, the two argued that a significant proportion of them performed poorly in school because they embraced an “oppositional culture” that connected being smart and a good student with “acting white.” Examining this relationship empirically, scholars have found little to no relationship between “acting white” and school achievement outcomes. [/foot]?“Pookie” stands out here. On Father’s Day 2008 he delivered an infamous speech to a predominantly black church audience blaming black men for the failings of black communities. I heard brief snippets of another vision. Whereas some of my colleagues felt his Philadelphia speech on race to be far too accommodating to white racism, and far too damning of Reverend Jeremiah Wright (a pastor with a long and storied history of helping black people), I felt—particularly in the speech’s conclusion—that he fully understood that discussions of race that focused too much on the inappropriate campaign strategies of a Hilary Clinton or on the racist comments of a Geraldine Ferraro would ignore both the fundamental reality that America is not the same place it was in 1968 and the fundamental reality that there are significant structural hurdles that non-whites routinely wrestle with that are far too important to gloss over in favor of racist comments. But I didn’t hear enough of this to convince me he was worth supporting in the primary. It was clear by this point he was more culturally attuned to black life than his counterparts, in fact, I’d go one step further and say he was culturally transformative.   

But Obama’s use of and deployment of African American culture ended up being a double edged sword for me. In the 1990 film New Jack City, Chris Rock plays a struggling want-to-do-right crack addict named “Pookie” who dies trying to help undercover police officers take down a drug dealer. He is the modern incarnation of a long-running racial stereotype, the young, shiftless, black male, who means well but doesn’t succeed largely because he is random and trifling. The most notable example outside of Chris Rock’s character is JJ Evans, the character played by actor Jimmie Walker on the television show Good Times.[foot]The character JJ Evans was not originally supposed to be as buffoonish as appeared on the show. But as a partial response to the character’s popularity, show writers (with Jimmie Walker’s participation) increased his buffoonish character. The tension this generated caused both John Amos and Esther Rolle to leave the show.[/foot]?

During both the primaries and the presidential campaign, Obama deploys Pookie in order to cajole black people. In a number of speeches, Obama urged black audiences to get their friends, neighbors, and family members to vote, including “Pookie” “Jethro”:

If Cousin Pookie would vote, if Uncle Jethro would get off the couch and stop watchingSportsCenter and go register some folks and go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics.? 

Here Obama hints that a more transformative politics could be possible if more people participated, particularly people like “Pookie” and “Cousin Jethro”. But he never really states what that politics looks or even feels like—he leaves this to the listener’s imagination. Furthermore according to Obama they don’t participate because they have to work two jobs and can’t take off work to vote on a Tuesday. They don’t participate because they have a criminal record and the state won’t let them vote because of that. They don’t participate because the state just passed id laws that make it harder for blacks and poor people to vote. 


They don’t participate because they’re too busy watching Sportscenter. In other words they were too lazy. More to the point, they were too irresponsible

I’m going to come back to this.

Suffice it to say that I voted for him in the general election, but if such a thing is possible I did so both holding my nose given his political stances and in anticipation given his race. I spent that evening at my fraternity’s house in Baltimore, surrounding myself with black men old enough to remember when black people couldn’t vote. As problematic as I felt his politics were, the immensity of his election hit me emotionally on the way home. I believed his victory was possible. In fact, I knew his victory was probable. Yet and still when it actually happened I found myself dumbstruck. At a red light, I broke down in tears. For the first time in my life I saw a President that looked like me, a First Family that looked remarkably like my own. 

This caused me to do a number of things I’d never ever imagined I’d do. 

I attended the inauguration, for example. In the early early early morning hours of January 20 2008 I stood in the freezing weather waiting along with my daughter, one of my best friends, his girlfriend, his niece, and hundreds of thousands of others on the Mall to observe Obama’s inauguration. We stood, gladly, in the freezing darkness from 4am to 7am…then in the freezing morning from 7am to the beginning of the inaugural events…then spent several hours trying to make our way out of the Mall. I am glad in hindsight that I went, but suffice it to say I do not plan to attend again. 

And on a number of occasions I found myself feeling protective of the President when he faced criticism from whites. I distinctly remember watching one of his first press conferences. After his conference, conservative comedian and pundit Ben Stein criticized Obama for being late. Listening to Stein I felt insulted that he felt he had the audacity to speak about Obama in that manner. I said out loud (to the tv screen mind you) “you better fall off the President!” 

I heard about a child who told his teacher he hoped Obama was murdered, and felt a similarly indignant—even though I remember making the exact same comment to my principal when Ronald Reagan was shot. I never thought I even had the capacity to feel indignant about the way the President of the United States was treated. Until Obama the President was an elected official I felt absolutely no emotional attachment to, he was simply the person who “presides”. This is Obamaphilia at work, a love of Obama and all he represents.   

But again, even as I felt this way I also felt that he wasn’t quite big enough for the political moment. Crises often represent opportunities to roll out new political projects. After his inauguration the consequences of the economic crisis became clearer and clearer. We would never have waged war on and in Iraq had 9/11 never happened. I kept waiting for Obama to take an aggressively progressive response to the crisis, but that moment never came. I kept waiting for Obama to make appointments that would counter the conservative appointments Bush made over two terms. He didn’t.[foot]To focus on one particularly prominent example, he created a Council on Jobs and Competitiveness for the purpose of generating ideas about how to kickstart the economy. Although the board does have seven female members, and three African American ones, it only has two labor representatives. Furthermore, the Chair of the council (Jeffrey Immelt) leads a corporation (GE) that didn’t pay taxes in 2010 even though it earned approximately $14 billion in profits.[/foot]? I kept waiting for him to push for a large stimulus package. He didn’t. I expected him to peel back Bush’s extreme secrecy. He didn’t. I expected him to take a more progressive stance on immigration issues—he’s deported more undocumented individuals than Bush. I kept waiting for him to aggressively prosecute Wall Street executives for malfeasance. He didn’t. One month after he was elected he gave his first State of the Union Address.

It is very easy for me to make a case that Obama’s election is symbolically important. A generation of youth take a black president as the default. Assuming he gets elected to a second term a generation of American youth are going to come into adulthood not really knowing anything other than a black President—something that would have even been unthinkable in pop culture a generation ago.[foot]There are exceptions here. Richard Pryor played the first black president in a hilarious skit that appeared on Saturday Night Live in the seventies. And in a more serious treatment James Earl Jones played the President in the 1972 movie The Man. More recently both Morgan Freeman and Danny Glover played the President in disaster films (Freeman in Deep Impact, Glover in 2012). Chris Rock and Chris Tucker played black Presidents in Head of State (loosely based on then-Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick) and  and And finally both Dennis Haybert and D. B. Woodside played the President in seasons of the television action-drama 24. [/foot]? I don’t think this is some type of “false consciousness” at work. I don’t think black people have had the wool pulled over their eyes and because of that don’t know their “real” interests. Culture matters. I believe cultural representation matters. However even though I am glad I have a President in the White House that looks like me, a family in the White House that looks like my own, it is also easy for me to make an argument that substantively Obama—while better than any Republican—has not done nearly enough for black populations as he could have. In fact, it’s easy to make the claim that Obama has actively hurt some black populations—the ones that just so happen to look and act like “Pookie”. And it’s easy for me to make the claim that he should do more, and we should work as hard as we can to push him to do more.  

And this is why even as Obama enjoys tremendous support from African Americans in general, some remain critical. Websites like BlackAgendaReport.com as well as web radio programs like Vox Union feature critiques from black intellectuals and activists. These websites and similarly situated email lists are invaluable in creating spaces for critique and for political action. Individuals like Adolph Reed, Jared Ball, Glen Ford, and others have hit him far harder and more consistently than I have.[foot]Reed wrote an extremely farsighted critique both of Obama and of the popular left’s response to him in 2008, noting that Obama was a better short term candidate than McCain, but given his political tendencies in the long term he may be worse.[/foot]?   

But these websites and individuals stand more or less alone.  

Finding any critique of the president on the radio dial is close to impossible, as far as black radio jockeys go. Even though Tom Joyner, Michael Baisden and other popular radio hosts routinely offer political critique, they rarely if ever criticize the President. In fact Tom Joyner severed his personal and professional relationships with Tavis Smiley and Cornel West after Smiley and West began to increase their criticisms of Obama. And although black websites like The Grio and The Root now routinely offer hard hitting political content—the type of content black people haven’t had access to on a regular basis since the end of Emerge Magazine—they don’t consistently create a space for black critique. Some black pastors have recently begun to criticize the President, but only because of his progressive stance on same-sex marriage, not because of his economic policies.

Now I believe that people like Tom Joyner and Michael Baisden love black people. I believe they have and will continue to work on their behalf, and they have and will continue to do what they can to make sure that black people have the same access to the ballot box that white people have. They will do everything they can to make sure black people turn out come election time, and they will do everything they can to make sure black people fight racism. 

With this said though, they, and Obama, have very different ideas about democracy than I do. They tend to believe that everyone should be able to participate at a very rudimentary level—everyone should be able to vote, for example. But they believe everyone should more or less fall in line behind leadership when it comes to making decisions. To use old school black slang, this approach is the “shut up, grown folks are in the room” approach. And Obama is the grownest folk in the room. This particular approach to democracy has a long history in black communities but with Obama’s election it represents the first real time it’s been applied to the President.[foot]Well, technically the second time. Recall that Toni Morrison referred to President Bill Clinton as “the first black president” and although she intended it to be ironic, given how comfortable Clinton seemed to be with black people, and how many black appointments Clinton made, it stuck.[/foot]

On the other hand we’ve got a notion of democracy that says that everyone should be able to participate when it comes to selecting representatives but when it comes to holding them accountable. Democracy doesn’t work best when we leave the room and let “grown folks handle their business”. Democracy works best when we’re all in the room and the concept of “grown folks” includes all of us, whether we are or are not in fact “grown”.   

Now Obamaphiliacs normally make three arguments in staving off criticism. 

The first argument is the political change argument. Political change is exceedingly hard, particularly in the current context. The Republican Party has enough political power to obstruct federal, state, and in some cases local legislation. They have enough political power to prevent Obama’s appointees from being confirmed. In fact, even within the Democratic Party a strong bloc of conservative representatives prevent progressive legislation from being proposed, much less passed. 

Big money in politics is important as well. Corporate owned media rarely generates the type of critical coverage that could make progressive legislation more likely.[foot]To use but one example, for the first time student loan debt will soon cross the $1 trillion mark, surpassing credit card debt as the largest source of consumer debt outside of home ownership. It would take a comparatively small amount of money to fully finance public post-secondary education, an amount much smaller than the amount we’ve already spent on Iraq and Afghanistan. But for a number of reasons this conversation is one unlikely to be heard on the news anytime soon. To be fair not only is Obama not alone here—a number of prominent African Americans have embraced this idea—he is mirroring Harold Ford jrs 2000 Democratic Convention speech. Ford, then a rising star in the Democratic Party was given a very similar time slot, and used the occasion to rail against teaching “ebonics” in school.[/foot] Modern political campaigns require a significant amount of money, and as much as Obama relies on the emotional engagement of young whites, blacks, and latinos, he still relies on the fiscal engagement of Wall Street.[foot]In the 2008 campaign eighteen of the top twenty donors to his campaign in 2008 came from Wall Street. [/foot] These structural dynamics make it exceedingly difficult for Obama to speak truth to power.

The second argument is the racial politics argument. The people who want Obama to fail, who would like nothing less than the failure of the country on his watch, are deeply racist. Their animus towards Obama and his vision of the country is not simply driven by the fact that Obama supports certain policies they do not. Their animus toward Obama is driven by his race. He represents an America they have done everything in their power to stop. They are just like the Southern Dixiecrats who wanted to maintain Jim Crow under the name of state’s rights. Every time we assail Obama for not acting in our interests we provide fuel for the racist anti-Obama contingent. And when we give Obama a pass when he supports policies that go against our interests, we are in effect supporting our own interests.  

Political change is incredibly hard. Always. Again the Founders actually designed our political system in such a way as to preclude monumental change.  We can amend the Constitution in one of two ways, both tortuously hard. One way is pass an amendment in both the House and the Senate by a two-thirds majority and then pass that amendment in 3/4 of all state legislatures. The other way is to get 2/3 of all state legislatures to call for a Constitutional Convention (and then, after the amendments are proposed, pass them in 3/4 of all state legislatures). But the Civil Rights Act of 1963 didn’t require a Constitutional Amendment. What’s so hard about simply passing legislation? Other legislative rules—like the filibuster—make it incredibly difficult to pass even routine legislation. The modern Republican Party has used the filibuster to block Senate activity has used the filibuster more than any other group in the history of the United States.  

And big money isn’t just important, it has a stranglehold over our politics. Individual donors are able to get access to political representatives through large donations, access that can and has translated into favorable appointments and favorable policy.[foot]In the 2012 election cycle, George Clooney hosted an event for President Obama at his house. Individual tickets cost $40,000, but two tickets were raffled away to low paying donors. [/foot] Through individual donations, corporations garner and reward favorable political treatment as well. More to the point they select candidates and elect them—it is close to impossible to run for federal office (and for many urban elected positions) without having corporate support. Finally they influence politics indirectly by pouring money into think tanks and foundations that promote business friendly policies, and through purchasing the venues we get our political news from. These make a whole range of absurd policies sound like “common sense.” 

Furthermore although there are anecdotal reports of people with racist views voting for Obama, we have far more reports of people with racist views voting against Obama. The Secret Service received far more death threats after Obama was elected than before. And given that it isn’t illegal for racists to vote, any political candidate Obama faces in a general election will almost by definition garner promote policies that will erode the quality of black lives. The 2012 Presidential election looks to be incredibly close. If black Obama critics draw support away from Obama—by getting black people to think about staying home—he could lose. 

Finally some argue that if we just shut up now and let him do his thing, then during the second term we’ll get what we want.

Using this logic, we should shut critics that don’t support Obama up. Of course they shouldn’t be allowed to speak. 

But in response I’d make a few arguments.

First, as hard as change is, Obama still has formidable powers. Obama still has the power of appointment, and can jam appointments when the Senate isn’t in session. He still has the power to veto legislation. He can still use executive orders to create policy. He has the power to selectively fundraise for political candidates. Although I do not agree with this particular power given the way it is used, he has the power to shape how legislation is interpreted using the “signing statement.” And he has the power to direct how the law is and is not enforced—the Obama administration stated in 2011 it didn’t intend to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act for example. Finally he still has the power of the bully pulpit—he commands more instant media attention than any political figure on the face of the planet. And his public statements carry a great deal of weight—when the President stated in May 2012 he supported same-sex marriage he didn’t change a single law, but created the space with which activists can change law. While the power to veto and to appoint both have constraints (vetos can be overturned, appointments can be stalled or voted down), the power of the President to articulate his political vision through rhetoric and through executive order are unmatched. 

So as hard as political change is, Obama hasn’t effectively used the tools he does have to make political change possible. George W. Bush had drafted 126 executive orders by the end of the third year of his first term, whereas Obama drafted 113. Although Reagan raised taxes more than once he consistently used the bully pulpit to argue government was our national problem rather than our national solution, and used the Office of Management and Budget to hamstring the level of resources cities received from the government. Further, Obama was as likely to repeat conservative talking points (emphasizing the importance of the deficit and debt reduction even as progressive economists were arguing unemployment was more important) as he was to rail against them. 

Particularly because political change is hard we need to do more to push him to engage in the ways we would like rather than less. Obama himself has said as much. Because political change is so hard we need to stop treating the act of political engagement—which can include but should not be limited to voting—as a spectator sport. Racism be damned. 

Secondly, as much as I believe race still matters, I do not believe the threat of racism in this instance is dire enough to stifle criticism. One of the many reasons that cultural representation matters here is in fact because we know racism is real, and we know through Obama that racism can be defeated. In this case it can either be defeated over time where non-white voters gradually replace white racist ones through time, or through exposure of some type where white voters gradually come to realize that having someone who looks different as president is transformative.   This is something Obama himself had to take a leap of faith on. Although there were a variety of popular culture moves that made a black president more thinkable—Dennis Haybert has made the argument that Obama doesn’t exist without him and he may have a point. Rakim begins his classic “Paid in Full” stating “Thinking of a master plan, with nothing but sweat inside my hands.” Obama had no real template that suggested what he desired to accomplish was even possible, but he did it anyway. And in so doing made it possible not only for non-white men in the US to believe they could legitimately be President, but made it possible for a number of other individuals inside and outside the country to think it was possible. This is the point he drove him, with varying degrees of success, in his Philadelphia speech.  

Finally, the argument that about Obama’s second term ignores the President’s desire to leave a legacy for his party, not just for himself. Not only is Obama interested in fighting to make sure the Democratic Party retains the presidency after his second term, black people will be interested in fighting to make sure they retain the presidency as well. To that extent there is no “magic” 2012 moment because at that point the goal will be to make sure the Democrats retain the White House in 2016.  

The first argument is more about Obama than it is about us. 

But the second argument is more about us than it is about him. What Obamaphilia does at its worst is substitute the desires and interests of millions of black people, for the desires and interests of one person in the name of fighting racism. And it gives Obama the space to call for black people (working class black men in particular, whether we’re talking about “Pookie” and “Cousin Jethro” or we’re talking about the wayward black fathers he criticized in his Father’s Day speech) to be more responsible while absolving himself of responsibility. We elected him. In exchange for our vote, he is supposed to represent our interests. One of the first 2012 campaign posters to emerge was a powerful picture of Obama taken from behind, with the caption “I’ve Got His Back” on top. The way it was shot presumes that Obama is facing an unseen enemy, perhaps protecting us from them. As soon as it was released on facebook it instantly received several hundred thousand “likes”. However I had a very different take. We’re not supposed to have his back. Technically, he’s supposed to have ours

I am so glad we have a President that plays basketball everyday, that knows the words to Al Green songs, that uses the same exact slang I do. Ben’s Chili Bowl in DC is one of DC’s best known restaurants. Before the inaugural he visited Ben’s to get something to eat. After his order came he paid in cash. When the waiter attempted to give Obama his change, Obama responded “Naw, we straight.”

I fell out.    

But my sentiment about him and the First Family should not trump my desire for a more righteous government. Perhaps more importantly it should not trump my desire to grow and develop my own capacity as a citizen.

As I’ve already noted we take blackness for granted in ways that make a great deal of sense, but in ways that stifle our political potential as individual black citizens with different interests. Whether you believe black people are essentially one family, or believe that black people have a range of identities that shape their interests and race is simply one of them, we need more space for black people to fight for their own interests. Not just space for more black people to try to represent black interests, but black people to represent their own interests. We’re all “grown.”

By routinely preventing certain types of black voices from being heard (whether out of disgust as in the case of black gay men and black single mothers or in the case of fear as in the case of black radical democrats) we end up hurting “them”. In effect emphasizing Cousin Pookie’s responsibilities, but never ever emphasizing his rights, makes it difficult for him to exert those rights, makes it easier for blacks and non-blacks alike to act as if he doesn’t actually have any rights. As it stands the main critique many progressive critics of Obama make is that he is inattentive to the needs of a variety of different black people but specifically the black poor and working class. He speaks to them when he wants to emphasize his blackness (singing Al Green at the Apollo, appearing at a black working class Chicago church), but he rarely speaks to their political needs. When we attempt to shut critics up, we make it even more difficult to create the space to deal with their issues politically than it already is. 

And this has material consequences for working class black populations. But we also end up hurting ourselves. We shouldn’t readily assume that Obama or any other political figure for that matter will somehow speak for people who can’t speak for themselves if those mute people aren’t able to either tell Obama what they want or muster enough votes and/or money to matter. There is no perfect time for black critics to speak. At every point the critics will run the risk of causing the President or some other similar figure, challenges. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it. This means they should do it now rather than waiting.

What is at stake in this moment is black democratic practice. While the forces of racism are large and daunting I firmly believe we have to either first or simultaneously wrestle with the dynamics within black communities that reduce our ability to organize. I understand fully that we aren’t quite in a democracy, particularly given the challenges Obama faces. I also understand fully that race still matters, that racism still matters. With that said though at the very least we can build democratic moments—moments where people come together to not only debate and come to consensus about the public good, we’re talking about moments where people are actually changed in the process of fighting for the public good. This change doesn’t occur from on high. We don’t get this change because some leader came to give us the truth from the mountain top. We get this change through the process of working through our differences and acknowledging them. To the extent we believe that black people have the ability and the resources to fight for their own needs as opposed to letting a “black leader” (whether someone like King or someone like Obama) do so, we have to believe that even in an era where racism still exists that black people have the ability to articulate and fight for their own interests. And the more people we have in that fight, the more people we have in that discussion, the better. Black politics has always been about more than black leadership. I believe that for the first time in adult life we have a president in the White House worth affirming. And for the first time in American history that President is like me (black, male, slim, intellectual). This makes it more not less important that we have the space to air our disagreements even if they are about a black President under attack.