Today Salon ran two articles examining Detroit and Trayvon Martin. The article on Detroit, like most others ignore the role structural racism played Detroit's circumstances.[foot]Check out Krugman's response to Charles Lane for example, or ThinkProgress' piece about how Detroit can bounce back, or even Jodi Dean's much older examination. It's as if Detroit's black population is not even worthy of a footnote.[/foot] However it does drive home a dynamic that I only alluded to yesterday–local and state government gave away billions to corporations, spending far more money on tax givewaways than they spent on pensions. This should be criminal, but is instead viewed as the price of doing business.

I'll spend more time on this, and tentatively plan to submit an abstract to a conference on deindustrialization and resistance in Montreal.  

But what I want to jump into is Brittney Cooper's piece on Tavis Smiley and Barack Obama. Cooper uses Obama's comments on the Trayvon Martin verdict to call Smiley's (and by extension Cornel West) critique of Obama wrong-headed and out-of-date. For me the most important passage of the piece is below:

In a total of eighteen minutes, the president did what the prosecutors could not manage to do over the course of two weeks of trial, with over a year to prepare. He demonstrated that Trayvon Martin was a vulnerable kid, unfairly followed, who was victimized because he could only bring his fists and his screams to a gun fight. And after Zimmerman murdered him, the system victimized him further, by suggesting as it does for so many black men, that there is plenty of ground upon which to die, but very little upon which to stand.

The failure to see this, the deliberate choice not to see this, makes it incredibly difficult, then, for me to rock with media pundits and strident Obama critics like Tavis Smiley. Essentially, Smiley argued on Meet the Press this week that because President Obama was “pushed to the podium” at the end of a week of protests rather than walking there of his own accord days earlier, he had again failed to provide “moral leadership.” “Kingian leadership.”

Therein lies the problem: Tavis Smiley and others of his generation crave a resurgence of prophetic leadership. And surely we need it. But they would do well to remember that kings, princes and presidents are rarely prophetic. President Obama is not a part of the black prophetic tradition. His response to Rev. Jeremiah Wright taught us that. He is part of an American democratic tradition that works most effectively when “we the people” lead from below.

I have certainly wished and even pushed for the president to be more vocal not necessarily in the conversation on race, but rather in advocating for policies that actually rectify the systemic injustices to which he pointed in his speech. Where are the policies that ameliorate poverty, crack down on the out-of-control, over-the-top methods of policing practiced throughout the country, address the ever expanding prison industrial complex and provide education and jobs that are accessible to black men?

Cooper, herself an Obama critic, makes three moves I rail against, even though I believe her piece is thoughtful and insightful. The first move conflates "presidents, kings, and princes." 

Cooper's second move is to criticize Smiley partially for thinking Obama part of the prophetic tradition, and partially for relying on that tradition when it is approximately 45 years out of date.

Cooper's third move is to argue that Obama has no real responsibility for deciding where we go next, and that WE should be the ones to legislate, agitate, etc.  

The first move is problematic because presidents are generally (though given our own history not always) elected, while kings and princes are hereditary leaders. This move goes against her critique of the prophetic tradition, but only to the extent her critique of the prophetic tradition is that it is anti-democratic (the prophet doesn't subject him/herself to vote, or to democratic debate, because his/her prophetic utterances come directly from God), rather than that it is simply out of date.

Which brings up the second move. There are two problems here. First is that Cooper doesn't seem to acknowledge the possibility her first move allows for–that it is possible for an individual to be part of BOTH the prophetic tradition and the democratic tradition. Given the use of iconic imagery in and by both of Obama's presidential campaigns it's clear that Obama and his campaign managers have used prophetic iconography and language in order to mobilize voters and donors. Although Cooper notes she's an Obama critic, she lets Obama off the hook by ignoring his own role in promoting prophetic leadership when it suits his political interests. And to a certain extent she goes against her own criticism of prophetic tradition when she focuses on Obama's speech and its power.

I am sympathetic to Cooper's third move. One of the problems I have with Smiley, West, and critics like Eddie Glaude is that they've a surface understanding of the role politics plays in black american political life, and Smiley and West both ignore the role of local organizing. Even if Obama weren't a neoliberal politician, even if he cared about a progressive political agenda we would need a great deal more. In the specific instance of Trayvon Martin Obama can't promote legislation, he can't even draft an executive order that halts Stand Your Ground.

However here she reproduces the argument a lot of pundits, scholars including Larry Bobo, and politicians make, that somehow Obama faces unique hurdles in executing the powers of the presidency because of his race. I acknowledge Obama is likely constrained by a variety of barriers his predecessors didn't face. However these barriers did not prevent him from winning the office in the first place. Given this I'm not sure how daunting these barriers are now. The President still has a great deal of political authority, both in his capacity as an elected official, and in his capacity as the leader of the Democratic Party. By emphasizing his rhetorical authority, Cooper emphasizes the power of "conversation" as a form of politics in and of itself. It was refreshing to hear the President note his own experiences. But that does not and should not serve as a substitute for political engagement. We've enough instances of aggressive presidential behavior to know that Obama has the capacity to deploy it if he chose. While I stand with Cooper in suggesting we keep prophets in the Bible, I am with those who call for far less conversating.