Like Du Bois, Barack Obama has taken the stage at a moment when it is popular to assert that black people are the agents of their own doom. The response to Trayvon Martin, indeed the response to Barack Obama himself, has been to attack black morality, to highlight black criminality and thus change the conversation from what the American state has done to black people, to what black people have done to themselves. Like Du Bois, Barack Obama believes that these people have a point. Du Bois’s biographer, David Levering Lewis, says that Du Bois came to look back back on that speech with some embarrassment. I don’t know that Barack Obama will ever reach such a conclusion.
This is exactly what I was thinking when I heard the speech. Ta-Nehisi just nails it, as he always does on matters of inequality and race in the US. (Break for endorsement: if you’re not following his blog run, don’t walk, and put it in your RSS reader). But Obama’s speech was an army of excuses.
He did do a lot of good things which I liked in the speech. He commended the men and women who constituted the nonviolent army of the civil rights movement, and laudably maintained his focus on the footsoldiers of the movement, not the leaders. And he kept emphasising the incompleteness of the struggle:
But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote, or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all, and the criminal justice system is not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, it requires vigilance. (Applause.)
And I thought the way Obama kept coming back to the Jobs part, not just the more sexy call for Freedom, was excellent:
In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination — the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the March. For the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice — (applause) — not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. (Applause.)
For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal? This idea — that one’s liberty is linked to one’s livelihood; that the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security — this idea was not new. Lincoln himself understood the Declaration of Independence in such terms — as a promise that in due time, “the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”
But still, the speech fell flat. The problems Ta-Nehisi take up is one of my two major gripes, the victim-blaming of black America which Coates has done such a great job of covering in the past couple of months.
My other great problem was more about what kind of broader ideology is presented in the text of the speech. Truly telling in this regard was the crescendo litany at the end of examples of how people today “march” in their own ways now, for freedom and jobs:
That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge — she’s marching. (Applause.)
That successful businessman who doesn’t have to but pays his workers a fair wage and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con who is down on his luck — he’s marching. (Applause.)
The mother who pours her love into her daughter so that she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same door as anybody’s son — she’s marching. (Applause.)
The father who realizes the most important job he’ll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn’t have a father — especially if he didn’t have a father at home — he’s marching. (Applause.)
The battle-scarred veterans who devote themselves not only to helping their fellow warriors stand again, and walk again, and run again, but to keep serving their country when they come home — they are marching. (Applause.)
I think these examples show in completely stark terms, Obama’s failure to grasp and change the politics of the now in this speech. Why? Because these examples, every last one of them, are examples of people trying to ameliorate the pain caused by the failures of public policy today. These are people doing what they can, as individuals, to cope with the damage caused by collective problems, not with the problems themselves. These are not examples of people doing what Dr. King was doing.
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root”, wrote that other great thinker of American nonviolence, Henry David Thoreau, in Walden. Obama’s speech was about hacking branches. Dr. King’s life was all about hacking at the root. He was not content to sit at lunch counters and ride buses. He wanted the vote. He wanted jobs. He wanted forced integration. He wanted the war to stop. He was not content to buy school supplies, he wanted to make sure that the state bought those textbooks for everyone who needed them. He was not content to rely on the good will of kind bosses. He wanted to make sure that those bosses damned well had to pay a fair wage, because such was the law of the land.
Though he kept mentioning turning towards each other and doing great things, together, this was, in its heart, a speech showing us the United States as an atomised society, a society of unconnected individuals striving to get by and make do while the great wheel turned elsewhere. Why didn’t he tell those people to get organised and start knocking on doors?
What Obama should have done in his speech was offer a vision for the collective solutions of collective problems. He should have laid out the next step in the fight against inequality and injustice. But that doesn’t issue from the single actions of good men and women. It comes instead from their collective actions, from organising. It doesn’t come from petitioning your government from redress, it comes from forcing your government to listen to you whether it wants to or not. That’s what Dr. King did. And I’m less sure than ever that Obama understood that.