Thursday, August 29, 2013

In Commemoration Speech, Did Obama Serve the Cause of Justice, or Myth?

I wasn't sure what to make of President Obama's speech yesterday at the commemoration of the March on Washington. Parts of it were forthright about the need for further action to combat injustice (and the President actually used that word). And he talked about the need to defeat the (conveniently unnamed) defenders of such injustice. I don't know enough about presidential rhetoric, and perhaps I'm just conditioned by the Bush years, but I was starting to think sitting Presidents don't talk like this.

But then Obama pivoted back to this:
And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support -- as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.
I'm never sure what to make of this coming from Obama. Is it part of his habitual "on the one hand, on the other hand" framing of every issue? Is it what he feels he has to say as the President of all Americans? Or is it, deep down, what he believes? I'm not here to say that there is no truth at all to this paragraph (though Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a must read scathing review, says as much) but I do argue that this rhetoric is received in a certain social and cultural context that renders it, in its essence, untrue.

After suffering a series of severe blows, White regrouped and defeated the civil rights movement. Yet the discourse of Whites ever since has not acknowledged their partial victory. There is, rather, a pervasive set of mental and rhetorical frameworks built around blaming Blacks for their failure to live up to "the Dream," as if Whites have not been standing in their way the whole time. President Obama is aiding and abetting those frameworks.

Perhaps he should have called for specific policies, invoking King's name, urging congress to pass immigration reform in pursuit of King's Dream. Pass a jobs bill in pursuit of King's dream. Pass criminal justice reform in pursuit of King's Dream. Denounce the racist tea party, in honor of King. I don't know. Maybe all hell would break loose if he did that. But I think it would be a good thing if King became more controversial again. King would be appalled by the modern Republican Party. He would denounce it in moral, biblical terms. I think we should get that out in the open and let people draw their own conclusions.

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