13 December 2010


In his NYTimes op-ed piece, Ishmael Reed takes progressive commentors to task for their criticism of President Obama over his tax cut compromise with Congressional Republicans. Many liberals and progressives (including this writer) have asserted that Obama caved in, giving Republicans the keys to the candy store and setting a dangerous precedent for the future.

Reed reminds us that racism is deep and nuanced, and that Obama treads a delicate tightrope in trying to advocate for a more enlightened legislative social agenda on the one hand, and in trying to forge a working relationship between liberals and conservatives on the other. His skills at mediation and compromise are well-known, and much deserved.

So why all the acrimony over his apparent success on the tax cut deal? Perhaps because many perceived the president's acquiescing to so many Republican demands as capitulation, after two years of adamant and destructive Republican obstructionism. That may well be the case, but Reed points out another aspect of Obama's dilemma which many of us have missed. "Progressives have been urging the president to 'man up' in the face of the Republicans .... What the progressives forget is that black intellectuals have been called 'paranoid', 'bitter', 'rowdy', 'angry', 'bullies', and accused of diatribes for more than 100 years. Very few of them would have been given a grade above D from most of my teachers.

"When these progressives refer to themselves as Mr. Obama's base, all they see is themselves. They ignore polls showing steadfast support for the president among blacks and Latinos. And now they are whispering about a primary challenge against the president. Brilliant! The same kind of suicidal gesture that destroyed Jimmy Carter -- and a way to lose the black vote forever.

"Unlike white progressives, blacks and Latinos are not used to getting it all. They know how it feels to be unemployed and unable to buy your children Christmas presents. They know when not to shout. The president, the coolest man in the room, who worked among the unemployed in Chicago, knows too."

I stand chastened. While I know what it is like to be unemployed and struggling, as a white male I will never know what it is like to navigate through life as a black or Latino, in a racist white culture. As much as I've learned over the years about the insidious and corrosive effects of racism, and as much as I've railed against it, there will always remain subtleties which I have yet to absorb into my thinking. Of course our nation's first black president must walk a fine line, 24/7. This brilliant Constitutional scholar must try to educate the nation on the ways it needs to change, without coming across as the Angry Black Man who will only alienate those he is trying to persuade. It is a balance which would be nearly impossible for any man or woman. Some achieve it with grace. Looking at the situation in this light, however much I may resent the legislative concessions given to conservative demagogues, I view the president with a new level of respect. He is walking barefoot through a minefield. That he can do so and remain "the coolest man in the room" is a tribute to his clarity of vision, and his self-control in the presence of mediocrity or hostility.

If only Obama's enemies saw him in this light, too.

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