Let me go through the history here, step by step, because it is a bit complex. First, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, The Secret Lives of Inner-City Black Males. In it, he argued that liberals should not be so upset about Paul Ryan’s racist dog whistle, because it is essentially the same thing that President Obama says. My only problem with what he wrote was the application of the term “liberal” to Obama and his supporters. But otherwise: that’s absolutely true, as I discussed recently regarding Obama’s “Popeyes Chicken” speech in relation to Adolph Reed’s excellent article “Nothing Left.”
Next, Jonathan Chait wrote a kind of apologia for President Obama, Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Poverty, and Culture. He argued that there is a very important difference between Ryan and Obama. But he isn’t all that clear as to what that difference is. Supposedly, Obama only believes that culture is part of the problem whereas Ryan, like a good Republican, thinks it the entire problem because, you know, racism is a thing of the past. Ultimately, Chait sees the difference in the conclusions. Ryan wants to pretend that all we need to do is take away any help from the black community and all will be fine. Obama does not.
It isn’t surprising that Coates found this argument wanting. After I first read it, I thought it was something of a straw man. After all, Coates was not saying that Obama and Ryan were exactly the same—only that their perspective is the same, which is that there is some cultural problem with the black community. So Coates came back yesterday with an extremely powerful article, Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind. You should read the whole thing because it is finely argued. But it really comes down to this: there is no evidence that black oppression is due to cultural problems. There is an enormous amount of evidence that black oppression is due to, you know, oppression—for lack of a better term: white power.
What really stands out are the jailing statistics. Is it a black cultural problem that black men are arrested for cannabis possession far more than white men, even though they don’t use the drug any more? That sounds more like a white power problem than a black cultural problem. And something that Coates doesn’t talk about (although I’m sure he has elsewhere), the problem with incarceration is not the time spent in jail; it is the fact that you are labeled a felon for the rest of your life and your opportunities are greatly reduced. And this is on top of the fact that blacks already have many fewer opportunities. As Coates points out, black men without a criminal records are as likely to be hired as white men who were just released from prison.
What really is problematic here is that Obama shouldn’t place himself in the role of cheerleader for the black community. It is one thing for a black father to tell his son, “Regardless of the problems you face, you can succeed if you keep your nose clean and work hard!” When the President of the United States says that same thing, he is minimizing structural problems and maximizing individual problems. Rather than highlighting the social problem (white power is oppressing black individuals), he is highlighting the individual problems (blacks could succeed if they just tried hard enough). Everyone knows that a remarkable person with a fair amount of luck can overcome hardships. But that is not a social plan. And that is the basis of both Obama’s rhetoric and Paul Ryan’s.
H/T: Kathleen Geier