Clarence Lang: Race, Class, and Obama

Roundup: Historians' Take

Clarence Lang is an associate professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75 (University of Michigan Press, 2009), and co-editor, with Robbie Lieberman, of Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

In his latest book, The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage (Ecco), published in May, the journalist Ellis Cose argues that middle-class African-Americans are uniquely optimistic about the future. A few months later, however, the Pew Research Center disclosed that from 2005 to 2009, the racial wealth gap had reached a record high, with wealth falling by 53 percent among black households. That news arrived as President Obama and Congress brokered an end to the debt-ceiling standoff, laying the groundwork for deficit cuts that will disproportionately affect black Americans. Meanwhile, prominent voices in the black public sphere have been urging African-Americans to defend Obama against his detractors. How to reconcile Cose's optimism, Pew's findings, and the appeals of African-Americans to circle the wagons, even as Obama appeases Republicans by sacrificing black constituencies and interests? Simply put, you can't.

The dissonances of the past few months indicate how class complicates black politics. African-Americans have traditionally perceived their fates as linked, so for some, the thinking goes, public criticism of Obama undermines the collective interests of the black community. This view, expressed recently by the Rev. Al Sharpton and the radio personality Tom Joyner, reflects the anxiety and optimism of striving black professionals, many of whom regard the president as a symbol of black middle-class triumph. But their insistence on keeping quiet, however well-meaning, carries dangers that black-studies scholars are well positioned to highlight and critique....

Such denunciations capture what Ellis Cose—in an earlier book—characterized as the rage of a black privileged class. Scorned and marginalized in their own professional lives, they identify with Obama as a symbol of self-affirmation. Yet this attitude threatens to distort black discourse at a crucial moment. Emphasizing Obama's heroics prioritizes personal charisma over collective ability and wisdom. Why is the president more deserving of support than members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus, a number of whom have lobbied against Tea Party Republicanism, pressed for jobs programs and public-investment initiatives, and refused to vote for the draconian debt-ceiling compromise? Of what value is the president's virtuosity if it bolsters a longstanding liberal retreat from issues of racial and economic inequality? What good is his "cool" if it masks, as the entertainer and civil-rights veteran Harry Belafonte has claimed, Obama's lack of moral courage?...

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