The problem with live television is that you don’t have nearly enough time to get all of the things sloshing around in your head out of your mouth — or in a manner that is coherent. Case in point: my discussion with Melissa Harris Perry last night of the unfortunate comments by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) about President Obama and the “advantages” he received as an African American man.
Take a gander at what Coburn said when Tulsa World reporter Randy Krehbiel asked him whether he thought Obama was trying to destroy the country.
No, I don’t . . . He’s a very bright man. But think about his life. And think about what he was exposed to and what he saw in America. He’s only relating what his experience in life was. . . . His intent isn’t to destroy. It’s to create dependency because it worked so well for him. I don’t say that critically. Look at people for what they are. Don’t assume ulterior motives. I don’t think he doesn’t love our country. I think he does.
As an African American male, coming through the progress of everything he experienced, he got tremendous benefit through a lot of these programs. So he believes in them. I just don’t believe they work overall and in the long run they don’t help our country. But he doesn’t know that because his life experience is something different. So it’s very important not to get mad at the man. And I understand, his philosophy — there’s nothing wrong with his philosophy other than it’s goofy and wrong [laughter] — but that doesn’t make him a bad person.
As I said on Last Word last night, Coburn needs to put out a list of these programs that provide “tremendous benefit” to black men. There are millions who would love to know. All jokes aside, Coburn’s words seriously sting. I am not nor have I ever been a racial grassy-knoll type who views everything through a racial prism. So, I’m not even going to venture down the route of calling Coburn a racist as others have. I cannot get into his heart to judge whether his assessment is motivated by animus.
But I must point something out to folks who equate collecting public assistance and “dependency” with being black. When Obama was a child, his mother did collect food stamps. His white mother.
Coburn’s stated view is a prime example of the attitude that keeps African Americans from even listening to what the Republican Party has to say, despite the efforts of latter-day would-be Harriet Tubmans. And it highlights, as Greg Sargent also noted in his Plum Line post, the philosophical difference between progressives and conservatives.
Then there’s affirmative action and the imagined advantages Obama may have received. Access to opportunity previously denied is what they are meant to redress. What they do not do is guarantee outcomes. You have to work for success, and work hard. That’s the American way. More importantly, you have to come to the table with ability to make all that hard work pay off. So, let’s say affirmative action made it possible for Obama to go to Occidental, Columbia and Harvard. But it was the man himself who was elected editor of the Harvard Law Review and graduated from the law school magna cum laude.
What Coburn and others who share his philosophy fail to appreciate is that anyone given a choice between collecting a welfare check and collecting a paycheck will pick the latter. But there have to be jobs for them to go to. There has to be equal access to educational opportunities that make landing that job possible. And there must be a safety net for those times when opportunity, ability and luck aren’t in sync. Does that mean people should be allowed to rely indefinitely on government until that happens? No. But it does mean government ought to be there. That’s not creating dependency. It’s just the right thing to do.