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Obama Reaches Out With Tough Love

Sen. Barack Obama, shown at a Los Angeles church, says he is simply addressing problems that African Americans discuss in private.
Sen. Barack Obama, shown at a Los Angeles church, says he is simply addressing problems that African Americans discuss in private. (By Stefano Paltera -- Associated Press)

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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is delivering pointed critiques of the African American community as he campaigns for its votes, lamenting that many of his generation are "disenfranchising" themselves because they don't vote, taking rappers to task for their language, and decrying "anti-intellectualism" in the black community, including black children telling peers who get good grades that they are "acting white."

As he travels around the country in his effort to become the nation's first black president, Obama has engaged in an intense competition for black voters -- a crucial Democratic Party constituency that accounts for as much as half the electorate in some key primary states such as South Carolina. But the first-term senator, who has sought to present himself as an agent of change eager to challenge political convention, has taken the unusual route of publicly criticizing his own community.

In a brief interview, Obama said he is simply giving broader exposure to the problems that African Americans discuss with great frankness in private. "It's what we talk about in the barbershops in the South Side of Chicago," Obama said, adding that he talks about these problems more in the black community because they are more pronounced there. "There's an old saying that if America has a cold, we have pneumonia," he said.

Aides say there is no specific strategy to target black voters by injecting these themes into the race and note that Obama speaks to white audiences about the importance of parents turning off their kids' televisions and demanding that they finish their homework. Obama says he is echoing the concerns he hears from and shares with other African Americans.

"In Chicago, sometimes when I talk to the black chambers of commerce, I say, 'You know what would be a good economic development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks weren't throwing their garbage out of their cars,' " Obama told a group of black state legislators in a speech in South Carolina last month.

Obama is not the first or only candidate to have a specific pitch in front of African American audiences. Bill Clinton occasionally adopted a tone similar to the one Obama is using. In a 1993 speech, Clinton told a crowd in the Memphis church where the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. gave his last sermon that, if King were there, he might have said, "I did not live and die to see 13-year-old boys get automatic weapons and gun down 9-year-olds just for the kick of it."

As his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), campaigns for black votes, she often adopts a Southern twang she does not usually use in front of white audiences and is more likely to assail the Bush administration over its response to Hurricane Katrina -- a particular frustration of many African Americans because that disaster struck majority-black New Orleans.

Obama, too, employs a slightly different style of speechmaking in front of black audiences, invoking, for example, a hypothetical "Cousin Pookie" in a speech in Selma, Ala., to talk about African Americans who do not vote. But while Obama has eschewed overt appeals to black voters, comparable to the way Hillary Clinton targets women with specific policy proposals, the substance of his remarks to African Americans, some Obama allies say, reflects an ability to speak about issues that a nonblack candidate probably could not have.

"There's no one else who could say what he said about black people and their responsibility to the larger community," said Charles J. Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor who was a mentor to Obama there and is supporting his presidential bid.

"I suspect Obama has a special license for that kind of discussion," said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who listened to Obama's speech in front of his state's black legislators but has not endorsed any of his party's presidential candidates.

Some of Obama's recent remarks have called attention to a generation gap among African Americans, in particular when he criticized rap music lyrics for using the same offensive words that white radio host Don Imus used before he was fired.

Al Sharpton, who has at times depicted Obama as an overhyped media phenomenon lacking in substance, praised Obama for his critique of rap music.

"I think his addressing it is good," said Sharpton, 52. "I agree with everything he's been saying because I've been saying it."

On the other hand, Lennox Yearwood Jr., 37, who runs a group called the Hip Hop Caucus and seeks to organize voting drives and other political activity for people born after 1964, said: "There's so much more to this generation than saying 'ho' and the N-word and talking about guns and drugs."

Yearwood added, referring to Obama: "Before he makes an overall statement about hip-hop, he should know more about the complete culture of hip-hop."

Obama has been criticized for hypocrisy on the issue because he met in his Chicago office last year with the rapper Ludacris, who has been in a public feud over his lyrics with one of Obama's biggest boosters, Oprah Winfrey.

Obama aides acknowledge their eagerness to appeal to older black leaders. "It's very important because of who votes," said one Obama adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The generation that is of the civil rights era are pretty reliable voters."

But the concerns Obama is addressing are not just the province of older African Americans.

"I consider myself a hip-hop child, but I think his criticism is right on," said Jared Roebuck, 21, a black student at City College of New York who attended one of Obama's speeches and wrote about it on his blog.

The concept of "acting white" and worries that African Americans are not pushing their children enough to focus on education have been long-standing concerns of Obama's -- he has mentioned them in several recent speeches -- and issues that many prominent members of the community, mostly notably comedian Bill Cosby, have focused on in recent years.

But some scholars assert that even if black kids do say that other black students who excel in school are "acting white," it is hardly a sufficient explanation for the achievement gap between black and white students, which remains vast. The gap is "not because black 7-year-olds are holding back other black 7-year-olds," said Melissa V. Harris-Lacewell, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University. "This black pathology argument is appealing, but I think he's wrong empirically."

And there is a more general concern that Obama is saying these things as political positioning. Lacewell likened them to a speech Bill Clinton gave in 1992 when he criticized hip-hop artist Sister Souljah, who had said after riots in Los Angeles, "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people."

That speech was largely seen as an effort to allow Clinton to distance himself from parts of the black community in a bid to win over white centrist voters. Aides said that is not the case with Obama's recent rhetoric, pointing to a 2006 speech he gave at a Chicago church after a pair of shootings in a black neighborhood and before his presidential candidacy.

"All of us know little shorties, and we see them when they are young. Something is happening to them around age 4 or 5. A darkness comes over them, and you can see the loss of hope in them," Obama said then. He added: "There is a reason they shoot each other, because they don't love themselves, and the reason they don't love themselves is we are not loving them, we're not paying attention to them, we're not guiding them, we're not disciplining them. We've got work to do."


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