Few groups irk me more than those in the “blacker-than-thou” crowd and their quickness to condemn anyone who falls outside of their cookie-cutter notion of what it means to be African American. That’s why I applaud what the president had to say in this regard. The words needed to be said as much as they needed to be heard.
“Be confident in your blackness. One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be black,” Obama said. “You can create your own style, set your own standard of beauty, embrace your own sexuality.” And he urged graduates to “embrace our own beautiful, unique, and valid versions of our blackness.” And being “confident in your blackness” also means staring down the ignorant people who call you a “sellout,” “Uncle Tom,” “wanna-be white,” “not black enough,” “not really black” or “lost” because your version of blackness differs from theirs or what they think it should be.
Not a day goes by when I’m not hit with one of those labels. Last week, I wasn’t black enough because I failed to properly appreciate Larry Wilmore’s disrespectful use of the N-word in addressing the president. One person on Twitter branded me an “Uncle Tom a–– n––––,” while another declared, “[Y]ou dont [sic] seem to move in black spaces.” And I will defend anyone else whose blackness is called into question.
A few months ago when a dear friend who is white said that then-presidential candidate Ben Carson was “not really a black man” because he is a Republican, I abruptly shut her down. If I’m not going to put up with it when it happens to me, I’m damned sure not going to sit by and let it happen to someone else. Even if that someone is on the other side of the ideological spectrum from me. Rising African American leaders must take Obama’s call to be “confident in one’s blackness” as one to also stand up for those whose blackness is called into question.
Another way some African Americans belittle the political perspective of other blacks is to condemn it as “respectability politics.” That’s the notion that acceptance from the mainstream is more important than the ideals and goals of the minority. That kind of foolish thinking leads to an insistence on purity of purpose and thought that yields uncompromising positions that impede progress on the very issues championed by said minority.
The president didn’t address “respectability politics” directly. But I’m inferring it in what he said about how important it is for those seeking change to listen to those with whom they disagree and to compromise.
The point is, you need allies in a democracy. That’s just the way it is. It can be frustrating and it can be slow. But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse….And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair. And that’s never been the source of our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.We remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory, the power of his letter from a Birmingham jail, the marches he led. But he also sat down with President Johnson in the Oval Office to try and get a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act passed. And those two seminal bills were not perfect — just like the Emancipation Proclamation was a war document as much as it was some clarion call for freedom. Those mileposts of our progress were not perfect. They did not make up for centuries of slavery or Jim Crow or eliminate racism or provide for 40 acres and a mule. But they made things better. And you know what, I will take better every time. I always tell my staff — better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position.
These kinds of achievements also require having the ability to think long term and have patience to play the long game. This is something Obama excels at, much to the understandable frustration of those who want change now. Recall what happened in the march to the overturning of the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military or his public declaration in support of same-sex marriage. The president went from being considered less-than-committed to equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans in 2009 to being heralded on the cover of Newsweek as “the first gay president” in 2012. The long game he played led to the demise of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in December 2010. After breakneck progress in state courts during Obama’s presidency, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.
Perhaps the most important message from Obama was his exhortation to the Howard graduates to vote. At a time when Sanders is proclaiming that all he needs is a political revolution to achieve his goals for the American people, the president reminded all of us that revolutions and change don’t happen in America unless people vote. And they must vote in every election.
“You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy,” he said. “[Y]ou have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes. You see, change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing.” Not only did the president laud the hard work of Fannie Lou Hamer, who fired up the Democratic National Convention in 1964, but also that of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has awakened the entire nation to the problems in the criminal justice system. And then Obama went all in.
But to bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough. It requires changes in law, changes in custom. If you care about mass incarceration, let me ask you: How are you pressuring members of Congress to pass the criminal justice reform bill now pending before them? If you care about better policing, do you know who your district attorney is? Do you know who your state’s attorney general is? Do you know the difference? Do you know who appoints the police chief and who writes the police training manual? Find out who they are, what their responsibilities are. Mobilize the community, present them with a plan, work with them to bring about change, hold them accountable if they do not deliver. Passion is vital, but you’ve got to have a strategy.And your plan better include voting — not just some of the time, but all the time. It is absolutely true that 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, there are still too many barriers in this country to vote. There are too many people trying to erect new barriers to voting. This is the only advanced democracy on Earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote. And there’s a reason for that. There’s a legacy to that.But let me say this: Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. In 2014, only 36 percent of Americans turned out to vote in the midterms — the second lowest participation rate on record. Youth turnout — that would be you — was less than 20 percent. Less than 20 percent. Four out of five did not vote. In 2012, nearly two in three African Americans turned out. And then, in 2014, only two in five turned out. You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I’ve got to deal with? And then people are wondering, well, how come Obama hasn’t gotten this done? How come he didn’t get that done? You don’t think that made a difference? What would have happened if you had turned out at 50, 60, 70 percent, all across this country? People try to make this political thing really complicated. Like, what kind of reforms do we need? And how do we need to do that? You know what, just vote. It’s math. If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want.
Whenever pressed on how he would achieve any of his goals, Sanders always says Congress would have no choice but to listen to the “political revolution” he is leading. Last February, he told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews during a town hall, “What I am trying to do is not just pass legislation. I’m trying to change the face of American politics.”
That comment has always struck me as a not-so-veiled slap at Obama, whose 2008 “hope and change” campaign brought new people into the political process. And many of those folks were deeply disappointed that the president wasn’t able to get done all the things he promised to get done. Part of the reason for that is the realization that campaigning is different from governing. The other part is not having a Congress to cast votes that turn promises into policy. Because Democrats stayed home, Republicans took over the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.
The most pointed thing Obama said about all this was, “You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I’ve got to deal with?” The president’s rhetorical question is a warning to the Sanders revolutionaries and also to some folks in the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s not enough to rail against injustice and demand equality and fairness. The system won’t change unless you actively and consistently participate in it and hold it accountable. As the president said to the graduates, eschewing the process is “how we cheat ourselves of progress.”
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj