President Obama has made giving "tough love" speeches to black audiences a hallmark of his political career -- even telling black people to stop feeding their kids "cold Popeyes" or laughing off their lack of education. But those days are increasingly behind him.
His fealty to what is often called black respectability politics always had its critics and champions, but now such rhetoric seems to be at odds with his strategy around Ferguson and, therefore, is largely absent from his public comments.
As a candidate, he lectured African Americans on Popeyes and implored them not to “just sit in the house watching SportsCenter” or to brag about an eighth-grade education. In real time, he was often cheered, though Jesse Jackson criticized him for "talking down to black people."
It also prompted columnist Jonathan Alter to write in 2008 that Obama's "most exciting potential for moral leadership could be in the African-American community."
Obviously, not all black adults and children would suddenly start doing exactly what President Obama tells them. As he said in his Philadelphia speech, he's not naive enough to believe that one politician will transform American attitudes. But it must make at least some difference when Obama tells African-American audiences, as he did this year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, that they need to stop being homophobic and anti-Semitic. This is powerful stuff and would make him an important president even if his legislation stalled.
And for much of his presidency, Obama fulfilled Alter's vision of the nation's first black president as a kind of scold. Obama gave black respectability politics a social and political currency not seen before, legitimizing the kind of fault-finding critiques of African-American behavior that has been more common among conservatives. He delivered specific messages to black audiences about behavior and responsibility that he would not deliver to white audiences -- all while steadfastly insisting that he was not the president of Black America.
After the February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin and the trial and not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman, his administration rolled out a $200 million public-private partnership called "My Brother's Keeper," designed to short-circuit the school-to-prison pipeline that sometimes shaped the lives of black and brown boys. And in the immediate wake of the killing of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson in August, Obama cited that program as part of his administration's response to the issues it raised.
And so, the idea behind something like My Brother’s Keeper is can we work with cities and communities and clergy and parents and young people themselves, all across the country -- school superintendents, business, corporations -- and can we find models that work, that move these young men on -- on a better track?
And there was this:
There are young black men that commit crime. And -- and -- and we can argue about why that happens because of the poverty they were born into or the lack of opportunity or the school systems that failed them or what have you, but if they commit a crime, then they need to be prosecuted because every community has an interest in public safety.
This did not go over well. It prompted some African Americans to knock him for focusing on black criminality when it wasn't clear that Brown was even in the criminal justice system. It sounded a bit too much like the excuses people were making for Wilson shooting an unarmed teenager.
The consensus among some prominent African Americans around the time was summed up with this: "Six years into the Obama Presidency, we now realize that pulled-up, belted pants, neatly-pressed dress-suits and bow-ties are apparently a policy initiative intended to save Black men and boys," wrote Michael Anthony Neal, professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University.
But something seems to have shifted in Obama's most recent public conversations about Ferguson. There has been little mention of "My Brother's Keeper." There has also been little focus in Obama's rhetoric about black behavior or crime rates -- and much more focus on the need for good community policing.
Here's what he said after a series of White House meetings on Ferguson on Monday (emphasis mine):
When I hear the young people around this table talk about their experiences, it violates my belief in what America can be to hear young people feeling marginalized and distrustful, even after they've done everything right. That’s not who we are. And I don’t think that’s who the overwhelming majority of Americans want us to be.
Obama's temporary shelving of some of his earlier rhetoric on Ferguson and black criminality comes as Bill Cosby, one of the most famous proponents of black respectability politics, is facing rape allegations. It also comes as Charles Barkley, the latest in a line of black scolds, is being quoted by an Oklahoma Republican in a piece called "Why blacks hate cops & how blacks can be winners, not losers!"
Tea party leaders have slammed the piece -- which could just as easily borrow from Obama's past rhetoric to blacks as from Barkley's -- as racist.
In segregating out blacks as needing a special talking to, Obama only underscored the worst stereotypes about a group that supported him in historic numbers. He put blacks in a different category, apart from America and in need of reform.
Obama's insistence that the problem of Ferguson is an American one now makes that framing not only unhelpful, but also untenable. He has instead focused on African American concerns about unfair treatment and called them part of the American family -- which makes it awfully hard to single them out as the problem child in need of some tough love.