The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s about time Obama stuck up for his ‘respectability politics’

That his approach—presuming black Americans are possessed of self-determination—is controversial at all would have perplexed our elders.

President Obama speaks at the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. E.J. Dionne, Jr., a Washington Post columnist and professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy is at left. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Did you hear about the black president who gets roasted for the gaffe of presuming black people have control over themselves and their fate?

It’s an old story at this point: President Obama’s speech at the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary commemoration; his commencement address at Morehouse College; the launch of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. They’ve all come under scrutiny from African-American observers who become alarmed whenever the president strays from treating black people as powerless victims of society whose only salvation will be an upending of the American system that will never happen.

Jamelle Bouie calls Obama’s formulation “wrong” and Jelani Cobb once boiled it down this way: “It has been Obama’s consistent habit to douse moments of black achievement with soggy moralizing.”

But at his “poverty summit” Tuesday, the president pushed back, saying, among other things:

On this whole family-character values-structure issue. It’s true that if I’m giving a commencement at Morehouse that I will have a conversation with young black men about taking responsibility as fathers that I probably will not have with the women of Barnard. And I make no apologies for that. And the reason is, is because I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the cost that I paid for that. And I also know that I have the capacity to break that cycle, and as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off.

He’s dead on, and he should keep at it.

That Obama’s approach is controversial at all would have perplexed our black elders. In the black Chicago of yore, community leaders both welcomed black migrants from the South and openly considered them in need of “amalgamation and assimilation,” as one prominent pastor put it. As late as 1966, Detroit’s branch of the National Urban League prepared young black men for the job market through a skit depicting a slouchy guy named Mo getting a job when he shapes up. And the principle remains, even if we’d use a subtler approach today.

But these were apparently backward attitudes. Today, we’re told that our job as African Americans is to wait for society to change, and that any talk of us working on ourselves in the meantime is something called “respectability politics.”

Mind you, if asked whether they consider personal responsibility important, Obama’s critics would readily say yes. But in practice, they consider the topic appropriate only discussed alongside—or secondarily to—a broader indictment of society.

That is rarely attested openly, of course. But people often express their inner sentiments only indirectly. This lesson is taught ardently when the topic is racist attitudes, for example. I submit that how some folks really feel about the responsibility/respectability issue is analogous: their claim that they value the responsibility argument reflects their actual feelings only partially.

Here’s one way we know: Obama doesn’t absorb the same critiques, from the same critics, if he talks about society without mentioning individual accountability. Indictments of society alone are taken as telling it like it is. It’s only when responsibility is discussed alone that raises such hackles. From this, it’s fair to conclude that they consider personal responsibility a significantly less important issue than the shortcomings of society overall. With only slightly less confidence, we might assume that if responsibility were never brought up in public, they wouldn’t mind at all.

Indeed, the very designation “respectability politics” is a sneer, implying that those discussing black responsibility are pulling some kind of ploy for political gain à la Republicans’ Southern strategy back in the day.

But what do today’s commentators know that our ancestors didn’t? Prior generations preached responsibility while battling Jim Crow and open bigotry, and I think we can all admit they made at least some progress in things. The argument, then, would seem to be that today’s America—post-industrial, capitalist America—presents a conclusively imposing barrier to further advancement for African Americans.

The watchcry is: The descendants of African slaves in the United States are the world’s first people to be so bested by societal conditions that to rally them to be agents in their own fate, in anything but the most parenthetical of terms, qualifies as an insult.

But the conclusive argument for this position is lacking. It is based on an oversimplified view of black history, and an unimaginative approach to the challenges presently facing black America. Waiting for an America with well-paying, semi-skilled jobs a short commute from black communities, with no racist sentiments and an exquisitely guilty nationwide understanding of society’s past abuses against black people is like waiting for a winter without snow.

Too, this pox on talk of responsibility and/or respectability is perhaps the least prideful position any group’s leaders have ever taken in human history. This — and not “politics” — is why a healthy contingent of black people such as myself resist such ideology, and are alternately perplexed or amused to be told that this makes us “conservative.”

The black man who told us to hope disses the idea that hopelessness is higher wisdom. Do keep at it, Mr. President.