Obama’s Message to Black Leaders: “Stop Complaining”

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President Obama’s address to the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual dinner on Saturday was striking. First, there was Obama’s tone; the cadence – “a bit ‘a help,” instead of “a bit of help” – was reminiscent of a black Southern preacher, and candidate Obama of 2008. Second, he invoked a familiar Biblical theme by reminding the crowd – politicians, business leaders – that just five years ago, the idea of a junior black Senator from Illinois running for the presidency was not only “crazy,” but required an unexplainable faith in the unseen.

The address came as Obama’s relationship with blacks is enduring unprecedented tension. Polls show that blacks’ support for the President is cooling, as is the rest of the electorate’s, in part because of economic malaise. Last month, the Congressional Black Caucus drew thousands to job fairs in Detroit, Atlanta and Los Angeles, stirring a debate about whether it’s in the nation’s interest for government to craft programs targeting majority-black and Latino communities, among the areas most severely impacted by the economic crisis. One of the most remarkable moments came during a Miami town hall meeting, when Congresswoman Maxine Waters, head of the CBC’s jobs initiative, told Don Graves, executive director of the White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness: “Let me hear you say ‘black.’”

In Saturday’s speech, Obama pointed to policies that benefit all Americans, like the $1,000 child tax credits, and the jobs bill he recently proposed to Congress. He acknowledged the black unemployment rate had reached 16.7%, its highest level in nearly three decades, and reminded the crowd that nearly 40% of black children live in poverty. He linked the audience’s middle-class aspirations to his own narrative, and Michelle Obama’s humble roots on Chicago’s South Side. “I know how much we have invested in making sure that we’re able to move this country forward…. More than a lot of other folks in this country, we know about hard,” he said, pausing for a moment, waiting for applause, then adding, “The people in this room know about hard.”

Then came the end of his speech: “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.” There was a standing ovation. But there was also a gasp. In a television interview on Sunday morning, Waters called the President’s language “a bit curious,” and noted his policies targeting Latinos, a crucial voting bloc in 2012. “He certainly didn’t tell them to stop complaining. And he would never say that to the gay and lesbian community, who really pushed him on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’…. He would never say to the Jewish community, ‘stop complaining about Israel.’”

One can’t help but wonder: What was Obama’s intention in those remarks? Was he asking black leaders to stop raising the issue of widening inequality? Or was he merely trying to fire up his base? And if Obama was dismissing blacks’ legitimate economic concerns as nothing more than “complaining,” it’s worth asking how that squares with the notion of a post-racial presidency — which, of course, doesn’t exist.

Steven Gray is Washington Correspondent at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @stevengray or at Facebook/gray.steven.