A Tale of Two Speeches: Is Obama Closeting America’s Black Experience?

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In his Saturday night address to the Human Rights Campaign, the wealthy gay advocacy group, President Obama drew laughs by recalling a recent trip to California, where he held “productive, bilateral talks” with Lady Gaga, who, he noted, “was wearing 16-inch heels.” He spoke of “a big America, a tolerant America,” and forcefully touted his administration’s policy wins, such as the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the decision to stop defending the federal ban on recognizing gay marriages – which, he said, is unconstitutional. “I said I would never counsel patience; that it wasn’t right to tell you to be patient any more than it was right for others to tell African Americans to be patient in the fight for equal rights a half century ago,” he said.

The message could not have been more different from his speech to the Congressional Black Caucus, delivered just seven days earlier. At the CBC, he offered pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps talk, and ended with this: “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes… Stop complaining. Stop grumbling, stop crying.” “Obama’s Sister Souljah Moment,” declared a Washington Post headline. Maxine Waters, chair of the CBC’s jobs initiative, observed on CBS News that Obama is vigorously courting Latino voters – who aren’t bound to a single political party – and even hosted a Hispanic policy conference at the White House last summer. “He certainly didn’t tell them to stop complaining. And he would never tell that to the gay and lesbian community,” she said. Just a few weeks earlier, at a Miami town hall meeting, Waters told the head of the White House’s jobs initiative: “Let me hear you say black.” This episode suggests that Obama is explicitly addressing the concerns of specific parts of his diverse constituency. But the first black President can’t – or won’t – forcefully offer targeted solutions to the economic crisis that is profoundly affecting blacks.

Obama’s election was supposed to mark a new period in American history, proof that we’d become more sophisticated in dealing with matters of race. Instead, it’s presented a baffling irony: on the watch of the first African American president, poverty among blacks has reached record levels, potentially, permanently, destabilizing the black middle class. To be clear, it’s a crisis that’s been years in the making. And it’s not exclusively Obama’s burden – any President should be concerned that such a large subset of the population is falling into the abyss.

And the last few weeks of debate about race and poverty has put on full display the challenge Obama – like many black executives – encounter when dealing with issues of particular concern to blacks: they can address it only at a distance, with a certain level of toughness, or risk being viewed by the broader white audience that he, or she, is showing racial favoritism. That partly explains the tone of Obama’s message to the Congressional Black Caucus. It was clearly directed at the black audience. But it was also intended to soothe the concerns of white voters by avoiding any whiff, real or perceived, of racial favoritism. Obama’s handlers clearly believe he must always walk this racial tightrope even though he can speak freely of progress to the Human Rights Campaign.

It’s tricky to compare the very different experiences of blacks and gays. But Obama’s reluctance to deal with race effectively puts his blackness – and our country’s black experience – in the closet.