you're reading...

Obama: Black Paternalism and the Passive Revolution

“The greatest principle of all is that nobody, male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace—to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals .. only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of independently, and to become utterly incapable of it”- Plato

Gil Scott Heron once famously said “The revolution will not be televised” and like the spoken word that gave us light in the biblical narrative of Genesis- the word became flesh.

We’ve been in the midst of a revolution since the election of President Obama in 2008 but not in the manner in which we think. The election of Barack Hussein Obama brought with it much excitement and many mentions of “HOPE”.

Hope for the present and hope for the future, in particular for people of color. The election of Barack Obama signified a historical turning point, manifested in the hope that the election of the first black president of the United States of America would in particular bring forth a change for Black Americans. A change that they had been fighting for before there even was a United States. Many would state that this “change” has indeed happened.

The report however, isn’t good. Black Americans by and large aren’t doing better despite the presence of a president of color. As black intellectuals engage in a form of verbal mandingo fighting in regard to the job this president is doing as it relates to Black Americans, I lean toward the small but growing dissenting voices that are calling the president to task.

Using the President’s recent comments in regard to the not guilty verdict from the racially charged Zimmerman trial and murder of Trayvon Martin as a reference point, I contend that what we are privy to is a selective form of “black paternalism” where the president deftly and hypocritically, conveniently plays the role of “black daddy” to what White America believes to be its bastard problem children of America: Black Americans.

As Black Americans applaud the candour and welcome comfort of his words (even I do to a degree) there is a duality to them that speaks to long held beliefs that White Americans have about Black Americans of which due to the political correctness of this era they are unable to freely express. Who better than the “black president” to convey that message without a backlash of anger and calls of racism? In Obama, white patriarchal power has the perfect messenger to speak to Black America.

Symbolically, what Obama said was deep, and spoke much truth about the Black experience. This has tremendous import because no one from such a position of power had stated what he said before and more importantly, stated it from a place of connectivity. That aside, there is a vacuous hypocrisy that lacks any weight other than the power of emotive rhetoric and in light of the contemporary struggles that African Americans are now facing in the 21st century what we need from this president and administration is effective policy, not rhetoric.

Ta-Nehisi Coates at “The Atlantic” has been writing some balanced critiques on the president in this regard. In the piece entitled “How the Obama Administration Talk to Black America” http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/05/how-the-obama-administration-talks-to-black-america/276015/ Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a forthright critique on the hypocrisy of the black paternalism of this president in regard to Black Americans that is noticably absent when it comes to the nations other oppressed demographics. He states “In all of this, those historians will see a discomfiting pattern of convenient race-talk”

This rears its head yet again in the speech President Obama gives about the Zimmerman verdict in relation to the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin, where he speaks to the reality of life for black males in America and what can be done to help make that better.

“How are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that — and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed — you know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that

President Obama speaks as if he lacks power or agency to do something about this. He acknowledges that there is black pain and a context to that pain that he himself has experienced but apparently is powerless to do anything about it. All while he presides over a “War on Drugs” that is significantly impacting African- Americans to the benefit of the prison industrial complex and a financial recession that has devastated the black community and home ownership.

The hypocrisy of all of this is that the president has been on record and stated that he’s not the President of Black America but the President of the United States http://www.politico.com/politico44/2012/08/obama-im-not-the-president-of-black-america-131351.html

So, he’s the President of the United States when it comes to policy, but when it comes to black pain or dictating “black personal responsibility” as reflected in his speech at MoreHouse College last year, he’s the Black President?

The speech while symbolically powerful is relatively meaningless and is a continuation of rhetoric that directly speaks to Black Americans paternalistically but paradoxically denies the reality of black folk when it comes to working toward policy that will make a difference. I ask, in what way does President Obama want to make black males feel more inclusive as he seeks to put a staunch advocate and user of the police tactic of “stop and frisk”, NYPD Police Commissioner “Ray Kelly” into his cabinet as the Head of Homeland Security. Ta-Nehisi Coates again brings the president to task with yet another brilliant piece from his column at “The Atlantic” entitled “Profiling Comes to the White House” http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/07/profiling-comes-to-the-white-house/277943/ by stating that:

“Communities do not become pariahs simply through the actions of independent citizens. Policymakers send signals about what is acceptable and what is not. Should Barack Obama appoint Ray Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security the signal will be clear: Profiling is not, as Obama once claimed, “morally objectionable” and “bad police work,” but an acceptable tactic presently condoned at the highest levels of government. Such a development — in Obama’s second term, no less — would be a betrayal of African-American voters who endured long lines and poll tax tactics to elect this president. This should not happen. This can not happen.”

I echo Ta-heisi’s sentiments. This should not and cannot happen. Whether it’s in defense of injustice being perpetrated on American citizens as President of the United States or whether it’s as the sometime but non-existent role of “Black President of the United States” where he acknowledges and identifies with black pain and the context within– he is compelled to do something about it. The one thing he can’t do, the one he shouldn’t do is be an active or passive participant in that oppression and pain all while he profits from it as he has by the black voter turn-out that assisted in securing his two terms.

I’ve long stated that with this president, with as enigmatic and distracting as his presence has been, he is a “master reverse code switcher”.

When it comes to getting votes, he knows how to play ball, give dap, and reference hip-hop to engender himself to the black community but when it comes to effective policy for Black Americans he adopts a malignant color blind gaze that leaves them without anything substantial in terms of effectual change.

However, I believe that it’s this reverse code switching and his very presence that has passified black progressives and voices of dissent. This is the mark of what the Italian socialist, philosopher, sociologist and writer Antonio Gramsci dubbed “passive revolution”. In a brilliant piece written for Al Jazeera by William I. Robinson entitled “Global Capitalism and 21st Century Fascism” http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/04/201142612714539672.html

Robinson outlines the process by which white patriarchal power proceeded to conduct a “passive revolution” in light of growing dissent at the tail end of the Bush administration. He states:

The Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of passive revolution to refer to efforts by dominant groups to bring about mild change from above in order to undercut mobilisation from below for more far-reaching transformation. Integral to passive revolution is the co-option of leadership from below; its integration into the dominant project. Dominant forces in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North America are attempting to carry out such a passive revolution. With regard to the immigrant rights movement in the United States – one of the most vibrant social movements in that country -moderate/mainstream Latino establishment leaders were brought into the Obama and Democratic Party fold – a classic case of passive revolution – while the mass immigrant base suffers intensified state repression.

Obama’s campaign tapped into and helped expand mass mobilisation and popular aspirations for change not seen in many years in the United States. The Obama project co-opted that brewing storm from below, channelled it into the electoral campaign, and then betrayed those aspirations, as the Democratic Party effectively demobilised the insurgency from below with more passive revolution.

In this sense, the Obama project weakened the popular and left response from below to the crisis, which opened space for the right-wing response to the crisis – for a project of 21st century fascism – to become insurgent. Obama’s administration appears in this way as a Weimar republic. Although the social democrats were in power during the Weimar republic of Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, they did not pursue a leftist response to the crisis, but rather side-lined the militant trade unions, communists and socialists, and progressively pandered to capital and the right before turning over power to the Nazis in 1933.

It is this “passive revolution’ that the illusion of “hope” was brought to America but in particular Black Americans. It is under this same passive revolution that Black Americans have seen the first “Black President” refuse to acknowledge black oppression from the perspective of policy but receive a a heavy dose of proverbial “fireside chats” when it comes to black personal responsibility and “behavior management”, things of which white patriarchal power has always faulted black Americans for not doing: working hard and good conduct.

The message hasn’t changed, the face is just different. It’s more benign and relatable however it is still as ineffectual. It is for this reason I believe that the Obama presidency has shown us that it doesn’t matter what color the President of the United States is, unless the systems behind the man that stands in the front of the presidential seal are completely changed, the office of the president will remain openly hostile to the plight of black people– even if it be passively so as in the case of this latest iteratation.

I was watching an interview with Jay-Z recently and he elucidates an important statement about Obama that I believe bears much thought and is the key to the ‘Passive Revolution” that has taken place. I think it powerfully encapsulates what the passive revolution had intended and succeeded in doing when it comes to this president and the absence of hope in terms of policy that would bring forth the “hoped’ for change that ushered in his election in 2008.

” My very presence is charity, just who I am, just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation and outside of America is enough. Ya know what I’m saying? Just being who is. He’s the first black president. If he speaks on any issue, on anything he should be left alone. I’m not going to say anything bad about him. Of course, we want to challenge him to do better but”… Jay Z

This revolution will not be televised.


About Joseph

natty dread bastard child of the first world. something like a literary trap beat.


2 thoughts on “Obama: Black Paternalism and the Passive Revolution

  1. This piece is frankly amazing. I especially love the part about him being a reverse code switcher, It is true, that aspect is the most offensive in comparing his campaign to his presidency. He sings Al Green to get the voters, but where is Marvin Gaye’s “inner city blues” or “mercy mercy me” when it came to trayvon? He relates to young black men, but it is so vague, I think to whites, the racial profiling he experienced seems innocuous, and that becomes a symbol of what they think occurs on the streets. while I do love obama, you are correct that his concern is more of a slightly indifferent father. When surprisingly, most fathers would go to war, (metaphorically) for their children. Do you think his lack of emotion is related to his administration of is it just the way he is. I can recall even during his debate with Mitt Romney, he was disinterested in the first one, and passionless in the second. I know he has been deemed to “favorite blacks” after that speech by white critics. And on one hand, it seems no matter what he does, it will never be good enough, if he favors our race, he displeases another. With respect to the war on drugs though, he did change the penalties for crack vs. cocaine, and made some excellent hate crime laws, that favor minorities AND homosexual/transgender people, and he actually went outside the scope of the constitution to do this, 3 years ago. I also want to say that this piece was extremely well written.

    Posted by helenssigh | July 29, 2013, 4:42 AM
    • Thanks so much for you comment. I wish I had thought of this comment you made ” He sings Al Green to get the voters, but where is Marvin Gaye’s “inner city blues” or “mercy mercy me” when it came to Trayvon” in my piece. That said, I feel that his comments about the Zimmerman verdict, and his contextualising it to his own experiences as a person of color was his attempt at a “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy Me” without the singing. In regard to your comment about the president’s “lack of emotion” I’m not sure if I agree with that per se. In fact, as stated in the piece, I think his response was full of emotive rhetoric and that is the part that grabs people. As I’m sure you well know, emotions such as pain, anger and grief as such powerfully unifying responses but they also can be significant distractions to critical thought. The after math of 9/11 is a great case study in that regard. You are right, this president unlike any other is in the most difficult of positions. In part, his “inability” to address race has ironically been affected by the fact that he is the first president of color. That said, after securing a second term one would think that it secure he would be more outspoken on the deep racial injustice and inequities that permeate American culture and cultural movement.
      Lastly, I hope you didn’t read this piece and see my critique as an outright attack on all the president’s decision making as a whole. Certainly we can point to some good things he’s done. My critiques on his handling of race and in particular his relationship of convenience with Black America doesn’t blind me to these facts. However, the fact remains that he has not fulfilled many of the promises that he stated in his 08 campaign and he certainly has not met the unstated expectations and “change” that Black people assumed would accompany the election of the first Black President. I still stand by my original statement and that is that a Black President is the apex of house negritude and that like the character Stephen in the film Django, you can “run’ the house but at the end of the day we know who the house belongs to. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I really appreciated your feedback.

      Posted by Joseph | August 9, 2013, 12:35 PM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,025 other followers


%d bloggers like this: