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Sometimes It’s Not All About Race When It Comes to Criticizing Obama

[UPDATE: The comments have been quite lively, and I’ve responded to several, so join the conversation.]

I will preface this short essay by saying that race infuses American politics and society in such toxic ways that we need more (and better) public engagement on the topic. We all need to get better tools to address the matters of legacy and privilege, defensiveness and offensive behavior. It’s too much to unpack in one post, though.

There are three articles referenced here that caught my attention, because they do unpack a color-aroused conundrum related to our current President and his performance.

1. Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama. Melissa Harris-Perry, in The Nation.

President Obama has experienced a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans—from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent now. I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that

In response:

2. Are white liberals abandoning the president? A Nation writer worries that an “insidious form of racism” explains their criticism of Obama. I don’t see evidence. Joan Walsh, Salon.

[I]t’s hard to usefully compare the attitudes of a hard-to-define demographic group — “white liberals” — across a span of 20 years, factor in the specific ups and downs of two presidencies, and come to any fair political conclusions. It’s especially hard given the enormous difference in the economy during their two presidencies. Clinton presided over one of the strongest economies in American history; Obama inherited the worst mess since the Great Depression. Clinton probably gets more credit than he deserves for the economy, while Obama gets too much blame. But it’s nearly impossible to compare voters’ opinions of the two presidents given that stark contrast. With a booming economy, Obama would be riding higher with all voters, of every race.

Which led to:

3. Are you disappointed with Obama simply because you’re a racist? John Aravosis, Americablog.

A president is judged by how well he handles the hand he’s dealt. And if a white president had: proposed a too small stimulus, and then whittled it down even further to appease an angry (and then- irrelevant) GOP; refused to get his hands dirty with the nitty gritty of health care reform for nearly a year, until it was too late (and brokered noxious secret deals with Big Pharma); promised to be a fierce advocate on gay rights and then dawdled far too long; embraced budget cutting mania while the economy was still on life support; and caved time after time to insane Republican demands in order to avoid a fight he might just have been able to win, then yeah, I’d have been ticked at him too.

…One more thing, since the author of the Nation piece claims that gays were happier with Clinton than we are with Obama, and that this too is allegedly because of our subtle racism. . . .

Oy. Of course I strongly suggest you read all three pieces to get a full view of the authors’ intent, but you can see that there’s a lot of meat to discuss.  I find these positions interesting, and, not surprisingly exclusive of any consideration of the political view of the President from someone who is progressive, black and gay.

I don’t get to choose blackness over gayness, but those attributes do have an impact on my point of view, regardless of the race of the person in the Oval Office. Does Barack Obama need to be cut slack solely because he is biracial/black? No. Is how his success/failure colored, no pun intended, by his race? Yes and no; we all perceive things based on our backgrounds, education, upbringing.  It’s a mistake to deny that plays a role in this.

I also have no illusions — one can be progressive and still hold racist/sexist/homophobic views; I’ve seen that first-hand. The left is at least, on occasion, willing to admit how privilege is a problem (while laughably denying they personally recognize their privilege even as they exert it) and make an attempt to unpack the difficult conversations; the right doesn’t give a sh*t about examining their privilege.

The President has been a general disappointment on the left, something covered above, certainly enough to warrant the criticism. He  holds a good amount of contempt for the progressive wing of the party generally (and yes, POC progressives are included, no?).

I’ve been both critical and supportive of this President based on what I believe and want from him in terms of policy. That has nothing to do with race from my POV; I can only speak for myself, and the Blend archives show where he’s been praised and where he’s been criticized.

The major problem I see when reading between the lines of these essays is an not what one believes about Barack Obama’s accomplishments or shortcomings, but about what OTHERS think about your POV of the his performance.

No one wants to be labeled a racist, of course, but who determines what level of criticism qualifies as bourne of racism? I have no idea – there’s no data to review — so the whole dustup is based on speculation. There’s no bigot-o-meter in place; it’s not as easy as pointing to some Teabagger holding up a stuffed monkey doll with “Obama” on it and saying, “that’s not me.”

But I’m sure you can talk to any number of people of color or women (or both) who broke barriers in their jobs and communities who felt the weight of “failure is not an option” — that if you didn’t perform perfectly, you were ruining chances for those who followed in your footsteps.

Barack Obama is in unchartered territory, and for better or worse, I’m sure a lot of his political calculations — playing it safe (or moving too slowly), appeasing the right — pick your view, are frustrating.  They are to me. As John Aravosis noted, Obama gets high marks for making DADT repeal happen, but it was a path so rocky because of the administration’s reticence, that it almost didn’t happen, and wouldn’t have without the extreme pressures from pro-LGBT forces.

Does that make me racist for finding fault with Obama’s political sloth on some issues? No, but for some of the pro-Obama forces, they see racial animus behind any criticism, no matter how legitimate. I find this absurd and dangerous, because there is plenty of overt racism and classism going on in this country that needs to be addressed with as much energy.

Of course this is coming from me; my criticism of the Obama administration earned me the hilarious label of ‘A Bitter Racist White Gay Man Trapped In Black Lesbian’s Body. Those uncomfortable or under-schooled in thinking beyond black/white, straight/gay, left/right may find it hard to see that generalizations about the criticism of President Obama are difficult to apply in the real world of more diverse, blended voices and opinions.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding