While in the White House, he sometimes spoke the truth and sometimes made excuses.
Barack Obama won 95% of the black vote in 2008 and 93% in 2012. Over two terms his approval rating among all voters averaged just 47.9%. Among blacks, however, support for Mr. Obama remained stratospheric—around 90% for almost his entire presidency.
Regardless of why Mr. Obama enjoyed that level of support or whether he deserved it based on his performance, the reality is that black Americans continue to hold the former president in the highest regard. For the foreseeable future, his viewpoints are likely to hold tremendous sway in the black community, particularly on issues of racial inequality. And it will be interesting to see where and how Mr. Obama chooses to weigh in on these matters now that he’s no longer in office and forced to choose between doing what is right and doing what is politically expedient.
Mr. Obama spent most of his presidency doing what Democrats have long done to secure the black vote, which is to paint blacks as victims of white racism in one form or another and call for more government intervention to address racial gaps in everything from employment to education to incarceration rates. To his credit, though, Mr. Obama did occasionally depart from this script. Some of his most powerful comments on race were directed at other blacks and focused on personal responsibility.
“Keep setting an example for what it means to be a man,” Mr. Obama advised graduates of historically black Morehouse College in a 2013 commencement address. “Be the best husband to your wife, or your boyfriend, or your partner. Be the best father you can be to your children. Because nothing is more important.” The president went on to praise the “heroic single mom” and “wonderful grandparents” who raised him, but said he never got over not having his father around while growing up.
“I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present but involved,” he said. “And so my whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father was not for my mother and me. I want to break that cycle where a father is not at home—where a father is not helping to raise that son or daughter.”
During a Washington town hall in 2014, Mr. Obama spoke about the self-defeating cultural attitudes that pervade black ghettos. “Sometimes African-Americans, in communities where I’ve worked, there’s been the notion of ‘acting white’—which sometimes is overstated, but there’s an element of truth to it,” he said before offering some examples. “If boys are reading too much, then, well, why are you doing that? Or why are you speaking so properly? And the notion that there’s some authentic way of being black, that if you’re going to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain kind of clothes—that has to go. Because there are a whole bunch of different ways for African-American men to be authentic.”
Which leads to the question: Which Barack Obama will we encounter in his postpresidency? Will it be the one who insisted in 2004 that there is no black America and no white America—just the United States of America? Or will it be the one who subsequently embraced Al Sharpton, the country’s poster child for racial division? Will it be the one who only wants to talk about Chicago’s policing, or will he also talk about Chicago’s crime rates?
The easier course for the former president will be to keep focusing on black victimhood. Discussing black culture remains controversial on the left, and when Mr. Obama ignored the taboo he usually caught it on the chin from fellow liberals. The black left was especially harsh. Commentators such as Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson and Ta-Nehisi Coates accused the president of being an elitist and playing down what Mr. Dyson labels “white supremacy” and what Mr. Coates calls “the historical privileges of whiteness.”
Academia also prefers to tread lightly when it comes to discussing how black culture affects racial disparities, not because social scientists believe culture plays no significant role but because saying so aloud invites charges of racism and blaming the victim. In a 2006 New York Times op-ed, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson lamented “a deep-seated dogma that has prevailed in social science and policy circles since the mid-1960s: the rejection of any explanation that invokes a group’s cultural attributes—its distinctive attitudes, values and predispositions, and the resulting behavior of its members.”
Mr. Obama knows these debates well. He also knows that he has the stature in the black community to say the sorts of things that black leaders should be saying but too often shrink from. Let’s hope he’s up to the challenge.
This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal
Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator.
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