Invisible Men of Color at Obama’s Chicago Speech

Obama speaking in Chicago on 2/15/13

Obama speaking in Chicago on 2/15/13

President Obama just gave a really bland, boring speech in Chicago which some optimistic folks among us thought might directly address the problem of inner-city gun violence, in the wake of shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton. It quickly became clear, however, that Obama was in stump mode–this speech was almost identical to his State of the Union address, except this time he didn’t smile, and I assume the audience was more diverse than that of our assembled legislators.

I had already been interested in the gender politics of Obama’s (and our whole country’s) response to the death of female non-gang member Hadiya Pendleton. We are outraged over Hadiya; we are outraged over Sandy Hook; but we still aren’t outraged over the thousands of young men killed by gang violence each year. We don’t seem able to take responsibility for young men in gangs, wielding weapons, being killed, as also our children, as also a tragedy, as also victims, victims of larger structural problems perhaps, but deserving of political sight nonetheless. Our compassion stops there. So I was surprised-not-surprised to see Obama standing in front of an array of only female high school students. I didn’t think he was speaking at an all-female school.

Of course, the speech contained ample messages about “encouraging fatherhood,” which if this was at the RNC convention we’d call a “dog whistle,” and plenty took to Twitter to bemoan Obama’s selective amnesia about mass incarceration. Then, this amazing moment happened where Obama hollered at some young men in the audience he’d spoken to–he asks them to stand so that “we can all see them.” The President looks off-stage, tensely, as though trying to mind-jedi communicate he wants them to be on TV. But the cameras stay on him. We don’t see them. Obama says “these guys are no different from me,” only he had a stronger safety net–but what these young men look like, whether they look like Obama or not, I don’t know. We don’t see them.

Only then, at the end of his speech, as Obama physically moves to reach out to the young men in the audience, do I realize there is a tall African-American teenage boy standing directly behind the President, surrounded by about a dozen girls. You can see him in the screenshot above. Could he tell the President was directly between himself and the camera? Did he wonder why he was surrounded by a moat of females? I sure did. This image speaks to the huge oversights in Obama’s speech. Even when President Obama tried to be compassionate and inclusive toward young men of color, they were still off screen, hidden from our sight just as they will be when they are incarcerated, or disenfranchised, or criminalized.

In his last few huge speeches – DNC, SOTU — Obama has begun crafting a theoretical framework around the value of citizenship, a vision that values participatory democracy through individual works and cooperation. Mr. President, are these young men not also citizens? Are drug users citizens? Is Anwar Al-Awlaki’s son? While I appreciate your vision of citizenship, as progressives it is our duty to expand the polity and the ranks of the enfranchised. Keeping young men of color off our TV screens isn’t the right way to start.

 

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Obama’s Inaugural: A Progressive Exegesis of the Constitution

via huffingtonpost.com

via huffingtonpost.com

My last semester of college I took a remarkable course taught by Eddie Glaude, “The American Jeremiad and Social Criticism.” Structured to explore the space between Michael Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism¬†and Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, the course achieved a number of complex goals. It offered a history of American civil-religious discourse from colonial times to the present, but it also explored how, from America’s inception, African American discourse had critiqued the lofty promises of a slaveholding enterprise. The Exodus story was central to the course (as it was in Glaude’s own recent work) and to the basis of Black critique of American rhetoric. While early pilgrims saw the colonies as “God’s New Israel,” as a deliverance from bondage, African-Americans saw that “there’s bondage on both sides of these blood red waters.” Freedom still needed to be fought for, and rhetorically defended, in the not-yet Land of the Free.

walzer

Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism is essentially conservative: he advocates for the position that laws and morals are best derived from interpreting and re-interpreting sacred texts: the Bible, the Constitution, earlier tropes and symbols. He writes, “moral argument is (most often) interpretive in character” (21). That is, we make our moral arguments through interpreting earlier texts, histories, events. On the first day of Glaude’s class, we watched Obama’s recent “Yes, We Can” speech, delivered after winning the South Carolina primary. In that speech, Obama suggests, with some historical hubris, that his phrase “yes we can” is actually a “timeless creed that sums up the spirit of the American people in three simple words.” With this speech, Obama introduced a vision of America rooted in change versus stasis, but he rooted this vision always in reinterpreting the past, not challenging it. Then we watched Will.i.am’s remix of the speech, where celebrities speak along with Obama to a slick, optimistic beat.¬†Obama’s speech and Will.i.am’s video were both acts in remix: Obama remixed past tropes into a speech, while Will.i.am remixed a speech back into pop culture. Despite his obvious enthusiasm for this liberal, African-American presidential nominee, Professor Glaude was ever skeptical. He pointed out how then-Senator Obama’s speech drew on earlier tropes from American civil-religious discourse, how Obama’s genius was in weaving together themes, tropes, and even inflection and cadence from previous presidents and prophets.

william yes we can

I thought of Professor Glaude’s class this morning, while listening to President Obama’s inaugural address. Obama displayed the same fluency with American tropes and cadence that Professor Glaude pointed out to us eight years ago. The President’s speech today was a triumph of Walzerian re-interpretation. Taking the Constitution as his template, President Obama’s speech presented an inclusive portrait of “We the people” and a progressive understanding of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Bucking the critics who see him as an enemy of the Constitution, Obama rooted his progressive vision within that foundational document, re-claiming the Constitution for American progressives.

glaude exodus

The President’s approach, however, was a conservative one. He argued from within our canon, not against it. Instead of challenging the Constitution’s language, Obama critically re-interpreted it. By referencing “Seneca Falls, Stonewall, and Selma,” Obama read America’s movements for women’s rights, gay rights, and civil rights back into a document that cared little–nothing–for women, gays, or people of color. In so doing, Obama reified the power of the Constitution, but he also rededicated himself to a document that can be interpreted powerfully and progressively. He advocated for equal pay for women, gay rights, a path to immigration, livable wages, an end to endless wars, a vision he rooted in the Constitution. This morning’s speech was a masterful display of a moral argument made through interpretation, worthy of our professorial President.