Over at TPM Cafe, former black conservative Glenn Loury of Brown University has an interesting if rather slippery essay on Barack Obama’s race speech. Loury was once groomed by Marty Peretz and The New Republic as a black writer who would say negative things about the black community (a prized commodity in those emerging neocon circles) and picked by the Reagan administration for a high position the Education Department. Loury has moved left since the 1980s, and in his TPM piece seems to find in Obama a threat to black radicalism as represented by what I guess we would have to now call traditional black political spokesmen like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Bizarrely, in course of making a none-too-original inauthenticity argument, Loury charges Obama with doing almost the opposite of what he actually did in The Speech. To me, Obama’s great accomplishment was demurring from Jeremiah Wright’s views while acknowledging and accepting that those views stemmed organically from the real feelings and experiences of Wright’s generation. That was the aspect of the speech that had conservative racialists like Pat Buchanan howling that the speech was “the same old con, the same old shakedown that black hustlers have been running since the Kerner Commission.” Yet here’s Loury attacking Obama from the opposite direction, or almost both at once:
I can’t get past the fact that Obama was negotiating with the American public on behalf of MY people in Philadelphia last week. In the process, he presumed to instruct a generation of angry black men as to how they ought to construe their lives. I am not really sure that Barack Obama has earned the right to do either of those things. How the Senator’s negotiations will ultimately shake out – in terms of American attitudes about the nation’s responsibility to act so as to reduce racial inequality — is something I’m not very confident that anyone can predict. Advocates of the interest of black people have to consider what hand we’ll be left to play, should he be defeated in November. The narrative-defining moves that Obama is making now, in the heat of a political campaign and in the service of his own ambitions, must be critically examined as to what impact they will have on the deep structures of American civic obligation, for generations to come.
The deeper political perversity of Loury’s argument is that it really serves the interests of the existing political establishment made up of white Democratic triangulators and crypto-racist Republicans, who simultaneously promote and marginalize a small corps of black officeholders and established activists whose views are used as foils when white politicians need to get white voters thinking racially.
Now that is off my chest, I will admit that the real reason for highlighting Loury’s essay here is the way he makes history the center of his critique of Obama:
At bottom, what is at stake here is a fight over the American historical narrative. Obama, a self-identifying black man running for the most powerful office on earth, does threaten some aspects of the conventional ‘white’ narrative. But, he also threatens the ‘black’ narrative — and powerfully so. In effect, he wants to put an end to (transcend, move beyond, overcome…) the anger, the disappointment and the subversive critique of America that arises from the painful experience of black people in this country. Yet, the forces behind his rise are NOT grassroots-black-American in origin; they are elite-white-liberal-academic in origin. If he succeeds, there will be far fewer public megaphones for the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons and Cornel Wests of this world, for sure. Many will see that as a good thing. But a great deal more may also be lost including, just to take one example, the notion that the moral legacy for today’s America of the black freedom struggle that played-out in this country during the century after emancipation from slavery – I speak here of Martin Luther King’s (and Fannie Lou Hamer’s, and W.E.B. DuBois’s, and Ida B. Wells’s and Frederick Douglass’s …) moral legacy – should find present-day expression in, among other ways, agitation on behalf of and public expression of sympathy for the dispossessed Palestinians . . . .
Speaking for myself, and as a black American man, if forced to choose, I’d rather be “on the right side of history” about such matters, . . . than to make solidarity with elites who, for the sake of political expediency, would sweep such matters under the rug (or, worse.) My fear is that, should Obama succeed with his effort to renegotiate the implicit American racial contract, then the prophetic African American voice – which is occasionally strident and necessarily a dissident, outsider’s voice – could be lost to us forever.
I think Loury has it backwards. Yet before I expatiate on that, I would be genuinely interested in what historians and historically-minded readers think about Loury’s historical argument.