Obama’s Backward-Looking Racial Narrative To Play Identity Politics

Conflating past and present is politically expedient for liberals, but it doesn’t help black Americans.

President Barack Obama traveled to Alabama on March 7, 2015, to deliver a speech marking the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 peaceful protesters seeking the right to vote were beaten and tear-gassed by mounted police as they tried to march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was one of the more symbolic moments of a deeply symbolic presidency — an opportunity to remind the country of how much racial progress had been made over the past half century.

But Obama was interested in more than just commemorating a turning point in the civil-rights struggles of the mid 20th century. And so a speech rightly honoring “the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod” and “keep marching towards justice” was laced with Democratic talking points and comparisons between the problems that blacks faced during legal discrimination and the problems they faced five decades later. To that end, Obama’s remarks invoked “unfair sentencing” and “overcrowded prisons” in the criminal-justice system while making no mention of black-white disparities in crime rates. He also suggested that voter-identification laws threaten the black franchise and suppress turnout.

Yet in 2012, blacks voted at higher rates than whites, including in states with the most stringent voter-identification mandates. And in 2014, voter turnout among all groups was slightly higher in Texas, which has a strict voter-identification law, than it was in New York, which does not.

Parallels between America under Jim Crow and America under a twice-elected black president and two black attorneys general may be tortured, but Obama also knew that such rhetoric plays well politically for the Left and distracts from liberalism’s poor track record in helping the black underclass. The goal is to keep black voters angry, paranoid, and content to put the onus on others to address racial disparities and negative black outcomes. The identity politics practiced by liberals today treats blacks not as individuals with agency but rather as a group of victims who are both blameless and helpless. “Liberalism in the twenty-first century is, for the most part, a moral manipulation that exaggerates inequity and unfairness in American life in order to justify overreaching public policies and programs,” explained the author Shelby Steele. This liberalism is

invested in an overstatement of America’s present sinfulness based on the nation’s past sins. It conflates the past into the present so that the present is indistinguishable from the ugly past. And so modern liberalism is grounded in a paradox: it tries to be progressive and forward looking by fixing its gaze backward. It insists that America’s shameful past is the best explanation of its current social problems.

This liberal conflation of the past and present is without a doubt politically expedient — note how Democrats regularly dismiss any Republican criticism of liberal social policies as being motivated by racial hostility towards blacks — but it’s hard to see how diverting attention from far more credible explanations of racial gaps today helps blacks advance. “Despite frequent assertions to the contrary, many of the seemingly intractable problems encountered by a significant number of black Americans do not result from racial discrimination,” wrote economist Walter Williams in Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination? “That is not to say discrimination does not exist. Nor is it to say discrimination has no adverse effects.

For policy purposes, however, the issue is not whether or not racial discrimination exists but the extent to which it explains what we see today.” The political Left wins votes by telling black people that racism, in one form or another, explains racial disparities that only government programs can address. And groups like the NAACP raise money and stay relevant by pushing the same narrative — a narrative that also maintains broad and largely unquestioned support in the mainstream media. A few days after Obama’s Selma address, National Public Radio aired an interview with the city’s mayor, George Evans. The interviewer wanted to know how “what happened in Selma 50 years ago fits into the current conversations about race relations in this country.” But Evans, the city’s second black mayor, didn’t see a clear connection between the problems that blacks faced five decades ago and current obstacles. “I’m not sure how it fits,” Evans responded. “We have a lot more crime going on in 2015 all over the country than we had in 1965. Segregation existed, but we didn’t have the crime.

So now, even though we’ve gained so much through voting rights and Bloody Sunday, we’ve stepped backwards when it comes to crime and drugs in the jail system — things like that.” Apparently, that wasn’t the answer the interviewer was looking for, and so she pressed the mayor. “What’s life like for the average black citizen in Selma,” where 80 percent of residents are black, she asked. “I mean, your city does have challenges. You’ve got chronic unemployment rates. What are the biggest problems from your vantage point?” Still, the mayor refused to do what Obama had done in his speech and make facile historical parallels. “Well, from the standpoint of jobs, we have a lot of jobs,” said Evans. “It’s just that there are a lot of people who do not have the skill level to man these jobs. And that’s the biggest problem we have. There are industries and businesses here that are searching for people to come to work. But many times they’re not able to get the jobs because they’re not going back to pick up that trade or that technical skill that’s needed in order to take that job.”

The mayor may not have been telling NPR what it wanted to hear, but his views were perfectly sensible. After having declined significantly in the 1950s, violent crime began surging in the late 1960s. Although it has fallen since the early 1990s, the violent-crime rate in 2014 was higher than it was in 1965 and has since returned to 1990s levels in major cities. Evans’s observation that a high unemployment rate can result from factors other than a shortage of jobs also jibes with the social-science research. Moreover, sometimes the problem isn’t a lack of jobs or even job skills so much as a lack of interest in filling jobs that are available. The 2015 Baltimore riots that followed the death of a black suspect in police custody were linked by some observers to high unemployment rates in the ghetto.

But a black construction worker at a job site that had been looted told a reporter that in his experience the neighborhood youths who were “protesting” seemed to have little interest in finding legitimate employment. “I see about 30 people walking by here every day, and only about two of them will bother to ask whether we’re hiring,” he said. “You have some brilliant kids, extraordinary talent, but they don’t see opportunity.”

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