A progressive colleague writes:
Based on Obama’s speeches, I don’t get a strong feeling that he identifies with the poor.
Based on “reading” The Audacity of Hope as an audiobook, I think that’s true, but it only expresses half of the truth of the matter.
Obama doesn’t identify with the poor in the sense that he doesn’t think of himself as poor, or formerly poor, or having poor relatives. He grew up without much money, but in cultural terms his upbringing was solidly middle-class. (Maybe he has poor in-laws.) So when he thinks about the poor, he’s thinking about other people: he thinks and speaks like, and as, a liberal, rather than a poor person.
But he isn’t, and doesn’t claim to be, so “post-racial” as to have forgotten that he’s black. And he’s explicit in saying that, as a black man, his attitude about poor people can’t be the same as the attitudes of middle-class whites. Lots of black people are poor, and lots of poor people are black. Non-poor blacks know perfectly well that the way the wider society views them is strongly influenced by the condition and behavior of the group that (according to Obama) whites, but not blacks, call “the underclass.” (The technical term, which Obama doesn’t use, is “reputational externality.”)
Moreover, middle-class blacks (says Obama) aren’t likely to forget the history of racism, and therefore — even when blaming the poverty of the poorest blacks partly on their own behavior — aren’t likely to forget that circumstances shape culture, or to blame the poverty of the very poor on innate and unalterable characteristics. To that extent, they (and he) do “identify” with the blackness of the black poor, though not with their poverty or some of their behavior patterns.
The African-American church has traditionally been a center, not just of religiosity and community activism, but of respectability. And Obama clearly identifies strongly with that part of the tradition. As he says, when middle-class black folks discuss the behavior of those still trapped in poverty, some of the language they use is very like that of the Heritage Foundation.
(The key word, which Obama doesn’t use but which, e.g., Bill Cosby does, is “ignorant,” which has a much stronger sense in Black English than it does in white English; it connotes not merely lack of learning, but intellectual and moral sloth, like the Russian nekulturny, with the dual meanings of “ignorant” and “rude.”)
But listening to Obama read his book, it’s impossible to imagine that he might decide to let poverty take a back seat to other issues. As the Republicans will (if he’s the nominee) no doubt remind us from here to November, he’s pretty much a hard-core liberal.
Footnote All of this makes me think of the way middle-class German Jews regarded my Jewish ancestors from Russia and Eastern Europe. They took seriously their obligations to help the Russian, Polish, Baltic, and Galician Jews, but they never lost sight of the distinction.
Second footnote I’ve always thought the following story, which I heard from my father, a very perceptive one:
The Lone Ranger, with his faithful Indian companion Tonto, is fleeing from a band of Comanches intent on taking his scalp. As they ride furiously over a pass, they confront another band of Apaches, evidently with the same intent. They are hopelessly trapped.
The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, “Well, old friend, looks as if we’ve about had it.”
Tonto replies, “What you mean ‘we,’ paleface?”
Like Tonto in the story, a middle-class white liberal always has the option of deciding to worry about something other than the “underclass” problem. A middle-class black, not so much.