Punk Baracker

Is Barack Obama a closet Bad Brains fan?

Thomas Sowell and punk rock—not the most obvious fit. The missing link is Barack Obama. Sowell writes:

Barack Obama’s own account of his life shows that he consciously sought out people on the far left fringe. In college, “I chose my friends carefully,” he said in his first book, “Dreams From My Father.”

These friends included “Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk rock performance poets”…

Tim Cavanaugh is having none of it:

I have no beef with Sowell’s judgment on Obama’s fondness for “members of the left, anti-American counter-culture.” But his citation here indicates a misunderstanding of popular culture that is glaring even for a 78-year-old economist.

To wit: If you were looking to find your own blackness, in Obama’s day or (to a slightly lesser extent) now, you might possibly cozy up to Marxist professors. There’s a very outside chance you might associate with structural feminists. But you would not go anywhere near punk rock performance poets.

Punk was many things, but it was first and foremost white-kid music. I neither praise nor condemn punk for that. It just is—or was: These days, we have Afro-Punk, and we have black punkers willing to speak about the genre’s racial divides. But back then, it was vanishingly rare to find any color but untanned-pale in punk rock. Indeed, the hints of white supremacy that always circled around Siouxsie and the Banshees and New Order should be the tipoff. When Obama claims alliances with punkers, he is doing the exact opposite of what Sowell accuses him of: He’s indicating his willingness to make friends across racial and cultural lines.

(Thomas Sowell should know that Siouxsie Sioux used to wear a swastika?) I don’t know who Obama’s friends were in college (at Occidental and Columbia), but there were plenty of black punks in both towns. Including LA’s polymathic Vaginal Davis and DC émigrés Bad Brains in NYC. Black Punk Time has loads of others—and it’s less contrived than those Great Jewish Sports Heroes books I had as a kid. (Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg,…um,…Rod Carew?)

More to the point, I’d venture that Obama was trying to demonstrate neither his black-power bona fides nor his fondness for “Ebony and Ivory.” “Punk rock performance poet” is code for Patti Smith.