middle class America, consistently and deliberately avoiding any solitary reference to Blacks alone, and eerily reminiscent of a thinly veiled “I’m the president of all Americans, not just Black America.”
“For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate. Even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes, inequality has steadily risen over the decades. Upward mobility has become harder…[W]e must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many Blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life.”
Even in the midst of acknowledging the ills of police brutality, corporate greed, and references to Wall St.’s malfeasance, he was careful to spread a message of promise and hope to all Americans, but reserved his usual call to the carpet almost exclusively for Black America.
“…those who benefit from an unjust status quo resisted any government efforts to give working families a fair deal… We'd be told that growing inequality was the price for a growing economy, a measure of the free market -- that greed was good... Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse- making for criminal behavior…[w]hat had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself. All of that history is how progress stalled.”
In the same breath that he acknowledged the constraints and problems which cause the disease of oppression, he also came dangerously close to blaming the victim for displaying symptoms of being oppressed.
Some argued that this was not the time to delve heavy into policy or play politics. I believed that this was a chance for the president to deliver a State of the Union address for Black America, complete with policy initiatives intended to help better realize Dr. King’s Dream. I would like to have heard him speak to Congress and put the pressure on them in front of the country. At a time where so many have sought to co-opt and politically sanitize the legacy of MLK, to hear initiatives which would have truly reflected MLK’s ideology would have been welcome. That is not to say that the president’s failure to articulate clear policy yesterday absolves us from personal responsibility within our homes or communities; it is to say that we are not one trick ponies, incapable of doing both at the same time. It is not an “either/or” conversation, as the two are not mutually exclusive. We have an obligation to position ourselves as best we can to take advantage of whatever substantive gains might come from first from our state and local legislatures and second from Washington.
When I sat down, I wondered whether I would hear from Obama the Candidate, Obama the president, or someone altogether different. For as non-political as he may have tried to be, this was some hybrid of all three, Obama-Lite: the Politician, Master of Inclusion and the Unoffending. The issue isn’t that he spoke to all of America. The issue is that he spoke in an imbalanced tone of nostalgia and rhetoric without offering much of substance. I do not debate that he delivered a good speech. It struck me in places and moved me in others. However, pizza, cotton candy, and chocolate are all good going down, despite not leaving much in the way of nutritional value. I tuned in to the president’s speech hoping for healthy sustenance.
Disappointingly, that never actually came.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former King's County (Brooklyn, NY) prosecutor and a federal trial attorney specializing in civil rights. Follow him on Twitter: @CFColemanJr