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September 27, 2011 10:48 am

Obama at the Congressional Black Caucus

avatar by Oliver Benjamin Karp

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President Obama addressing the CBC. Photo: Screenshot.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters is correct: President Obama would never tell a gay or Jewish organization to “stop crying” about the issues confronting them.

More to the point, Obama would never lispingly advise homosexuals to “stop being such drama queens,” and he would never, ever, tell Jews to “quit kvetching about Israel.”

But the president did recently chide the Congressional Black Caucus, dropping his final g’s and throwing in a “y’all” for authentic measure. Obama attended a predominantly black church for many years, so while less odd than Al Gore’s infamous minstrelsy in front of the NAACP, the president’s cadence-shift sounded to many contrived and inappropriate. Mildly cheered at the speech, he has since been soundly jeered by black observers from both the political right and left.

Many of those Obama lectured are veterans of the civil rights struggle which made his election possible, including some who actually took off their “bedroom slippers” as Obama mused, and who put on their real “marching shoes” at the Washington Mall and in dangerous places like Selma, Alabama when Obama was still a toddler.

Black unemployment is now over 16 percent. If Obama has the solution to this American tragedy let him say so with particular urgency and empathy.

Obama is of course authentically black. It’s the identity he has chosen. In fact, in the sense that someone whose parents were born in Korea is an Asian-American, Obama, whose father was Kenyan, is more literally African-American, than, say, the first lady whose nearest African ancestor lived generations ago. Yet, the vast majority of African-Americans like Michelle Obama descend from American slaves and from families that traversed segregation. In fact, President Obama is the descendent of slave masters– not slaves– on both sides of his family, white and black, and while reporters at his inauguration noted the irony of a black president being sworn in under a Capitol dome built by slave labor, there is perhaps a deeper irony: Obama’s mother’s family descends from one of the largest planters in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. By the late 1700’s this family (from which we also get Dick Cheney) owned hundreds of slave-farmed acres in Prince William County, Virginia and Prince George’s County, Maryland, both just outside of the District of Columbia and places from which skilled slave labor was rented to erect the new federal city. If Obama maintains any historical tie to the construction of the United States Capitol or White House it would have to be through his ancestors’ slaves, not slave ancestors.

Undoubtedly, the outside world, especially the haters, see “half-Jews” as Jewish enough for ghettos and gas chambers, and “half-black” has always meant black enough for slavery and Jim Crow. So Obama’s choice of black is not a completely neutral preference. But Obama also made a conscious personal, and I assume political, decision to be counted publicly as African-American. In this sense our president is a “ger” to and within the black community. Usually translated as a “convert” to Judaism, the root word for ger means to “dwell among” or “sojourn alongside,” and referred also to people of hybrid, unclear and differing backgrounds who lived in Jewish communities as participating members. Gerim also owed the Jewish community all of the duties of adulthood and citizenship and respect for its laws and traditions.

Obama consciously joined the African-American community and adopted its history of struggle as his own, and the black American community has in turn  stood by Obama steadfastly. Moreover, the community has enthusiastically affirmed Obama’s full membership, allowing him to present himself as the embodied extension of Civil Rights. This bond secured Obama’s election as an historic president offering unique hope and change, and its his only hope of reelection.

In this aspect alone, the president does owe black people more than to other groups. At the very least, humility and gratitude, and probably also a promise not to grumble about justified grumbling.

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