For Black History Month, Examining President Obama's Relationship With the Black Community

This is the first interview in the Black History Month series "Perspectives on Black Politics in the Age of Obama." The full audio will be available at

Tricia Rose is Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University. She is known for her groundbreaking book on the emergence of hip hop culture, Black Noise, which was ranked among the top 25 books of 1995 by the Village Voice, and in 1999 was listed by Black Issues in Higher Education as one of its "Top Books of the Twentieth Century." She is currently working on a new project on African-American artists and musicians who have offered powerful visions to help us imagine -- and thus perhaps create -- just and resourceful communities.

Rakim Brooks (RB): Michael Dawson, the acclaimed University of Chicago Political Scientist, regards black politics as the ability for black people to "mobilize, to influence policy, to demand accountability from public officials and elites, and to impact public debate." I'd like to take that as our starting point for this discussion. Where is black politics by these measures?

Professor Tricia Rose (PTR): Professor Dawson is an acclaimed political scientist. This definition of politics though is a very institutionally traditional one. It's talking about black political participation in the political structure of society as it stands ... not about community activism or transforming the territory entirely or refusing to participate in the structure of society. It's about making the system work.

[With that in mind,] this question of mobilization is very complicated. For the first time in this era of Obama, we have in a sense two kinds of mobilization that can take place. One, a mobilization that can take place on behalf of the black president, who is generally a liberal and in some cases progressive, but whose agenda may [not] line up automatically with the best interests of [the second mobilization, which is in support of] a black, collective, political, progressive project.

So what happens when you have these two options for mobilization?

You can mobilize for Obama, which right now looks to me like the only game in town. After looking at these Republicans, I'm going to truly be mobilizing for Obama. I mean, they will keep you correct, in a minute. A little bit of Newt Gingrich will straighten you out.

But there is an important distinction, not to collapse mobilization on behalf of Obama with mobilization for issues that automatically are representative of what's important for the black community. Incarceration, homelessness, joblessness, chronic levels of unemployment, terrible education, these are national issues, but they are very specific in the ways they impact black people. I'm not sure that [Obama's] necessarily capable of addressing that distinction or that we should expect that he represents the best answers to those problems.

RB: So when [you think about black politics], you're thinking both about the institutional forms and the less institutional forms -- on the ground, grassroots activism -- as constituting the entire black political space. [What's your assessment of] that space?

PTR: It's in a dramatic transition, for a number of reasons, some of which don't have anything to do with political ideology. Number one, all public space is in profound transformation right now because mass media, technology, consolidation of power and resources, [and] an increasingly smaller number of people at the top changes the terms and nature of where and what you talk about and how you can talk about it. There are those structural forces operating, which are not distinctly about being black.

[Still,] having a black leader at the highest office ... has a profound impact on people's sense of what the system is or isn't doing, in terms of race, certainly among African Americans. And I think it's almost difficult to separate what the White House can and can't do, what local elected officials should or shouldn't do, and what activists should or shouldn't do. For example, [and] this is the ethical bind we seem to be in, you want to say that there should be a federal response to the discriminatory use of subprime lending in black communities. Well, you would naturally assume that a black president would be able to talk about that, but in fact the reverse is true.

This is the conundrum that this era and this moment produce. If he were Clinton, black people would have very little squeamishness about challenging him, and certainly progressives challenged Clinton [during] his presidency. But, [in this moment, challenge] becomes a racial critique, and it potentially undermines [Obama's] Democratic leadership when black leaders focus [on race] or demand representation in the conversation. You see what I mean?

RB: Yeah I do. And your work consistently stresses the need for a "black public sphere" to combat racial illiteracy and this post-racial dialogue that traps the president and prevents him from having any conversation about things that seem so natural. Could you give an example of what the black public space looked like [in the past] for people who are just unfamiliar with it?

PTR: If you think about black theater, black churches, the barbershop, the beauty parlor, if you wanted to listen to black music 40 years ago or 50 years ago, 90 percent of the time you went to a black venue, a venue that was in an all black neighborhood or predominantly black neighborhood. Yes, you had some hand full of crossover artists here and there, but the vast majority of black music, of black poetry, all of the arts, and social organizations and fraternities, sororities, all of that was in predominantly black spaces.

They weren't exclusionary; it isn't to say they had a blacks only sign. That's not the case, but they were un-chosen, unmarked spaces. As Earl Lewis says, "black people turned segregation into congregation." They turned what was supposed to be separation and rejection into affirmation and connective cultural, political, social development spaces.

RB: What comes out of that space that is relevant to black political life?

PTR: The fact of racism and the fact of racial discrimination as a major factor of one's political platform or one's political consciousness is almost a given for the vast majority of black people. You can't be black, or know a lot of black people, or live around a lot of black people and be surprised about the existence of substantial structural racism. I mean, you have a few [black] people who deny it, but for the most part it is a rather obvious fact of life. It's this kind of knowledge that one has to fight to bring to mainstream recognition.

That [black public space] allowed for an examination of, well, what are these issues about, how can we get them on the table. How [is blackness] understood and being structured and being targeted, how are we being discriminated against and mistreated? And how do we bring this to the mainstream political, social, cultural space as a way of [promoting] understanding [and] developing allies and cultural belonging in a multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-class, multi-sexual orientation society? You have to formulate those ideas somewhere [and that is what the black public sphere was used for].

RB: This makes me wonder what role has the president played in the re-vitalization or decline of this black public sphere? Family members and friends of mine talk about how the Obamas, not just the president but his wife and his children, represent a positive example for young people. Is that [the limit of what] the president adds to the [black public sphere] or does he add a certain set of arguments about how black people should think about black politics?

PTR: I have not heard an argument about how black people should think about black politics explicitly from Obama in any written [work] or speech. Implicitly, by action and by choice, he is challenging a long tradition of black activists and thinkers to fundamentally see their specific black experience as attached to the broader fabric of American society. That has been the driving insistence of his race politics. And I don't see anything wrong with the tethering. But tethering without distinction and without attention to the nature of one's condition, that I probably would want to expand. That space [where we can talk about the current condition of black people openly], I would want to retain and expand.

Now, on the symbolic level, it's mind-blowing that there are young people who know not only that it's technically possible but that this kind of a president can exist, not only a black president, but one who is incredibly graceful, and intelligent, and able to manage such an wide range of insane political territory without falling prey to so many potholes. There are so many traps that he could be falling into -- and he is encouraged regularly to do so. [His perseverance] is an incredibly powerful symbol.

But this is the hard thing I think for all of us to recognize: We can be thrilled about his existence, thrilled about the first family, thrilled about the symbolic value of it, but we may have to conclude that [the Obama presidency] didn't materially transform black life in any immediate way. History may tell us that it was either impossible conceptually for that to happen, for [a] black president to re-produce and create less racial discrimination and more black equality overall, or it might be that this president couldn't do it in this time and that maybe another one can. But it may be that the symbolic value may overshadow the material changes that I think people expected would follow his presidency and his election.

RB: This is a really important comment to think about. In a few months, if something goes wrong, the president may no longer be the president, and I think that many African Americans would look at their current conditions and say that things have gotten materially worse. Whether or not perceptions have changed or what black people think their own possibilities are, the Great Recession wiped out black wealth.

I'm curious then, are there black political organizations or individuals that you see that you think are relevant, moving a racial justice initiative in the country forward?

PTR: There are many groups working on racial justice. They're usually working through topics. There's a wide range of organizations working on the prison industrial complex, which is really the new Jim and Jane Crow. Black women are the fastest growing population in prisons; both black men and women are disproportionately represented in staggering levels. This is having an impact on voting capacity, on [political] representation, on joblessness, on homelessness, on everything. It's an unjust, inhumane form of creating a new Jim Crow.

You have many, many organizations working there; you have a number working in education. You don't have a strictly racial project in the abstract as much as you have a need to address the issues that would centrally transform and develop sustainable black communities. Housing discrimination, it's a fundamental tenet of a secure, balanced, operating community. All of those pillars represent some of the biggest, most powerful forms of racial discrimination in our society today: housing, education, incarceration.

You mentioned the dramatic wiping out of wealth, but let me tell you it's worse than even wiping out [wealth]. Before the great recession whites had ten times the wealth of blacks -- before! -- and that inter-generational accumulation of resources through home ownership and other things where unearned privileges, with additional opportunities that whites had, created this gap. Now you're looking at 20 times, due to the Great Recession. So how do you address that with a lift all boats strategy?

It's not that I don't believe that all boats should be lifted. There's enormous poverty across race, across gender, across ethnicity, we should address that. But we have to pay attention to the distinctions in order to address it properly! That's the complexity about where we are today in terms of figuring out how to address all those issues [with a] deep awareness about race without looking like it's always and only about race, when you raise race. That's the conundrum. People want to believe that race is somehow not an operative structure so that it's very difficult for the president or anybody else to speak about it.

RB: You're a cultural critic so I thought it'd be a mistake not to ask this last question. I recently saw a cartoon that pictured Cory Booker; Barack Obama; Harold Ford Jr., the former congressman; and Adrian Fenty, the former mayor of Washington, D.C. and it said, "Does post-racial really just mean light-skinned?" I know that is really loaded, but I thought that it opens up a conversation not just about colorism in the United States, but additionally just all the different ways in which black folks are quite different from one another and experience racism in different ways.

Based on my experience having grown up in Harlem in a public housing projects, relative to a friend who grew up relatively middle class, I often find it difficult to form an alliance with those folks because of that different experience of race. I wondered if you had a comment about that and what it says about black political alliances going forward.

PTR: There's so much in that. There's no question that class, your particular Harlem experience and the ones of your friends is crucial. And had you not be[en] plucked out of that circumstance and come through college the way that you did you would have a different view as well. There's no question that class impacts race and color impacts race dramatically. It has never been a coincidence that colorism has impacted and privileged lighter skinned people in many ways more than darker skinned people. That is the fundamental tenet of structural race hierarchy. It's perfectly logical for the system to develop intra, within racial hierarchies, and it's appalling and unacceptable, and more people should talk about it and stop denying that this is part of the way racism works.

But at the same time this sort of post-racial, middle-class, we-have-a-different-conception ideology is a little bit disturbing because you're still talking about a very small percentage of African Americans who are rolling in those circles. As my favorite rapper of all time, Eric B & Rakim, would say, it's not just where you're from, it's where you're at. It's who you align yourself with, are you concerned about the least of these, those who suffer, those who face the brunt of systemic injustice, and if that's what you focus on then you are not going to promulgate [an argument about race] that denies that suffering.

It doesn't matter what wealth you came from or what wealth you've been able to accrue, or what privilege and what power you have as an elected official, or corporate official, or your [higher education], it's about: Who are you morally, ethically, and emotionally attached to, and whose suffering you want to see reduced? And that's not just African Americans, but they are a critical part of that answer. That's the question and that's the kind of race politics that we need to be pursuing right now.

Rakim Brooks is the C. Edwin Baker Fellow for Democratic Values at Demos. Follow him on Twitter. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons