In his recent speech to the NAACP Centennial Convention, Obama did strike some balance in his reprimand of poor and working poor African Americans. Yet the NY Times focused on his admonishment rather than his acknowledgment of the reasons why people are poor.
President Obama delivered a fiery sermon to black America on Thursday night, warning black parents that they must accept their own responsibilities by "putting away the Xbox and putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour," and telling black children that growing up poor is no reason to get bad grades.
Even as he urged blacks to take responsibility for themselves, he spoke of the societal ills -- high unemployment, the housing and energy crisis -- that have created the conditions for black joblessness. And he said the legacy of the Jim Crow era is still felt, albeit in different ways today. "Make no mistake, no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America," Mr. Obama said, by African-American women who are paid less for the same work as white men, by Latinos "made to feel unwelcome," by Muslim Americans "viewed with suspicion" and by "our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights."
Mr. Obama paid particular attention to education, declaring that more than 50 years after the Supreme Court's landmark segregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, "the dream of a world-class education is still being deferred all across this country" as African-American students lag behind white classmates in reading and math.-Sheryl Gay Stolberg, NY Times, 16 July 2009
I must admit that I do bristle when I think about the fact that African Americans received a sort of homily from a president who identifies as a biracial-African American. And, this they received via the mouthpiece of black propriety: the NAACP. Obama attended an elite secondary school and college and thereby entered formal adulthood with the very American necessity of social capital.
What public rebuke have those of the affluent who have proven to be mercenaries received besides a minimal head-pluck coupled with a rescue bailout for their free market acquisitiveness and failed financial speculations? And what about the white poor and working poor? Who will dare to hold themselves high enough to serve them up with some public censure for the supposed crime of poverty? Hopefully, no one. Obviously, the poor and working poor, whomever they might be, never deserve niether public nor private, for that matter, chastisement. Yet, power upbraids the poor for a reason.
Such rebukes remind us of the socio-cultural parameters of and norms for both wealth and poverty. As long as the poor are infantilized with lectures on proper parenting and the etiquette of responsibility, charity remains charitable to both rich and poor.
In its efforts to support and protect the wants and maneuvers of the private sector in the last 35 years, the state has made more unstable what little social safety net it still provides poor people. In fact, it is this instability that makes us feel safe: we know our proper economic place. And this space in the socio-economic hierarchy is reserved for whichever identity class we were fortunate or unfortunate enough to be born into. If poor, we know to believe that our children will be and deserve to be poor because we did not put "away the Xbox" or put our kids to bed "at a reasonable hour" (Obama, "Remarks by the President to the NAACP Centennial Convention").
Power requires that the poor forsake the material goals of the wealthy (e.g., the Xbox) yet aspire to the same social goals. Power requires if the poor are to be considered good American citizens, they must believe that each member of their class are responsible for her individual poverty and his way out of it. Obama fervently claimed in his NAACP speech "No one has written your destiny for you. . . Your destiny is in your hands, and don't you forget that. That's what we have to teach all of our children! No excuses! No excuses!"
The notion is that power has no real social purpose and is not, somehow, elusive. Power is easily obtainable if you believe that the events that will necessarily happen to you are determined solely by you--by your attitude, your efficacy, and your choices. This idea that individuals control their own destinies is necessary to the imagining of the nation-state. Society must believe that the principles of "success" are not socially designed and the process of accumulating wealth is completely at your command.