He’s Whipped by It.

“Remember my name! FAME!”
Who is this?
Don’t name him, and win a $1.6 million cash prize

Jesse Washington, my colleague, former editor, and the recently named Associated Press race and ethnicity writer, said it best and most succinctly: “Obama avoids race on King’s ‘Dream’ anniversary.”

In the entirety of his DNC acceptance speech, notes Washington,

Obama did not utter the words “black” or “African-American.” He said “McCain” 21 times, according to the transcript released beforehand. He said “American” 25 times and “promise” 32 times as he sought to create a new definition of, and a new path to, that immortal dream.

But even more so, adds Washington, on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech,

Obama accepted the nomination Thursday night standing on the shoulders of King and thousands of others who suffered and bled to give blacks the right to vote — yet Obama did not speak King’s name. …

“I’m pissed off!”“It looks like he’s running from history,” Dr. Cornel West [right], a professor of African-American studies and religion at Princeton University, said after the speech. “He couldn’t mention Martin, he couldn’t mention the civil rights movement, he couldn’t mention those who sacrificed and gave so much. It’s very, very difficult to actually create a new world if you don’t acknowledge the world from which you are emerging.”

Three points:

1. With this speech, Barack Obama’s well-documented avoidance of race, as a policy of his campaign despite this strategy’s ineffectiveness, now officially borders on the obsessional.

2. There’s a notion, in the sale of certain goods, of Black people being a “go-along market.” In other words that, for many kinds of products—arguably most—there is no need for white advertisers to craft messages specifically for Black people, because African-Americans will just “go along” and get the items that white people get, as marketers directly reach out to those white audiences.

Someone Black inside the White House?There’s long been a cast of this go-along marketing in the Obama campaign, as he reaches for the four-year, $400,000/yr job. There, it apparently seems presumed that, short of, say, the candidate using the N-word in some blatantly untoward way—or, better, losing his mind, and, as his opponent reportedly has, calling his wife the C-word in front of reporters—Obama can count on near-perfect Black support…despite the fact that he has yet to make a single campaign promise designed to specifically court, attract, and/or satisfy Black voters.

I won’t even get into the question of how many Black people Obama directly interacts with in his Meet Barack Obama: A Video Tribute. But I will say this:

“I feel pretty….oh so pretty….”Remember how, early on in her career, Oprah Winfrey, a huge Obama supporter, of course, used to get criticized by Black people for the way she interacted with whites on her show? Says Winfrey, “People would say, `Oh, she’s hugging the White people too much,’ or `She goes to the White people in the audience more’ or `She doesn’t have enough Black guests on the show.’” Ahem.

(For the record, Winfrey said of last night’s speech, ”I think it’s the most powerful thing I have ever experienced,”  adding, ”I cried my eyelashes off.”)

What is my point?

I’ll say it a clearly as I can: In a perverse and odd way, Obama is not speaking to Black voters. We are a go-along market in his presidential campaign, meaning that there is nothing that he will propose that will antagonize or dissatisfy white voters.

3. As I wrote in my post on the Jeremiah Wright controversy, you can always tell the nature of a thing by how it begins. Anyone, having seen Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention—and, now, the 2008 version—who believes that Obama is going to carry the concerns of Black people on his shoulders into the White House clearly hasn’t been paying attention to the American system of governance, especially the last 2 1/3 centuries of it.

If he can’t say Martin Luther King Jr.’s name in a speech, what makes you think he can say yours?

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16 comments ↓

#1 Jim on 08.29.08 at 3:16 pm

It’s true, he can’t. But I actually think MLK would rather Obama give a speech like this and win, rather than namecheck him all over and lose. He did what he had to.

#2 Liam on 08.29.08 at 9:30 pm

Unfortunately I think your 100% correct on this one, although I was interested in hearing Al Sharpton’s reaction to the speech, where he pretty much said that Obama’s avoidance of race and racial issues was understandable.

#3 giles on 08.30.08 at 11:19 am

great insight once again. i know many will say obama is playing the game he has to play in order to get elected, but then when does it end? when does he stop being “post-racial” and start engaging in our world as it is?

it’s not a disservice to him to bring up these questions now. we as the electorate should have some real and specific expectations for an obama presidency.

#4 Ms. Porter on 08.30.08 at 12:53 pm

I know he is aware of the significance of the moment and those before him. He acknowledge the”dream” and I think that was his way of giving credit where credit was do. I think he did it in a way that was honorable, vs. Hillary’s constant “reach” to name drop to gain some sort of nod from Black folks.

#5 Ms. Porter on 08.30.08 at 12:55 pm

( Could he have said more, yes. Did he have too, No. Why get into the semantics of word count– at what no. are we satisfied and when is it ‘all to much’?)

#6 Gloria R. Robinson on 08.30.08 at 12:59 pm

As a Black mother, grandmother ,retired ,Birmingham Alabama A.H.Parker High School graduate who went to Montgomery Al. on the first day of the boycott and a proud Africentric, Christocentric American, Barack Obama,s speech came after a tribute to Dr. King and the importance of the connection to many black folk.
I tell young people that we can be selected to speak for a people when we are prepared. I cannot ,nor is it necessary to mention the people who changed the world for me. My parents and extended family are the persons that I must identify in my journey. I do this whenever I am in public and in my private valuing of each of my community members.
I want each of our children to know that they can ,and I look forward to their changing “the world” they are prepared for. There is no need to name drop because no matter who’s name you call there are numerous persons you miss.
Thank God for the generations following.I anticipate benefiting from each of them.
Elderglo.

#7 Ms. Porter on 08.30.08 at 1:01 pm

(forgive the typos– corp. tunnel)

#8 MK on 08.30.08 at 4:46 pm

I’m so tired of this “winning”. Black people haven’t won anything yet from going along except the shredding of the social net, lots of jail cells, horrible schools, an upper middle-class that now HATES Black poor people and a 27% poverty rate compared with 8% for Whites. Please let me lose on this one. I might come out better. Enough with the winning. No one Black is going to the White House with him besides his wife and kids.

#9 MK on 08.30.08 at 4:47 pm

And no, Martin never was clear that we came first and that until Blacks received justice no one would. Barack has placed us last. That’s were all the crumbs live. Martin never sacrificed us for his personal ambition. Why would he approve of what Barack is doing?

#10 sirensongs on 08.31.08 at 5:40 am

I love your caption for the first photo.

Jim has a good point. Reminds me of the Dalai Lama telling Tibetans “denounce me if you must” in order to stay alive…but then, what does that say for America. :-(

#11 Bahiyah on 08.31.08 at 10:26 am

Becoming the first black President is not going to happen by speaking directly to “black issues” (what are we, about 19% of the US population?), but speaking to America as a whole, which is difficult in and of itself when you are a black man (and, by the way, many of the issues that plague the black community have in turn affected the rest of the US). The fact that so many white people see Obama as hope for a better America is the biggest accomplishment, and tribute, that MLK could have asked for. MLK had to speak of black people’s issues specifically because of the politics of the times. Todays (race) politics are more layered, buried, and obvious all at the same time, and it warrants a speech that is not so direct. I think we, as black people, should applaud his approach for being smarter, and for representing black America as a part of the country that will be strengthened by his presidency in ways far beyond American issues. The black community should take his lead and start thinking outside the box!

#12 C. Edwards on 08.31.08 at 10:53 am

We wouldn’t have Obama without hearing MLK.
The fact that it is 2008 and we have may have a black president is pretty fantastic.
We in U.K Some of us who are awake and seeing history, are looking forward to that day. Peace

#13 Tyrone Mitchell on 08.31.08 at 11:09 am

I agree with Jim. I say let’s vote Obama into office and go from there. I’m sure he can’t be much worse than what we have had in the past. A lot of what I have heard him say makes sense to me. A lot of Black folks hopes and dreams rests upon this man’s shoulders. I suppose you have to appeal to the majority to get the majority of the votes. Let’s give this African-American a chance. Then maybe he can help to bring about change for the better.

#14 sheena on 08.31.08 at 11:49 pm

maybe he’s getting his paul freeman on …

#15 James Brown on 09.01.08 at 3:29 pm

Actually the whole last part of the speech was a hommage to King and the i have a dream speech. He also addressed race pretty thoroughly in his speech in Philadelphia.

If you are complaining just because he didn’t say King’s name then thats fine(but a bit petty), but don’t falsely claim Obama hasn’t addressed racial issues. Hes just not going to let the right wing turn him into Al Sharpton.

But hey who’s counting.

#16 hottnikz on 09.12.08 at 10:34 am

I thing I know is that white people (and other races for that matter) don’t want to keep being reminded of the black plight. It’s a shame, but true. His camp has obviously done their homework and know that he won’t win by going the Al, Jesse, & Dr. Cornel West route. I know Obama has our best interest in mind, along with the rest of America. I don’t see how people are saying Obama puts us black people last. BTW, if he referenced MLK’s Dream speech, then why is it nessecary to say his name, everyone knows who’s speech it is?

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