Sunday, July 26, 2009

Skip, POTUS, Cops, and the Press: Why the "Teachable Moment" Should Be a Decade

On the evening of the day that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested at his Cambridge, Massachusetts home, I was at the Hilton New York, on Avenue of the Americas, watching President Barack Obama's address to the 100th Anniversary Convention of the NAACP.

At that time, we had no clue about what had transpired in Cambridge a few hours earlier.

We floated on a cloud of happy anticipation, there at the Hilton: How extraordinary to be at the Centennial anniversary of the nation's oldest civil and human rights organization, the very group that played a significant part of paving the way for Barack Obama's historic election to the US presidency. (I joined the Communications staff of the NAACP on June 10, 2009. The commentary here at Community Forum reflects my own views, not necessarily those of the NAACP.)

President Obama spoke for 33 minutes at the Hilton New York, during a dinner known as the Spingarn Awards. As we'd expected, his address was focused closely on the subject of black progress in America, more than in any previous speech he'd given.
And yes, even surpassing his landmark March 2008 "Philadelphia speech." That Jeremiah Wright-inspired address was certainly a model of nuance and historic sweep, on the general topic of race relations. But by design, it was primarily conciliatory in tone, and he diluted the Black Thang by folding in (legitimate) themes of the disenfranchisement and social disconnection of not just blacks but also poor whites and other marginalized Americans.

I covered the March 2008 Philadelphia speech for The Nation, and noted that the only genuine "news" to emerge was that so many of my colleagues in the press seemed surprised by Candidate Obama's views on the complexity of race and class in America.


The day after the President's July 16 speech at the NAACP, then, I wasn't entirely surprised to see that many of the mainstream journalists who covered it had emphasized one part of his speech over another -- the Black Personal Responsibility note he had sounded in the second half of the address. It was just that, a note, not the entire piece, though you couldn't really get that from much of the next-day coverage.

The first part of President Obama's NAACP speech had been a swift, sharp tutorial on the trajectory of racism and discrimination in America, from the brutalities of lynchings and racial domestic terrorism, through the legalization of discrimination that arrived with Plessy v. Ferguson and Jim Crow segregation; to the subtler, more elusive forms of racism that are currently embedded in our major public and private insitutions. President Obama made it clear at The Hilton that he believes that most African-Americans begin the game at a disadvantage -- and that the nation's history of slavery and racial discrimination is the cause.

He brought it on home with a solutions-oriented disquisition on the need for increased responsibility and accountability, and not just from blacks but also from American government and corporate insitutions.
Basically, said the President, everyone needs to sharpen their Values and Responsibility Chops in order to shrink the gaps in black achievement, and to lift up all Americans who struggle. If we do not, "America cannot compete" in the global future, he observed quite appropriately.

And yet...... USA Today, The New York Times, and a few other big print outlets in their live and next-day coverage focused almost exclusively on the portions of his speech in which President Obama urged black Americans to, "...accept our own responsibilities. That means putting away the Xbox, and putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour." Nearly every mainstream outlet carried that quote, and wrapped their stories around that thread. (By contrast, Krissah Thompson's and Cheryl W. Thompson's July 17 story in The Washington Post got it right.)

To many of us present at that July 16 speech, the most important line came earlier, as President Obama transitioned between the historic injustices of lynchings and Jim Crow segregation, to the solutions portion (boldface added by me):

Government programs alone won’t get our children to the Promised Land. We need a new mindset, a new set of attitudes – because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way that we have internalized a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little of ourselves.

I wanted to hear more from President Obama on that last idea, how the long history of racism, brutality and discrimination created a damning image that has been internalized by generation after generation of black Americans. The inability of many blacks to vanquish that internalized racism -- which leads to fatalistic thinking, which in turn opens the door to a variety of high-risk and self-destructive behaviors -- is truly our biggest challenge as we close the first decade of the new century. But it was not to be, not in that talk to the 100th Anniversary gathering of the NAACP.

A small buzz around the mainstream media's lame coverage of the President's speech began in the first day after the Convention. Apparently anticipating some media drama, President Obama had given a handful of journalists from black press outlets a lift to New York and the NAACP Convention aboard Air Force One. (Do I agree with an elected official attempting to run the access to power game, in the run up to a major public event? Hell no. But I am learning alot from the Adminstration's craftiness on this front....)And yet, much of the next day's coverage was dominated by a one-dimensional narrative.

Make that one and a half dimensional, since the other false-note narrative that initially dominanted coverage of President Obama's July 16 speech at the Hilton New York centered on the question, Is the NAACP still relevant?

A lazy approach, considering that two days before the Centennial convention kick off, a few dozen black kids got kicked out of a predominantly white private "swim club" in suburban Montgomery County, Pennsylvania for "changing the atmosphere" of the joint....and considering that more people of color were sold risky mortgage loans than whites, no matter their income level and credit histories....and considering that in mid-spring, a black off-duty New York City policeman was shot dead by a white cop co-worker who didn't realize the Brotha was a Brother in Blue.

Barely a day after his NAACP speech, even the President made note of the shortcomings of that prevailing media narrative, the Black Responsibility tip being emphasized above all else that he'd covered. This is a sure sign that the jig is up for big news outfits that continue to ignore the importance of comprehensive, nuanced race and class coverage. But within two news cycles, that buzz, faint to begin with, was fading.


I returned home to Montgomery County Maryland, in suburban DC, on Friday, July 18. I thought I'd have to wait who knew how long for another POTUS-related "race moment" that would expose the media's historic blindspots of race and class coverage. Or maybe until the "birthers" just come straight out and publicly accuse the President of being a race-relations Manchurian Candidate, lying in stealthy wait for the clandestine signal to allow him to activate a Secret Black Agenda.

Mostly, I wondered what it would take to finally smarten Americans up about the full history and implications of the Black Experience in this country.


On July 20, four days after President Obama spoke at the Hilton New York, The Boston Globe posted a story of how Henry L. Gates, Jr., had been arrested right on his front porch in Cambridge, Massachusetts, apparently by a white cop who mistook him for a black burgular.......on the same day that President Obama had addressed the100th Anniversary gathering of the supposedly no longer relevant NAACP.

I won't rehash the ins and outs of the Gates Situation, or should I say, Confrontation. By now we know the details, and are well and truly queasy at the sight of any more lurid cable news network headlines belching, "The Professor, the Police, and the President."

But I encourage you to read Glenn C. Loury's brilliant analysis published in the Sunday, July 26 edition of The New York Times. He astutely argues that the "teachable moment" that everyone seems to be hoping will come out of the Skip-Gets-Jacked-Up-and-POTUS-Rides-to-the Rescue flap, must last longer than a hot minute.

The crucial topic of how racism, power, and entitelment has done a mind-fuck on uncounted blacks (and whites) in this country can't be answered with a flashy show'n'go...or with a beer'n'go at the White House. A successful search for genuine, stick-to-your-rib solutions requires a major adjustment to our thinking, and to the sputtering engines of our democracy

I agree with Loury's premise, even though he could have sold it equally forcefully without taking the swipes at Skip that he does in the piece.

Having collaborated with Skip on a book about black leadership, and socialized with Skip, and written for his first web venture,, and at, I know that he can be, shall we say, impish. But he is a genius, and quite determined to improve race relations in America. He is also marveously strategic about doing the intellectual shovel-work required to bury lingering white perceptions of black inferiority.

If Charles Ogletree and Alvin F. Poussaint are the Wise Men of Harvard -- towering, casually elegant figures who've spent decades at the methodical, unglamorous work of educating young achievers of every skin color while also shoring up black self-love -- Skip is the precocious gadfly who flits from project to project, spinning out the gold of black achievement... while sometimes knocking over the heirloom vases.


Loury says what President Obama, perhaps doesn't quite feel he can say, just yet. Loury calls for significant policy and funding changes to directly address the underlying causes of high rates of black incarceration, school drop outs, and unemployment. He observes that the disparities in these categories have always existed, that they have been climbing steadily for decades, and that the rate of increase has accelerated exponentially since the current Recession (Depression for black folks) began, roundabout mid-2007.

In other words, as the President's NAACP speech telegraphed, there needs to be a monumental shift in our national psyche in order to sincerely begin to address the root causes of the symptoms, rather than just the symptoms. And a shift in funding and policy priorities to provide the kind of comprehensive therapy to our criminal justice, education, and social services systems -- as well as to the poor and ethnic minority populations that are historically resistant to The Couch -- that is urgently needed.

Maybe now, thanks in part to what took place on July 16, in New York, and in Cambridge, Mass., President Obama will have the necessary opening to start leading us toward that shift. He will need the help of all Americans, and the strength of a hundred ancestors, stretching back further than a Centennial.