President Obama’s recent commentary on the Zimmerman trial stands, in my mind, as one of the high watermarks of his presidency. For the first time in American history, our nation’s First Black President spoke directly to America’s Black Community about a problem largely unique to their experience: the legacy of racially motivated violence committed by whites against people of color, and the legal institution that legitimizes it. It was heartfelt, touching, and of course, a whole bunch of people really hated it.
The speech drew an enormous amount of criticism from all of the typical sources in corporate media, but what surprised me the most was the amount of vicious critiques that came from individuals amongst the Professional Left. They were ugly. They were hyperbolic. Above all, they were personal. The whole debacle offered a grotesque glimpse into the undercurrent of shallow, racialized prejudice that exists within the progressive movement, functioning as a grim reminder of how race, class, and privilege can completely derail common sense and good judgment when the pursuit of ratings becomes more important than the pursuit of facts. It was a vicious attack from an unexpected source, one that greatly tarnished what was otherwise a powerful watershed moment in American history.
You would think that when those who are assumed to be proponents of all progressive values are presented with an historic moment such as this, they would be among the most emphatic and enthusiastic supporters of it, despite whatever misgivings they might have over Obama’s record. After all, doesn’t the black community deserve a moment of silence after what just happened? The Zimmerman trial was arguably the largest media event of 2013 so far, and the verdict yet another ugly black mark on America’s Civil Rights record; surely, Black America has more than earned their time to grieve.
Where does this chip on the shoulder of progressives like David Sirota and Cornel West against President Obama come from, that they would even feel compelled, let alone entitled, to flat out insult America’s First Black President (and, by proxy, Black America itself) in such grossly inappropriate ways when he comes forward in such an overwhelmingly positive fashion? There’s no denying that Obama’s second term as President has been accompanied – unsurprisingly, some would say – by a rather dramatic shift in his political persona. Without another reelection campaign looming on the horizon, he’s become free to do and say things that he wouldn’t have dared during his first term, like speaking on behalf of Black America in something other than the most abstract terms.
At the same time, Obama’s naked displays of power and ambition in arenas like the NSA spying, the prosecution of whistleblowers, and the increasing mechanization of the War Of Terror give the lie to the idea of “curative black benevolence” he posited to the American public, forcing many of his initial supporters to finally begin to see the man for what he truly is: a centrist Democrat with the ear of the private sector, and not the so-called “Magic Negro” progressive pundits so desperately hoped was going to save America from itself.
Now that that veil has been lifted, the raw, bitter scorn with which Obama is perceived by many of those same progressive pundits has become a thick, oily balm used to tend their wounded egos. Obama’s inability or refusal to live up to the “Magic Negro” stereotype is, to people like David Sirota and Cornel West, the ultimate betrayal; he did not succeed completely, therefore, he has failed utterly. As such, those that will accept no less than perfection from America’s First Black President as a condition of his employment, rather than admit to the error in their judgment, choose to smear Obama with the same sort of unholy comparisons they would use against a white president, from behind a mantle of so-called “post-racial” progressivism.
Their failure to accept selfishness and abuse of power in America’s First Black President only serves to reinforce the negative stereotype that black people cannot be trusted with said authority, casting Obama as a failed martyr by holding him to an impossible standard, and insulting the black community writ large. My colleague, the Rad-Femme Lawyer, writes:
“The strange essence of the critique is that Obama is a hypocrite for publicly, personally identifying with one murdered Black boy while the Administration’s foreign policy justifies the murders of innocent brown people abroad. This inappropriate parallel between Obama and Zimmerman erases the suffering of Black people and other marginalized groups in America, allows white men to co-opt the conversation while claiming that they are anti-racist, ignores crucial differences between vigilante justice and foreign policy, and requires Obama to be superhuman to maintain authority.”
The progressive vendetta against Obama by pundits like David Sirota and Cornel West may serve to reinforce their roles as crusaders for justice, but their actions are raising the bar even higher for people of color to achieve the presidency (not to mention other positions of power or authority) for a long time to come. They condemn us to struggle even longer under the yoke of the very systems they claim to be dismantling. But they’ve got MLK on their side, so they can do no wrong, right? President Obama speaks about the verdict in the George Zimmerman Trial: