11:46 AM / Friday March 24, 2023

2 Oct 2011

Professor Randall Kennedy and the dangerous politics of sentiment

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October 2, 2011 Category: Commentary Posted by:

By Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III


Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy recently penned an Op Ed entitled ‘Why Obama’s Black Critics are Wrong.’ He contends that President Obama’s African American critics have focused on his “racial bona fides” and, “Throughout President Barack Obama’s political career, he has been dogged by… accusations that he is not “black enough”…” I respect Randall Kennedy and appreciate his contributions to scholarship but in this instance his analysis is shallow and unsupported by the data.


There is a very troubling pattern developing within certain segments of the African American community; a concerted effort to silence those who are offering honest, valid, and well-thought through policy analysis and criticism of the Obama administration. Kennedy is contributing to a growing number of African Americans such as Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, and Professor Melissa Harris-Perry who are more focused on personal sentiment than policy.


African Americans can ill afford to base their analysis of President Obama on the politics of sentiment. Like every other political constituency, we must stay focused on policy outcomes that work to further the best interest of the African American community. We should not have permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.


In his piece Kennedy attempts to compare race-based taunts such as “Obama ain’t really Black” made by both Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Alan Keyes as they were challenging Barack Obama to represent Illinois in the House and Senate respectively, with Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D-CA) admonishments of the president for failing to craft policies that would explicitly target black unemployment. Kennedy is attempting to compare personal attacks made during a heated state campaign with a member of Congress challenging the President to support targeted, national legislation that would assist individuals disproportionately impacted by the economic downturn. Rep. Waters and others like her are doing their jobs as elected representatives in Congress. That’s not the same as over-the-top campaign rhetoric. Trying to draw similarities between the two is not comparing apples and oranges; it’s more like comparing apples and automobiles.


Kennedy attributes the critiques of President Obama to “…a special anxiety about the loyalties of high (African American) achievers, especially when their success is largely dependent on whites and others who are not black.” He fails to explore the possibility that these critiques of President Obama are not comparing him to some baseless abstract standard. In most instances this “anxiety” is based upon a comparison of Obama to Obama. Candidate Obama pledged to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay; pledged to fight for the public option; pledged to end the Bush-era tax cuts, and pledged to give America “change we can believe in.” Many are claiming the more things change the more they look like Bush.


When assessing who President Obama selected as his top economic advisers some critics are asking why he appointed individuals such as Goldman-Sachs and Merrill Lynch darlings Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner? It has been well documented how Summers, Geithner and others led the charge to block the regulation efforts of Brooksley Born (former head of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission) of the derivatives market and this contributed to the current financial crisis. This is not, as Kennedy states, a claim from fellow blacks that he is “selling out” the race. This reality is what caused Professor Cornell West to opine that President Obama is “another black mascot” of “banksters” and “Wall Street oligarchs.” This is not to say that Professor West is correct, but West’s analysis has merit and is worthy of further debate.


Kennedy writes, “The great bulk of black American voters — upward of 90 percent — supported Obama in 2008 and do so today.” He might want to reconsider this point based upon more recent data from the Washington Post that states, “New cracks have begun to show in President Obama’s support amongst African Americans, … Five months ago, 83 percent of African Americans held “strongly favorable” views of Obama, but in a new Washington Post-ABC news poll that number has dropped to 58 percent.”


Finally, Professor Kennedy writes, that African Americans support President Obama, “…because of his party affiliation, his liberal policy preferences, his identification with the African American community … his personal attractiveness — he is uncommonly articulate, handsome, knowledgeable and gracious — and the fact that with all of the added burdens attendant to his blackness, he was still able to climb the Mount Everest of American politics.”


Contrast Kennedy’s assessment of the basis of the African American community’s support with how President Obama demonstrated his support to the Hispanic community. He nominated the first Hispanic female Supreme Court Justice. He also supports the Hispanic communities call for comprehensive immigration reform. He demonstrated his support to the Gay/Lesbian community, by supporting the ending of the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. To demonstrate his support for women and feminists in America he signed the “Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.” Even as the tide shifts in the Middle-East, the Obama Administration continues to provide unyielding support for Zionist interests in America. These are real policy outcomes, not abstract political sentiments.


Here’s some real data for Kennedy and others to consider.Vits most recent decline during the George W. Bush administration. African American households lost over half their wealth between 2005 and 2009. If, these same “black detractors” as Kennedy describes them, were not wrong to criticize President Bush; why should we sit ideally by as the situation grows worse under President Obama? Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) recently said, “If (former President) Bill Clinton had been in the White House and had failed to address this problem, we probably would be marching on the White House”


I respect Professor Kennedy but in this instance his analysis is shallow, wrong, and misguided. When you ignore the issues in support of a politician and do not hold them accountable for what they promise, you get the same outcomes. You get an inability to address unemployment rates in your community of 18 percent.


Wilmer Leon is the Producer/ Host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program “Inside the Issues with Wilmer Leon,” and a Teaching Associate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Go to or email: [email protected]

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