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Why Clinton doesn’t have to criticize black people like Obama does

One expert says, as “a white lady talking about race,” Hillary can speak more freely.

hillary clinton speech
Clinton speaks at an award ceremony for the 2015 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting March 23, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

"I want you to hold me accountable, because the stakes are as high as they’ve ever been in our lifetime,” Hillary Clinton told members of the National Associations of Black Journalists and Hispanic Journalists in Washington, DC, last week.

Speaking bluntly about the effects of systemic racism, and calling attention to black and Latino youth unemployment rates, she promised, "For me, these aren’t just systemic issues.” She called them “part of a long, continuing struggle for civil rights."

In that Q&A, she echoed the tone of her July remarks to the NAACP, where she said, “The deaths of Alton [Sterling] and Philando [Castile] drive home how urgently we need to make reforms to policing and criminal justice, and how we cannot rest until we root out implicit bias and stop the killings of African Americans.”

Clinton — who, in this campaign cycle, has been thoroughly taken to task for the racially coded comments about “superpredators” she made in support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act — has faced pressure from activists to explicitly address racial injustice. And she’s responded by addressing the topic predictably and unflinchingly in speeches.

If Clinton can continue a full-throated, unqualified critique of racism in public remarks, her rhetoric can offer a contrast to a source of ongoing frustration for many progressive critics of Barack Obama’s presidency: Nearly every mention of racial inequality in his speeches to predominantly black audiences has included, a few beats later, an “on the other hand” that involves sweeping statements about the personal failings of African Americans.

As early as 2008, he raised eyebrows when he broadly scolded absent black fathers and warned a mostly African-American audience to not “just sit in the house watching SportsCenter,” and to stop “letting children drink eight sodas a day.” In 2013, he used a commencement address at a historically black college, Morehouse, to warn graduates — at a moment specifically designed to celebrate their success for them — that there was “no longer any room for excuse” for their failure. Responding to what he called Obama’s “targeted scorn” and “convenient race talk,” the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this:

This is not a role Barack Obama undertakes with other communities. Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people — and particularly black youth — and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that "there's no longer room for any excuses" — as though they were in the business of making them.

But the steady focus on personal responsibility, just about exclusively to black audiences, continued. In 2014, Obama warned black audiences at more than one campaign stop to encourage their “Cousin Pookie” — a fictional, lazy, and irresponsible stand-in for anyone’s black relative, who he described as “sitting on the couch” and not voting — to cast ballots.

At the 2015 commemoration of the anniversary of the March on Washington he was criticized for blaming African-American attitudes and excuse-making for “how our country remained divided” after the gains of the civil rights movement, saying, “all of that history is how progress stalled.”

It’s entirely possible that Obama sincerely believes these ideas. But observers have wondered whether his words are more tailored to fit the racial attitudes of the general public. Could his predictable takedowns of black people represent a cynical play for support — first to get elected, then to get reelected, then later, once his second term was secured, to avoid activating a backlash of widespread racial anxiety that could work against his party? And, if so, could a victory for Clinton mean the end of the period in American life where the president’s remarks about racism include a mandatory “tough love” aside full of shame and scorn?

I talked about these questions, and the political realities behind them, with Melanye Price, assistant professor of Africana studies at Rutgers University and the author of The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race (2016)

What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Throughout his presidency, Obama has faced frequent criticism for shaming or condescending to black audiences — qualifying statements about structural injustice with generalizations about individual failings — in a way that he doesn’t when speaking to nonblack groups. Is that an accurate assessment of what’s happened over the past several years, in your view?

Melanye Price: Yes. In my book, I talk about how when Obama discusses race in particular, he tells these stories about how, “This is the way we can come together as Americans,” but then he gives an extra little slight against black people. He talks about discrimination and systemic racism all the time, but it is often mixed with a need to say, “But we need to remember, white people have feelings too,” or “We need to remember black people have lazy cousins who don’t like to do anything.” It’s not that he doesn’t do the first part, it’s what he tags on the end that often gets him in trouble.

There’s always “We [African Americans] also need to think about what we’re doing” or “We can’t let anger and cynicism get the best of us.” He has to make it seem as though the stuff that’s the rational response of racism is actually part of the problem. When you do that, what you essentially do is let white people off the hook. Because they get to say, ‘Well, black people do crappy stuff, too” — without the understanding that it’s not as powerful as what they’re doing.

In the beginning, this served a very important purpose. Even now, he only does it in front of black audiences. He never goes to a group full of white people and says this crazy stuff about their “Cousin Pookie.”

JDH: But of course, these remarks are in front of black audiences but they’re in speeches everyone will hear, right?

MP: Right. It’s a trick. What it does is, inside the room, you have all these black people clapping because they’re excited to have a black president — and maybe they do also think their Cousin Pookie is lazy! It’s not like all black people disagree with him — so he actually is doing something where he connects with them in a kind of weird way, like “I understand you, we’re all here together.”

But then it’s being broadcast all over the word, and that’s not how other other people hear it. They hear, “He’s not afraid to tell black people they need to get up and do something.” It actually serves a dual purpose to tell black people get it together. I have no way of knowing whether he actually believes that. But what I believe is that black people were willing to go along with that “tough love” because they felt like he was going to also advocate for them.

JDH: Is there a reason to believe that Clinton, while she’s campaigning, and if she is elected, will be able to speak more freely, or in a less qualified way, when she speaks about racism’s role in American lives?

MP: Yes. Hillary won’t have to do what Obama does. Her issue is going to be, if she talks about gender, she’s [accused of] playing the gender card. But if she talks about racism, although some people will see it as pandering, they won’t see it as her trying to advocate for a group that she’s a part of. There seems to be this longstanding fear among white voters in particular that when they vote for black candidates, that they may actually be actually voting against their own interests. She won’t have to deal with that.

Barack Obama is one of the first people who has been able to overcome the inability of whites to vote outside of their own race. That’s why we don’t have as many officeholders who are black in statewide office. Whites have historically been reluctant to vote across racial lines.

Now we don’t know if Obama is the exception to the rule, or if he is the beginning of a trend. But we do know there’s a way in which white people can talk about race where if black people do it the same way, they (white people) would actually shut down.

I’m sure you’ve been in rooms yourself where somebody white is having a whole conversation about race and you’re like “Whoa, I said that, I’m pretty sure I said that before” but when you said it, they didn’t get it — their reaction was just, “There’s Jenée, all in her feelings again!”

Now, I’m not sure either one [of these approaches to talking about race] will end in better policy, but there is a difference.

JDH: What else should people know to have a deeper understanding of that difference?

MP: Part of what he’s trying to do when he talks about race is counter that he’s a black person saying this stuff. He has to do it because his very body embodies race. David Sears wrote about how everything Obama touched during the 2008 campaign became about race and racism. He has to do the work of trying to explain, “I am in fact not just trying to take advantage of my racial category,” in a way that Hillary doesn’t have to. Hillary Clinton, as a white person, doesn’t have to make any of those kinds of moves.

Of course, she does have a different problem — she may have to address whether she’s pandering. But she doesn’t have to say, “We don’t want cops to die either” every time [she talks about racialized police violence]. Black politicians have to say it every time. She doesn’t have to offer a counterpoint to her statements about black people, but all black candidates have to do it.

Part of this is related to an old strategy called deracialization, which has been around since the 1980s, and relates to how black candidates get whites to feel more comfortable voting for them. The two main pillars of this approach are that black candidates 1) can’t talk about issues that evoke racial thinking — like welfare, et cetera, and 2) they can’t behave in ways seen as racial or threatening or aggressive.

JDH: And Hillary would never have to worry about seeming threatening or aggressive in a way that’s linked to racism?

MP: Right. She can say almost whatever she wants because she’s a white lady talking race.