Tuesday, June 08, 2010


A lot of folks are saying that they want Obama to be more angry about the oil spill in the Gulf.  In fact, Aimai here made an outstanding argument as to why Obama needed to absolutely show some real passion, because in a visceral, gut way people are influenced by feelings.  If only to get control of the narrative on the subject, Obama needed to appeal to those Americans most moved by such responses. 

But other than Aimai's advice for Obama to "hire that job out" (which I agree with by the way -- Aimai suggested Michelle Obama) very few people are exploring the reasons why he hasn't already gotten pissed off other than "politics".  The real answer, as the WaPo's Jonathan Capeheart reminds us, is societal, not political.
Americans expect their presidents to be cool, calm and collected in a crisis. But we have to recognize that Obama already has this manner (or skill) mastered because it attaches to any black professional, especially those in positions of authority. 

"Blacks at that level have to operate like that," Rev. Al Sharpton told me, "Whether you're Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas or Dick Parsons." That was an intriguing slate to ponder. Powell, Thomas and Parsons are three very different men. And yet the way they operate in their respective professions is very similar. "You grew up in the time when Sidney Poitier was the prototype of how you operate in a white world," Sharpton said, "cool and smooth." 

"You and I are held to a somewhat different standard in the way we comport ourselves in professional environments," a black Democratic strategist with close ties to the business community said. "We are oftentimes held hostage to the myth of the 'angry black man' in ways that constrain us." 

"As a black man, as a big black man, I know there are certain ways I can behave," an African American executive told me last week. "We don't have the luxury of making certain kinds of mistakes that would have us viewed as unintelligent.... You're carrying this burden of not having the luxury of messing up."

"You can't show anger, otherwise you are judged a certain way," said one prominent friend who would only speak about this on background. "It's already a societal thing where people find black men dangerous. So you can't be angry.... You learn early on there are certain lines you do not cross." Think about it. There's no African American version of, say, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff with a widely known and celebrated reputation for F-bombs and confrontation.
And as a big black man myself, I can tell you from personal experience that this is how the world works.  You don't show anger.  You never show anger, and hiding that anger is a societal defense mechanism that young black men acquire through either examples from others or finding out the hard way themselves.  You're going to provoke an often irrational and dangerous response if you do.  Fair or unfair, that's how the game is played.

A good friend of mine told me a story last month about a black man who came up towards a woman on the street.  She crossed the street to avoid him.  The man was speaking loudly, and ran towards the woman.  The woman panicked.  She pulled out some pepper spray and blasted the guy.  She was an older white woman, he was a black man in his twenties.  That kind of thing happens.  She was alone.  He was much larger than she was.  Perfectly acceptable thing in society, her reaction.  I can understand it completely and I wouldn't blame her.

He was just returning her cell phone she had dropped a hundred feet back.  He was running to catch up with her.  My friend, herself a white woman, said "And if I was in her situation, I would have done the same thing."  It happens.  Hell, it happens regardless of race sometimes.

So you keep it cool.  Yes, many of us remember when Obama spoke with both passion and eloquence about the subject of race in January 2008.  Many of us, myself included, would like to see Obama speak with the same fiery passion about the BP oil disaster, about immigration reform, about climate legislation, about a lot of things.  But I understand exactly why he remains calm and logical about things.  "Why isn't he more animated, more angry?" people ask.

The reason is that after 43 POTUS, the rules are a little different for number 44.  Pretending otherwise is just a silly exercise.  And when America finally gets a female President, the rules will be a little different for her as well.

So no, Obama's not going to pick up a Louisville Slugger and go to town on Tony Hayward's forehead with it.  It's because there's a very, very good chance that the anger Obama displays will backfire terribly.

Aimai's still correct.  Somebody in the administration needs to be the bad cop here if Obama can't.  But it can't be Obama that does the anger.

He has to stay cool.

No comments: