Politics

Obama Defends ‘Respectability Politics’ Speeches Criticized by Black Progressives

President Barack Obama speaks at the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University in Washington, Tuesday, May 12, 2015. The president said that "it's a mistake" to think efforts to stamp out poverty have failed and the government is powerless to address it. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Barack Obama speaks at the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University in Washington, Tuesday, May 12, 2015. The president said that “it’s a mistake” to think efforts to stamp out poverty have failed and the government is powerless to address it. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

 

(Slate) – President Obama appeared on a Georgetown-sponsored public policy panel Tuesday and, in addition to making everyone laugh a few times, he participated for about an hour in a discussion of American poverty as it relates to history, culture, and government. Wealth inequality has become perhaps the most ascendant subject of public concern and political debate in the United States, and Obama’s remarks laid out a kind of total liberal theory on the subject—responding in particular to criticism that he’s taken from a number of prominent progressive black writers about the way he discusses poverty and the values of black Americans.

You can read an informative summary of the context here, but in brief: Obama, at events such as historically black college commencements and appearances related to his My Brother’s Keeper initiative for young men of color, has made a point of encouraging personal responsibility, family togetherness, active fatherhood, and the like. A number of writers, including the Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates, the New Yorker‘s Jelani Cobb, and Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie, have criticized these comments for playing into the premise that there is something uniquely dysfunctional about black American culture. (Other forums in which you’ll hear such “respectability politics”-type lectures, they say, are Bill Cosby speeches and right-wing-radio discussions of indolent welfare cheats.) At Tuesday’s panel, Coates was mentioned by name and the president was asked to respond to his critiques. Here’s what he said:

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