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Yesterday I posted about an article by Jodi Kantor (author of The Obamas) on the front page of Sunday's New York Times. In yesterday's post, which summarized the piece broadly, I teased about going deeper into a particular aspect of the article, which I'm now ready to do in today's post.

In the NYT article, Kantor explores the matter of who most influenced Obama's approach to race, which the article summarizes as "moving away from the old politics of grievance and using common economic interests to bind diverse coalitions." She quoted Obama's former colleague at the University of Chicago, sociologist William Julius Wilson, who stated that Obama has long “argued that if political action and political speeches are tailored solely to white audiences, minorities will withdraw, just as whites often recoil when political action and speeches are targeted to racial minority audiences.”

Kantor argues that Wilson had a profound influence on Obama, who has absorbed the former's argument that, in Kantor's description, "class was becoming more determinative than race in America." Wilson did, without question, reshape how academics and politicians approach the matter of race in this country. And yes, Obama was influenced by William Julius Wilson in terms of class becoming more of a factor than race (although he has also stated that race remains vitally important) in perpetuating inequality, and in terms of both men’s belief that universally aimed policies that focus on economic issues would be more likely to win political support than race-specific policies.

But in this Obama also reflects the influence of someone who spoke in very similar terms more than two decades before Professor Wilson, namely Martin Luther King Jr. By 1967, he was calling for black politicians to focus on economics rather than solely on race, a clear shift in the Civil Rights Movement’s priorities. In 1967’s Where Do We Go from Here, Reverend King argued:

“One unfortunate thing about Black Power is that it gives priority to race precisely at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike. In this context, the slogan ‘Power for Poor People’ would be much more appropriate than the slogan ‘Black Power.’”
King also added that, given the successes in changing laws on civil rights and voting rights, he wanted to shift his focus to efforts that:
“go beyond race and deal with economic inequality, wherever it exists. In the pursuit of these goals, the white poor become involved, and the potentiality emerges for a powerful new alliance.”
We can see one example among many of Obama endorsing King's approach to the matter of race and class in a speech commemorating Martin Luther King Day that he gave on January 17, 2010.
"At the core of King's success was an appeal to conscience that touched hearts and opened minds, a commitment to universal ideals -- of freedom, of justice, of equality -- that spoke to all people, not just some people.  For King understood that without broad support, any movement for civil rights could not be sustained.  That's why he marched with the white auto worker in Detroit.  That's why he linked arm with the Mexican farm worker in California, and united people of all colors in the noble quest for freedom."

On April 4, 2008, the fortieth anniversary of King’s assassination, Obama praised him specifically for understanding that “the struggle for economic justice and the struggle for racial justice were really one.” The President has, in essence, offered a twenty-first century version of Reverend King’s preference for “Power for Poor People” over “Black Power” that he described in 1967.

The question I asked in my title is, I recognize, too simplistic. It's not a matter of Obama being influenced by either Martin Luther King or William Julius Wilson in his approach to race and economics/class. However, one might think, having read the NYT article, that Wilson was his sole or primary influence. It is important to recognize that Reverend King made a similar argument, and that Barack Obama has publicly recognized that argument's influence on him.

For those who missed my post from yesterday, here are the concluding paragraphs that summarize my thoughts on the piece:

More broadly, Kantor describes the Obama Administration as being focused on two key principles when it comes to race: inclusion and cross-racial unity.

That's exactly what I found as well in my analysis of Obama's public rhetoric over twenty years. This is more than a political strategy for the President, it is his passion. His highest priority in public life, Obama proclaimed in April 2008, is “to insist that we all share common hopes and common dreams as Americans and as human beings.” Obama also emphasized the “need to all recognize each other as Americans, regardless of race, religion, or region of the country.” These goals are in his "DNA," he stated.

For me personally, I was most drawn to Barack Obama specifically because of his understanding of these matters, of the importance of both fighting injustice and encouraging cross-racial unity and strengthening the bonds that connect us as Americans. He recognizes that doing the latter will make it far easier to do the former. It's much harder to ignore inequality or injustice when one recognizes the person suffering from it as a fellow American rather than simply as "the other."

Strengthening American national identity and cross-racial unity can help us achieve justice and equality. That's what Obama gets, and that idea is at the core of his approach to race.

PS-Please check out my new book, where I explore the Obama has spoken about race--and the way the media and his opponents have commented on it--in much greater detail, as part of my larger analysis of his conception of American national identity: Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, published last month by Potomac Books. You can read a review by DailyKos's own Greg Dworkin here.

Originally posted to Ian Reifowitz on Mon Oct 22, 2012 at 05:50 AM PDT.

Also republished by Jews For President Obama, The Federation, Invisible People, Income Inequality Kos, and Barriers and Bridges.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for the Diary (6+ / 0-)

    I wonder, however, if either the author of the NYT piece or President Obama himself has kept up with the evolution of Wiliam Julius Wilson's own thinking on the subjects of race and class. He is far less beholden to class analysis than he was when he wrote his seminal work, The Declining Significance of Race in 1978. His most recent works, focusing on inner city social structures and dynamics, argue at times forcefully that the class differences we see are, in fact, adaptive responses to long-standing racial exclusion and discrimination which look maladaptive when viewed under the lens of class difference but which are in fact quite functional when viewed in that lens (albeit equally problematic when it comes to navigating life outside of the inner city.)

    Similarly, I am always troubled when folks insist that Dr. King was working to help "everybody." No, he wasn't. His last works right up until he died made clear that his motivation and mission was improvement of the lives of Black people. That he realized that the best solutions required coalition with whites who had similar goals and objectives, and similiar needs, is not the same thing as his making their needs a coextensive priority. Yet people take his speech on Vietnam and his work with the Poor People's Movement to mean that race was not still his primary concern.  I didn't note this in my diary yesterday, but anyone who has actually read Dr. King's work throughout his lifetime knows that.

    •  You're very welcome. (4+ / 0-)

      Great question on the evolution of Wilson's work and how much Obama followed it. I don't have an answer to that. I had a look at Wilson's 2009 book, More Than Just Race, a couple of years ago in doing research for my book and he did look broadly at race and culture and economic factors. As for MLK, there's no question about the consistency of his mission and it's primary focus remaining on black people, of course. His strategy and his analysis did appear to undergo a shift after 1965, as seen in the quote I provided and throughout Where Do We Go From Here but of course you're right that his priority did not shift. Black people remained his primary concern, he was talking about how best they should proceed politically.

    •  Interesting (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I don't think Wilson would really admit to "evolving", but I do think he would say it is important to emphasize the stuff that is getting less attention. His whole thing is synthesis, and he gets really mad if you say he is ruling out one factor or another (for example "culture"). In other words he sees the many various explanations for concentrates black poverty as complementary.  I was a student of his about 20 years ago, and just heard him speak a few weeks ago and it was pretty much the exact same schpiel. It struck me just how consistent he has been.

      To the larger point, is it not possible that Obama, who is every bit as intelligent as King or Wilson, but who has had a very different lived experience than either, may have come to his own thinking largely as a product of his exploration of identity and his own reflections on America?

  •  With Liberty and Justice for all (3+ / 0-)

    Oh, of course, the emphasis might be different depending on who's speaking and who is being spoken to, but that's the underpinning to all of this, and influence, as those of us who study it know, is maddeningly difficult to pin down.

    This is a nice distillation of your work, Ian.  Thanks for posting it.

    -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent, and we are all Wisconsin.

    by Dave in Northridge on Mon Oct 22, 2012 at 07:23:56 AM PDT

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