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.