On Tuesday, in Chicago, former president Barack Obama joined actress Yara Shahidi in a conversation with activists from his Obama Foundation program. Over the nearly 1.5-hour Obama Foundation summit event, the beloved political figure deployed his trademark charm and humor while discussing the challenges of movement politics.
Media attention has focused on a particular part of the conversation – Obama’s criticism of call-out culture and what he perceived as an excessively strident activist left. “We can’t completely remake society in a minute,” Obama said, “so we have to make some accommodations to the existing structures.”
He added, “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.”
He then made a separate point about social media activism:
“If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. ‘Man you see how woke I was, I called you out.’” But “that’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change.”
On its face, these are fair remarks. During the session, both Obama and Shahidi drew from examples of the nonviolent civil rights movement of the early 1960s, which required enormous faith, patience and compromise from its activists in the face of threats to their lives and livelihood. Today, as social justice activists’ material conditions have relatively improved, they will encounter people in positions of power with wealth and access, and they have to learn to work with them on some level, Obama implied. And no, tweeting about a verb probably won’t bring about change.
However, we can’t look at Obama’s remarks in a vacuum. From 2016 – as he prepared to exert his influence over who would be the next Democratic nominee – to the present, Obama has often aimed his political critiques at youth-led, black and progressive movements. While upholding the necessity of nuance, Obama himself seems to force these movements into a box, cherry-picking anecdotes for a strawman: that these movements expect purity and demand perfection.
This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke … you should get over that. The world is messy. There are ambiguitiesBarack Obama
In an early instance of this ideological pattern, at a 2016 youth town hall in London, Obama spoke generally of Black Lives Matter while referring to the handful of activists who confronted the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for her role in criminalizing black youth:
“Once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention … then you can’t just keep on yelling at them. And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position. The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room.”
A few months later in a Howard commencement address, with Chicago protests of the police killing of Laquan McDonald not far in the distance, he told the audience of mostly black students about his criminal justice reform as a state senator:
“I can say this unequivocally: without at least the acceptance of the police organizations in Illinois, I could never have gotten those [criminal justice reform] bills passed … If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want.”
And earlier this year, Obama again raised the amorphous specter of purity politics as people have embraced a leftward policy shift:
“One of the things I do worry about sometimes among progressives in the United States … is a certain kind of rigidity where we say, ‘Uh, I’m sorry, this is how it’s going to be’ and then we start … a ‘circular firing squad’, where you start shooting at your allies because one of them has strayed from purity on the issues.”
Obama has offered these platitudes without much evidence that progressives, Black Lives Matter activists or young voters expect purity. Impatience with the status quo is not purity. A consistent political project is not purity. And being patient has its limits.
For many Americans, the normalization of genuinely leftwing policies is providing the hope and change Obama campaigned on
You can gather from the general direction of Obama’s career, from turning down a route in corporate law to his community organizing, that he has some commitment to social justice. However, his remarks indicate discomfort with more radical tactics in achieving it, reducing them to petulant zeal and not a legitimate strategy among the broad scope of tools needed to dismantle oppressive systems.
While discussing Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King as examples of patient progress, he freezes them in time. He failed to note either King’s or Parks’s evolutions. Over time King became more radicalized and questioned integration. When Parks was forced to Detroit to retreat from the backlash against her bus boycott activism, she became a proponent of the Panthers’ self-defense demands and identified Malcolm X as her personal hero.
Obama also failed to discuss how, despite King’s strategies negotiating with Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress waffled in passing further civil rights measures until the 1968 riots after King’s assassination, when Congress was forced to swiftly pass the Fair Housing Act.
Or go back further: despite the negotiations and patience of abolitionists in the 1800s, it was a steady stream of black uprisings, and an entire civil war, that gave abolition laws and the Emancipation Proclamation any teeth.
Obama’s fundamental problem is in confusing a strategy of pragmatism with the strategy. Pragmatic approaches can coexist with more radical politics. But Obama’s pattern of dismissing radical demands altogether shows a serious unwillingness to appreciate the times. Obama is committed to a notion of reaching across the aisle that may have seemed necessary in 2012, but not so much in 2019.
Americans in the throes of economic struggle and social oppression have been advised to hold their nose for so long that they’re suffocating. The labor movement is experiencing more worker strikes now than in the past 40 years. We’re in a 1968 moment, not 1963. But Obama has not accepted this evolution.
As people demand universal policies for basic needs of shelter, food, freedom from police terror, and economic security, and when wealth inequality is the worst in a century, Obama has to reckon with his own questions. How is his form of calling out – scolding black, young and progressive movements – bringing about change? Is he part of the solution or part of the problem?
For many Americans, the normalization of genuinely leftwing policies is providing the hope and change Obama campaigned on. This is the time for him to finally help achieve it.