Unlike white progressives, blacks and Latinos are not used to getting it all. They know how it feels to be unemployed and unable to buy your children Christmas presents. They know when not to shout. The president, the coolest man in the room, who worked among the unemployed in Chicago, knows too.
— Ishmael Reed, Dec. 12, The New York Times
Back in the day, black author Ishmael Reed was a darling of postmodernist English Lit professors. He wrote Mumbo Jumbo and other wildly satiric, Afrocentric novels but was a contrarian who resisted being pigeonholed as a leftist.
In his Sunday op-ed defense of Barack Obama’s policies, Reed reminds us that he’s still a contrarian with an aversion to orthodoxies and other notions of certainty. Except, of course, when it comes to his own notions.
Reed argues that Obama’s tendency to slink away from political fights is a tactic he must use to avoid being labeled a militant by racists itching to bring down America’s first black president. His op-ed is essentially a mini-lecture of everyone who suspects that expediency or other base motives played a part in Obama’s retreat (the kindest way to put it) from his campaign promises.
Reed, who has taught for many years at Berkeley and other elite universities, likes to have it both ways. In his view, Obama should be admired as “the coolest man in the room,” even when his coolness looks like a betrayal of working people, black and Latino and white. But white critics of Obama are automatically uncool. They are “used to getting it all,” and therefore don’t understand that Obama’s unwillingness to fight more bonus tax cuts for the rich is somehow in the best interest of the non-rich.
Reed clearly thinks he’s the second coolest man in the room — too cool to take a close look at political complexities, too cool to acknowledge that not all of Obama’s critics are rightwing loonies or white progressives, too cool to examine his self-contradictions. If he did the latter, Reed might have to re-think his special pleading and admit that black people who thrive in elitist environments are just as likely as white elitists to feel little empathy for the poor and disadvantaged.