Fear Of the Angry Black Man

What is Portrayed By Conservative Media.

You’ve heard the term “Angry black man/woman” probably too many times for it to register anymore. Most black professionals run into it personally at one time or another, and it is a common device utilized in political and corporate infighting against black employees.

It is a device, dependent on the ignorance or bias of other white employees and managers, which can cause serious career damage to the accused black employee. Often phrased as “having a chip on the shoulder” when a black employee reacts no differently than a white employee to a situation, or when the employee is a black woman, as having “an attitude”, the false canard is just another of those “black taxes” on the way to that still not reached post-racial nirvana.

This irrational, racially driven bias provides a serious challenge to President Obama’s image.

 

What President Obama Projects…

Obama and the Question of the ‘Angry Black Man’

Dec. 23, 2010 – Since his 2008 campaign, much discussion has been devoted to understanding President Obama’s approach.  At various points Obama’s public coolness has been seen as a plus, while at other points it has been viewed as a real minus.  On those rare occasions when Obama has dared give expression to his ire, he has confronted the “angry black man” issue and any concerns he may have regarding the perception that an “angry black man” has assumed the role of President of the United States of America.

In the last two weeks two friends of mine have written pieces critical of my assertion that part of understanding Barack Obama is to understand his intense fear of being perceived as an “angry black man.” One friend simply stated his disagreement with me, while the other ridiculed my position. Both friends happen to be white.

Before I go any further let me be clear that I do not articulate this analysis as in any way a defense of Obama. As my record shows, I have been highly critical of the President on many issues.  What has me unsettled, however, is how easy it has been for many white leftists and progressives to dismiss the matter of the “angry black man” without fully interrogating the concept and its implications.  In that sense, this is about much more than President Obama.

African Americans generally, and African American men in particular, have to be extremely careful about the expression of emotion around white people.  In general whites do not know how to react around emotional black people.  This is especially the case if we are angry.  The failure of black people to express cheer and good tidings often is interpreted by whites as threatening.  Various consequences may follow.  This response on the part of whites certainly has its roots in slavery and the constant fear that whites had of revolts by the enslaved Africans.

As someone who cannot smile on command (and you can ask any photographer), I have plenty of experience with this.  The combination of an unsmiling presence and some level of education causes many whites to become unhinged as they do not know what to expect from us.  “Are we angry with them?” seems to be the question.  “Are we going to start yelling about racism?” is yet another question.

This is analogous to what many women experience when they refuse to conform to certain gender stereotypes, whether failing to pretend not to be as intelligent (if not more intelligent!) than a man, or failing to be ‘girly’, or any other number of behaviors.  In each case, the behavior of the oppressed is supposed to shift to ensure that a member of the oppressor group is comfortable and feels at ease.

Obama has gone out of his way to assure whites that he is not the angry black man.  In doing this he has stepped away from a role and ability to challenge the larger construct of racist oppression.  Instead, and one can remember this from the immediate aftermath of the 2008 election through, perhaps, the first month of his Presidency, we were subjected to proclamations that the USA had finally arrived at a post-racial era.  In this case post-racial meant not obligated to talk about race.  The fact that Obama almost always spoke of racism in the past tense implied that we had arrived.

In order to really ‘get’ the “angry black man” question and its impact on Obama I would recommend that you read Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree’s new and excellent book The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America. Ogletree reminds us all not only of the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Gates, but also the response of both President Obama and the public.

So, let’s remember the setting.  In a press conference the President was asked about the arrest of his long-time friend Gates.  As Ogletree notes (page 51-2), Obama offered a lengthy explanation of his concern about the incident.  However, only one part of his statement was repeated and repeated loudly.  This was when President Obama stated: “…that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home…”

The response to Obama’s statement was striking on several levels, not least at the level of race.  African Americans immediately recognized that Obama ‘got it’ in terms of the issue of police abuse.  White people, however, did not respond so positively.  Right-wing attacks on Obama, such as those delivered by Glenn Beck, along with white fears drove down Obama’s poll ratings at this crucial juncture in the healthcare reform debate.

The thing to understand about the white reaction to Obama’s response to the Gates incident was not that this was a simple policy disagreement, or even anger over his having criticized the police.  Obama had shown the tip of a rage that is experienced by millions of black, brown, yellow and red people when it comes to our interactions with the forces of law and order.  Obama got to the precipice and when he encountered the white response he did what has now become characteristic of his presidency: he backed off and, in that case, held the “beer summit” with VP Biden, Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley.  Instead of seizing the moment to play the role of educator in chief and taking the USA through a discussion of race and law enforcement, Obama backed away as quickly as possible in order to avoid not only the trip-wire of US politics—race—but to also avoid the perception of being the “angry black man” that so many whites fear.

Understanding the “angry black man” question does not mean excusing the President from anything.  What it does do, however, is help one to understand him. More importantly it helps or should help progressives—African Americans and others—to grasp that getting Obama to step up to the plate and address race, not to mention many other issues, will be the result of concerted pressure and demands, rather than hope and cajoling.  His first instinct is to shy away from such matters, at least in part for fear of displaying a behavior that many whites see as typifying a maroon or a Mau Mau.

The retired Harvard professor Chester Pierce articulated the notion of “micro-aggressions” as a form of racist action that operates at the subconscious level but has a very real, material manifestation.  It is behavior that has become hard-wired into the white populace where there are certain expectations of privilege, as well as expectations as to the treatment that they are entitled to receive from racially oppressed groups.  An eternally smiling Black man or woman meets that expectation, irrespective of whether that Black man or woman has anything to smile about.  Expressions of anger and rage at the history of racist oppression and its current manifestations is behavior that is not only not to be rewarded, but is to be penalized.  Such behavior is just not supposed to occur because, after all, we are in a post-racial society, right?

[BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president ofTransAfricaForum and co-author of, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA.]

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6 Responses

  1. Well said!!

  2. The second black president will have an easier way to go as far as this phenomenon is concerned. I’ve read many accounts of how Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier. It was clear that blacks would eventually play major league baseball, but it was important for “the right kind of negro” to be the one. And it parallels the presidency:

    Educated and accomplished: Robinson was a UCLA grad and a decorated multi-sport collegiate athlete. Obama was an Ivy League grad, Harvard Law Review, Law professor and US Senator.

    Slow to anger: Robinson had to be able to endure racist actions from opponents (and teammates,) as well as segregation as the team traveled from city to city. Obama has to always hold his temper as described in the article, unless of course, he is chastising young black fathers.

    Over the last two years, we have discussed our dissatisfaction with the manner in which Obama deals with oppositional attacks and resistance to his legislative programs, but as I analyze it, we all have to be true to our basic personality. Passive-Aggressive will not be effective trying to be Type-A, and vice versa.

    Obama broke through the ceiling, the next black president will be able to operate in a larger space, and so it will go.

  3. Yesterday as I listened to a White liberal immigrant author from Russia who actually LIVED in a socialist nation dismiss the attacks on Obama as a socialist as being a replacement for the ‘N-Word’ that THEY want to call him.

    Funny how Obama has:

    * Called his political adversaries “Hostage takers”

    * Told a crowd of Hispanics to not vote for their “Enemies”

    * In his “Philly Race Speech” – called out various “Right wing radio hosts”, Republicans and and former President Ronald Reagan by name yet could not manage to say SPECIFICALLY who “hurt Black families” with their WELFARE policies…………………….

    and YOU have an issue with those who see him as an “angry Black man”?

    NEGRO PLEASE!!!

    With Obama retaining a 91% approval rating among Black Americans at a time when they are suffering through a massive economic and academic erosion gives more credence to the observation that what people like YOU opine about has little to do with the real world around you.

    If there needs to be “Angry Black men” anywhere it should be those who are WATCHING the antics used to retain “Black Ideological Unity” and the fatal COSTS of doing so to our community.

    Ideological blindness has rendered tremendous costs.

    • Porch – I think I’ve mentioned to you before that when the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries opened up to Western visitors, I got to see several communist countries. Through the years I’ve also worked in European countries which are socialist.

      Nothing President Obama has proposed so far is socialism. Your liberal immigrant was correct.

      Indeed you prove that person correct in your insistence that anything benefiting the black community is “welfare”. and the insistence that despite the fact only about 3% of the black population in the US is on welfare…Somehow the other 97% who don’t receive any welfare are dependent on it.

      That, quite simply – is racism.

      When President George Bus had a 91% approval among whites post 9-11, Lawn Jockeys like yourself weren’t doing the buckdance about how white folks were dependent on “welfare”. or were happy to have a white boy as president.

      Ideological blindness has indeed cost us…A unnecessary and illegal war in Iraq killing over 5,000 Americans. A war in Afghanistan so badly fumbled inches from victory we are still fighting it 10 years after it should have been finished. A tanked economy, and a corrupt Wall Street and banking system teetering on complete collapse…

  4. Those who hang on to the notion that our greatness is the rule of Euro-America and Divine Mandates are just zomibes, and are disliked even by smart young white adults.

    • It’s a fair point. I believe Obama will be re-elected because of that electoral reality. An intellectual lightweight will not be appealing, and a reagan-lite status quo member has a rather limited, though very vocal, following (and a cable network to promote the cause.)

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