The New Yorker magazine's cover art featuring Senator Barack Obama in traditional Muslim garb and his wife, Michelle Obama, outfitted in the uniform of a 1960s militant has both the mainstream press and the blogosphere abuzz this week. David Remnick, the New Yorker's editor, took to the airwaves to defend the magazine's (poor) choice. One of his first stops was at CNN, where he told Wolf Blitzer that he believed that "context means a lot," and the fact that this cover is on the New Yorker signals that the art is satire. Of course, Mr. Remnick is right; no one familiar with the magazine's liberal--some would say pro-Obama slant--will be confused. The problem, as Senator Obama's campaign, which rebuked the cartoon as "tasteless," and most commentators have pointed out is that in the broader context of this presidential campaign, when there are so many distortions about the Obamas, this cartoon is incendiary. Hopefully Mr. Remnick and his staff will keep this in mind the next time they try to help Mr. Obama's campaign. At the same time, there should be a real lesson in this for Senator Obama as well: good intentions do not always make good politics.
For the past several months, Senator Obama has made the politics of "personal responsibility" in the black community one of his central themes. On Father's Day, Senator Obama delivered a stern message to the congregation of Chicago's Apostolic Church of God about how "too many [black] fathers were M.I.A." He also noted that "more than half of black children live in single-parent households." Sen. Obama has been lauded in the mainstream press for taking on what the New York Times called "one of the most sensitive topics in the African American community" (06/16/2008). For the most part, black Americans, who hear this kind of "tough love" doled out by their pastors and other "leaders" quite frequently, have also responded positively. Indeed, the only real public consternation that we have heard about this approach in the public sphere to date remains Reverend Jesse Jackson's whispered remarks about the senator "talking down to the black community" in the now infamous "hot mic" incident at Fox News: (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/10/us/politics/10jackson.html).
In the aftermath of the Jackson controversy, the conventional wisdom among the television pundits was that the incident was Obama's "Sista Souljah" moment; the point where he demonstrates to white America that he can speak their language and discipline blacks. This assertion set the blogosphere ablaze with debate about whether Obama's "tough love" approach to black poverty is genuine or a calculated strategy. The fact of the matter is that his sincerity is irrelevant because, just like New Yorker's cover, the rhetoric of "personal responsibility" and "black single-parent households" has deeply-rooted, negative connotations in American political campaigns. Indeed, ever since the Moynihan report pointed to the rise of single-parent households in the black community as a public policy problem, the Republicans have used this issue to deny that black inequality is rooted in the legacy of Jim Crow, de-industrialization and other structural realities of late modernity in America. Ronald Reagan's description of black single-mothers as "welfare queens" is, of course, the most notable example of this type of politics.
It is also important to note that, like the New Yorker cover, Obama's rhetoric commits several sins of omission. He never mentions in any of his speeches, for example, that the single-parent birth rate in the black community has declined: (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A04E7DA113FF932A35754C0A96E958260). Senator Obama also neglects to mention that the single-parent birth rates in the white and Latino communities are exploding due to weakening economic conditions. In 1960, for example, 2.3 percent of white children lived in a single-parent home; today the rate is 22 percent. Finally, Senator Obama never mentions the well known facts that poverty is one of the best determinants of single-parent birth rates and black Americans have the lowest per capita income of any racial or ethnic group in the nation. Moreover, Senator Obama neglects to tell his black audiences that even in the 1930s and 1940s, when blacks had in-wedlock birth rates above 85 percent, they were still the poorest group in the nation.
In light of these realities, it is just as irresponsible of Senator Obama to repeatedly stand before black audiences and dress them down for their supposed pathologies as it was for the New Yorker to run that cover art. Hopefully, Senator Obama will learn from the New Yorker controversy that, despite his goodwill toward black Americans, he must broaden his "tough love" message to include other groups or continue to commit the sin of race-baiting.