Read Obama’s speeches to African Americans and compare them with speeches he gave to other groups in America, such as Jewish Americans, for instance. You will notice that speeches to Jewish Americans (the people initially thought to be determined to torpedo his presidential ambitions but who actually gave him over 70 percent of their votes) are usually remarkably polite and politic while speeches to African Americans (people who gave him an unprecedented 95 percent of their votes) are often deficient in refinement or grace and generally hallmarked by an obnoxiously overweening hauteur. His admirers call this “tough love” to family.
But nowhere does this dissociative presidential identity disorder become more apparent than in a comparison of Obama’s Cairo speech (directed at Arabs) and his Accra speech (directed at black Africans). In the Cairo speech, he was deep, engaging, admirably nuanced and, above all, deferential. In the Accra speech, however, he came across as patronizing, impertinent, pedestrian, and avuncular in an offensive way.
To be fair, there is much to be admired and celebrated in Obama’s Ghana speech. Except for its bland and flyblown platitudes and simplistic formulations, it was earnest, inspired and well-delivered. And, although the speech sounded and read more like a paternalistic rebuke to errant and obstinate children than an address to a sovereign nation’s parliament, I frankly have not the littlest sympathy for the clueless and inept African leaders Obama so thoroughly infantilized.
However, what we should not allow him to get away with was his studied and gratuitous racist dirty dig on Africans or, as he called us, “sub-Saharan” Africans. Now, what is this racist dirty dig? Well, it’s his revoltingly nauseating references to us as “tribes,” to conflicts in our continent as “ancient tribal conflicts,” and to incidences of ethnic discrimination as “tribalism.” Obama should know better than to be that objectionably ignorant.
Until relatively recently, the Irish, Obama’s relatives on his mother’s side, were systematically discriminated against in employment opportunities in America by people who looked as lily white as they. (Remember the ubiquitous “No Irish need apply” signs in both Britain and the United States?) Was that, too, “tribalism,” similar to the one you said your father allegedly suffered in Kenya, Mr. Obama? Oh, I forgot, that is called “anti-Irish racism,” even though the Irish belong to the same “race” as the people who discriminated against them. Ethnic discrimination is “tribalism” only when it happens in Africa, oops sorry, sub-Saharan Africa.
It’s curious that it was a white-owned American newspaper called the Politico that first called out Obama on this racist putdown of “sub-Saharan Africans.”
“While the presidents’ messages were broadly similar—touting democracy, deploring corruption, and calling for a new approach to development aid—it’s hard to dispute that Obama gets away with criticism of Africa that other U.S. presidents could not,” the paper wrote.
For a contrast of contexts, the paper cited the example of Clinton’s travel to Africa in 1998, which was preceded by an impressive assemblage of a panel of scholars on Africa who briefed the press and the president about do’s and don’ts.
“Keep in mind that the word ‘tribal conflict’ is extremely insulting to Africans,” the Politico quoted a certain Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to have told American reporters who would cover the presidential visit. “Don’t write about ‘century-old tribal conflicts in African countries’ because the conflicts that we talk about today usually go back 60, 70 years. The very definition of the ethnic groups that we know today are [sic] ethnic groups that were defined as such during the colonial period.”
The paper continued: “Yet, when Obama uttered the phrase ‘tribal conflicts’ at a press conference Friday as he discussed his planned trip to Africa, it went virtually unremarked upon. So, too did several references he made in his Ghana speech to battles among ‘tribes.’”
“Another president,” the paper concluded, “might have been accused of racism…but Obama avoided that simply by affirming the abilities of Africans.” Well, no. Affirming the abilities of Africans (whatever in the world that means) has not helped Obama to avoid the charge of racist denigration of Africans. If it was wrong for Clinton or any other past American president to deride Africans as “tribes” it can’t be right for Obama to do so simply because he is half African.
The truth is that in spite of what we might like to believe about Obama, he is culturally a white American (having been raised up by his white grandparents) and has, in spite of himself, internalized all the prejudices that come with his cultural socialization.
So far, he has been getting away with his misguided “tough love” policy to a people who have had to contend with tough luck most of their lives. But it won’t be long before Africans and people of African descent start calling him out in large numbers and reminding him that perpetually showing tough love to people who, for historic reasons, need tender love isn’t bravery; it’s cowardice of the lowest kind.