In an elementary school on the south side of Chicago children participate in recess as a new phrase surfaces. Anytime a student does anything disruptive on the playground, a teacher will shout out to them and say “would Barack do that”? Anytime a male student disrespects a female student, another teacher will yell out, “would Barack disrespect Michelle like that?” Essentially, the teachers in this elementary school are equating Barack and Michelle Obama to what they think the standard of Blackness should look, act, and be like. The politics of image in the black community has always been political and sometimes even manipulated to best fit what some thought would propel the black community forward. The politics of image is why Rosa Parks was picked over Claudette Colvin to spark the Montgomery boycotts, why Bayard Rustin was basically booted out of the civil rights movement, why Bill Cosby-ites react so harshly to historically disadvantaged communities, and why Black communities today still have to go back and forth with what has become the polarized liberals and conservatives.
There are two extremes. Those who want to defend the poor and those who want to demonize the poor. Unfortunately, it is these extremities that turn the most nuanced of social issues into reductionism and monoliths, especially in the discourse of poor black communities across the country, similar to the one I grew up in.
One extreme is quite common and easy to identify. We all have heard it from the Glen Becks, Ann Coulters, and Rush Limbaughs of the world. These are the a-historical individualists who ignore the systemic and institutionalized oppression that has been strategically sustained in communities of color since the inception of this country. We know this discourse is usually rooted in racism and capitalism, as those who “have” –seek to paint an image of the poor that blames the individual for his or her impoverished fatality. However, there is another side to this coin. It may not be as harmful as this individualistic paradigm, but it can still hurt poor communities across the country.
The other extreme is what I will call the liberal apologist. This is usually a myriad of white, black middle class, and academically driven liberals who are so busy defending the poor; they have lost touch with the reality of poor people. These extremists often over emphasize the politics of image, romanticize the oppressed, and in this process strip all agency away for poor black communities by reducing them to victims. Don’t get me wrong—structural oppression is crucial to understand, but if all we can see is structure, we might lose a full discussion of policy options that have the potential to augment poor communities.
The politics of image in black communities is a tug-of-war contest, leaving the outliers safe in their moral superiority and leaving poor black communities secondarily marginalized, doubly demonized, and exceptionally stranded between a back and forth of ideology, while poverty spreads like an epidemic.
The elementary school I referenced, has an bronzed award of Barack Obama within an encasing. His face symbolically remains the literal and figurative image that makes the extremists and the black community itself, just a little more comfortable with all the social issues that are only getting worse. Some say that Barack Obama gave a generation of people hope, but sometimes I wonder if in the midst of some of the worst poverty we have known, all it did was spark another generation of complacency.