Obama’s Preaching Doesn’t Reach

President Obama’s speech to the Congressional Black Caucus this weekend was a combination of traditional black preaching and civil rights rhetoric, designed to stir up his beleaguered African American base. Not everyone was impressed, however. Maxine Waters, congresswoman from California and a member of the CBC, said “she found the president’s language a bit curious. She says that Obama didn’t address Hispanics in such a blunt manner and would never use that language in a speech to a gathering of gays or Jews.”

I agree. While my Twitter feed was filled with happiness about the president finally “speaking the truth,” I was perturbed by his rhetorical delivery and statements like “taking off your slippers.” Seriously. Has the president ever asked a white Democratic audience to “take off your slippers?”

Obama’s performance of black preaching may play well to church folks who love him no matter what, but to those critical of his policies that have placed African Americans at the highest unemployment rates, the president’s fake whooping rings hollow. Why is it that every time the president speaks to a predominately black audience, he goes into a preacher’s cadence, and starts to speak as though he were at a pulpit? Why is it that he never gets “righteously angry” with the white folks as often as he does at the black folks?

If you think I am harsh, consider a segment of the president’s 2010 CBC speech: “I need everybody here to go back to your neighborhoods to go back to your workplaces, to go to churches and go to the barbershops and go to the beauty shops, and tell them we’ve got more work to do.”

Damn. I think most black people I know do more than just work, go to church, and get their hair done.

Let me say it more bluntly. The president said at the end of his CBC speech: “[I] expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on.”

That was the moment that the president turned into a jackleg preacher. A jackleg preacher is an untrained preacher who relies on tried and true tropes to get his audience to respond to preaching. If a jackleg is really good, he or she can get the money or whatever else they want by hitting the sweet spot, that emotional place where the congregation always responds well, because they recognize the feelings and emotions the jackleg preacher wants to evoke. Referring to taking off the slippers and putting on marching shoes is a tired racist trope, and besides, isn’t Snooki the person who wears her slippers in public? I don’t think she’s African American.

There is a history with Obama’s speeches to predominantly black audiences that either try to use respectability or shame to change steroetypical behavior. Obama’s 2008 speech excoriating absent black fathers at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, and his comments on the campaign trail in 2008 in Beaumont, Texas urging black parents “not to feed their kids cold Popeye’s chicken for breakfast,” are just two examples of how Obama deploys this racially-coded rhetorical strategy. The president’s behavior since taking office towards the African American community has been either to tell black folks to get in line and get to work, or gee, I love ya’ll, but I need your vote. If only he would speak to Republicans and Tea Partiers in the same harsh manner.

All of this has come at a time when the president’s approval ratings have hit a new low of 41%, and the black unemployment rate is at its highest since the Reagan administration, 16.7%. The president’s largest decline this past month in approval ratings is among African American voters. No surprise. Pandering to black church stereotypes of preaching, trying to hoop, and banging your bully pulpit isn’t going to win 2012.

I want to believe President Obama is better, I really do. These speeches that trade in the tropes and imagery from African American life, while fussing at all of “us” to get to work, are wearing my patience thin. I realize there is a speechwriter behind them, but damn, it’s like Obama and his speechwriter are watching BAPS to learn about African American lives. If this is his idea of being a prophetic voice, I’ll take his boring professorial voice any day. Stop pandering, Mr. President. You can’t play Church if you don’t know what it really is about.