Obama's Relationship To The Black Community

Michele Norris talks to Lester Spence, assistant professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University, about President Obama's relationship to the African-American community.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

President Obama's perceived reluctance to talk about matters of race raises a number of questions, among them: How is that reluctance viewed by African-Americans? Their enthusiastic support helped him win the White House in 2008.

For more, Im joined by Lester Spence. He's an assistance professor of political science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Welcome to the program.

Professor LESTER SPENCE (Political Science/Africana Studies, Johns Hopkins University): Oh, thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Does a black president enter the White House with a different set of expectations than a white president when it comes to race?

Prof. SPENCE: Yes, he's expected to be - just as during the '50s and '60s African-Americans were routinely told that they had to be twice as good, in this case, President Obama is in some ways expected to be twice as good, both by white citizens and by non-white citizens.

NORRIS: So if we're talking about differing standards, Im wondering if in your mind, the president talks differently about race in front of largely black audiences than largely white audiences.

Prof. SPENCE: Well, what he does is he uses this down home language among African-Americans that he doesnt necessarily use in non-black audiences. So the best examples - there are a couple of examples I can use. But the Father's Day speech he gave, for example, when he was running for office in which he basically blamed black poverty, the education gap not necessarily on political or economic structures but rather on the wayward behavior of black men. Right?

And when he was giving this speech in a black church, when you pull it up on YouTube, you can hear in the background black people agreeing with him not just because he's using the cadence that they're familiar with. Very rarely, if ever, do you hear him engage in the same type of critique of white behavior.

NORRIS: Now, Bill Clinton did the same thing. So in that case, is he just being politically astute? I mean, he's also arguing that he's not afraid to run away from difficult problems when addressing a black audience. And to make the point, Im going to ask you to take a quick listen to a clip from the speech he gave today at the Urban League. Before we go on, let's listen.

President BARACK OBAMA: Then some people say, well, why are you always talking about parental responsibility in front of black folks?

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

President OBAMA: And...

(Soundbite of applause)

President OBAMA: And I say, I talk about parent responsibility wherever I talk about education.

NORRIS: Now, interesting timing there because he knew that something was going on in the audience. He let it play out. Tell me what you think you heard there.

Prof. SPENCE: What I heard is him speaking to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SPENCE: Right? And that I've really been a strong critic of President Obama even as I voted for him, largely because he does tend to speak to blacks about parental responsibility, right? So he's pushing back but at the same time...

NORRIS: Is that a bad thing, though, to speak to blacks about parental responsibility?

Prof. SPENCE: Well, Michele, my wife and I have five kids and Im about as responsible a father as you can possibly get. But to the extent that my kids have challenges, to the extent that we have challenges as a family unit, is not because we're not responsible. It's because increasingly we're expected to bear the risk that previous generations didnt have to bear. And it's having a really, really hard consequence on my family, and Im middle-class, much less on families where people are forced to take two and three jobs.

NORRIS: Mm-hmm. The president today in the Urban League speech said that people should not just look to him to lead this national conversation about race. He said that it should take place at kitchen tables and at water coolers. It seems like you could argue that perhaps he's not the person who should be leading or even stoking that national conversation. Would anyone have expected John McCain or Hillary Clinton to lead a national conversation on race?

Prof. SPENCE: I understand that critique, but no, it is the president's responsibility because if he doesnt speak about it, other political officials will and theyll take a line on it that he disagrees with politically and that will be bad for us.

This isnt just a water cooler thing, like we talk about LeBron James signing with the Heat rather than the Cleveland Cavaliers. This is a serious conversation.

NORRIS: Professor Spence, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Prof. SPENCE: Oh, thank you very much.

NORRIS: Lester Spence is an assistant professor of political science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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