Sometimes They Should See You Perspire

“I say they should keep the Confederate soldiers there and I’m from the North.”

I’d heard Susie (not her real name) say she was from Pennsylvania and she gave her age as late fifty-something. She was the lone white person in the work area that day—- among, including me, the some four or five blacks about—-and she was responding to a story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the local daily, about how some people were upset about the laser-light patriotic shows at Stone MountainPark. The shows, you see, feature images of Rebel soldier-heroes carved on a side of the mountain to accompany the fireworks and twangy jingoistic numbers. The artwork is rather impressive, but it’s still a commemoration of Robert E. Lee and the boys. I saw the show twice, both times with family that included my grandchildren. The first time, many moons ago, I thought I was at a Klan rally, or how I imaged one would be. It wasn’t so bad the second time—-someone must have convinced me things had improved—-but it was still a celebration of a time and a people not kind to blacks.

“It’s history,” Susie continued, pressing her case, “and how are you gonna deny history? If it happened, it happened. Let them celebrate it.”

There was, as you probably expect, an uncomfortable silence, before two of the black co-workers ended up agreeing with Susie.

“Well, it did happen,” said one.

“When you think about it, the Founding Fathers owned slaves,” said the other.

I, being me, I suspect, had to ask something. “Can the Germans celebrate old Nazi war heroes? I mean, they can also say it happened, however much things have changed now. Let them celebrate if they like too?”

Yup. More uncomfortable silence. One of the blacks who had been down with what Susie said also agreed with me, seemingly oblivious to being all over the place. Susie broke into an embarrassed laugh. “Well, as long as they don’t do it publicly,” she said sheepishly.

I looked at Susie. “It’s just that I don’t want black pain to be trivialized, the same way I suspect the Germans don’t want to trivialize the pain of those they hurt, ” I said.

I thought of this back and forth after reading a recent column by Maureen Dowd. All in all, Dowd contends that Obama needs to develop a spine and just freakin’ lead this country out of the myriad problems it faces.

Dowd acknowledges that the president is up against a “dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do.” But she says, contrary to his protestations at a recent press conference, that it is “his job” to get them to do what he wants them to do. “It’s called leadership.”

But in a way, too, Dowd, along with the most of the media, trivializes the opposition—-or the borderline lethal game they’re playing. This is more than being “dunderheaded.” This is some serious business. People’s lives and their attendant quality are literally at stake. How about what the Republic controlled house is doing is bordering on treason? Where’s her constant condemnations of their unwillingness to agree with Obama on whether the sky is blue when it is, even for the betterment of the country. Call out some names, if you must. As fate, or as the AJC opinion page editor, would have it, the Mike Luckovich editorial cartoon a page over from the Dowd column depicts brilliantly and with proper emphasis what Dowd’s approach should have been: a house that represents the USA is burning, and the nearby firefighters representing Republicans say they’ll not put it put because Obama wants them to respond. That’s hitting the mark, Maureen.


I also understand what Dowd’s saying. You are your, well, aura. Something about President Obama that makes it hard to feel him, or feel that he’s—-as the young say—-feeling you or what you stand for. I know I’ll get blowback from the Obama supporters (some say apologists) for saying this, but when Obama starts all that hesitating, and mentally weighing, or when he adopts what is sometimes euphemistically called his “professorial mode,” one does get the impression he is being careful not to say something Fox will take and pejoratively run with. I present as Exhibit A his administration’s reaction to Shirley Sherrod—-that she needed to be fired before Glenn Beck got hold of the story that turned out to be the exact opposite of what the rightwing media claimed it was. Exhibit B: what started as Obama’s rather honorable defense of his friend Skip Gates but that turned into his rather apologetically having the cop who abused Gates over for beer. I mean, if the man is your friend, people understand loyalty. They also understand that white police officers often abuse blacks, even if they’re Harvard professors.

Reagan didn’t have this problem. Reagan raised taxes several times and his immigration proposal smacked of what they call now “amnesty” for the brown ones. A Reagan Legacy: Amnesty For Illegal Immigrants : NPR Reagan had help, from the so-called lib media, but his supporters knew—- because of things like his welfare queen assertions—-that he was certainly down with them. If, in those rare times, he didn’t control the narrative, the Dems surely didn’t. And where Reagan bumbled, and he did often, it certainly wasn’t because he was trying to cool out the left.

Sure you have to compromise, but that’s not the same as letting the opposition control the narrative on the nation’s economic problems by joining them too long in emphasizing austerity over job creation. Economist Paul Krugman has provided examples since forever where austerity policies failed several European economies. Use as examples the Nobel prize winning economist and others of his ilk. Obama should be applauded for making healthcare accessible for additional millions, but that’s not the same as removing single payer off the table before the discussions began. In contrast, Bush was going to have his wars, dammit, no matter how illegal they were or how many civilians he had to kill, or how many American soldiers were killed or maimed. He left office with one of the lowest approval ratings of all time, Bush Presidency Closes With 34% Approval, 61% Disapproval but sometimes the times just call for one who will fight and especially for his base’s stances, or at least calls for one who gives every impression that he would. (Even Bush’s approval ratings have inched up some since he left office.) Keep in mind that it was President Obama himself who said that, with our help, he would be “fundamentally transforming America the United States of America.” If he really wants to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as Dowd reminds us he periodically promises to do, then do what it takes to close it, or exert every possible effort. Dowd recommends even having that drink that Obama jocosely intimated he didn’t want to share with leading Republican Mitch McConnell. I doubt if that would help but find loopholes, administer executive orders, talk about it endlessly on TV, twist some Congressional arms by telling the Dems among your party especially if they don’t go along with your program, you will “primary” them or that they don’t get nary a dime unless they toe the party line. Lyndon Johnson was very good at this when he needed support for his civil rights bill.

Let me try to make some sense of all this and posit that Obama, in dealing with an opposition that is chiefly white, is doing a “black thing.” It’s what my black co-workers were doing with Susie. Don’t let them see you sweat. That’s what we do. It is, in fact, a major strategy, albeit often tacit, in our dealings with them. We loved it when Obama brushed away from his shoulders his critics the way Jay-Z did in rap. On another job I had, this during the late seventies, I was among the workers, almost all black, that provided certain services to patients, mostly white, in a medical facility. The blockbuster TV series “Roots” had come out and I noticed Big Eddy, a cheerful guy whom the patients easily favored, didn’t join the rest of the staff in watching the show. He said, when I asked about his conspicuous absences, that he couldn’t view the program for then he’d have to “kill these crackers.” Now that’s sweating.

A lot of this, I suppose, is a matter of style. I mean, what legislation Obama can’t help get passed, he can’t help get passed. But he can get pissed about it. Never underestimate the advantage of being righteously indignant. Never underestimate the backing one can gain just from being a participant in a visibly rugged fight. I suppose it, this caution, has a lot to do with keeping your sanity, although a case can be made with equal force about the dangers of holding your troubles in, so what I critique the president here for also applies to all blacks, including me. I just know that adhering to this caution is hardly a prescription and especially for a black president to get things done. If it means getting something done, sometimes it’s best to let them see you perspire like a mug.