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Lost in the Dyson-West Debate: Obama Hasn't 'Ideologically Cheated On' African Americans

04/27/2015 06:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

If you missed Michael Eric Dyson's grating takedown of Cornel West in The New Republic last week, let me offer a synopsis: The piece is more than eight thousand words of name-dropping and self-congratulation in service of the argument that West engages in too much name-dropping and self-congratulation. Somewhere near the end, tucked into a personal feud that's spilled too far into the public square, there's a point about President Barack Obama and his black constituents. But you have to squint to see it.

There's a lot we don't -- and won't -- know about the falling-out of Dyson and West. We aren't sure to what degree Dyson's piece is a personal squabble parading in the costume of intellectual critique. (Even in his cutting condemnation of West's vanity, Dyson manages to mention that West thinks the author a "rare kind of genius.") We can safely assume that this isn't a debate about public intellectualism, but about two towering academics who've become entangled in each others' egos. The whole thing reeks of self-importance.

The essay falls regrettably short of making a substantive point about President Obama or his policies on race. But it does hedge an issue worthy of discussion. West is a symbol of a larger question: whether African Americans ought to feel "betrayed" or "ideologically cheated on" by the nonracialism of the first black president.

Many commentators and community leaders (both black and white) criticize Obama for keeping the black population at arm's length. In his piece, Dyson gives voice to the African American community's essential love for the president, but chides him for "not always loving us back." The argument is that Obama owes unique attention to the community that shares the part of his identity that has etched his name in history.

It's true that Obama has chosen to wear the persona of a president who is black, rather than that of a black president. Consider Ferguson -- perhaps the defining racial event of Obama's tenure, and one that burns with personal attachment for many African Americans. After a Grand Jury opted not to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson, Obama spoke with detached impartiality about the "distrust (that) exists between law enforcement and communities of color" and set the country's sights on "change that makes the St. Louis region better." His comments weren't steeped in his black identity, but in a desire to act the role of reconciler-in-chief.

Here's the thing: Any serious political thinker with an ear to history and a finger to the pulse of Obama's career knows that the president, the senator, and the man has never allowed his racial identity to be the primary motivator in the way he leads.

The cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates called Obama's dispassionate comments after Ferguson "an even-handedness exercised to a fault." Perhaps the president's response was too tepid, but such even-handedness is Obama's calling card on race.

Obama has written two memoirs -- nearly a thousand bestselling pages -- painting in vivid detail a narrative self-portrait and the role his racial identity plays in it. We can track his evolution, from the raw brio of his coming-of-age in Dreams from My Father to the refined centrism of his political ascent in The Audacity of Hope. Obama is not an enigma on race.

We know that Obama is drawn -- hypnotically, it seems -- to the center. His orientation toward race has never fit neatly into any historical paradigm. On the South side of Chicago, he grew partial to one-size-fits-all economic policies, favoring them over solutions tailored to individual racial groups. By his first campaign for public office in 1995, Obama preached a socioeconomic vision rooted in the intertwined fate of Chicago's middle class, irrespective of race.

We know that he walked that line through the echelons of the Harvard Law Review, where he appointed a handful of conservatives to high editorial positions during his tenure as its first black president. "(Obama) was a non-combatant," a classmate remembered in 2012. "He was mature and held himself above the fray. He was courteous, decent, and respectful." Obama set the Review's direction, but he didn't wield his influence to thrust the publication decidedly leftward. He conceived of his election as symbolic, but not as a racial mandate.

And we know that as he scaled the American political establishment and earned the confidence of a nation and the attention of a mesmerized globe, Obama situated himself as the heir to a particular political legacy. He was a son of Chicago's great organizing legacy: Saul Alinsky had made him a listener; William Julius Wilson had forced him to reconsider whether black identity should dictate social policy for the black urban poor. The 2008 election neared, and Obama wanted to be everyone's president. We know that on issues of race, he settled at the intersection of the populist and the pragmatic and has lived there ever since.

I wish Obama had gone to Ferguson and issued a stinging critique of the Grand Jury. I wish he'd raised hell after the killing of Trayvon Martin. I wish he'd make endemic racial inequality the centerpiece of his final years in office. But that Obama has never been. Candidates make promises, but it's our burden as voters to check their facts, to sift through their pasts, and to make independent decisions about their intentions. Obama's even-handedness on race issues isn't "betrayal;" it was hiding in plain sight all along. We just weren't paying attention.