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Obama' 'Stop Complaining' Order To Black Caucus Causes Stir

President Obama addresses a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner, Sept. 24, 2011.
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama addresses a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner, Sept. 24, 2011.

President Obama may have fired up some of the most loyal voters in his political base, African Americans, through a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus, though not in the way he intended.

After running down a list of his administration's accomplishments on behalf of middle and lower income Americans and calling for passage of his jobs bill, Obama concluded his speech by saying:

I expect all of you to march with me and press on. (Applause.) Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. (Applause.) Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We've got work to do, CBC. (Applause.)

For some, it was another example of a tone perceived as patronizing from Obama when he speaks to primarily African-American audiences.

Courtland Milloy, a Washington Post columnist, wrote:

"Funny, isn't it, how Obama always gets the nerve to say shut up when he's addressing a friendly audience?

"The unemployment rate among blacks stands at 16.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 11.5 percent when Obama took office. By some accounts, black people have lost more wealth since the recession began than at any time since slavery. And Obama gets to lecture us?"

Rep. Maxine Waters made the point that Obama doesn't ever speak the same way publicly to other organizations of representing other key voter blocs, for instance Hispanic or Jewish groups, only blacks. She said on the CBS' "Early Show":

"I'm not sure who the president was addressing. I found that language a bit curious because the president spoke to the Hispanic Caucus, and certainly they're pushing him on immigration. And despite the fact that he's appointed Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, he has an office for Excellence for Hispanic Education right in the White House. They're still pushing him. He certainly didn't tell them to stop complaining.

"So I don't who he was talking to because we're certainly not complaining."

To some, the whole bedroom slipper image seemed to play into historic stereotypes of black laziness.

On the Your Black Politics blog, Yvette Carnell wrote:

As writer Charing Ball noted, Obama may as well have said "take off your head scarf and wave caps, put away the jug of Kool-Aid and grape drink, stop frying that chicken."

Of course, black people aren't wearing "slippers". To the contrary, we're fighting, without any help from the executive branch mind you, to keep our heads above water in this recession.

But President Obama isn't speaking to us, but about us – to conservative leaning independents. He's speaking to the stereotype that they hold, that African-Americans are lazy critters who aren't capable of self-actualization. And it was remarkable to hear Obama bark patronizingly at an African American crowd, then watch the crowd answer in applause. In a word, heartbreaking.

For a president whose approval ratings even among African Americans have dropped strikingly, it can't be anything but bad news that his speech's climax has upset part of his base.

He clearly meant to get African Americans in Congress and many of the voters they represent to energized for the 2012 re-election campaign, "fired up" and "ready to go" in the slogans of his 2008 presidential campaign.

He's obviously fired many people up. Whether they'll be ready to go as long and as hard for him as they did in 2008 because of how they feel he has taken them for granted and worse remains an open question.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.