Obama, The Chicago School Of Philosophy & Black Lives Matter

A Note Of Un-Hope

By Professor Bart Schultz (University of Chicago)

July 14, 2016             Picture: Jason Reed/REUTERS

This article is part of The Critique’s May/June 2016 Issue “Black Lives Matter (Part II): Understanding The New Movement For Racial Justice”.

Serving as the Executive Director of the University of Chicago Civic Knowledge Project for the past decade has given me an unusual perspective on the three subjects referred to in the title of this essay. As explained more fully in my essay “The New Chicago School of Philosophy” (available for free here), the UChicago Civic Knowledge Project, or CKP, has its roots in a long, dissident pragmatist past going back to John Dewey’s role at UChicago in the 1890s, when the original Chicago School of Philosophy first took shape, as the work of Dewey and his circle of critical democratic pragmatist/activists, notably Jane Addams.

Although the CKP was officially founded much later—in 2003, by political theorist Danielle Allen—it nonetheless reflected from the start a commitment to community engagement that was deeply Deweyan in its conception of the role UChicago could and should play in advancing a more participatory and deliberative democratic culture, cultivating civic friendship, and, as our mission statement puts it, “helping to overcome the social, economic, and racial divisions among the various knowledge communities on the South Side of Chicago.”

Like Dewey, the CKP has built many positive community connections and programs to help make the University a more open and democratic educational institution, while failing badly in its larger ambition, which would require social change of a much larger order. The struggle always seems to continue, and anything deserving the title of a “New Chicago School of Philosophy” must, obviously, be the work of many.

Indeed, the many tensions in UChicago history—for example, over the urban renewal policies of the 1950s-60s—have often re-enacted some of the early tensions between the more genuinely open and democratic Deweyan sensibility and the more hierarchical and elitist vision of UChicago’s first president, William Rainey Harper. The tensions are today as alive as ever, and to many it would appear that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is the better heir or successor to the Deweyan legacy than President Obama, insofar as UChicago factors into these important national political forces.

And of course, UChicago does so factor. It was an important piece of the launching pad for Obama’s political career, built close institutional connections with his presidency (not least via David Axelrod’s Institute of Politics), and was the crucial player in bringing the Obama Presidential Center to Chicago’s South Side. The Obama Foundation is housed in Hyde Park, and its ties to the University are very close and very extensive.

UChicago is to Obama what Harvard was to the Kennedys. And this is not even to mention the City of Chicago itself, which under Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s former Chief-of-Staff, has gone far to support the University in its Obama-related work of bringing in the Presidential Center.

Or the long history of Michelle Obama’s involvement with UChicago, expanding its community service and engagement efforts. Or the impact of Derek Douglas, Obama’s former adviser for urban affairs, now billed as “The Obama Man Turning Around Chicago’s South Side” because of his role as the head of the Office of Civic Engagement, a position he has held since 2012 (see here). The list really does go on.

It is also clear that Obama, post-presidency, will be spending a fair amount of time in Chicago, even if the family does not move back there. The work of the Foundation, the Center, and movements such as his “My Brother’s Keeper” will keep him in an intimate relationship with both the City and the University.

Yet despite Obama’s years as a community organizer, trained by South Side organizers carrying on the work of Saul Alinsky, who was in many ways continuing the work of Dewey, his reputation at this point would not seem to put him in the dissident Deweyan camp.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it, in her powerful and persuasive work From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation [1]:

“…the political establishment clings to cultural explanations for the frightening living conditions in places as varied as West Baltimore, Oakland, North Philadelphia, and Overtown in Miami, because such explanations require them to do very little. When social and economic crises are reduced to issues of culture and morality, programmatic or fiscal solutions are never enough; the solutions require personal transformation. This is why Black neighborhoods get police, not public policy—and prisons, not public schools. For example, in the raging debates over the future of public education, corporate education-reform advocates deny that poverty has any bearing on educational outcomes. Instead, they describe Black children as being disinterested in education because to be smart is to pretend to be white. (The president of the United States once argued that this explains why Black students do poorly). All that remains is an overwhelming focus on charity and role modeling to demonstrate good behavior to bad Black youngsters as opposed to offering money and resources. Obama has organized a new initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, specifically aimed at young Black and Bown boys and teenagers, whose problems, it says, exceed the capacity of government policy to address. It relies on corporate philanthropic donations, role models, and will power. Obama, in introducing the measure, was quick to clarify that ‘My Brother’s Keeper is not some big, new government program … [but] a more focused effort on boys and young men of color who are having a particularly tough time. And in this effort, government cannot play the only—or even the primary role.’/ The widespread and widely agreed-upon descriptions of Black people as lazy cheats rationalizes the social and economic disparities between African Americans and the rest of the population and absolves the economic and political systems from any real responsibility…. Blaming Black culture not only deflects investigation into the systemic causes of Black inequality but has also been widely absorbed by African Americans as well. Their acceptance of the dominant narrative that blames Blacks for their own oppression is an explanation for the delay in the development of a new Black movement, even while police brutality persists”. (pp. 48-49).

For Taylor, Obama is part of the problem, despite his vast popularity among Black voters [2]. Obama is part of the new elite of Black politicians, the “Transcendents”, whose vision is at a far distance from #BlackLivesMatter, both nationally and in Chicago. At best, his approach can be called, in Michael Eric Dyson’s words, “strategic inadvertency”—a belief, a genuine and admitted belief, that “policies should not be shaped with a view to helping blacks specifically”, but should support “ideas from which they are likely to benefit.” But for many of the critics, that approach is wrong in general and a failure even in its own terms, since the “inadvertency” was never strategic or ambitious enough, when it came to beneficial social policies.[3]

A very similar indictment of Obama can be found in Eddie S. Glaude’s Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016):

“Beyond the increase in explicit racism—the loud racists have gotten louder since the 2008 election (it almost feels like some white people have lost their minds)—black people have suffered tremendously on Obama’s watch. Black unemployment remains high. Home foreclosures continue. The wealth gap between blacks and white has grown wider. More young black families and children than ever are drowning in poverty. And police have been on what seems like a rampage—killing young black people at alarming rates. In short, black communities have been devastated. And Obama’s most publicized initiative in the face of all this, even as the spate of racial incidents pressured him to be more forthright about this issue, has been My Brother’s Keeper, a public-private partnership to address the crisis of young men and boys of color—a Band-Aid for gunshot wound./ Obama reminds me of Herman Melville’s Confidence Man: he sees exactly what we want and what we fear and adjusts himself accordingly. And what Melville believed people wanted more than anything was hope, a sense of the possibility of things for themselves for the world. I am not sure Melville understood, although he might have, the depth of that claim for black folk. For us, hope has always come with a heavy dose of realism. It couldn’t be otherwise in a world such as ours, where the color of your skin closes off certain possibilities from the moment you draw your first breath. W. E. B. DuBois captured it best as ‘a hope not hopeless but unhopeful’—a blues-soaked sensibility that chastens one’s expectations of the world, because the white people in it can be so hateful and mean./ In 2008 and again in 2012, Obama sold black America the snake oil of hope and change…. Maybe black people believed he represented real change. Maybe we didn’t. Maybe we needed the illusion of hope. It doesn’t matter. The reality, amid the thick fog of unmet expectations, is that very little has changed in this country. In fact, things have gotten worse”. (pp. 7-8) [4].

Glaude intends his book to be a call “for a reimagining of black politics and a remaking of American democracy,” against Obama and the other black liberals (p. 8) [5]. Not surprisingly, given the identification with critical pragmatism that was evident in his earlier (excellent) book In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), he approvingly cites Dewey on the need for radical democracy, and how American democracy is “an unfinished project” (p. 190) [6]. And he is very Deweyan indeed in urging that “the work of democracy does not end with elections.” Instead, we “should turn our attention to efforts like the Forward Together moral movement and the Dream Defenders and #BlackLivesMatter, or to mobilizing around public school closings in our neighborhoods” (p. 224) [7].

Once again, as so often in the past, Deweyan democracy is ready enough to become democracy in the streets, a connection and a commitment long familiar to another persuasive political theorist, Cornel West, whose The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989) and ongoing work as a cultural critic have done so much to set the stage for recent developments.

Many democratic activists at UChicago would be far more inclined to think that the works just cited reflect the better critical pragmatist legacy, the Deweyan Chicago School of Philosophy in appropriately reconstructed form, than anything that Obama has written or done. The Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, The Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project (part of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic and crucial in bringing out the truth about the Laquan McDonald case), and other allied organizations, such as the Invisible Institute, have worked closely with and supported the work of #BlackLivesMatter Chicago and others protesting police violence and the school to prison pipeline, even as the UChicago Administration has positioned itself so closely to Obama.

The strange resultant irony is that the dissident Deweyans and democratic activists are now often at odds, not with a William Rainey Harper, a Robert Maynard Hutchins, or a libertarian Chicago School of Economics, but with a form of liberalism (or neo-liberalism) brought into currency by the first Black President of the United States. That Obama’s various and very real achievements may put him, historically, in the company of F. D. R. or L. B. J. is little consolation if one regards his tenure in the Oval Office as in effect a demonstration of the serious and troubling limits of politics in the U.S.

#BlackLivesMatter and related efforts, along with such critiques as The Big Short, must provide the crucial narrative frame for such an assessment, which is part of the unfinished critical project of not simply the Chicago School of Philosophy, but of democratic politics in general.

Speaking for myself, I confess to harboring the unhopeful hope that the Obama Presidential Center will somehow do justice to, speak to and listen to, these vital new currents of democratic action, joining the movement instead of continuing to anger it.

It is an unhopeful hope that I share with my extraordinary friend, the Senior Statesman of Chicago’s South Side, oral historian and civil rights activist Timuel D. Black, who advised Obama when he first became active in Chicago politics, and, even at age 97, still has a great deal of important advice to offer him—for example, that the protestors are on that long arc bending towards justice.[8]

Footnotes & References

[1]—Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016). See also Aislinn Pulley, “Black Struggle is Not a Sound Bite: Why I Refused to Meet with President Obama,” Truthout, February 18, 2016.

[2]—On this, see also Natalie Moore, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016), and Michael Eric Dyson, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) and “Barack Obama, the President of Black America?”, New York Times, June 24, 2016, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/opinion/sunday/barack-obama-the-president-of-black-america.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0 ).


[4]–Eddie S. Glaude, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016).

[5]—Eddie S. Glaude, In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[6]—On this, see also Robert B. Westbrook’s classic work, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), which also provides one of the best accounts of Dewey’s critique of the University of Chicago under President Harper.

[7]—Glaude, Democracy in Black. Of course, the City of Chicago has suffered terribly from the closing of many public schools—see http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/16804/CTU_report_CPS_chicago_closing Dewey, in his day, was firmly on the side of the teachers unions and public schools, despite his experiment with the UChicago Laboratory School. See also Robin Bachin, Building the South Side: Urban Space and Civic Culture in Chicago, 1890-1919 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[8]—See Evan F. Moore, “Chicago’s Young Black Activists Don’t Care if They Offend You,” DNA Info, May 10, 2016, https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20160510/downtown/chicagos-young-black-activists-dont-care-if-they-offend-you For more about the amazing Timuel D. Black, see my “The New Chicago School of Philosophy.”

Bart Schultz
Bart Schultz
Bart Schultz is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Executive Director of the Civic Knowledge Project at the University of Chicago. He has been teaching in the College at the University of Chicago since 1987, designing a wide range of core courses as well as courses on such topics as John Dewey, Political Philosophy, Happiness, The Chicago School of Philosophy, Philosophies of Environmentalism and Sustainability, and The Philosophy of Poverty. He has published very widely in philosophy, and his books include Essays on Henry Sidgwick (Cambridge, 1992), Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe (Cambridge, 2004, and winner of the American Philosophical Society's Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History), and, with Georgios Varouxakis, Utilitarianism and Empire (Lexington, 2005). His book The Happiness Philosophers is forthcoming from Princeton University Press in spring of 2017. Through the Civic Knowledge Project, he has developed a wide array of public ethics programs affording rich opportunities for building community connections on the South Side of Chicago, including the award-winning Winning Words Precollegiate Philosophy Program--see http://civicknowledge.uchicago.edu/winningwords.shtml . He is a founding member of the Board of Directors of the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO)--see http://www.plato-philosophy.org/.
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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaks at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland March 4, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RTS9DI2Police mug shot of 25-yr-old future black activist Malcolm X, known as Malcolm Little from 72 Dale St., Roxbury, MA. (MBI 105869, born 5/19/1919 in Omaha, NE; height 6'3, Weight 175, Black hair, Maroon eyes.)  (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Timepix/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)