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Lester Spence, author of Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics, says Obama won’t be getting a second chance

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. President Obama delivered his last State of the Union address on Tuesday. It was considered a legacy address. Joining us now to discuss his legacy is Lester Spence. Lester Spence is an associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. Thank you so much for joining us, Lester. LESTER SPENCE: Thank you for having me. PERIES: So, Lester, begin with your take on this last legacy State of the Union address. SPENCE: Well, yes, so this is President Obama’s last shot. You know, he leaves office in several months. I mean, it seemed like it was just yesterday he was elected. So this is kind of his last, last opportunity to make a case for his vision for where the country should go, because the next person in office, he hopes, will be able to continue as, like a [CEO], you know, he hopes that person will be of his party. But this is the last time he’s going to be able to articulate that stuff himself. The next person’s going to be able, is maybe going to be able to continue his legacy, but is likely going to, but is likely going to impress upon it his or, in the case of former Senator Hillary Clinton, her own stamp on it. So it, what I was–. When I was thinking about the speech, given that the first thing I did was I, I went back to when he was elected, right, and–. To a certain extent, what I wanted to do was think through how he judged, you know, how he wanted to judge himself. And I, and I remember–and he caught a lot of flak from this. He argued that one of the models he wanted to kind of emulate was Ronald Reagan. Now, for those of us on the left, that seemed a really strange choice, problematic choice. But what Reagan did was transformed how the average American thought about government. Right, so before Ronald Reagan there were the vestiges of a sense that government could actually serve progressive ends. There was a, there were the vestiges, there were, like, elements still that suggested that government was kind of there for, for working-class, middle-class populations, for poor populations. But after Ronald Reagan was elected, he, through a combination of rhetoric and policy, reversed that trend to the point where after he was gone, people believed that government was the problem. Instead of more taxes, or at least keeping taxes stable, people believed in cutting taxes. And they believed in cutting government off at the knees. So for Obama to do, to have that effect, a Reagan-like effect on government, what he would have had to do was through rhetoric and policy reverse that trend, and replace that with kind of a, with a left-leaning set of rhetoric and policy about what government could do, right. Now, in thinking about his speeches over the last several years, what we can say is that whereas the first few speeches, like I remember–you know, I’m a father of five. And I just remember the first few speeches yelling at the TV, you know, me telling Obama that he shouldn’t be telling me how to parent. Right, he should be the president. He shouldn’t be telling me, you know, how to raise my black kids, right. We don’t see any of that in this last speech. None of it. And that represents, in a way, progress. We were–as opposed to those earlier speeches, we see him talk about income inequality in a way–where he’s really talking about income inequality. That represents progress, in a way. But if we think about that standard–his own standard. So again, I’m not even evaluating him based on a left approach. Right, I’m not, I’m not evaluating him based on what my own politics are. Based on his own standards, that speech was, that speech left a lot to be desired, and his legacy left a lot to be desired. PERIES: Now, Lester, this was a period, at least since 2011, where we’ve seen amazing political uprising against police brutality and injustices in our criminal justice system against African-Americans, and he didn’t even utter a word of this, these conditions. SPENCE: I mean, not a single–not a single word, right. So the thing I have in my head is Flint. Flint, Michigan. For viewers who don’t know, the governor of the state of Michigan placed Flint, the city of Flint, which is, like, maybe second or third to Detroit in size in the state of Michigan, under emergency financial management. And the emergency manager, financial manager, made the decision to cut off, to save money, by getting Flint to pipe their water in from Flint, as opposed to Detroit, where they used to do that. And as a result that, their, the pipes were all corroded. And as a result you’ve got dozens upon dozens upon dozens of people who are now suffering lead poisoning. Governor Snyder just called in the National Guard, I believe, today. So if you think about that Republican, that neoliberal–no, that neoliberal, bipartisan mode of government, you can’t come up with a better poster child for how much of a failure it is. And he doesn’t even mention it, right. Chicago had 496 murders, I believe, in 2015. That doesn’t get a word. He invited one of the Black Lives Matters activists to the State of the Union. She sat there. You know, she had a seat. Doesn’t even give her a shout-out. In a State of the Union speech, these types of things matter, right, because they kind of establish a tone as to what the government thinks is important. PERIES: Particularly when he is so close to Baltimore, in the backyard of Washington, DC, right here where we experienced a huge uprising against the, Freddie Gray’s killing by police officers. And the trial is going on at the moment, and not a mention of it. I’m wondering how the African-American community, especially those who are organizing at this time, very vehemently organizing against police brutality in places like Ferguson here and elsewhere, the kind of action we have seen from the community has been extraordinary. Not to even acknowledge that in his last State of the Union I think is an incredible oversight, to say it mildly. Your thoughts on how the community might be feeling? SPENCE: Well, well, see–so the reason I use his own standard, as opposed to my own standard or our standard, you know, the folks who are watching this, those who share our politics, is because the reality is that when the, when black communities are viewing Obama–black communities, not the black community–when black communities are viewing Obama, a lot of them, a lot of communities are looking at that racist, Republican party that he’s been fighting against, right. And then they’re looking at the, just the optics of having somebody that looks like us, that shares our values, that, you know, has a black family, et cetera, et cetera. They’re looking at that, and they’re realizing that this is the last time they’re going to see something like this. So the people, the black folk who are on the ground mobilizing in places like Detroit, in Baltimore, in Flint, Michigan, they are looking at the president and they are experiencing a great deal of regret and a great deal of disappointment, because he missed a moment. You know, they–and they should view him like that. But at the same time there are a lot of brothers and sisters–and I’m not knocking this. You know, I’ve got different–I got a very different set of views, but I’m not knocking this. A number of brothers and sisters are looking at him, and they’re believing that he’s kind of protecting them, and he’s been fighting for them against long odds, right. Because the, the Republican party didn’t believe he was legitimate, right. Substantial–and substantial populations of white Americans believe that he’s not even a citizen. So against those long odds, they think he’s done a pretty good job. PERIES: But the expectations were high, and I think largely the community feels–communities, as you say, feel largely disappointed by his reign. Lester Spence, I thank you so much for joining us today. SPENCE: Thank you. Hope to see you soon. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a writer, public speaker and activist living in Philadelphia. She writes on Black politics, housing inequality and issues of race and class in the United States. She is the author of the book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, published by Haymarket Books in January 2016. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University.

Lester Spenceis an associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. He specializes in the study of black, racial, and urban politics in the wake of the neoliberal turn. An award winning scholar. In 2013, he received the W.E.B. DuBois Distinguished Book Award for his book, Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics. As a teacher in 2009, he received an Excellence in Teaching Award. He can regularly be heard on National Public Radio and the Marc Steiner Show.