Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Why Obama doesn't dare become the 'angry black man'

By John Blake, CNN
Click to play
Can Obama afford to be angry?
  • Oil disaster prompts critics to demand that Obama get angry
  • Whites asking black man to show more rage called "a sign of progress"
  • An angry Obama may feed stereotypes about black men, scholars say
  • Professor: Obama has to learn political value of rage

Watch CNN tonight for a discussion on the history of presidential toughness. Don Lemon asks the question: How tough should a president be when in the public eye? CNN tonight, 8 ET

(CNN) -- Here's proof that President Obama has indeed ushered in a new era in race relations.

Who would have ever expected some white Americans to demand that an African-American man show more rage?

If you've followed the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, you've heard the complaints that Obama isn't showing enough emotion.

But scholars say Obama's critics ignore a lesson from American history: Many white Americans don't like angry black men.

It's the lesson Obama absorbed from his upbringing, and from an impromptu remark he delivered last summer. Yet it's a lesson he may now have to jettison, they say, as public outrage spreads.

"Folks are waiting for a Samuel Jackson 'Snakes on the Plane' moment from this president as in: 'We gotta' get this $#@!!* oil back in the $#!!* rig!' But that's just not who Obama is,'' says Saladin Ambar, a political science professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Some of the same people crying for Obama to show more emotion would have voted against him if he had displayed anger during his presidential run, says William Jelani Cobb, author of "The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress."

"It would have fed deeply into a pre-existing set of narratives about the angry black man," Cobb says. "The anger would have gotten in the way. He would have frightened off white voters who were interested in him because he seemed to be like the black guy they worked with or went to graduate school with -- not a black guy who is threatening."

Obama ready to kick butt?

Now some critics say that Obama should be a little bit more threatening.

On Monday, Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" told Obama that critics don't want him to react to the oil disaster by meeting with experts and being calm. They want him to "kick some butt."

Video: Obama wants to know 'whose ass to kick'
Video: New video of Gulf oil disaster released

Obama responded by saying he talks to experts "because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick."

Obama's tough talk comes after criticism mounted over his response to the oil fiasco.

During a White House press briefing last week, a reporter told Obama's press secretary that most people haven't seen rage from the president. (That led Obama's press secretary to say he had seen an enraged Obama's "clenched jaws" in meetings.)

Obama's cool temperament even prompted black filmmaker Spike Lee to tell CNN that for at least one time, Obama should "go off."

Why Spike Lee thinks this is the time for Obama to go off

But Obama has "gone off" before and that didn't work too well for him, says Ambar.

During a news conference last summer, Obama casually said that police acted "stupidly" when they arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates in his home for disorderly conduct after a confrontation with a white police officer.

Obama's comments infuriated many white people, and even some black supporters. Obama had to have a Beer Summit to calm the public uproar.

"He flashed genuine anger," says Ambar. "At that moment, when he touched on the issue of race, he spoke frankly and passionately about what he felt and it got him into a big deal of trouble."

Evoking the specter of the angry black man almost cost Obama his shot at the White House, says Paul Street, an author and political activist who worked with Obama in Chicago.

Folks are waiting for a Samuel Jackson 'Snakes on the Plane' moment from this president.
--Saladin Ambar, political scientist

Street says videos of Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, angrily condemning America were so dangerous to Obama's campaign because it hinted that Obama may have been an angry black man behind closed doors.

"Rev. Wright almost cost him his run for the presidency because of fears of the angry black man," says Street, author of the upcoming book "The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power."

"What was Rev. Wright but the ultimate symbol of the angry black man who is going to take revenge," Street says.

That symbol is hardwired into American history and popular culture. It's Nat Turner, the slave who inspired a bloody 19th-century uprising. It's Malcolm X, the black militant who denounced "blue-eyed devils."

It's the hip-hop and rap artists who populate contemporary radio.

Why Obama can't get angry if he tried

Obama, though, has spent a lifetime trying to rewrite that script, says Street, who says he worked with Obama in Chicago.

"He is Mr. Equanimity and Mr. Consolation," says Street. "That's how he negotiated his way through multiple worlds, and reached out across bridges."

In his 1995 memoir, "Dreams of My Father," Obama explained why he thought such negotiation was necessary when he met white people as a young man growing up in Hawaii.

"People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. Such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn't seem angry."

If Obama wants to go down as a great president, though, he may have to discover the political value of rage, others say.

Franklin Roosevelt was such a president, historians say. During the Great Depression, he went after business leaders who opposed his New Deal policies. Roosevelt once said that he "welcomed the hatred" of the economic elites.

Could Obama become a 21st-century version of Roosevelt, not only in taking on the oil companies but big bankers as well?

Ambar, from Lehigh University, doesn't think so. Obama doesn't share Roosevelt's elite background, which inoculated him from charges of being anti-American. Roosevelt came from a prominent, and wealthy, American family.

"It's easier to do it if your name is Roosevelt," Ambar says. "No one questions your love of capitalism or your patriotism."

Obama's challenge ahead

The BP oil spill, though, goes beyond race. It is so egregious that Obama now has permission to stoke some "pitchfork, populist" anger, says Street.

Rev. Wright almost cost him his run for the presidency because of fears of the angry black man.
--Paul Street, Obama biographer

"He's now in danger of being perceived as being too soft and conciliatory and too much in the bed of corporations," he says.

Some forms of rage remain a potent political weapon, says John Baick, an associate professor of history at Western New England College in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Tea Party organizers; Democratic leader Howard Dean; former presidential candidate Ron Paul -- all used rage as a powerful organizing tool, Baick says.

"Rage can provide answers to murky questions, rage can provide passion for the dispirited, rage can provide focus," Baick says.

But race-specific anger is off-limits, Street says.

"He would be politically dead; it would be over," Street says.

Yet the call for a black man to show more emotion on subjects outside of race is still a healthy development, says Ambar, from Lehigh University.

"I take it as a sign of progress that people are calling for Obama to be angry, an almost impossible sentiment a decade ago," he says.

Still, Obama must be careful about getting in touch with his inner-Samuel Jackson, others say.

Just as gushing oil lurks below the Gulf's surface, all sorts of ugly, racial undercurrents exist beneath the surface of American politics, Baick says.

"Our commander in chief has many burdens, and among them is our history and culture," Baick says. "Compared to the weight of that, the current BP crisis and the years of environmental damage and cleanup must seem transient."

Oil disaster: Tracking the numbers
Part of complete coverage on
Impact Your World: How to help
A number of organizations are recruiting volunteers to help clean up coastal areas
Depths of the disaster
Get the numbers, see the images and learn how the worst U.S. oil spill has changed lives, ruined economies and more.
iReport: Gulf journals
These stories help us look into the lives of the hardworking people of the Gulf as they watch this disaster take its toll.
Send your photos, videos
Is your area being affected by the spill? Help CNN track the oil slick and its effects on Gulf Coast communities and wildlife
Map: What's been hit
Interactive map locates oil sightings and stories
Daily developments
How big is the slick? What's being affected? What's being done?
Track the major developments of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico
Berms, booms, blowouts: Glossary
Breaking down the jargon of the disaster