Obama Channels Chris Rock

Barack Obama gave a widelypraised speech on fatherhood yesterday from the pulpit of one of the largest black churches in Chicago. You can see it here:

A lot has already been said about this speech, a somber reflection on the duties of being a father. But around 13:03, Obama references some of the most controversial work of comedian Chris Rock. Here’s Obama:

“Chris Rock had a routine. He said some—too many of our men, they’re proud, they brag about doing things they’re supposed to do. They say “Well, I- I’m not in jail.” Well you’re not supposed to be in jail!”

It’s odd enough for a politician to cite the work of a comedian. But Obama’s specific reference was particularly intriguing. It wasn’t in the prepared text—Obama dropped it in himself. And Obama isn’t talking about Rock’s recent material. He is referencing one of Rock’s most discussed routines, from 1996’s “Bring the Pain,” an HBO special. It’s a bit about “a civil war going on between black people.” Here are the few lines from Rock that Obama is paraphrasing:

“You know the worst thing about n*****s? N*****s always want credit for some s**t they supposed to do. A n*****r will brag about some s**t a normal man just does. A n*****r will say some s**t like, “I take care of my kids.” You’re supposed to, you dumb motherf****r! What kind of ignorant s**t is that? “I ain’t never been to jail!” What do you want, a cookie?! You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherf****r!”

In a recent Atlantic article about Bill Cosby, Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out that Rock has stopped performing the “civil war” routine because “his white fans were laughing a little too hard.”

Obama’s mining Chris Rock’s routine for Rock’s underlying message, no easy act for a politician. And it wasn’t even part of the prepared speech.

There’s another side to this that has more to do with age than race. Like his April reference to Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” this demonstrates, purposefully or not, Obama’s engagement with pop culture. Obama’s seeming familiarity with rap music and standup comedy, are, along with his campaign’s brilliant use of the internet, incredibly powerful dog whistles to Generation Y. During a Father’s Day interview with ABC late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, Obama even demonstrated he knew about Kimmel’s supposed love affair with actor Ben Affleck. (The affair was the subject of a popular internet video earlier this year.) The contrast with John McCain, who has admitted he does not know how to use a computer, couldn’t be more clear.