OBAMA’S LEGACY IS MIXED FOR BLACKS
EXPECTATIONS THAT HIS PRESIDENCY WOULD MAKE A SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE IN THEIR LIVES
Contrary to Black people’s euphoric, uncritical acceptance of Barack Obama’s candidancy- and subsequently, is presidency, presidency, early on I sensed nothing in his background to suggest he would give sufficient priority to the concerns and specific issues facing Black America. He is a profound multiculturalist whose broad appeal and proposed agenda contained virtually nothing suggesting Black’ s specific concerns would be among his top priorities. (Early on, one of my columns titled, “What’s All the Shouting About, Before the Curtain Rises?”)
Last December, I ran a three-part series on excerpts from Erin Aubry Kaplan’s book, “I Heart Obama” (2016 ForeEdge). Kaplan’s powerful, heartfelt narrative is about the complexities, contradictions and challenges for President Obama who was vilified like no other because he was Black. He navigated the murky waters of power and policy well, but was unable, or unwilling, to accord proper attention to the needs and concerns of Black America. This is the basis of Blacks’ mixed legacy: Obama’s slippery slide from icon to an immensely important but largely symbolic figure of pride and yearning.
Today’s column revisits some of the earlier excerpts from the first chapter of the book. It also includes portions of the last chapter, “Is Obama Bad for Us?” that deals directly with the issue of Black people’s mixed legacy–their love, expectations and disappointments with their beloved hero.
Obama’s “fists” are his eloquent words, his intellect, his dignified presidential bearing. In this, he beats whites at their own game. However naïve and shopworn it sounds at times, the one-America mantra coming from a Black president is a pointed challenge that says to the white establishment, “Did you mean this all-men-are-equal business or not? Are you prepared to make good on the promise that you are always waving flags about? It’s the same challenge that King made.
(A related aside: Recently, Marc Morial, Chief Executive Officer of the National Urban League, in a huge understatement for a civil rights leader said, “Things have improved since the dark days of the recession……but the recovery for African Americans has not been as fast or as deep as it has for whites.” Really? This kind of soft peddling of the on-going devastating reality of reality and implications of racism (Including Obama’s failure to help shape a new reality for the nation, Black Americans in particular), serves to perpetuate the systemic barriers that block our forward progress. It also underscores the importance of strong, courageous Black leadership essential for achieving such progress.)
From the instant he became president, Obama has been a Black cultural touchstone. His presence changed everything, realigned our thoughts and arguments about ourselves, our progress and our country, affirming some things and disapproving others. His symbolism has been the most influential thing about him. It’s also been the most controversial. As president, he was a Black man waging a battle against racist tendencies of the very system he was elected to lead, fighting daily to effect ideals of unity and common good that were never meant for Black people at all. Obama is obviously a figure of unprecedented importance for Black people. However, as president, he decided things only as himself, not as an agent of Black people. We don’t know what he intended for us, if he intended anything. “He’s not the president of Black America; he’s the president of the United States of America. ” For Kaplan, this was, ”a bright red herring, a self-negating posture meant to head off a more troubling discussion about why we, as Black people, have learned so well to have no expectations of anyone who makes any claim to represent our interests. Yet, we supported Obama even though he may not have represented us actively—the first Black leader with that somewhat dubious distinction—but he was ours. In a white America that Blacks must still navigate, Obama was both our armor and our Achilles heel.”
And yet, Obama received unbroken support from Black folks, not really for what he did wrong, but often, for what he didn’t do at all, and what he mostly didn’t do was to sell us out outrageously or obviously enough to warrant us giving him up. What always mattered to Black people was the degree to which Obama turned his back on us, not how much he affirms us with his policies or how much he sticks to principle. A low bar perhaps, but a complicated one that goes back to the clear expectations Black people have for any leader who claims to have our interests at heart.
For some, the only relevant question for Black people is has Obama added value to us? Kaplan says he has, but adds, “Value, like the price of gold, is a way of measuring. It isn’t justice. And love is grand, but it’s not justice either. It aligns the stars, but nothing so pedestrian as racial disparity and Black immobility.
The euphoria of having a Black president blinded a great many Black people to the devastating reality of continuing racism and the political- and self-imposed-barriers that prevented Obama from being “Our president.” Did Obama’s presidency address the needs of Black Americans sufficiently? The evidence indicates he did not. But he was, and will forever be, the iconic hero Black Americans so longed for–warts and all.