Yet, in the president’s defense, addressing the needs of African Americans is more politically complicated for him than for any of his predecessors, excepting Lincoln. Within months of the inauguration, the buzz of post-raciality had worn off, replaced by the demagogy and histrionics of Glenn Beck, by Tea Party rallies where racial slurs were shouted, and by a healthcare debate that threatened to devolve into a riot on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. In place of the smooth candidate who inspired reporters to blithely wonder if he was “black enough” to win African American voters, we now saw a man depicted as Malcolm X with a secret service detail.
Moreover, a 2011 survey found that whites now believe themselves to be the primary victims of racism in this country. This absurd idea is likely the product of a racial zero-sum, in which black progress looks like an indicator of something being taken away from white people. And the most visible aspect of black progress is the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. More recently we’ve seen Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum trafficking in the familiar racial code phrases about welfare and black laziness.
Whether by coincidence or common cause, neither Adrian Fenty, Harold Ford nor Artur Davis remains in office. Notably, each of them lost an election in which either overt racist appeals (Ford) or widespread perception that they favored the interests of white constituents over black ones (Fenty and Davis) factored into their political demise. This may or may not say anything about Barack Obama’s fortunes in the coming election, but it does say a great deal about where we are as a society. Put simply, race matters and black voters expect black leaders to proceed from this premise explicitly.
In 1990, 45 years after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. The difficult truth is that inequalities for the disabled persisted despite the fact that a representative of their group had been elected to four terms as president. At best, Barack Obama will get two terms in the presidency. His administration may yet lead to unprecedented gains for African Americans. But no matter how much he accomplishes, racism will not end in the Oval Office and there will still be a great deal of work left for us to do.
William Jelani Cobb is the author of
The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress
and an associate professor of Africana studies and history at Rutgers University.