Still waiting for our first black president

June 1, 2012

The speaker’s voice boomed like a preacher’s as he addressed a crowd of black churchgoers in a college gym. He was talking about a “miracle baby” whose mother, still pregnant, had been shot in the stomach on her way to the grocery store during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. As the tale goes, the bullet penetrated the woman’s womb and became lodged in the armof her yet-to-be-born child. Both survived following surgery to remove the bullet, but the baby had a permanent scar on her right elbow, a reminder of the violence of her birth — and of the scars of racial injustice against the African American poor.

It was June 2007, and the speaker linked the incident to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “All the hurricane did was make bare what we ignore each and every day,” he said. “Which is that there are whole sets of communities that are impoverished, whole sets of communities that don’t have meaningful opportunity and don’t have hope and are forgotten.” The solution was clear: “If we have more black men in prison than are in our colleges and universities, then it’s time to take the bullet out! . . . If we keep sending our kids to crumbling school buildings, if we keep fighting this war in Iraq, a war that never should have been authorized and should have never been waged . . . it is time to take that bullet out!”

This passionate orator at an annual conference of ministers at Hampton University was not Jesse Jackson, not Al Sharpton, not some other civil rights firebrand. It was presidential candidate Barack Obama. At the time, Obama was trailing Hillary Rodham Clinton among black voters, so he was hard at work rallying African American support. He did so by discussing racial injustice in front of black audiences and by supporting targeted and universal policies to address racial inequality.

This is the Obama who has been forgotten, who all but disappeared later in his 2008 campaign and during his presidency.

Obama has pursued a racially defused electoral and governing strategy, keeping issues of specific interest to African Americans — such as disparities in the criminal justice system; the disproportionate impact of the foreclosure crisis on communities of color; black unemployment; and the persistence of HIV/AIDS — off the national agenda. Far from giving black America greater influence in U.S. politics, Obama’s ascent to the White House has signaled the decline of a politics aimed at challenging racial inequality head-on.

And black Americans are complicit in this decline. Fearing that publicly raising racial issues will undermine the president in the eyes of white voters, African Americans appear to have struck an implicit pact with Obama. Even as we watch him go out of his way to lift up other marginalized groups (such as gay Americans) and call for policies that help everyone, we’ve accepted his silence on issues of particular interest to us. In exchange, we get to feel symbolic pride at having a black president and family in the White House.

For black America, it hasn’t been a good deal. While racial disparities in unemployment, wealth and justice continue to grow in an era imagined as post-racial, it appears that the nation is instead becoming non-racial, mostly ignoring the problems of inequality that continue to affect the life chances of many black people.

In the beginning stages of the 2007-08 campaign, Obama’s focus on racial disparities waxed and waned, growing stronger when he needed to shore up black support, weakening when black voters got behind him en masse and after his victory in the Iowa caucusesaffirmed him as a viable national candidate. His early discussions of injustice gave way to calls for policies to benefit all Americans and tough-love speeches for African Americans.

This strategy is familiar to students of black politics. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new crop of black politicians running in majority-white districts, cities and states emerged. Their campaign strategies entailed building support among skeptical white voters while trying to keep their black base intact.

Politicians such as former governor Doug Wilder of Virginia, former Seattle mayor Norman Rice and former New York mayor David Dinkins ran campaigns that largely deemphasized race, stressing the need for racial unity and advocating policies that they said would benefit everyone, rather than any particular groups. It was probably necessary to shatter the glass ceiling and win office in majority-white jurisdictions, but these victories came at an unintended cost: They undermined the ability of black voters and activists to place race-specific policy issues on the electoral agenda.

After winning office, such race-neutral politicians don’t normally embrace issues and positions that black voters might prefer. Instead, the imperatives of reelection take over. To maintain their winning coalitions, these politicians usually need to govern in a racially neutral manner as well. (Black Americans understand this: In the 2008 ABC News-USA Today-Columbia University Black Politics Survey,nearly half of all black respondents believed that African Americans must play down their racial identity to get ahead in the United States.)

Obama has followed this pattern. During the 2008 campaign, the most significant moment when race hit the national stage was when controversy broke out over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, forcing Obama to deliver a much-heralded speech on race in Philadelphia. During his presidency, racial discussions have been largely limited to his reactions to unexpected public debates, such as the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

In theory, these two episodes offered opportunities for Obama to discuss reforms to the criminal justice system — an issue he’d raised early in his campaign — but instead, he limited his response to tamping down potential racial conflicts, then quickly moving on.

If only President Obama had listened to candidate Obama. In a long-forgotten speech at Howard University in September 2007, he laid out a detailed reform agenda for criminal justice. Struggling to compete with Clinton and under pressure from black activists to address the Jena 6 controversy — in which six black male teenagers were charged with attempted murder for a schoolyard fight with a white teen in Jena, La. — Obama spoke forcefully about racial bias in the justice system.

“I don’t want to be standing here and talking about another Jena four years from now because we didn’t have the courage to act today,” he told faculty and students. “I don’t want this to be another issue that ends up being ignored once the cameras are turned off and the headlines disappear.”

Obama insisted that as president he would ensure fairness in the criminal justice system; assist in passing a federal racial-profiling law; encourage states to reform their death penalty laws “so that innocent people do not end up on death row”; and rethink the wisdom of locking up first-time nonviolent drug offenders for decades.

Following the Gates incident — the prominent black academic was arrested in July 2009 after breaking into his own home in Cambridge, Mass. — Obama said the Cambridge Police Department had acted “stupidly.” He then reacted to the criticism he received for the remark by convening an inconsequential White House “beer summit” with Gates and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley. And after the death of Martin in Florida in a confrontation with a neighborhood watch volunteer, Obama spoke in moving and personal terms about the tragedy: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

But the president did not use either case to push for the reforms that he promised in his campaign; a major criminal justice overhaul has yet to be initiated by the Obama administration. That a black president, a black attorney general and a black chairman of the House Judiciary Committee (during the first two years of Obama’s term) have not moved forward on such reforms is proof of the limits of black politics at the supposed peak of its power.

Obama’s defenders have repeatedly said he must be a president for all Americans, not just African Americans, and Obama himself has made similar statements. But this argument is disingenuous. When other important constituencies ask the president to support their policy initiatives — say, Jewish groups on Middle East matters, or the LGBT community on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and marriage equality, or women’s groups on reproductive rights — can you imagine him responding that he can’t address their particular interests because, as president, he has to be concerned with all people?

So on racial inequality, why do black voters have to take a back seat?

When a reporter for BET asked the president in 2009, during the debate over the stimulus bill, if he would do something to specifically address high unemployment among blacks and Latinos, Obama responded that “every step we are taking is designed to help all people” and reiterated that “my general approach is that if the economy is strong, that will lift all boats.” But what of those who have no boats to begin with?

The key question is not why Obama, as a black man, isn’t doing more for the black community. Rather, what is he doing for the most loyal constituency of the Democratic Party, a constituency that just happens to be black, and just happens to be in need of policies that are universal as well as targeted to address long-standing inequalities?

In the rough and tumble of American politics, it is hardly unusual to press presidents to respond to particular issues. Any organized interest group would be foolhardy to sit back and wait for a benevolent president — even one who shares its goals and, in the case of Obama, its racial identity — to respond to its concerns. But regrettably, the fear of the right wing branding Obama as a radical has created precisely that situation, stunting any policy agenda centered on challenging inequality.

Instead of pressuring Obama to move on certain policies, black leaders and black voters act more as cheerleaders than players ready to take the field. They clap for the first black quarterback — but the other team is scoring most of the points.

Black activists need to steal a page from the LGBT movement, which, ironically, has taken a page from the 1960s civil rights movement and the issue-driven black politics of the 1970s and 1980s. Mixing protest politics and electoral politics, deploying insider and outsider advocates, and most important, developing a clear policy agenda, the gay rights movement has been effective in pushing Obama to support its goals.

The president has gone to bat for gay rights, even at the risk of alienating some independent voters and plenty of conservatives, who can’t be thrilled when Newsweek magazine declares Obama “the first gay president.” But he has been unwilling to do the same for top black priorities. He has even berated African American leaders, telling members of the Congressional Black Caucus last year to “stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying” and get behind him.

Obama may be our first gay president, but if a focus on racial inequality matters at all, we’re still waiting for our first black one. Or at least the first black president since Lyndon Johnson, who pushed through civil rights legislation and the Great Society programs.

Making history is important, and for many black voters, the symbolic weight of a black family in the White House is well worth the price of presidential silence on a few key issues. Black America — whether ordinary working people, Ivy League professors or Wall Street executives — has largely closed ranks around Obama. Public criticism of the president by African Americans is considered by many other blacks to be borderline treasonous.“Let’s not even deal with facts right now,” popular black radio host Tom Joyner has written. Let’s deal with just our blackness and pride — and loyalty. We have the chance to re-elect the first African American president, and that’s what we ought to be doing. And I’m not afraid or ashamed to say that as black people, we should do it because he’s a black man.”

There is a time for symbols, but there is also a time to place interests above symbolism. Symbols can inspire, but they can also legitimize conditions as they are. What is at stake now is more than pride, more than history, more than an imagined color-blind, post-racial society. What is at stake is our ability to ensure and commit to policies that not only “help everyone” but that directly target the persistence of racial inequality. Pride cannot stand in as a cure for Depression-level unemployment, for a community on the front lines of the mortgage crisis, for the ravages of AIDS or for the hope that a rising tide will lift us all.

If he won’t do it on his own, Obama will have to be pressured to act and to keep the few promises he made to black America in 2008. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass said it best: “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has, and it never will.”

fredrick.harris1@yahoo.com

Fredrick Harris is a professor of political science and the director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. This essay is adapted from his book “The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics,” which will be published next week.

Read more from Outlook, including:

The first black president has made it harder to talk about race

Five myths about Barack Obama

Obama, the loner president

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