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.