What Obama Means for... Black America

By Jonetta Rose Barras
Sunday, November 9, 2008

African Americans have just entered the no-excuses zone.

We finally have one of our own in the White House. With Barack Obama's ascension to the highest office in the United States, most African Americans feel that we have arrived as fully equal citizens. But we need to recognize that with Obama's victory come challenges -- and that many of those challenges will be put to the black community itself.

Obama isn't like the leaders who have traditionally spoken for black America. As president, he's unlikely to embrace the confrontational identity politics that have defined black activism for so long. He won't tolerate an African American brand of racism or a culture of violence. Nor is he likely to be patient with the long-standing narrative of victimhood that has defined black America to itself and to the mainstream for more than a century.

Obama is already constructing a new black political and cultural narrative -- gathering together the best of the past, including the coalition politics that characterized the early civil rights movement and an image of strong black males that doesn't involve bling-bling or hip-hop misogyny. He has decried the low-hanging pants fashion so popular with young black men, blasted rapper Ludacris for offensive song lyrics and called on fathers to take responsibility for their families.

Are African Americans ready to accept all this and respond positively? Are they ready for a truly post-racial America?

The answer isn't clear. Just a few days after Obama's stunning win, black America is already divided over what his election means, arguing about what it should expect from a "black president" -- and about whether his first obligation is to black America or to all America. It's an argument that reflects the continuing cleft within the community, between those who hew to the race-based politics advanced chiefly by the black power movement of the 1970s and '80s and the so-called millennial or race-neutral generation, which appreciates but isn't imprisoned by African American history.

The first group wants Obama to acknowledge that injustice still confronts black Americans. They want him to address the "black agenda" while creating an Afrocentric White House. "We hope there will be more attention than with previous presidents to issues pertinent to black people," says juvenile justice expert and social commentator Michael Francis.

E. Ethelbert Miller, chairman of the Institute for Public Policy, believes that "black nationalists," the disciples of identity politics, will measure Obama by the number of African Americans he appoints to his Cabinet. The new president "may have to pull out Maya Angelou for another poem," says Miller, referring to the African American poet's appearance at Bill Clinton's first inauguration. For his attention and service to the black community, Clinton -- a white president -- is, ironically, cited as the example Obama must aspire to emulate.

"There was considerable criticism of the Obama camp for its apparent lack of concrete outreach to the black community" during the campaign, said one black leader. "Now that he is president, those criticisms will morph into demands."

But the second group says that there are important universal issues that must take priority: the global financial crisis, relief for homeowners, potential vacancies on the Supreme Court. "I think some of the demands are unrealistic," says New York City-based finance expert Brooke Stephens, who believes that African Americans are forgetting that Obama "is not there just for us."

One thing seems clear: Domestic issues such as health care, resolving the mortgage crisis and creating jobs in a recession will seem piddling compared with the treacherous task Obama faces of traversing the rickety bridge between mainstream America and the various factions of black America.

But Obama is a different kind of leader. More than a decade ago, I began tracking the rise of new black leaders, noting their slow but deliberate walk away from racial politics. Obama's election follows that of U.S. Reps. Artur Davis of Alabama and Jesse L. Jackson Jr. of Illinois, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Newark Mayor Corey Booker -- all part of the race-neutral leadership class. These savvy, sophisticated political leaders are comfortable in corporate boardrooms and on urban street corners. They understand the nuances of race and racism but refuse to wear them as albatrosses around their necks. They are innovators, exploring new and better ways of serving the disenfranchised and bringing various people together to improve our communities. They embody the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s insistence that people should be judged by the content of their character. Obama's arrival in the White House underscores the reality that the post-civil rights era is in full swing in American politics.

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