Barack Obama and the state of race in America
By William Jelani Cobb,
This piece is the third in a special On Leadership series exploring different facets of the state of black leadership today.
We’re now nearing the end of the first term in U.S. history of an African American president. The election of Barack Obama was a dizzying spectacle, one that called into question many of our presumptions about how race operated in this society. Intoxicated by the moment, some went so far as to claim that we’d reached that metaphoric mountaintop Dr. King spoke of, that the dawn of a post-racial society was upon us. Clearly it was not.
In November 2008, Time featured an image of Barack Obama wearing a fedora at a jaunty angle with a long cigarette holder perched upon his lips. It was an unmistakable recasting of the iconic image of Franklin D. Roosevelt. On the surface, the reasons for the comparison seemed obvious. Taking office amid a cratering economy and wars raging in two countries, the new president was confronted by a set of challenges unseen since the Great Depression. But to keen observers there was another, far more subtle comparison to be made between the 44th president and the 32nd one.
Many of us never consider the fact that the United States was led through the greatest crisis of the 20th century by a man confined to a wheelchair. And while far from a perfect comparison, the histories of race and disability share overlapping themes.
Roosevelt’s heroic accomplishments, and his standing as the greatest president of the 20th century, did not automatically usher in a society that radically rethought its views of disability. Indeed, his condition was literally cloaked and, to the greatest extent possible, kept from public knowledge.
The president’s black critics would argue that race has often functioned similarly in this administration, as a third-rail and a topic best left avoided. (Recall how Obama’s straightforward and sensible comments about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates generated a racial storm cloud that the famous “beer summit” only partly diffused.)
What this has left us with is not a post-racial America, just as Roosevelt’s time in office did not leave us with a post-disability America. What it has left us with is an America that is just as actively – though perhaps more complexly – grappling with what race means in our country.
All this has vast implications not only for Obama but also for black leadership in general. We should not forget that President Obama rose to prominence on the strength of a 2004 convention speech in which he papered over the divisions – racial, religious, geographic – that have often defined us. Obama was inducted into a class of politicians including D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, Alabama congressman Artur Davis and Tennessee representative Harold Ford, all of whom appeared to represent a new, “coincidentally black” group of leaders.
But that model appears to be either unworkable or at best seriously flawed. Responding in 2009 to demands from some in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) that he target black communities with stimulus dollars, the president remarked that he could not have one agenda for America and a separate one for black America. The president’s even-handedness exacerbated tensions with the CBC that dated back to the 2008 primaries. When the CBC began organizing job fairs in black communities in 2011, it was a response to dire conditions among their constituents – but it was also a public rebuke of a president who some saw as unwilling or unable to address the needs of a community.
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.