THE BLACK PRESIDENCY: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America
By Michael Eric Dyson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 346 pp. $27
In April of last year, Michael Eric Dyson wrote a lengthy and brutal takedown of his old friend and mentor, Cornel West, labeling the black philosopher a narcissistic, washed-up scholar overcome by petty resentments. In a New Republic essay, Dyson was particularly critical of West’s attacks against President Obama, whom West had called “a Rockefeller Republican in blackface,” a president more interested in Wall Street and drone strikes than the needs of black America.
Now Dyson has published a book accusing Obama of similar betrayals — except Dyson levels the charges politely, at times fawningly. The result is an enlightening work but a perplexing one, too, in which Dyson’s incisive criticisms are clouded by the author’s need to make nice with his subject and emphasize his proximity to power. “The Black Presidency” spends much time distinguishing prophetic and political voices in America’s racial debates, but its author cannot decide which tradition to embrace.
Dyson organizes his book around the biggest racial controversies of the Obama years: the fiery sermons of Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s onetime pastor, which put race at the center of the 2008 campaign; the 2009 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his Massachusetts home; the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin; the explosion in Ferguson, Mo., following the death of Michael Brown in the summer of 2014; and, finally, the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., last year.
Parsing the president’s statements, proposals and reactions, Dyson accuses Obama of “racial procrastination” — a reluctance to address the subject except when absolutely forced to do so. “When he is boxed into a racial corner,” Dyson writes, “often as a result of black social unrest sparked by claims of police brutality, Obama has been mostly uninspiring: he has warned (black) citizens to obey the law and affirmed the status quo.” The result is a presidency of great “symbolic value” to black America but of little tangible use. “Obama’s presidency . . . has hardly put a dent in the forces that pulverize black life: high infant mortality rates, high unemployment, atrocious educational inequality, racial profiling, and deadly police brutality.”
Yet virtually every time he criticizes Obama, Dyson emphasizes that, if he had only set his mind to it, the president could have excelled at fixing this whole race thing. “His reluctance has kept the nation from his wisdom and starved black folk of the most visible interpreter of their story and plight,” Dyson writes in a typical passage. It’s like he’s worried Obama might get mad.
And well he might. Dyson attacks the president for focusing on the personal failings of black America (Obama has a “lust for black reproof,” as Dyson calls it) rather than emphasizing the structural inequalities besetting this community. He suggests that the president does this to keep tentative white voters on his side: “Obama is forced to exaggerate black responsibility because he must always underplay white responsibility,” Dyson writes. And he takes black Americans for granted, Dyson argues. “Obama has searched for the best way to talk about race without raising the ire of whites, but . . . he has worried little about losing black support.”
In a practical sense, Dyson argues, this is evident in Obama’s preference for universal programs — such as health-care reform or economic stimulus — over targeted ones aimed specifically at helping African Americans. But universal appeals, dating back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, have failed black Americans, Dyson asserts; it is only targeted measures, such as the Civil Rights Act, that have secured rights for African Americans and for other groups as well. Obama’s logic is backward, he explains. “It is not that in helping everybody he helps black folk; it is that in helping black folk he helps America. Tackling race and solving the problems of the black and the poor makes America a stronger nation.”
Dyson even reinterprets some soaring moments in the Obama race canon. The president’s unexpected and moving words in the White House press room following Zimmerman’s acquittal in July 2013 only came a few days after after a written statement from the president that “fell woefully short,” Dyson asserts, one calling for calm observance of the law. And Dyson criticizes Obama’s famous race speech in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign, prompted by Rev. Wright’s infamous “God damn America!” sermons. In that speech, Dyson argues, Obama dismissed black anger as a “dysfunctional generational trait” of aging civil rights advocates unwilling to recognize true progress. “When Obama quarantines black anger to the sixties, he gives the impression that black folk today are not righteously angry about police brutality, racial profiling, a subprime mortgage scandal that unjustly bled black wealth, the over-incarceration of black folk, and a host of other ills that ravage black life,” Dyson writes. Anger, especially righteous anger, is alive today.
At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has become a political and cultural force in America, it feels silly to remind us that, no, Obama’s election did not usher in a post-racial age. Nonetheless, Dyson reconsiders that debate in memorable terms and points to the pitfalls inherent in the concept. “One of the privileges of whiteness is the ability not to appear white at all, but to be seen simply as ‘human,’ ” the author writes, in as sharp a distillation of white privilege as you’ll ever read. “It is black folk who are made to look obsessed with race. It is black folk out to defend themselves against dominant whiteness who are made to appear racist. . . . Thus when most whites hear ‘race,’ they see black. Post-race is really black disappearance.”
It is a shame that Dyson mars such insights with frequent affirmations of his own relevance, tying himself to Obama and the civil rights leadership. So we find Dyson riding in a car with Obama in 2007, urging him to adopt “blacker” rhetoric in his primary debates. (“My bluntness sent a jolt of tension through the car,” he boasts.) At a 50th-anniversary celebration of the March on Washington, Dyson makes sure we know that he sat “in the VIP section a few rows behind Al Sharpton to listen to Obama talk.” And when civil rights legend Andrew Young tells a story about his time with Martin Luther King Jr., Dyson slips in a mention that he had heard the tale already.
Though he dwells on the attacks Obama endures from those denouncing him as a traitor or a terrorist, as un-American or even non-American, Dyson minimizes the political constraints Obama has confronted in moving any agenda forward, let alone one focused on African Americans. “Even when one takes into account the unprecedented congressional obstruction Obama has faced,” Dyson writes, “the universal approach must be seen as a failure.” Oh yes, even when one does that! And when praising Michelle Obama’s candor on race, he acknowledges that it is “a candor, in all fairness, denied to Barack because of the position he holds.” That’s like saying that, in all fairness, this book is unfair.
In an interview with Dyson, Obama notes dryly that the congressional committees appropriating money for federal programs “are not dominated by folks who read Cornel West or listen to Michael Eric Dyson.” More broadly, he says, “I’ve found in this position that it’s not always true that an incident automatically triggers a useful dialogue. . . . As president that means I’ve got to pick and choose my spots.”
Dyson believes that Obama has better picked those spots over the past year, finally becoming “racially unshackled” from the presidency. He points to Obama’s speech at the annual convention of the NAACP last summer, where the guy Dyson had been longing for finally showed up. “By just about any measure, the life chances for black and Hispanic youth still lag far behind those of their white peers,” the president said, highlighting “a legacy of hundreds of years of slavery and segregation, and structural inequalities that compounded over generations. It did not happen by accident.”
But, by far, it was Obama’s June 2015 eulogy in Charleston for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight other church members allegedly slain by a white supremacist that most moved Dyson and compelled him to reconsider this president — particularly when Obama concluded with an unexpected, emotional rendition of “Amazing Grace,” bringing the crowd to its feet.
“If in the past Obama lagged far behind in insisting on the dignity of black identity — in acknowledging his own blackness and how it might have anything to do with how he thought or behaved as president — in his eulogy Obama leaped cosmic dimensions to compassionately embrace a broader, bigger, blacker notion of blackness than ever before,” Dyson gushes. After hammering Obama for chapters on end, Dyson concludes that, in that moment, “the promise of his black presidency beamed as brightly as it ever had.”
This is a book about the Obama presidency that is written as if race is all that matters, and after a while, you start believing it. Obama held up a collapsing economy, remade American health care and has appointed two — now maybe three — Supreme Court justices. Even so, Dyson writes, “the cultural impact of Obama’s lean black presidential frame will be far more enduring than partisan debates about his political career.”
I can’t decide if it’s the highest praise or the harshest criticism, for Obama and for all of us, to conclude that the most consequential achievement of this first black presidency may be that it ever existed.
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