As Barack Obama’s presidency takes a back seat to the psychodrama known as the 2016 election, historians, speculators and revisionists are busy writing his presidential epitaph.
Not least of the revisionists is Obama himself. At a recent commencement address at historically black Howard University, Obama noted that his election did not, in fact, create a post-racial society. “I don’t know who was propagating that notion. That was not mine,” he said.
This remark stopped me for a moment because, well, didn’t he? Wasn’t he The One we’d been waiting for? Wasn’t Obama the quintessential biracial figure who would put racial differences in a lockbox for all time?
This was the narrative, to be sure. But, if not Obama’s, then whose?
In retrospect, it was mine, yours, ours. White people, especially in the media, created this narrative because we loved and needed it. Psychologists call it projection. We made Obama into the image of the right sort of fellow. He was, as Shelby Steele wrote in 2008, a “bargainer,” who promised white people to “never presume that you are racist if you will not hold my race against me.”
Obama wasn’t so much the agent of change as he was the embodiment of a post-racial America as whites imagined it.
But Obama’s message, beginning with his 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, has always suggested that he would be at least a messenger of unity, which sounded an awful lot like post-racial. “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America,” he said.
Most in the media listened to those words and were spellbound. Up in the press section, swaddled in hope and powdered with the pixie dust of change, we were teetering dangerously close to clasping hands and singing “Kumbaya” over post-racial s’mores of milk chocolate and marshmallows. I remember turning to my colleague and saying, “We’ve just heard the first black president.”
Little did I know.
We ran into Obama later that night in the lobby of a hotel. He was talking to a solitary fan in an otherwise empty area. We introduced ourselves. Obama was polite, gracious and, yes, flattering in a knowing way. We three parted company and my first impression of the president remains unchanged: He reads people well and gauges precisely what they want to hear. All good politicians do, but some are better at it than others.
That many interpreted Obama’s message as post-racial made some kind of sense. The divide between red and blue states may be seen as also splitting along racial lines in some cases.
Eight years after being elected as the first black president of a majority-white nation, Obama is shrugging off any responsibility for having contributed to the post-racial expectation. Is this because, racially, things actually seem worse? But what if they weren’t? What if there had been no “Black Lives Matter” movement, no Trayvon Martin, no Freddie Gray, or any of the others who were killed by police in the past few years, or, in Martin’s case, by a vigilante?
I’m guessing he’d have grabbed that narrative in a bear hug and given it a great, big, sloppy kiss. His remarks to a graduating class, instead of disavowing that silly post-racial thing, would have celebrated his greatest achievement — the healing of America.
How lucky are you, class of 2016?! Here you are about to launch your life in a post-racial era, heirs to a heroic legacy and a future of sun-drenched days. When you want the tides to come in, you let me know. Heh, heh, the truth is, I wasn’t able to pull that one off. But I did end racial disharmony! Not too bad.
One can dream (and joke).
But all those awful things did happen. And perhaps having a black president gave communities the strength and courage they needed to raise their voices. And maybe hearing a black president speak to the bravery of police officers, the majority of whom act in good faith, was helpful to whites feeling the stigma of racism attach to their own innocence.
Did Obama do enough to make good on his intentions, if not promises? We’ll know in a generation or two, perhaps. In the meantime, the real truth is that Obama sized up the electorate and, in the ultimate act of flattery, imitated their projections. Then he gave them precisely what they wanted, not a post-racial world but a pre-post-racial one — a custom-designed, rainbow-hued, streamlined fantasy of hope and change.
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