by: Frederick Foote ((Photograph by Ashley Gilbertson.))
A look at important lessons learned during the eight years the United States was helmed by its first black president…
The election of our first black president is lauded as a fine example of enlightened, post-racial, progressive attitudes in politics.
For people of color in general, and blacks in particular, Barack Obama’s election was a reason for pride, hope, and promise. People of color had a new, iconic role model who had the capacity to inspire generations to scale new heights and gain the acceptance that has been so elusive for some non-whites in the United States.
However, with the election of Donald Trump, all of the above assumptions are called into question. Even before Trump’s election, some of these assumptions were exposed as untenable, and now the question we are left to ponder as President-elect Trump is sworn in is: How far has America truly progressed as we look at, in hindsight, President Obama’s presidential reign?
In Obama’s first presidential run, his campaign made a herculean effort to avoid the topic of race, racial issues, and the role of his candidacy in representing a distinct black community. If these were actually enlightened, post-racial, progressive times, such evasions would have been unnecessary. This strategy confirms that his campaign believed that for Obama to gain some white voters he had to deny, diminish and ignore his blackness. Obama had to run as a white man with dark skin. As a viable candidate he could not be viewed as angry, dangerous, or radical, or closely connected to black communities or black issues.
The “Change” President Obama championed was vague, innocuous, and non-threatening. He could not be the champion of the downtrodden, historically neglected, or victims of racial discrimination. The first Obama Cabinet was diverse, bland, and inoffensive. Neither of his administrations offered any plan or coherent policy, or public priority to address the plight of long-suffering racial communities. The campaign slogan of “Change” translated into no change in addressing racial issues. The President was not a leader of the black community and was not an advocate for communities of color.
Despite the mostly insipid, centrist policies and practices of the Obama Administration, the Republicans in Congress vociferously opposed even the tamest of his policies and legislative initiatives. Racial animosity was a factor in this obstinacy, disrespect, and hostility. Obama could not become the angry black man in his election effort or in office.
The black community was disappointed in President Obama’s efforts on their behalf, but he was photogenic, well-spoken, erudite, handsome, and most important, black.
There are important lessons to be learned from the ascendancy of Obama to the presidency. Chief among them is the widely-held belief that is exceedingly difficult to be a black male in the United States. Acceptable black male politicians must emasculate themselves or allow others to perform this surgery in order for them to become acceptable to some white publics. At least, that appeared to be the theory informing the Obama presidential campaigns.
Another lesson may be that significant change in the conditions of oppressed communities and peoples comes from the activities of these communities forcing elected officials to act. It is movements like the Civil, Women’s and Gay Rights Movements and leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, Stokely Carmichael and organizations like the NAACP, SNICK, SCLC, the Black Panther Party and churches and student organizations that provide the platform and pressure for the level of political change necessary to emancipate impoverished and persecuted peoples.
Systematic, effective change appears to be primarily the province of organized communities and movements, not of elected officials of any color or gender.
Being accepted into even the highest levels of our political systems may limit one’s ability to promote change or to represent disenfranchised groups.
Even with political change, social acceptance of non-whites by some whites is still doubtful. We have moved forward and at the same time reaffirmed the existence of persistent and vicious racism in our political and social systems.
In this perspective, Barack Obama is both an inspiring and sobering icon.