The president’s speech in Selma this weekend was powerful. But more so was his standing behind the DOJ’s Darren Wilson decision—brutal evidence of his indifference to Black America.
Remember the glory of Election Night 2008, and the months leading up to it? African Americans were buoyed by a greater sense of possibility than perhaps at any other time in our history with the candidacy and election of Barack Obama.
“Yes, we can!”
“Change WE can believe!”
Now flash-forward to present day, when news and social media are saturated with endless reports of Black people being gunned down by police officers across the nation. Unemployment for African Americans remains above 10 percent, and for the past six years, the chasm grows ever-wider between rich and poor, and a middle-class that has all but disappeared. The complicity and responsibility extends beyond President Obama, but he surely has some explaining to do when it comes to the state of Black America.
Ten years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West startled everyone during the Concert for Hurricane Relief when he said on live TV that “George [W.] Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” As I reflect on Obama’s presidency, as it relates to Black America, I hear those words echoing in my head. Only now I find myself saying: “Barack Obama doesn’t care about Black people.”
Don’t get it twisted: I am not challenging or attacking our president’s blackness. I am not recycling the tired narratives of his bi-raciality or his transnational childhood. Nor is this about his experience at predominantly White institutions, his class sensibilities, or his identity. This is not about Barack Obama the man and whether he’s “Black enough,” “talks White,” or “acts White.”
And it ain’t even personal. This is not about disparaging his brilliance, his stellar achievements, or his overall leadership.
I also recognize that the GOP, Faux News, and Congress—the Legions of Doom—have been the ultimate defense against any sort of racial progress for more than six years. Sadly, within the real and comic worlds, there is little place for a Black superhero.
But, this is about a specific aspect of Obama’s leadership and the potential power he wields. It is about the institutions that he governs. It is about what Valerie Jarrett described to Politico as his policies on race relations being, at best, “a work in progress.” After six years in the White House, we should expect more than a work in progress.
It is also about the way Obama speaks to Black people: He’s a scold, a combination of Bill Cosby and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Most of the time, he lives by the idea that “he’s the president of the United States, not Black America.” Yet, when he has embraced his power and potential, he has chosen to talk down to and admonish Black audiences while refusing to work for change within the institutionalized racist systems that continue to tell us that Black lives don’t matter.
None of us expected him to walk into the White House and morph into a modern-day Malcolm X or even Martin Luther King, Jr., changing the Democratic Party into the Mississippi Freedom Party or embracing the policies of the Black Panther Party, SNCC, and the Combahee River Collective. The Black voters who propelled him to that position naturally hoped that some of the “Hope and Change” he campaigned on would include addressing our nation’s systemic inequities. But sadly, Obama is just another cog in the political machine.
Despite America’s “embrace of the first Black president,” he, like so much of the nation, has demonstrated a chilling indifference to the life-and-death issues facing Black people on both the ground and policy levels:
I’m talking about issues like the school-to-prison pipeline, which bolsters much of the U.S. economy.
And voter disenfranchisement and the lack of representation from city halls to Congress.
And the substandard education available to most Black families.
And racial profiling. Job and housing segregation. Wealth inequalities. The war on drugs.
These issues would appear to be more invisible from the president’s agenda.
And, of course, the infuriatingly heartbreaking issue of militarized police forces slaughtering Black people in the streets, with no consequences or possibility of justice ever being served.
Amid the persistent violence and inequalities endured by Black America, it is appropriate that President Obama and family headed to Selma, Alabama, this past weekend, to celebrate 50 years of racial progress. Reflecting the nation’s investment in symbolic change and celebrations as opposed to actual justice and material change, the pomp-and-circumstances surrounding the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday encapsulates the Obama presidency: inspiring and reflecting symbolic change, but when you peel back the cheers and speeches, Black America remains as bloody as ever.
Obama marched in the annual Selma commemoration in 2007, shortly after announcing his plans to run for president. Back then, the idea of his election seemed like a far-fetched fantasy, too unlikely to even take seriously. He ran first one brilliant campaign and won, then another for re-election, as Black Americans wrestled with whether we were asking or expecting too much for him to put us and our needs on the presidential agenda.
His 2015 appearance struck me as an effort to simply pat America on the back for having changed enough to elect Barack Obama. And it felt like the ultimate con job: Don’t mind those dead black bodies over there, don’t pay attention Ferguson, systemic poverty, unemployment, and mass incarceration as President Obama, John Lewis, and others are able to walk across the bridge that 50 years ago resulted in a mass brutality.
Yet, the pools of blood remain a fixture of current racial moment. Symbolic change didn’t protect Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Anthony Robinson, and Tamir Rice.
Inspiring speeches and photo ops aren’t enough, that is unless the goal is celebrating America and making White America feel good.
A Black president, a Black attorney general, and a Black head of Homeland Security has not resulted in justice, security, or the national embrace of Black Lives Matter.
The narrative of racial progress bordering on post-raciality is not limited to the yearly civil-rights ceremony. On Friday, March 6, the day before he stood on the Edmund Pettis bridge in honor of Bloody Sunday, Obama defended the Department of Justice’s findings that there was “insufficient evidence to bring civil rights charges against Darren Wilson, the White police officer who shot dead Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.”
As MSNBC reports, Obama fielded a question about why the DOJ didn’t charge Wilson by saying that, “he had ‘complete confidence and [stood] fully behind’ the DOJ’s decision regarding Wilson, whom said he killed Brown in self-defense. “We may never know exactly what happened, but Officer Wilson—like anyone else who is charged with a crime—benefits from due process and a reasonable-doubt standard,” Obama said. “If there is uncertainty about what happened then you can’t just charge him anyway, just because what happened was tragic,” Obama added, noting that it was “an objective, thorough, independent federal investigation.”
Though Obama called out the Ferguson Police Department and municipality for being “systematically biased against African Americans in that city,” he made it clear that he does not consider what happened in Ferguson to be “typical.”
Maybe, I have a different definition of “typical” but the exploitation, dehumanization, abuse, and violence directed at Black America from police, prison guards, and a criminal justice is endemic to America. The efforts to isolate each case are part of the problem.
What’s clear is President Obama is “reasoned” and “measured” when talking about police violence, or countless other issues, but when it comes to personal responsibility and pointing fingers at Black America, he finds his voice. Tepid on race, except when he puts on his paternalistic, respectability hat, President Obama doesn’t like Black people.
In a 2012 interview with Black Enterprise magazine, Obama addressed the criticism that he hadn’t done enough for the Black community by saying, “I’m not the president of Black America. I’m the president of the United States of America …” as if we needed reminders that he won’t be giving special consideration or granting any “favors” to Black issues, policies or communities.
The underlying tone and message are even more revealing than his actual words. And he has been widely criticized for the tone he takes with Black audiences. As the Washington Post reports:
“Rather than delivering an uplifting commencement address to the 2013 graduates of Morehouse College, alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr., and the only Historically Black College for men in the USA, he emphasized the need for Black men to take better care of their families and communities. He wagged his finger at the young graduates of an institution known for leadership and success, saying in scolding tones that despite racism and inequality, ‘we’ve got no time for excuses,’ and sharing that while growing up, he sometimes blamed ‘the world trying to keep a black man down’ for his own bad choices.”
In August 2013, he took a similar tone at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington. After acknowledging the struggles and progress of the civil-rights movement, he defaulted to criticizing and blaming Black people for not responding to racism in the way he thought they should:
“If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself. All of that history is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remained divided.”
In 2013, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic magazine that Obama is “a president who sees holding African Americans to a standard of individual responsibility as part of his job. This is not a role Barack Obama undertakes with other communities.” Coates added that, “Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people—and particularly black youth—and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that there’s ‘no longer room for any excuses’—as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of ‘all America,’ but he also is singularly the scold of ‘Black America.’”
We’re still reeling—not surprised, but traumatized nonetheless, by the City of Cleveland officially blaming 12-year-old Tamir Rice for his murder at the hands of police. Add the fact that this week the DOJ concluded that “there is no evidence to disprove Officer Wilson’s claim that he feared for his life during the encounter” with Michael Brown, and Obama’s fecklessness when it comes to enacting any real lasting institutional change on structural issues affecting Black life in this country screams out to be addressed. It would be nice if our evidence of symbolic change, or even our President had our backs.
Make no mistake—President Obama has done a lot of good, spurred a lot of progress in many areas, and we’re feeling the nothing-left-to-lose swagger he’s showing in the last laps of his presidency. We recognize and applaud his commitment to affordable health care, to fair wages and reproductive rights for women, to same-sex marriages and immigration.
We are hopeful about his increasing calls for prison-sentencing reform—of utmost importance to African Americans—and in the wake of Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter, saying that he’ll look at police misconduct. And he’s announced a new initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, to mentor young Black men (but offered little for Black women). But it’s too soon to know whether these announcements will live only as sound bites or develop into something substantive enough to make a real difference. His words, policies and legacy thus far force us to wonder whether he’ll ever demonstrate any empathy and concern for the issues that plague Black communities and thus negatively impact the whole nation.
Is his participation in the anniversary March on Selma symbolic blackness meant to distract us from his failure to speak up or bring about justice and equity for Black America as a whole, to right our nation’s historic wrongs and put us on a real path to world leadership?
This isn’t merely a rebuke of Obama’s tired bootstrap lectures and failure to consider systemic progress, it’s the rebuke of a system designed to fail Black America, a system that is in fact succeeding and working just as it has always been designed to, with the predictably tragic results. Even the most righteous leader cannot single-handedly foster justice in this White supremacist framework that is fueled by the degradation and oppression of people of color, what the Obama presidency has demonstrated is that irrespective of who is in the Oval Office, who is leading the policies and political life, this nation is always against Black America.
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