Barack Obama, the President of Black America?

By Michael Eric Dyson
June 24, 2016

What the haters and the hagiographers get wrong.

IT was a crucial speech, high-stakes even for a man used to giving important speeches: The first black president of the United States had to acknowledge, and then bind up, the nation’s racial wounds. A year ago, after the massacre of nine souls at prayer at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Barack Obama traveled to Charleston, S.C., to eulogize its pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

When Mr. Obama stood in the pulpit, I saw him as thrust into a peculiar position: He nobly assumed a symbolic, though not individual, guilt for the hate that had been visited on Charleston, largely because the white killer appeared to despise black progress, and there was no clearer representation of that progress than President Obama.

The president had a lot to do in that eulogy. He had to give comfort to a grieving family and congregation. He also had to make amends for seven years of public gestures of tough love toward black folks.

To do that, the president brilliantly evoked grace as an antidote to hate and preached in a black style to forge healing and redemption. He ended with a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace.” As the call and response of the black church came full circle, Mr. Obama was at his best when he was at his blackest. It was a rare display of unapologetic race pride.

We are now approaching the last months of the Obama era. He will be remembered as a great, but flawed, president, and many of those flaws have to do with how he has addressed race — or avoided doing so.

In his first two years in office, President Obama performed herculean deeds in rescuing the banks, restoring the economy, bailing out the automobile industry and getting his signature health care legislation passed. It was an astonishing record of success despite bitter right-wing resistance to his presidency and the alarming racist reaction to a black man being in charge.

I have twice worked hard to help get this president elected. I have known Barack Obama since the early 1990s, and for a time we belonged to the same church in Chicago. Watching him as president, I greatly admired how this highly intelligent and supremely confident figure managed the affairs of state with verve and swagger. No matter how much I disagreed with him about policy or politics I was deeply moved by his historic achievement. Still, I am frustrated. Because the president has hit some targets in the path to racial progress, but missed a great many as well. And that is not a sentiment I or other fellow black scholars, preachers and activists are supposed to express.

That’s because black America has carried on an unrepentant love affair with Mr. Obama.

Everywhere we turn on social media the love of the Obamas flourishes: a viral video of a 106-year-old black woman dancing with the first couple during a Black History Month celebration in the White House; a little black girl crying when she realizes Mr. Obama will soon no longer be president; memes and lists cataloging why Mr. Obama and his remarkable wife and daughters are the greatest black family ever.

There is good reason to celebrate Mr. Obama’s importance to black America. It is hard to overstate the symbolic significance and positive effects of a black man commanding the most celebrated seat of power. His black brain and tongue have changed America forever.

But gales of black pride have swept aside awareness of his flaws, and when those flaws are conceded, gusts of black defiance play down their meaning and significance. Mr. Obama’s most ardent black fans ignore how he often failed to speak about race or use his powers to convene commissions or issue executive orders to lessen black suffering; his nastiest black critics lambast him as an ineffectual leader who has done little to protect blacks from racial assault or lift them from economic misery. Neither the haters nor the hagiographers do the Obama legacy justice.

Mr. Obama’s failure to take to the bully pulpit on race unhappily coincided with the rise of racial demagogues. Part of the racist reaction to Mr. Obama’s presidency has found its troubling apotheosis in Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign. Mr. Trump’s surprising run for the White House has amplified our country’s worst racial instincts in a generation.

It is unsurprising that the man who led the “birther” movement disputing Mr. Obama’s American citizenship should build a campaign that reflects elements of the “birther” bigotry: anti-Muslim talk, xenophobia toward Mexicans and hostility toward blacks at his rallies. It’s possible that if the president had spoken more forcefully on race, it might have blunted some of the bigotry that fueled Mr. Trump’s rise, or at least provided a compelling alternative to his vision of race. Now, in addition to working to get Hillary Clinton elected, Mr. Obama must more aggressively address the racism that he has never been eager to acknowledge or confront, and that thrives in deep pockets of the support for Mr. Trump.

Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo

Late in the second term of his presidency, Mr. Obama has used executive power to fight segregation in housing and discriminatory policing. And in recent weeks, the president has confronted hate more directly. He heaped great contempt on Mr. Trump for renewing his call to bar Muslim immigrants after the Pulse nightclub killings in Florida — even though the gunman was born in the United States. Without uttering Mr. Trump’s name, Mr. Obama seethed, in a rare show of public anger, about Mr. Trump’s disruptive bigotry.

But where has that anger been?

It has been my experience that Mr. Obama and his inner circle bristle at black efforts to hold him accountable on race. They have shown little ability to distinguish loving and thoughtful criticism from unprincipled attack. This approach has signaled admirers to view even reasonable dissent as racial treason.

The Obama administration’s resentment of black criticism hasn’t kept it from tapping the deep well of black solidarity. Thus it is a one-way street: African-Americans should never bother as a group to request that Mr. Obama be held accountable as a black man, yet the Obama administration has from the start skillfully exploited the always strong support for the president.

If the president might reasonably fend off some criticism by noting that Congress has limited what he can accomplish, it is distressing to see what he has made of the powers he has: cabinet and Supreme Court nominations and the ability to use the presidency to highlight racial injustice.

It is true that he brought us the first black attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., but he largely skimped on black cabinet appointments until pressured by black politicians to name more African-Americans in his second term. A few months after Mr. Obama’s re-election in 2012, the Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman, Marcia Fudge, scolded him for the lack of diversity in his second-term cabinet choices. At the start of his second term Mr. Obama had appointed nine new cabinet members, including three women and one Latino. Mr. Obama eventually named Anthony R. Foxx as transportation secretary and Mel Watt as director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency — and added Jeh Johnson as secretary of homeland security, John King Jr. as education secretary and Loretta Lynch as successor to Mr. Holder. It’s a respectable tally, but it doesn’t break any of his predecessors’ records.

The president justly boasts of his record of diverse appointments to the federal bench. On the Supreme Court, however, he has unfortunately passed up three opportunities to nominate the first black woman to the court. “But at no point did I say: ‘Oh, you know what? I need a black lesbian from Skokie in that slot. Can you find me one?’ ” Mr. Obama said in April, referring to the Illinois hometown of Merrick B. Garland, his latest, and stalled, nominee to the Supreme Court. “Yeah, he’s a white guy, but he’s a really outstanding jurist. I’m sorry. I mean, you know, I think that’s important.” Diversity appears to be set off against quality in Mr. Obama’s thinking, a common mistake also made by opponents of diversity.

Beyond appointments, the president’s reluctance to highlight black suffering is lamentable. He seems capable only of being forced to do for black citizens what he willingly does for others. For instance, Mr. Obama traveled to Newtown, Conn., two days after the shooting deaths of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He later called that the worst day of his presidency. Yet he had to be prodded to return to his home base, Chicago, as it suffered a rash of black death.

On that visit, Mr. Obama lamented the absence of male role models, claiming that government alone couldn’t end violence because “this is not just a gun issue” but an issue of “the kinds of communities that we’re building” and that when “a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill.” This was mourning mixed with scolding; in Newtown, there were no reprimands for the grieving.

It has been dispiriting, too, to hear the president remind his most loyal constituents that he is “not the president of black America” — as if they were naïve enough to believe that he represented only, or primarily, black interests. Mr. Obama may not be the president of black America, but he is the president of black Americans, and he owes them the same regard he has for all citizens. He went to New Jersey just a few days after Hurricane Sandy hit. Yet in the face of a more complex, government-made disaster, he took months to make it to Flint, Mich., where thousands of poor black residents are dealing with contaminated drinking water with less immediate federal support than the hurricane victims were offered.

The president has been guided by a view of race that may be termed strategic inadvertency. He believes policies should not be shaped with a view to helping blacks specifically, but supports ideas from which they are likely to benefit. This reflects his faith in universal rather than targeted remedies for black suffering: Blacks will thrive when America flourishes. “I do think that the discussion about targeted strategies versus broad-based strategies is probably the central fault line around which I may be criticized by African-American leaders,” the president told me in an Oval Office interview in 2010. “I really am very confident I’m right on it.” He said that this concept guided how he thought he should govern as president: “I’ve got to look out for all Americans, and do things based on what will help people across the board who are vulnerable and who need help.”

But even the famed sociologist William Julius Wilson, whom Mr. Obama credits as influencing his views on this subject, has changed his mind. In his 2009 work “More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City,” he argued that we should underscore “specific issues of race and poverty.” Mr. Obama would have been wise to do the same.

President Obama is an extraordinary figure who has done some good things in bad times, and some great things under impossible circumstances. As the first black president he has faced enormous difficulties and has had to weather a steady downpour of bad faith from the right wing and racist resistance from bigoted quarters of the country. He has been torn between America’s noble ideals of democracy and its cruel realities of race — a tension he rode into office, and one that occasionally defeated his desire to reconcile the best and worst halves of the nation he governs.

Mr. Obama’s presence in office has reflected our most hopeful embrace of change, even as it throws light on the deeply entrenched bigotry that would reverse such change. He has been reluctant to speak about race, and hesitant to champion the causes of a valuable, if vulnerable, black constituency. He was not always free to relax into his blackness, out of fear that it would frighten white America. There was a lot he couldn’t do. But because of what he did do, the road will undoubtedly be easier for the next black president.

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