As America celebrates its independence this month, the first African-American president stands as a testament to his faith in that statement and also to his own pragmatic political skills. In a nation where race has long been a divisive issue, Mr. Obama tapped a yearning for change with racially neutral language that transcended distrust and helped unite the country to elect its first black president.
At the same time, a growing number of African-American scholars are questioning the cost of that victory.
These scholars recognize that Obama still enjoys extraordinarily high approval ratings among African-Americans. An April New York Times poll found the percentage of African-Americans with an unfavorable opinion of him was too small to measure. Scholars also acknowledge the symbolic importance of a black American family living in the White House; every image of the calm, intelligent president and his apparently happy family counters myriad negative stereotypes.
But there is some concern that in Obama’s efforts to transcend race and unite the country, the African-American community could inadvertently lose political clout in determining crucial social-policy issues – from education to healthcare – vital to its well-being.
“What was the price of Obama’s election? In part, it was that we can no longer talk about race explicitly around national policy issues, or at least [Obama] can’t, without being accused of playing identity politics,” says Eddie Glaude, professor at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. “So the question is then: How do African-American communities engage issues in light of their particular experiences without being accused of pushing a racial agenda?”
An awkward dance
To date, it has been an awkward dance. Some African-Americans have faced a backlash for criticizing Obama. In April 2008, Tavis Smiley, a leading black commentator, abruptly left a popular morning show on Black Entertainment Television after he criticized candidate Obama. At the time, host Tom Joyner told listeners that Mr. Smiley couldn’t take “the hate” coming from listeners. Smiley, who did not return requests for a comment, later cited fatigue as a reason.
Prominent African-American scholar Cornel West was asked recently if he’d take a post in the Obama White House. His reply: “You find me in a crack house before you find me in the White House.”
On The Huffington Post, comedian Elon James White called Dr. West’s comment “sheer lunacy.” He added, “Dr. West is part of a group of Black intelligentsia that see it as their job to step up and police President Obama on his dealings on Blackness.” West was in Europe and unavailable for comment.
Michael Eric Dyson, another leading black intellectual, has also come under fire for suggesting on radio that Obama was “playing” black people. Dr. Dyson did not respond to requests for a comment.
At the same time, other leading African-Americans have been chastised for being overly uncritical. Professor Glaude says the community is experiencing a confusion typical of any political movement in the midst of a historic transformation.
“The very nature and the form and content of African-American politics has changed because of Obama’s election,” says Glaude. “It demands a kind of revisit to the historical archive to ask: What is our relationship to this nation now?”
Fourth of July in 1852
Answering that question involves understanding the historical context linked to the nation’s independence. In 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke at a Fourth of July commemoration in Rochester, N.Y. He asked his mostly white audience: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
Even after slavery was abolished and the Constitution was amended to grant blacks all the rights of citizenship, the legacy of slavery and segregation continued to rob blacks of full participation in society. That cemented a conflict about being American and black – between the desire to belong and the impulse to reform the status quo – that has been at the core of African-American politics ever since.
At the turn of the 20th century, W.E.B. DuBois summed up the dilemma thus: “Two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Today, Obama is regularly asked what he’ll do about the black community’s disproportionately high unemployment or inequities in education and healthcare. His response steers clear of racial references and focuses on the need to fix the economy. “[If] I don’t do that, then I’m not going to be able to help anybody,” he said at a June press conference.
Such answers frustrate some African-Americans, who would like a more direct response. Achieving racial equity, they say, demands significant change – more than Obama has yet enacted and more than is produced by the symbolism of a black man at the White House.
“We ought not to be blinded by the fact that he looks like some of us,” says Bruce Dixon, managing editor of the Black Agenda Report. “We can’t invest so much in the symbolism that we don’t really pay attention to what ‘brother man’ actually says and does.”
Signs of a different approach
But others say that Obama has already made racial issues, like civil rights enforcement, a top priority. He has increased by 18 percent the budget for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and reversed the conservative stamp on the division, which under President Bush brought only two cases of voter discrimination on behalf of African-Americans.
The Obama administration has also made its presence felt at the US Supreme Court. It supported the City of New Haven against white firefighters, whose reverse-discrimination case was recently decided by the high court in the firefighters’ favor. It also opposed the challenge to the Voting Rights Act by a Texas entity. In that case, the court voted to keep the 1965 act intact.
Next Thursday, Obama is also scheduled to speak in New York at the annual convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Obama’s supporters note that “the arc of the moral universe is long” and call for patience. The challenge, they say, is to distinguish symbolism from substance, and hold him accountable as any president.
“Obama is not the black president or the president of the Black United States, he’s president of the United States. And it’s not fair for us to make demands on him as if he’s just ours,” says Monroe Anderson, a longtime Chicago journalist and commentator.