OBAMA: AN UNPREDICTABLE WORK IN PROGRESS
resident Barack Obama's first eighteen months in office have been called everything from successful to disastrous. Supporters and opponents alike criticize his domestic and foreign policies and his tacit (if not overt) concurrence that America is a post-racial society. However, no one disputes the Herculean challenges Obama has already encountered, e.g., Iraq, Iran Afghanistan, healthcare reform, the economic meltdown and BP Gulf oil spill.
Within a year after the inauguration, the nation was confronted by a backlash of racist, anti-Obama sentiment. It began with healthcare reform protesters brandishing signs labeling the president a traitor then evolved into widespread Tea Party rallies that targeted taxes and a host of other issues, including the bogus claim that Obama was born in Kenya.
The criticisms are refracted through a race prism that supports the contention that Obama represents "the fundamental paradox of race in America." The nation began with a democracy founded on slavery and extended to the present when despite the election of a Black president, disproportionate numbers of Blacks languish in prisons, are unemployed, and receive inadequate healthcare and substandard education.
Many interpreted Obama's victory as proof that the nation had been purged of its original sin of racial slavery. (Obama's own campaign rhetoric suggested the real possibility of a post-racial society while the symbolic power of his candidacy tended to minimize America's racist past.)
Obama's vision of American democracy fits a simplified story of the civil rights era that emphasizes success primarily. He feels that his work as a community organizer required "shared sacrifice" and believes (like Martin Luther King, Jr.) that the larger American community--Black, White and Brown--could remake itself into what he called "a promise of collective redemption." But such redemption did not, and cannot, occur by ignoring the whole story of a complex civil rights movement that was at its core, a movement for a transformative democracy.
The civil rights era's more strident voices like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael advocated Black power through grass roots protests, anti-poverty activism and even selective participation in local elections. They raised the bar for national race relations and had contentious debates with civil rights advocates that also developed into unlikely, but significant, alliances. Predictably, Black power advocates created a backlash in an America that preferred not to confront questions of race, poverty and true democracy.
Progression from the militancy of Black power to Obama's presidency devised simplistic narratives of democratic and racial progress. Shortly after Obama's election, the country evidenced an insidious racial outcry over his Administration's domestic and foreign policy agenda. Scurrilous accusations about Obama's patriotism and commitment to America's military and grotesque caricatures of the first Black president also attest to that. The unprecedented number of death threats, rapid increase of Tea Party groups and a significant increase in gun sales all evidence a race-based backlash.
Civil rights accomplishments never followed a simple, linear progression of good over evil, Jim Crow defeated by "integration", or a national reversal of ancient and bitter racial divisions.
Obama's stated beliefs that his election would present a more positive image of America globally have largely proved true. But there has been image slippage in the Middle East, Haiti and parts of Europe. America's embrace of Obama, as with civil rights, is even more complicated. Despite receiving a record number of popular votes, he faces a backlash, as did the civil rights movement, that is rooted in race and culture. The net effect of Obama's opposition fuels racial division rather than anything resembling a sober, national conversation on race and democracy that is needed now more than ever.
It is both unrealistic and unfair to expect that the nation's first Black president will serve as racial healer-in chief. That burden actually falls on all of society-ordinary citizens, educators, civic leaders, elected officials, etc. Collectively, we can use this extraordinary opportunity to start a sustained, national discussion that offers no easy solutions or fantasies of a post-racial society. However, it could help to foster an environment in which serious engagement with issues of race and democracy stand in sharp contrast to the politics of race-baiting and reaction that emerged in opposition to Obama's presidency.
(This column contains excerpts from an article, "Obama and the Enduring Divisions of Race," by Professor Peniel E. Joseph, professor of History at Tufts University.)
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail
Larry Aubry 06/24/10
President Barack Obama's first eighteen months in office have been called everything from successful to disastrous. Supporters and opponents alike criticize his domestic and foreign policies and his tacit (if not overt) concurrence that America is a post-racial society. However, no one disputes the Herculean challenges Obama has already encountered, e.g., Iraq, Iran Afghanistan, healthcare reform, the economic meltdown and BP Gulf oil spill.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail