Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" (instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.
-Drew Westin, New York Times
Falling for a politician is very much, at least for me, like falling in love with a woman. I'm initially hesitant of any overtures because I fear disappointment, or worse, being hurt. I don't mean some small bore type of hurt; I mean the sort of hurt that practically breaks your heart in two and brings the searing pain of disappointment to your front door.
I can remember the first time I thought Barack Obama was "The One." It was at the November 2007 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa. I was there as a campaign intern and while I supported him, I wasn't yet sure if he was really "The One". But then he spoke.
The Illinois orator waxed on with with a passion and intensity I had not witnessed from a national politician in my short life. The speech was a tour de force that brought the arena to its feet time after time:
"I am running for President because I am sick and tired of democrats thinking that the only way to look tough on national security is by talking, and acting, and voting like George Bush Republicans." Thunderous applause.
"We were promised compassionate conservatism and all we got was Katrina and wiretaps." Thunderous applause.
"Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we're worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won't do. If we are really serious about wining this election Democrats, we can't live in fear of losing it." Thunderous applause.
But Obama really had me when he said, "That's why I'm running, Democrats -- to keep the American Dream alive for those who still hunger for opportunity, who still thirst for equality."
A politician who actually uttered the words justice and equality?!
Now fast forward to Wednesday's commemoration of the "March on Washington". The Obama who spoke in Des Moines on that frigid November night was no more. Instead we had a president who reinforced all of the conservative's worst stereotypes about black people:
And then, 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.The urban riots were wrong. But where did the angry reaction come from? This was the late 60s and America was still an apartheid regime with black people routinely tortured and murdered by the white supremacist state and its agents. Black people couldn't even vote to express their disagreement with state policy, so it was inevitable that some, after the murder of King, would take to the streets, even if those streets were in the ghetto, to make their voices be heard. You cannot decouple the two things.
The President then accused some black people of making excuses for criminal behavior by hiding behind police brutality. Really? I often hear people in West St. Louis or South Chicago attack the police but I have never heard any black person, in my family or otherwise, excuse the behavior of drug dealers, rapists and murders. Do they ask the state to focus on the illness that breeds crime, instead of the symptoms? Sure, but that does not qualify as excuse making.
Next came Obama's rhetorical pièce de résistance;because what would an attack on black America be without jab to the gut of America's favorite punching bag, the black family? To hear the first black President say that black mothers and fathers have refused to raise their children because of white racism was stunning. As one of my favorite writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrote, "I have heard a lot of trifling excuses for not parenting. I have never met one who cited racism as an excuse for not parenting or for giving [up] on oneself." And take particular notice of the part of speech where he accused black people of wanting welfare instead of work. I don't know of any black person, not one, who gets by solely on government assistance. That's the racist trope I just can't get over; since Plymouth Rock first landed on our ancestors, black Americans have been some of the hardest working people in this damn country.
Revealingly, Barack Obama also implied that the black struggle for liberation, which continues to this day by the way, is equally, or even partially responsible for racial progress being stalled; this line is so outrageous that I cannot fully articulate the rage inside me right now.
Racial recriminations, to disappoint Obama, does not cut both ways. The truth is we black people have never had the opportunity or resources to do much of anything about our accusations. Instead, it has been the white supremacist state that has employed the same racist stereotypes used by Obama to molest black ambition with a Jim Crow justice system, discriminatory housing policies, inadequate education apparatuses, voter suppression schemes and discrimination in the labor market. Did Obama talk about this in his speech? He never does. Not once has he gone to white America and lectured them about the innumerable consequences of systemic racism. No, the president saves his haranguing for black audiences.
This isn't all that surprising given Obama's political and personal history. He grew up in a white family in Hawaii, meaning he was never truly connected to the black American struggle. Indeed, he learned about black America in books and the little time he spent on Chicago's south side. And as president he hasn't pushed any agenda for black America because, it's possible, he simply doesn't care or he's a coward. He's not enforcing the Fair Housing law, as Coates pointed out. He hasn't taken any bold moves on prison reform. He hasn't used his commutation power to reduce the sentences of incarcerated persons. He hasn't used his executive order power to force a pay raise for some 2 million low wage government contract workers (i.e. McDonalds' employees on military bases). And there has been no wide ranging jobs programs to rejuvenate long ignored black economies. Overall, his speech did not mention any policy proposals to aid black America, just a tired riff on persons "Marching".
If Obama truly cared about the plight of black Americans he would know that individuals cannot alone dismantle structural problems; it takes the state to step in, which is how we got the voting rights act, the fair housing act, Brown and the striking down of NY's stop and frisk et cetera (Obama is also a fan of Ray Kelly, the czar of stop and frisk). The President may disagree with some of the things above because he has previously accused the Warren Court of overstepping it bounds. According to him the public should be the catalyst for social and political change, which means some changes would have occurred much later. Jeffrey Toobin's book The Oath does a great job of dissecting Obama's conservative jurisprudence. Am I then wrong to think that Obama would have opposed the court's decision on Brown or Loving? After all this the man who said he considers himself to be a 1980s moderate Republican type. I believe him given who he has surrounded himself with. We don't see Kimberle Crenshaw or Joseph Stiglitz, but we do get the delightful Larry Summers, for example.
As a young black man, from the type of communities he attacked, I admire Obama. The looks of joy on the faces of black folk when they meet him is indescribable. To many of us, he represents a hopeful promise that America will one day bridge the divide between the American dream and American reality. Which is why black people, in a poll a few years ago, were the most optimistic about race relations. But his speech on Wednesday was revealing because it showed us who he truly is.
It was heartbreaking because the candidate who 94% of us voted for buys into the same lazy, intellectually dishonest and racist stereotypes used by our foes on the right. And it was disappointing because the man who spoke with such eloquence about justice and equality has no policy prescriptions to tackle the problems that are holding progress down. It appears he never did. He merely used us to advance his political ambitions just as he did Rev. Wright and others in Chicago. In fact that's the only thing Obama has ever been truly good at: the selling of himself.