“Barack Obama Is Not the First African-American President of the United States of America.”
“And the rage is always on the road to self-determination.” – Dr. Cornel West
I am a middle-aged, biracial man with a white mother and an estranged black father. I was raised in a racially accepting environment and was rarely the target of racism as a kid. I have very little idea what it’s like to be a young African-American man in America today. And the same goes for Barack Obama.
It is true that my mother is from Colorado, not Kansas, and unlike Obama I actually spent some time in the South as kid. But ever since he started running for president I’ve noticed some interesting similarities between our lives, and more precisely, our racial experiences.
This impression was only reinforced when my mother and I were looking at the cover of Dreams from My Father and noticed a 1940’s photograph of Obama’s young mother and uniformed grandfather. It reminded us both of pictures of my mother’s own father taken around the same postwar period.
As someone who wanted to identify with Obama, maybe hold him up as a role model to the younger biracial members of my family, the past 5 years have been shocking, indeed. Shocking but not surprising, in view of what I know from personal experience.
Since riding into office on a wave of “hope and change” in 2008, Barack Obama has been doing a very specific public relations job for the 1 percent, the job of the “first black president of the United States.” In many ways it was a gig tailor-made for his specific racial background and upbringing.
This was never more evident than in the comments Obama made on July 19th regarding the nation’s reaction to the George Zimmerman verdict.
“Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago” was the Obama quote that received the most attention.
A quick read of Dreams from My Father reveals that to be highly unlikely. Not unless biracial kids were getting murdered indiscriminately at “upscale” high schools in Hawaii in 1978.
Of course, that was the line that got the most play, but the comments which followed were far more telling. Dr. Cornel West addressed the reason why on Democracy Now! while discussing the rest of Obama’s speech.
Obama had been ever so sanely explaining why the country should not bother looking for some kind of concrete action from the Department of Justice regarding the George Zimmerman case, because “law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.”
Dr. West responded after viewing the clip: “That was him saying: ‘Keep your expectations low. Sharpton, don’t get them too fired up. Keep the rage contained.’”
Later Dr. West touches on the issue again. “That’s why I think even Brother Sharpton is going to be in trouble. Why? Because he has unleashed — and I agree with him — the rage. And the rage is always on the road to self-determination. But the rage is going to hit up against a stone wall.”
That stone wall will be Barack Obama, which Dr. West understands far better than most of the black leadership. He has seen Obama for what he is: a politician extremely adept at leveraging one particular aspect of his racial identity for strategic advantage and political gain.
In the midst of protests and a nationwide call for some kind of rational answer to the questions of deep racial inequality raised by the surreal verdict in the Zimmerman case, we get this:
“I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a – and a history that – that doesn’t go away.”
Later, after he related some personal incidents of racism, most of which apparently stopped when he became a senator, Obama said: “And, you know, I – I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.”
Sure, Obama was doing more of his now famous “telling black people what they already know” shtick, but obviously those comments were really meant for somebody with much less melanin in their skin.
For his finale, Obama’s suggestions for improving the situation of African-American men and women in America didn’t involve “some grand new federal program.” Because that would mean actually helping some, um, black people.
But they can “gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes…”
Evidently actually talking to one or two of the 700 plus black people who will be stopped and frisked in New York City just today was out of the question. (From the 2012 annual average.) But then why would Obama even bother, he doesn’t have a damn thing to say to any of them anyway.
During the entirety of his remarks, Obama seemed to be simultaneously making excuses to “somebody” for the legitimate anger people felt over a blatant miscarriage of justice – in a state plagued by injustice – while also attempting to placate that rage with suggestions of things we need to do. I suppose that was meant to divert attention away from the core causes of that injustice: institutionalized racism. It remains to be seen how successful he was.
He’s got the program down pretty well by now, though. It reminds me of Key and Peele on Comedy Central. In a particularly incisive skit, Mr. Peele gives a calm and well-spoken Obama impersonation up front, while his “anger translator,” Luther, stands behind him restating everything “Obama” has said, but as an exaggerated “angry black man.”
From the website: “Obama Loses His Sh*t – Find out what the president really has on his mind.” Hilarious!
Leave it to two biracial comedians to nail so acutely an important aspect of not only Obama’s character but his job as president. He has assumed the role of reverse “anger translator” for black America.
Whenever something happens that completely pisses off the minority community, like just about all of his policies, Obama suddenly gets in touch with his “black side” for a heavy dose of “racial moralizing” intended on defusing the anger of the perpetually angry black people. So he can then use his “oh so reasonable white side” to calm the fears of the perpetually afraid white people. And business can continue as usual.
Then you have Dr. West talking about how Obama has been “re-niggerizing” the black professional class and you get the view of a president – of a man – who has been very busy playing all sides against the middle. (The fat and happy “middle” being the 1 percent.)
The reality is that Obama has absolutely nothing in common with Trayvon Martin nor does he have any idea what young African-American men deal with on a daily basis. He touched on this himself in the introduction to Dreams from My Father, page 16:
“I can’t even hold up my experience as being somehow representative of the black American experience.”
(Not to say biracial people can’t understand the black experience in America, only that Obama doesn’t.)
That very fact is one of the things which has made him so effective in his role as the reverse “anger translator” for black America, and helped him treat the black leadership – the black community – with such casual disregard.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard in the press that Obama might become America’s “first African-American president.” I was irked and I don’t usually get irked about race. It continued to give me pause, as his chances of winning improved, for the simple fact that Barack Obama is not African-American.
I realized my irritation wasn’t because of some kind of wounded pride over the biracial aspect of his heritage being downplayed or not mentioned until it was advantageous. Nor was it a matter of nitpicking semantics. For me, it was always about accuracy.
I knew immediately when I learned of Obama’s background that the title of “the first black president of the United States” would be used in a way that wasn’t going to benefit one single African-American man, woman, or child.
What we saw on July 19th was probably some of what the 1 percenters like Penny Pritzker and Robert Rubin saw when they plucked him from political obscurity as a state senator all those years ago. Barack Obama was a “black” man who wasn’t angry, but who understood the anger, at least intellectually. Perfect.
How fortuitous it was for them all that Bush, Cheney, and Rove came along and beat the country to a bloody pulp. By the time they were done, we were primed and ready for the “African-American” neo-liberal shill who could inflect like MLK. History was ready for the “first black president of the United States.”
In many ways the use of Barack Obama’s race(s) during his rise to power amounted to cynicism on a level Rove and Cheney could only dream of. And the election campaign of 2008 was the culmination of that cynicism, with its multiple awards from the advertising industry.
A whole lot of time and money was spent convincing the American public that a vote from them could actually send a black man to the White House for the first time in the history of the country.
And by direct implication, that black man would use his perspective on the racial situation in America to help change the entire direction of the country. How could they resist? The people of all races who wanted to vote for him because of that amazing potential were not misguided, they were misled.
Looking back at one of the only speeches I watched all the way through during the 2008 presidential campaign, called “A More Perfect Union,” Obama said of the racial divide in America: “The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last week reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs.”
Even after already dismissing Obama as an opportunist, I was still impressed by many of the observations in that speech.
Truth be told, all of the things he talked about in “A More Perfect Union” could have happened and should have happened. Obama’s biracial heritage, his ability to slip between the seemingly opposing worlds of black and white America, should have been instrumental in helping this country come together. Millions and millions of diverse people certainly worked side by side to get him elected the first time. His mandate was clear, as were his qualifications to fulfill that mandate. So what went wrong?
Well there is no doubt there are some great things about being biracial. One of them is that singular perspective on – and hopefully some understanding of – both cultures from which you come. Obviously it makes the whole world seem much bigger when your vision isn’t restricted by bigotry.
Honestly, being accepted by so many different kinds of people can be an amazing experience, one that can inevitably lead to a view of humanity that is wide-open and all-inclusive.
It can lead to all that; doesn’t mean it will.
On one hand it can be tricky ascribing the usual perspectives on race to any biracial person, regardless of the racial composition of their parentage. And regardless of if they make admittedly insightful speeches on the subject.
On the other hand, “people is people,” especially when it comes to personal biases and prejudices, many of which can have roots as far back as childhood.
The flip side of becoming adept at “slipping between worlds” is that it can foster a detachment in some biracial people which comes from being, in the final analysis, an outsider. In some cases it can give them little reason not to use their unique racial backgrounds for their own needs.
Whereas at one time a biracial person could have been accepted by loving parents and grandparents of a different race, as I and apparently Obama were, at another time that same biracial person could have been cast out by both black and white, by both of the races which comprise that person’s crucial racial identity.
Sometimes, after enough experiences like that, there isn’t much of a reason for that biracial person to have any kind of allegiance to either of the races from which they come, or any other for that matter. This is apart from whether they have identified culturally with one parent or another, which happens often in biracial families.
Obviously this isn’t necessarily how every biracial person feels, and not all the time when they do, but it is apparent from reading Dreams from My Father that Obama has experienced at least some of this in his past.
It seems to me that that well-honed detachment can make it easier for some biracial people to experience bigotry on far more of an intellectual level than emotionally.
Which in turn can make it easier for them to not only dismiss the righteous rage that comes from being discriminated against because of the color of your skin, but also do some pretty good discriminating on their own.
Obama’s particular bias appears to be the perception of the too angry black man. Consider that much of the rest of the “A More Perfect Union” speech was about making excuses for Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his generation’s anger:
“That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from facing our own complicity in our condition; and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.” Emphasis added.
It appears that Obama has been doing his job since before winning the election; he has been making excuses for an anger about which he obviously knows very little. That is clear from the “complicity” remark. Only someone who has not been directly affected by institutional racism in America could talk so cavalierly about the “complicity” of the victims of that racism.
Discovering that George Zimmerman was biracial – Latino and white – reminded me of a naïve notion I had as a kid. For the longest time I wondered how a biracial person could ever be prejudice toward anybody. It never made any sense to me how they could favor one race over another when they were walking, talking billboards for the benefits of “close interracial relations.”
Barack Obama and George Zimmerman have proven in stark terms that biracial people can be as biased and bigoted as anybody. They have proven that for all their advantages– perceived and otherwise – when it comes to race, biracial people should be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” just like everybody else.
For years now writers have asked in vain how Obama could be so consistently unhelpful to minorities, in general, and black people in particular. They questioned how he could so callously lecture minority audiences about “personal responsibility” without batting an eye.
They have wondered how he could believe in a system of government and economics that will always oppress the oppressed, while leading the charge to essentially destroy the Left as an effective political movement.
I would hazard one answer, of probably many: It is simply that he doesn’t care about the plight of poor black and brown people in this country. And there isn’t one reason – in his background or in his mind – for him to start.
The problem for Barack Obama now is that as much as he condescends to the minority population on behalf of the bigoted 1 percent, he will never really fit in with the nation’s ruling class. The incident of Illinois state Senator Obama being asked to fetch a drink at a 2003 “elite New York media event” demonstrates that.
And Obama will never really fit in with the black community either, particularly after betraying them so utterly and completely.
It is going to be one of an opportunistic politician who used race to get elected, then squandered countless chances to affect real change in the world of the people he should have cared about the most.
I personally believe Obama will have played so many games by the end of his 8 years that he will end up alienating just about everybody. He is going to be left on the outside once again, only this time it will be on the outside of history.
I remember trying to articulate some of this to people during the lead up to the November vote in 2008. I also remember realizing quickly that there was simply no telling them. The country was going to have its “first black president.” A huge majority of voters were ready and the time was right. I guess it’s just too bad that, after all, a black president isn’t what they got.