Obama’s power paradox

2011-05-28 11:12

When Barack Obama was ­pondering running for the presidency, Mich­elle asked him what he thought he could accomplish.

He replied: “The day I take the oath of office, the world will look at us differently. And millions of kids across this country will look at themselves differently. That alone is something.”

His victory was indeed something. The world certainly looked at the US differently, though this had much to do with who he wasn’t – George W Bush.

A Pew survey early last year ­revealed that the percentage of black Americans who thought blacks were better off than they were five years before had almost doubled since 2007. T

here were ­also significant increases in the percentages who believed the standard-of-living gap between whites and blacks was decreasing.

But for all the ways black America has felt better about itself and looked better to others, it has not actually fared better.

In fact, it has been doing worse.The economic gap between black and white has grown since Obama took power.

Under his ­tenure, black unemployment, poverty and foreclosures are at their highest levels for at least a
decade.Millions of black kids may well aspire to the presidency now that a black man is in the White House.

But such a trajectory is less likely for them now than it was under Bush. Herein lies what is at best a paradox and at worst a contradiction within Obama’s core base of support.

This condition was best exemplified by Velma Hart, the black chief financial officer for a Maryland veterans’ organisation that backed Obama in 2008.She told Obama at a town hall meeting in September last year: “I’m exhausted of defending you.

My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives.

But, quite frankly, it is starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we are headed again.” In ­November, Hart was laid off.

If it were white Americans who remained this loyal to a Republican president under whom they were doing this badly, the left would be claiming false consciousness.

If a Republican president were behind statistics like these, few liberals would be offering that president the benefit of the doubt.

So, how do we explain this apparent inconsistency? There would appear to be three main reasons. The first is white people.

Not all of them, but enough. Half of white Americans in a Pew survey shared the birthers’ doubt that Obama was born in the US.

After the president produced his long-form birth certificate, Donald Trump demanded his college transcripts (claiming he was not smart enough to get into the Ivy League), and Newt Gingrich branded him the “food-stamp president”.

In the face of such brazenly racist ­attacks, defending Obama’s right to the office becomes easily blurred with defending his record.

Second, the post-civil-rights-era concept of corporate diversity, which many black people have ­embraced, is central to his symbolism.

Racial advancement is ­increasingly understood not as a process of social change but of ­individual promotion.

Instead of equal opportunities, we now have photo opportunities.

“We have more black people in more visible and powerful positions,” political activist Angela Davis told me before Obama’s nomination.

“There’s a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change.”

Third and perhaps most important, the discrepancy reflects a mixture of realism and low expectations.

That black Americans are doing worse than everyone else, and that the man they elected to turn that around has not done so, does not change their view of how US politics works.

In the black commentariat, ­opinion is divided over whether ­African Americans should demand a more overt commitment to racial justice from a black president or ­refrain from doing so because it would weaken his appeal to others.

The Reverend Al Sharpton ­insists that calling on Obama to be a “black exponent of black views” is “just stupid”, since it will ­embolden conservative attacks on projects black people need.

Princeton professor, Cornel West, insists that Obama has “a ­certain fear of free black men” and “feels most comfortable with ­upper-middle-class white and ­Jewish men”.

By concentrating so heavily on race, both sides detract from his ­responsibilities.

Obama should do more for black people – because black people are ­suffering most.

The day he took office, the world may have looked at black America differently, but black America has taken some time to look at Obama differently.

When he went from being an aspiration to a fact of political life, the posters that bore his likeness in socialist-realist style over ­single-word commands like “hope”, “believe” and “change” should have been replaced with posters bearing the single-word statement “power”.

As Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

»
Younge is the New York correspondent for the Guardian and the author of No Place Like Home: A Black Briton’s Journey Through the Deep South (Mississippi).

© 2011 The ­Nation. Distributed by Agence Global 

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