Guest Column

Did Obama pass the race test?

2017-01-22 06:36
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The most iconic pictures from Obama's presidency

With Barack Obama set to hand over the reigns to Donald Trump, here are some the most memorable and moving pictures of the 44th president of the United States.

When former US president Barack Obama first campaigned as an unknown would-be senator in Chicago, he was being hailed as part of a generation of the Joshua leaders.

In brief, the Bible tells the story of Joshua, who took over from Moses. Moses was meant to take God’s children, the Israelites, to the Promised Land but died before he could complete the mission.

Obama’s generation of young black leaders were expected to take over the baton long left by US civil rights leaders, most notably Martin Luther King Jr.

In his last speech, given the day before he was assassinated on April 4 1968, King – like Moses – had declared that he had been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land.

“I might not get there with you. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land,” were his memorable words.

For years, black Americans continued to struggle for equal treatment and won some battles along the way. Their hopes for a black leader becoming president were raised when civil rights activist and Baptist minister Jesse Jackson did relatively well in contesting the Democratic Party primaries twice – in 1984 and 1988 – but failed to win.

So, when Obama first indicated in 2002 that he was willing to run for the Senate in Illinois, many doubted him. He did not have a history in the civil rights movement and was generally unknown among prominent black leaders.

This was accentuated in 2000, after Obama lost the race for Congress against Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther activist who had become a popular Chicago politician.

But Obama went on to defy even those of his staunchest supporters who doubted that he would win the race for senator.

He had already discovered his rare ability to appeal across races and constituents, indicating that he was not a traditional black politician in the mould of Jackson, Reverend Al Sharpton and John Lewis.

He boasted – rightly so – after winning the Illinois race for senator: “I think it is fair to say that conventional wisdom was that we could not win. We did not have enough money. We didn’t have enough organisation. There was no way that a skinny guy from the south side with a funny name like Barack Obama, could ever win a statewide race.”

A former president of the elite Harvard Law Review, Obama had always been ambitious. Being a senator was a stepping stone to greater things.

According to US journalist David Remnick, who wrote the authoritative 2010 biography The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, Obama hated being a senator. He was bored stiff by the job and wanted to play in the big league.

“He was engaged with the big issues, like what to do about Iraq. What interested him was policy, strategy – not bills,” wrote Remnick.

As he embarked on his campaign for the White House, Obama was advised to steer clear of the race issue. He was to be the unifier, bringing a message of hope and embracing diversity.

But as he discovered much later, the race issue would not leave him alone.

Firstly, he had to distance himself from his lifetime friend and pastor, Jeremiah Wright, because of how sharply Wright articulated racial discrimination and criticised white people.

Obama’s huge team of advisers ensured that black leaders such as Jackson and Sharpton, who spoke out strongly against discrimination, did not accompany him on his campaign trails.

Obama’s advisers told him that every time he spoke about race, his popularity ratings went down.

This did not escape the notice of Obama’s critics like academic Cornel West, who felt he was spending too much time trying to assuage white fears.

“I can understand that the white moderates need that little nice massage ... but it has nothing to do with the truth at all. You’ve got to tell the truth, Barack; don’t trot out this sh*t with this coded stuff.”

Critics also felt he was speaking down to black people whenever he sought to talk about responsibility in the black community.

In his victory speech in 2008 – after beating Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party primary race – he made reference to “a young preacher from Georgia”, but could not bring himself to mention King by name. This also did not earn him applause.

In 2008, he won enough support to become the first US president, but he did not win the white vote.

Republican John McCain, who lost, still got 55% to Obama’s 43% of the white vote.

Obama’s election as president forced him to deal with racism, which increased after his having been elected.

Disturbingly, a campaign called the birther movement created the impression, through rumour-mongering and postulation, that Obama was not American, but African. His middle name, Hussein, was used to suggest that he was Muslim.

And, as recently as November, then first lady Michelle was called “an ape in heels” on Facebook by Pamela Taylor, an official in West Virginia.

Most of Obama’s efforts at promoting a post-racial US during his term of office were met with rejection.

On his 2012 re-election, the pattern was repeated. The number of whites who voted for him had gone down to 39% compared with Republican contender Mick Romney’s 59%, although Romney lost overall.

And, the number of hate groups formed are recorded to have increased since 2012.

However, the Democrats have, in any case, struggled with white voters for the past 40 years.

Then, in his farewell speech on January 10, Obama did an about-turn, speaking about race like never before and tackling white prejudice head-on.

“For white Americans, it [racial discrimination] means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the 1960s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practising political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our founders promised ... But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change.”

Was this a case of too little, too late?

As president, Obama’s term has been, on the whole, favourably assessed. He is celebrated as an intelligent, well-meaning president whose political legacy has some blemishes, but whose personal conduct has not a whiff of scandal.

His lists of achievements is too long to enumerate.

African-Americans are proud of him too, but it was during his presidency that police attacks on innocent black citizens increased, leading to the formation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

West calls Obama “another neoliberal centrist with a smile and nice rhetorical flair. He has always chosen to occupy the middle ground. He does not realise that a great leader, a statesperson, does not occupy middle ground. They occupy the higher ground or the moral ground. The middle ground is not the place to go if you are going to show courage and vision. Every time you head to the middle, what do you do? You go straight to the establishment and reassure them that you are not too radical, and you are very much one of them.”

What do you think is former US president Barack Obama’s legacy, especially when it comes to addressing the race question?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword OBAMA and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

Read more on:    barack obama  |  america  |  race  |  racism
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