Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centred on challenging racial inequality.
When African-Americans go to the polls next week, they are likely to support Barack Obama at a level approaching the 95 percent share of the black vote he received in 2008. As well they should, given the symbolic exceptionalism of his presidency and the modern Republican Party’s utter disregard for economic justice, civil rights and the social safety net.
But for those who had seen in President Obama’s election the culmination of four centuries of black hopes and aspirations and the realization of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a ‘beloved community,’ the last four years must be reckoned a disappointment. Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality. The tragedy is that black elites — from intellectuals and civil rights leaders to politicians and clergy members — have acquiesced to this decline, seeing it as the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House.
These are not easy words to write. Mr. Obama’s expansion of health insurance coverage was the most significant social legislation since the Great Society, his stimulus package blunted much of the devastation of the Great Recession, and the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul added major new protections for consumers. His politics would seem to vindicate the position of civil rights-era leaders like Bayard Rustin, who argued that blacks should form coalitions with other Democratic constituencies in support of universal, race-neutral policies — in opposition to activists like Malcolm X, who distrusted party politics and believed that blacks would be better positioned to advance their interests as an independent voting bloc, beholden to neither party.
But the triumph of ‘post-racial’ Democratic politics has not been a triumph for African-Americans in the aggregate. It has failed to arrest the growing chasm of income and wealth inequality; to improve prospects for social and economic mobility; to halt the re-segregation of public schools and narrow the black-white achievement gap; and to prevent the Supreme Court from eroding the last vestiges of affirmative action. The once unimaginable successes of black diplomats like Colin L. Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Susan E. Rice and of black chief executives like Ursula M. Burns, Kenneth I. Chenault and Roger W. Ferguson Jr. cannot distract us from facts like these: 28 percent of African-Americans, and 37 percent of black children, are poor (compared with 10 percent of whites and 13 percent of white children); 13 percent of blacks are unemployed (compared with 7 percent of whites); more than 900,000 black men are in prison; blacks experienced a sharper drop in income since 2007 than any other racial group; black household wealth, which had been disproportionately concentrated in housing, has hit its lowest level in decades; blacks accounted, in 2009, for 44 percent of new H.I.V. infections.
Mr. Obama cannot, of course, be blamed for any of these facts. It’s no secret that Republican obstruction has limited his options at every turn. But it’s disturbing that so few black elites have aggressively advocated for those whom the legal scholar Derrick A. Bell called the ‘faces at the bottom of the well.’
The prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power, regardless of political winds or social pressures, has a long history. Ida B. Wells risked her life to publicize the atrocity of lynching; W. E. B. Du Bois linked the struggle against racial injustice to anticolonial movements around the world; Cornel West continues to warn of the ‘giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism’ that King identified a year before his death.
But that prophetic tradition is on the wane. Changes in black religious practice have played a role. Great preachers of social justice and liberation theology, like Gardner C. Taylor, Samuel DeWitt Proctor, John Hurst Adams, Wyatt Tee Walker and Joseph E. Lowery, have retired or passed away. Taking their place are megachurch preachers of a ‘gospel of prosperity’ — like Creflo A. Dollar Jr., T. D. Jakes, Eddie L. Long and Frederick K. C. Price — who emphasize individual enrichment rather than collective uplift. ‘There’s more facing us than social justice,’ Bishop Jakes has said. ‘There’s personal responsibility.’
Mr. Obama hasn’t embraced this new gospel, but as a candidate he did invoke the politics of respectability once associated with Booker T. Washington. He urged blacks to exhibit the ‘discipline and fortitude’ of their forebears. He lamented that ‘too many fathers are M.I.A.’ He chided some parents for ‘feeding our children junk all day long, giving them no exercise.’ He distanced himself from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose incendiary remarks about racism’s legacy caused a maelstrom.
But as president, Mr. Obama has had little to say on concerns specific to blacks. His State of the Union address in 2011 was the first by any president since 1948 to not mention poverty or the poor. The political scientist Daniel Q. Gillion found that Mr. Obama, in his first two years in office, talked about race less than any Democratic president had since 1961. From racial profiling to mass incarceration to affirmative action, his comments have been sparse and halting.
Early in his presidency, Mr. Obama weighed in after the prominent black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass. The president said the police had ‘acted stupidly,’ was criticized for rushing to judgment, and was mocked when he invited Dr. Gates and the arresting officer to chat over beers at the White House. It wasn’t until earlier this year that Mr. Obama spoke as forcefully on a civil rights matter — the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Florida — saying, ‘If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.’
Instead of urging Mr. Obama to be more outspoken on black issues, black elites parrot campaign talking points. They dutifully praise important but minor accomplishments — the settlement of a longstanding class-action lawsuit by black farmers; increased funds for black colleges; the reduction (but not elimination) of the disparities in sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine — while setting aside their critical acumen.
For some, criticism of Mr. Obama is disloyal. ‘Stick together, black people,’ the radio host Tom Joyner has warned. (Another talk show host, Tavis Smiley, joined Dr. West on a ‘poverty tour’ last year, but has been less critical of the president than Dr. West has.)
It wasn’t always so. Though Bill Clinton was wildly popular among blacks, black intellectuals fiercely debated affirmative action, mass incarceration, welfare reform and racial reconciliation during his presidency. In 2001, the Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree called the surge in the inmate population ‘shocking and regrettable’ and found it ‘shameful’ that Mr. Clinton ‘didn’t come out and take a more positive and symbolic approach to the issue of reparations for slavery.’ But Mr. Ogletree, a mentor of Mr. Obama’s, now finds ‘puzzling the idea that a president who happens to be black has to focus on black issues.’
Melissa V. Harris-Perry, a political scientist at Tulane who hosts a talk show for MSNBC, warned in 2005 that African-Americans ‘who felt most warmly toward Clinton and most trusting of his party’s commitment to African-Americans’ were in danger of underestimating ‘the continued economic inequality of African-Americans relative to whites.’ But she has become all but an apologist for Mr. Obama. ‘No matter what policies he pursues, the president’s racialized embodiment stands as a symbol of triumphant black achievement,’ she wrote in The Nation this month.
Black politicians, too, have held their fire. ‘With 14 percent unemployment if we had a white president we’d be marching around the White House,’ Representative Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Root last month. ‘The president knows we are going to act in deference to him in a way we wouldn’t to someone white.’
Some of the reticence stems from fear. ‘If we go after the president too hard, you’re going after us,’ Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, told a largely black audience in Detroit last year.
But caution explains only so much. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, one of King’s last living disciples, has not used his moral stature to criticize the president’s silence about the poor. Neither have leaders of the biggest civil rights organizations, like Benjamin Todd Jealous of the N.A.A.C.P., Marc H. Morial of the National Urban League or Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, whether because of emotional allegiance or pragmatic accommodation.
The two black governors elected since Reconstruction — L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and Deval L. Patrick of Massachusetts — have also de-emphasized race. So, too, have the new cadre of black politicians who serve largely black constituencies, like Mayor Cory A. Booker of Newark, Mayor Michael A. Nutter of Philadelphia and Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama — all of whom, like Mr. Obama, have Ivy League degrees and rarely discuss the impact of racism on contemporary black life.
Some argue that de-emphasizing race — and moving to a ‘colourblind’ politics — is an inevitable and beneficial byproduct of societal change. But this ideal is a myth, even if it’s nice to hear. As Frederick Douglass observed, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.’ The political scientist E. E. Schattschneider noted that conflict was essential to agenda-setting. Other interest groups — Tea Party activists, environmentalists, advocates for gay and lesbian rights, supporters of Israel and, most of all, rich and large corporations — grasp this insight. Have African-Americans forgotten it?
In making this case, I have avoided speculation about Mr. Obama’s psychology and background — his biracial heritage, his transnational childhood, his community organizing, his aversion to being seen as ‘angry,’ his canny ability to navigate multiple worlds, his talent at engaging with politics while appearing detached from it. As a social scientist I keep returning to the question: What is the best strategy for black communities to pursue their political interests as a whole?
Were Harold Cruse, the author of the unsparing 1967 book ‘The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,’ still alive, he would despair at the state of black intellectual life. Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton, told me: ‘Too many black intellectuals have given up the hard work of thinking carefully in public about the crisis facing black America. We have either become cheerleaders for President Obama or self-serving pundits.’
There are exceptions. Writing in the journal Daedalus last year, the Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby called Mr. Obama’s approach ‘a pragmatic strategy for navigating hazardous racial waters’ that might improve lives for poor minorities. But he added: ‘Judged alongside King’s transformative vision of racial equality and integration, Obama’s philosophy is morally deficient and uninspiring.’
Mr. Obama deserves the electoral support — but not the uncritical adulation — of African-Americans. If re-elected he might surprise us by explicitly emphasizing economic and racial justice and advocating ‘targeted universalism’ — job-training and housing programs that are open to all, but are concentrated in low-income, minority communities. He would have to do this in the face of fiscal crisis and poisonous partisanship.
Amid such rancor, African-Americans might come to realize that the idea of having any politician as a role model is incompatible with accountability, the central tenet of representative democracy. By definition, role models are placed on pedestals and emulated, not criticized or held accountable.
To place policy above rhetoric is not to ask what the first black president is doing for blacks; rather, it is to ask what a Democratic president is doing for the most loyal Democratic constituency — who happen to be African-Americans, and who happen to be in dire need of help. Sadly, when it comes to the Obama presidency and black America, symbols and substance have too often been assumed to be one and the same.
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* Fredrick C Harris is a professor of political science and the director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, and the author of ‘The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics.’
* This article was first published by New York Times.