Racial Politics After Obama

Racial Politics After Obama

President Obama takes questions from student reporters during College Reporter Day, April 28, 2016 (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

Arguably the most striking thing in the history of African Americans since 1965 is the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama. The passage of the Voting Rights Act that year brought the ballot to millions of African Americans in the South, after what Martin Luther King, Jr. rightfully described as “a century of denial by terror and evasion.” In the ensuing decades, the demise of Jim Crow and the fundamental transformation of American citizenship produced unprecedented increases in the numbers of both black voters and elected officials, and for many, the Obama phenomenon is best understood as the apotheosis of these trends. The sociologist Orlando Patterson, writing just after the 2008 election, called Obama’s victory the “dénouement of America’s great achievement in the public incorporation of its black population.”

But in the waning months of this unprecedented administration, the public sphere is marked less by a celebration of historic social and political inclusion than by anxiety over the present and future of the American racial order. Whatever else the Age of Obama has wrought in the long term for America’s future, at present it has occasioned an intense racialization of U.S. politics and an eruption of agonistic identity politics across partisan divides. These challenges will be among the most vital of the post–Obama era, for both black politics and the resurgent American left.

Precious few could have foreseen this in 2008. Throughout the presidential campaign, Obama delivered a passionate rebuke to the “counterproductive” duo of “black anger” and “white resentments,” while presenting his own body and biography as metaphors for the vague promise of transcending our sordid national inheritance. Indeed, the force of these tropes was so intoxicating as to conjure a host of overheated speculations, including the notion that Obama and a “Joshua Generation” would bring about the “end of black politics.”

Of course, neither black (nor white) politics ended, and a careful diagnosis of the current angst must revisit the fragile optimism of 2008. Before the election, a Gallup poll reported that 59 percent of blacks viewed an Obama presidency as one of the “two or three most important advances for blacks in the past one hundred years,” and 65 percent expected it to improve “race relations.” Since that time, however, the percentage of Americans who would describe relations between whites and blacks as “good” has declined dramatically among both blacks (by 16 percent) and whites (by 19 percent), while the number of those who worry a “great deal” about race relations has doubled and now includes a majority of African Americans. Obama has devoted increasing energy, particularly in his 2016 Howard University commencement address, to beating back this sentiment, but that in itself is evidence of the underlying anxiety.

Much of the force behind this creeping pessimism stems from an acknowledgment that Obama’s tenure—perhaps even the fact of a black presidency—appears to have exacerbated how racial attitudes affect political judgment, behavior, and emotion on a whole host of issues and policies. Research by political scientist Michael Tesler and others has demonstrated that even when Obama advances policies, like healthcare coverage, that are not traditionally racialized, it stirs up fierce opposition among those whites who have the highest degree of racial resentment.

While many pundits tiptoe all too delicately around this fact, political partisanship has become more polarized than in recent decades, both by racial identity and by sentiments about blacks and Latino immigrants. Among those on the left who do acknowledge this fact, there is too much celebration of its crippling effect on GOP presidential politics without conceding its extraordinary power down the ballot. Although Obama did win reelection, a Republican Party increasingly defined by white identity politics managed to seize full control of the U.S. Congress, thirty state legislatures, thirty-two gubernatorial posts, and over 900 legislative seats formerly held by Democrats nationwide. These gains, and the racial and partisan ideologies that fuel them, will continue to represent tremendous obstacles to racially egalitarian public policy and black left activism after Obama.

Indeed, the administration’s own difficulties illustrate the problems ahead—even if Democrats hold the presidency for the immediate future. Obama’s fear of unleashing and exacerbating these forces limited what he and his administration thought they could achieve. They assumed that forthright defenses of black demands would derail most efforts to address racial injustice and perhaps undermine his presidency altogether. As a result, the administration pursued a set of strategies—colorblind policy, bureaucratic power, and “racial uplift” through civil society—meant to minimize the perceived risks, while quietly advancing a more modest racial justice agenda.

For most of his time in office, Obama’s administration relied on colorblind policies like the economic stimulus package, foreclosure relief programs, and healthcare reform that may disproportionately, but not primarily, improve the lives of African Americans. A few on the black left, however, criticized these efforts for failing to attend to the specificities of black inequality. Critics like Cornel West and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor demanded sustained and more explicit attention to such issues as discrimination by employers and trade unions, the racialized stigma of criminal records, racist mortgage lending practices, and wealth inequality.

In 2010 Obama retorted in Black Enterprise and elsewhere that he is “not the president of black America,” but such worries have become more acute with time within and without the administration. Despite the attempt to avoid activating racial resentment with healthcare reform, for example, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) appears beset with racial ills, including the fact that racial attitudes remain a leading predictor of opinions of the ACA. With conservatives like Glenn Beck excoriating the ACA as “reparations,” the racial and partisan enmity around the policy is such that its reliance on state-level cooperation has created a sizeable “coverage gap” that disproportionately affects uninsured blacks, who are more likely to be living in states that have refused to expand Medicaid eligibility.

Hemmed in by this sort of opposition, the administration turned increasingly to executive orders and bureaucratic power, minimizing publicity to avoid racialized opposition. The administration rarely mentions, even in front of black audiences, that they have, for example, investigated twenty-three municipal police departments, approved over $1 billion dollars in reparations for discrimination against African Americans and other farmers by the Agriculture Department, and enacted an “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rule that pressures municipalities and real-estate developers to reduce racial segregation and concentrated poverty. While this approach has the virtue of immediate, if often limited, results in areas of legislative impasse, it nonetheless raises important questions on which there is sharp disagreement in black political life.

Should open debate and consensus be replaced by more surreptitious tactics for reshaping attitudes and institutions? Will the politics of executive action always mean acquiescing to limited, fragile interventions and relying on the idiosyncratic policy agendas of Democratic presidents? Some would argue that it is undignified and disrespectful to treat legitimate claims for racial redress as secrets to be clandestinely handled, rather than as moral truths that politicians should forthrightly acknowledge.

Moral concerns of dignity and self-respect are perhaps even more central to the Obama administration’s increasingly enthusiastic foray into what might be described as a politics of “racial uplift.” This entails exhorting and coordinating efforts by civil society actors, business leaders, and government officials to reduce what the president regularly describes as broad human, social, and cultural capital deficits concentrated among African Americans. This effort has its roots in a series of speeches, especially early in his presidency, that Obama delivered before African-American audiences. Here, he detailed the need for dramatic cultural reform—to be prominently led by African Americans—in relation to fatherhood, childrearing, juvenile delinquency, work ethic, and educational achievement. These views have also been consolidated into an institutional form with the White House’s coordinated social service initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper” (MBK).

These efforts, which are more palatable to the American public than expansive, state-based efforts to ameliorate racial inequality, may become Obama’s central focus after the presidency. Along with the involvement of many of the president’s top advisors and fundraisers, the recent announcement that $600 million in private philanthropic resources has already been committed to MBK signals an unprecedented commitment by a former American president to the controversial business of “racial uplift.” While Obama will be unable to match the fundraising of the Clinton Foundation, he will have more philanthropic resources, media influence, and political connections at his disposal than any black political figure since Booker T. Washington.

This too raises important democratic and egalitarian questions for black political and ethical life. Chief among these will be whether MBK primarily serves to “normalize” the “deviant” norms of poor blacks and black youth (and is complicit in continuing the practice of racializing certain “cultural” practices), or whether it could more dramatically transform the unjust social order. The latter is implausible if, as seems likely, MBK operates according to the constraints of big philanthropy and Democratic Party politics. More likely, the task of developing the political capacities and critical insights of black youth will fall to social movements like Black Lives Matter.

To imagine the possible contours of black politics after Obama, it is crucial to understand how Black Lives Matter has challenged and advanced our vision of racial justice. The first stirrings of this movement—which emphasizes corrective justice, race-conscious policy, challenging “state violence,” and unapologetically asserting black identity—came in 2012. That year, the callous slaying of Trayvon Martin catalyzed black youth to engage in direct action protests around the country. Fueled by the heightened expectations of the Obama era, and, by November, freed of the defensive and deferential solidarity demanded by his reelection campaign, these energies crystallized into a movement with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

The uprising and protests following Brown’s death offered a staging ground for a struggle that is both aesthetic and political. By this I mean that the assertion “Black Lives Matter,” and the politics that have coalesced around it, have attempted to reframe what is visible, intelligible, and meaningful about the world we share. The forms of assembly and argument advanced under the sign of “Black Lives Matter” share the hope that we might be able to more clearly disclose suffering and injustice, and forge new forms of solidarity and equality to meet these challenges.

Many have highlighted the prominence of women and queer activists in Black Lives Matter and noted the stark contrast with the heterosexual male charismatic leaders of civil rights and early Black Power organizations. This shift in representation, however, accompanies deeper differences of ideology and politics within the movement. A handful of efforts—such as St. Louis County’s Hands Up United or Florida’s Dream Defenders—are influenced by the vision of long-term community organizing, political coalition-building, and militant activism advocated by the radical democratic activist and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) mentor, Ella Baker. Others, like Campaign Zero, have the sophisticated policy portfolio, mass (e)mail constituency, and willingness to negotiate with politicians resonant with more established civil rights organizations.

Many BLM organizations, however, are more thoroughly committed to ideals derived from early New Left and radical feminist organizations, and are non-hierarchical, diffuse, and “leader-full.” In addition to articulating political demands, these activists emphasize expressive actions—from their style of protest to what they wear—that transgress social norms in order to unsettle habits, categories, or practices they believe aid oppression. Activists have indicted norms of “respectability” and “civility” for mystifying unfair double standards, obscuring violence and injustice, and unfairly marginalizing vulnerable groups. To institutionalize this ethos, they call for “centering the most marginal,” and foreground demands for transgender rights and attack intersections of racism, heterosexism, and homophobia.

There has been increasing debate, even among those black intellectuals who sympathize with these concerns, about how BLM activists express and pursue these goals. The philosopher Chris Lebron, for example, argues that the protest politics of black radicalism should be “a unified politics, one that values central leadership coupled with an explicit program of action.” This impulse, which evinces understandable frustration with the messiness, paralysis, and unaccountability of radical democratic politics, nonetheless does little to address long-standing criticisms of the ways these political organizations can exacerbate forms of marginalization by gender, class, sexuality, and other axes of difference. A more appealing response would draw from Jo Freeman’s indispensable 1970s feminist essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Freeman navigates carefully and practically the egalitarian, democratic concerns that animate the style of feminist organizing now ascendant within BLM circles while also raising serious concerns about accountability, power, and political judgment within such movements.

Others, like legal scholar Randall Kennedy, worry that the sustained assault on norms of “respectability” leads to poor tactical judgments. Such critiques, he argues, may alienate allies and undermine important norms of civility and fairness. Kennedy also suggests that these arguments generate incomplete accounts of black disadvantage and misunderstand the role of culture in producing some elements of “racial” inequality, while unduly disparaging the kinds of cultural resources that black folks have at their disposal to overcome social burdens.

This is an important concern to grapple with. The notion that appeals to racial uplift and cultural reform are largely pernicious and a distraction from fighting white supremacy puts many in BLM at odds with a long, influential tradition in black politics and political thought that runs from Booker T. Washington to Anna Julia Cooper, to Nannie Burroughs and Martin Luther King, Jr., to Malcolm X and Barack Obama. All of these figures, despite their profound differences, saw the project of soul craft and uplift as inextricable from effective forms of black political organizing. Yet, despite the weight of tradition against them, BLM activists bring to bear the difficult truth that reconstituting our political culture may require forging a radically different relationship to deviance and punishment, or between black political leaders and black citizens, than any of these figures have so far been willing to countenance.

Mostly unnoticed by the mainstream media, these two views of black politics are being debated within black communities. In a 2016 YouGov poll, 42 percent of blacks claimed that violence within black communities is a more important issue than racial injustice in the criminal justice system, while 36 percent believed the opposite. Equivalent numbers think that the “Black Lives Matter movement should address the problem of violence within the black community,” as opposed to those who believe it should continue its focus on the treatment of blacks by law enforcement. That these conflicts are not apparent to or even acknowledged by leading political figures and intellectuals on the left is evidence of a broader intellectual and political crisis, and the future of black politics may depend on whether we can find a way out of it.

It is not yet hopeless. One benefit of the intensification of racial politics in the Obama era has been the fracturing of the modus vivendi that prevailed in this domain through the Clinton and Bush eras. There is more recognition that the vocabularies of diversity, inclusion, and discrimination are inadequate to capturing the scope of racial injustice in America. Although Obama has surely fallen short of what some on the left hoped he would accomplish, both his presidency and the racialized opposition to it has dramatically altered the terms of American race-talk. There are now robust public discussions of reparations, white supremacy, cultural appropriation, mass incarceration, political protest, community control, and even a universal basic income—making visible to a larger audience ideals and discourses that had previously been confined to the realm of academics and activists.

These debates, however, still remain detached from those who hold substantive political power. They have also failed to influence broader black political opinion. The attempts by intellectuals like West, Michelle Alexander, and Ta-Nehisi Coates to influence the 2016 campaign—largely on behalf of Bernie Sanders—failed to effectively change black voting patterns (except, perhaps, among youth) or the behavior of leading black politicians. The remedy for this lack of influence, some African-American left commentators seem to think, might be to foreground shared racial vulnerability across class. Writer and critic Earl Ofari Hutchinson, for example, argues that “it’s fine [for Sanders] to talk about smashing wealth and income inequality, but that doesn’t do much when even black millionaires, business persons and professionals can be spread-eagled by police after a phony stop. . . . Having all the wealth in the world means nothing in the face of naked and raw racial degradation.”

This, however, is not a credible analysis or strategy. Racial profiling does exist, of course, but it does not affect all African Americans equally or follow a universal logic. The most punitive, humiliating, and deadly forms of policing fall almost entirely on the poor, especially the black poor. And while the stigma of criminality disproportionately affects African Americans, so does the suffering that accompanies gangs, violent crime, and the underground economy. Neglecting these facts leads to bewilderment when appeals to racial solidarity around issues like criminal justice or gentrification fail to achieve the desired results. These failures of analysis evince such a lack of judgment that they are less likely to inspire sacrifices for the transformative programs of the left than encourage the risk-averse accommodation to the status quo.

In the future, leftists of all races will have to make a sustained commitment to grassroots engagement that focuses on working-class and poor black communities, and that is more precise about the ways in which racial injustice and black disadvantage work in today’s America. This will require an ethos of humility and self-criticism that, over time, will generate more powerful ideas, arguments, and hopefully, coalitions. Trust and respect—and substantive political power—will only come from a mutually enriching process of engaging with and arguing over needs (like safety, income, and education) and values (that is, the ethics of punishment, ideals of masculinity, nativism, and so on) as well as policies. This project is difficult to pursue in the heat of a presidential campaign, and we’ve seen both Democratic candidates struggle to adequately address these intersecting issues. But it must command our attention in the post–Obama era.

Bayard Rustin once remarked that he was “eternally optimistic” that “people who become president . . . want to go down as great moral figures, and they make some real effort in trying.” In the horrifying event of a Trump presidency, we may have to revisit this judgment. But for the first black president at least, it seems appropriate. In trying to advance a particular view of racial justice despite political, cultural, and structural constraints, the Obama years reshaped the landscape of racial politics in a way that is difficult to have imagined just eight years ago. For better and for worse, this is our inheritance. How we navigate its perils will leave its imprint on the politics of race in America for some time to come.


Brandon M. Terry is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies and Social Studies at Harvard University.

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