Obama as a Black President

180px-immanuel_wallerstein_2008Obama as a Black President
by Immanuel Wallerstein
Agence Global, Dec 15, 2009

The Congressional Black Caucus has been growing impatient with President Obama, and this political strain is now leaking out to the press. The Caucus members feel that Obama hasn’t paid enough attention to the fact that the current economic difficulties have had greater impact on African-American and other minority groups than on the rest of the population, and that therefore something extra needs to be done for them.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver is quoted as saying: “Obama has tried desperately to stay away from race, and all of us understand what he’s doing. But when you have such a disproportionate number of African-Americans unemployed, it would be irresponsible not to direct attention and resources to the people who are receiving the greatest level of pain.”

The role of Barack Obama as a Black man has been a major and much-discussed issue since he declared his candidacy for the presidency in 2007. At the beginning, Obama did not receive enthusiastic support from U.S. Black politicians. Many of them had publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton. There was some discussion in African-American media about whether Obama was “Black enough.”

This hesitation changed radically after the Iowa caucuses in January 2008, which Obama won, to most people’s surprise. Iowa is a state that is overwhelmingly White. The fact that Obama was able to get significant support there sent a message to African-American politicians that he was electable. The idea that, at long last, a Black man might become president of the United States proved to be the primary consideration for African-Americans — not only the politicians but the general African-American population.

By the time he was elected, he had received the enthusiastic endorsement of virtually all U.S. Blacks — rich and poor, young and old. The tears of joy were genuine, and African-American schoolchildren said it proved to them that it was possible for them to aspire to any goal they wished.

The question is, how did Obama get the votes to win? He could not have won with the votes of African-Americans alone, even if every eligible voter were to vote for him. In addition to the core of reliable Democratic voters, he obtained the votes of three groups whose votes were previously uncertain. The first group were those who normally didn’t vote at all — many African-Americans (mostly those less educated and poorer) plus many young voters (both Black and White). The second group were middle-of-the road voters — located quite often in suburban communities, and largely White. The third group were White skilled workers who had in recent decades deserted the Democratic party because of their views on social questions (and who had often expressed openly racist sentiments).

If Obama obtained the votes of the latter two groups (middle-of-the-road suburban voters and the White skilled workers whom he lured back from the Republican party), it was precisely because they became persuaded that he was not an “angry Black man.” He presented himself, as he really is — a well-educated, pragmatic, centrist politician, with a very “cool” demeanor. He maintained this persona not only during the campaign, but ever since his election.

What is happening now is that African-American politicians are realizing that they made a Faustian bargain. They got the symbolic value of breaking the race barrier for the highest elective post in the United States by supporting a Black candidate who “has tried desperately to stay away from race.” Obama has done so for two reasons. In part, this is indeed his true persona and his lifelong commitment. But he also maintains this persona because, as a politician, he deems it essential to his own reelection in 2012 and to the continuing election of enough Democratic members of Congress to make it possible for him to achieve his legislative agenda.

If this were only the question of Obama and his relationship to African-Americans, it might be deemed of marginal importance in the long historical process. But this situation is in fact merely one instance of a more general political issue throughout the world.

Symbolic breakthroughs are a major element of world politics. The election of someone from a group that has not previously been allowed to aspire to such a post in any country is very important. Just think of the joy and progress entailed by the election of Nelson Mandela as the first African president of South Africa, of Evo Morales as the first indigenous president of Bolivia, of those women who became the first female presidents of Muslim countries. The election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States was the same kind of event. These were all major political happenings, and their importance should never be underestimated.

However, symbolic victories must translate into real change, or eventually they can leave a bitter taste. How much real change such a leader can bring about depends in part on his/her own priorities but it also depends on the particular political constraints of the country in question.

In the case of the United States, Obama’s margin for maneuver is quite small. The few times he has reacted as a Black man, he immediately lost political support. This happened during the campaign when some “incendiary” statements of his pastor in Trinity Church, Chicago, Jeremiah Wright, came to light. Obama’s initial reaction was to make a sophisticated speech about race in American life. In it, he said, “I can no more disown [Jeremiah Wright] than I can disown my white grandmother.” But soon thereafter, Obama had to back down and indeed disown his pastor, resigning from his church.

This happened again after his election when Prof. Henry Lewis Gates of Harvard (an African-American) was arrested after entering his own home by forcing the lock that had become jammed. After he was in his home, he was challenged by a White police officer and, after some interaction, arrested for “disorderly conduct.” Obama’s initial reaction was to say that the officer had “acted stupidly.” There was a political backlash and Obama then invited the two men to the White House for an amicable get-together.

The lesson for Obama was clear. He can under no circumstances afford politically to be seen as a “Black president.” But this means that he is constrained from doing and saying things that a White president of the same political views might be willing to do. In the American context today, being an African-American president turns out to be a political handicap at the same time that it is a symbolic achievement. Obama realizes that. The Congressional Black Caucus recognizes that. The question is what, if anything, either Obama or the Caucus is going to do about it, or can do about it.

Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press).

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