The Challenge Posed By Obama’s Calm, Dignified Competency

I’m going to be blunt. There are a lot of Americans whose primary concern eight years ago was that Barack Obama wouldn’t live to see his successor sworn in to office. That fear was captured last year in an episode of the TV show Blackish. Recently Michael Eric Dyson reminded us of that fact.

Black America has held its collective breath during every second of Barack Obama’s presidency…

Never far from the surface was the fear that some lunatic bigot might put an end to the life of this extraordinary man. Every time an intruder scaled the White House fence, we winced. Every report of a rogue police force cracking racist jokes about him raised concern. Now that his presidency is coming to an end, we can heave a sigh of relief on that point, even as we worry about the efforts of his successor to eviscerate his legacy.

Yes, even as the specter of inaugurating Donald Trump to be the next president is horrifying, there is a sigh of relief that Obama survived his two terms in this America.

There is another element contributing to that relief. It emanates from the very last item included in our updated list of Obama’s top 50 accomplishments.

50. Avoided Scandal

Became the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to serve two terms with no serious personal or political scandal.

There are those who make the case that this should be #1 on the list – and they have a point. In discussing the president’s legacy, Seth Masket suggests that this one, combined with a couple of others, makes Obama an overperformer.

We’ve had presidents with pretty strong records of economic performance and legislative achievement. We’ve had presidents who have avoided major wars. We’ve had presidents who have managed to complete their terms virtually free of scandal. We’ve basically never before had someone who accomplished all of this.

He goes on to explain how – especially for African Americans – the lack of scandal has come as a relief.

It’s helpful to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent assessment of the Obama presidency to understand this. “He walked on ice but never fell,” Coates summarizes. Basically, as the first African-American president, Obama just had to be damned near perfect, knowing full well that any slip up would be taken as an indictment of African Americans overall and a confirmation of so many implicit biases.

That captures one of the more pernicious forms that racism takes in our culture today. As a white person, I would be horrified at the prospect that Donald Trump is any kind of a reflection on me. But black and brown people know that every observation about an individual who shares their race/ethnic background is a reflection on them. That is why someone like Leonard Pitts ends his goodbye to the outgoing president with this:

You have performed on the highest, most public stage there is, sir, faced headwinds unprecedented in American politics and nonstop disrespect from the GOP. But you did so with unflappable dignity, unshakable class … and urbane cool. No stench of personal scandal wafts after you as you leave office, and the country is better for your service. So allow me to say, as one African-American man to another:

Godspeed, brother. You did us proud.

But there’s a catch. In doing us proud, Khalil Gibran Muhammad points out that it wasn’t enough.

It’s true that, in fulfilling the duties of the presidency with great dignity, Mr. Obama represents the highest expression of the goal of assimilation. But for African-Americans, he was also the ultimate lesson in how this antidote alone is insufficient to heal the gaping wounds of racial injustice in America. It’s clear that black leadership, in itself, isn’t enough to transform the country. So we must confront the end of an era and the dawn of a new one.

All of Obama’s “unflappable dignity, unshakable class and urbane cool” weren’t enough to stem the tide of racism that has gripped this nation since its founding. As he expressed during his 2008 speech about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the president was never under the illusion that it would.

This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy — particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

And yet, Obama’s presidency does seem to have contributed to a sense of racial backlash – especially in the election of Donald Trump to be his successor. Jonathan Chait captured the dynamic that is at work here in his reflections after watching the movie 12 Years a Slave.

Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor. The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.

As we sigh in relief and thank Obama for doing us proud, we should also note that it was his “calm dignified competence” that posed a threat to the confederate insurgency that has arisen during his tenure as president. That should help point the way to the task that lies ahead.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.