Where, exactly, did people get the idea that President Obama was supposed to end racism?
At a recent commencement address at historically black Howard University, Obama noted that his election did not, in fact, create a post-racial society. “I don’t know who was propagating that notion. That was not mine,” he said.
This remark stopped me for a moment because, well, didn’t he? Wasn’t he The One we’d been waiting for? Wasn’t Obama the quintessential biracial figure who would put racial differences in a lockbox for all time?
This was the narrative, to be sure. But, if not Obama’s, then whose?
In retrospect, it was mine, yours, ours. White people, especially in the media, created this narrative because we loved and needed it. Psychologists call it projection. We made Obama into the image of the right sort of fellow. He was, as Shelby Steele wrote in 2008, a “bargainer,” who promised white people to “never presume that you are racist if you will not hold my race against me.”
Obama wasn’t so much the agent of change as he was the embodiment of a post-racial America as whites imagined it.
But Obama’s message, beginning with his 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, has always suggested that he would be at least a messenger of unity, which sounded an awful lot like post-racial. “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America,” he said.
I’ve previously noted that there was a fair bit of nonsense in that 2004 Obama speech. However, that speech did not, by any reasonable standard, imply that Obama would be a “post-racial” leader, and anyone, Parker included, who heard a “post-racial” subtext in the message must have had some strange music playing in the background.
Parker appears to be blaming Obama for her mistaken interpretation of that 2004 speech:
That many interpreted Obama’s message as post-racial made some kind of sense. The divide between red and blue states may be seen as also splitting along racial lines in some cases.
Eight years after being elected as the first black president of a majority-white nation, Obama is shrugging off any responsibility for having contributed to the post-racial expectation. Is this because, racially, things actually seem worse? But what if they weren’t? What if there had been no “Black Lives Matter” movement, no Trayvon Martin, no Freddie Gray, or any of the others who were killed by police in the past few years, or, in Martin’s case, by a vigilante?
I’m guessing he’d have grabbed that narrative in a bear hug and given it a great, big, sloppy kiss. His remarks to a graduating class, instead of disavowing that silly post-racial thing, would have celebrated his greatest achievement — the healing of America.
It’s interesting that Parker says “The divide between red and blue states may be seen as also splitting along racial lines in some cases” because, in the Shelby Steele op-ed she quotes, the right-wing African-American pundit scornfully observes:
On the level of public policy, [Obama] was quite unremarkable. His economics were the redistributive axioms of old-fashioned Keynesianism; his social thought was recycled Great Society.
Had Obama been a right-wing Republican (instead of, as former Reagan advisor Bruce Bartlett has argued, a Democrat who is “essentially…what used to be called a liberal Republican before all such people disappeared from the GOP”), both Steele and Parker would be hailing him as a man who had healed all of America’s historic wounds, who had indisputably united the country across the lines of class and race, who had honored the legacy of Lincoln. The remarks of Parker and Steele are repulsive because they reveal the nexus of politics and race that has always driven the right’s opprobrium towards Obama.
If you’re old enough to remember the Reagan-era promotion of right-wing African-American figures such as Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Walter E. Williams and Alan Keyes (Steele didn’t become a major name on the right until the George H. W. Bush years), you’ll remember that right-wing white commentators would constantly push the idea that Thomas, Sowell, Williams and Keyes were the “real” voices of the African-American community, as opposed to, say, Jesse Jackson. The right’s rhetoric about the so-called “Democratic plantation” is an offshoot of this sort of thinking: right-wingers really do believe that where it not for chicanery on the part of Democrats, the vast majority of African-Americans would be on the Republican team.
The folks who promoted this narrative about right-wing African-Americans being the only “authentic” voices in the African-American community never got over the fact that Barack Obama discredited their arguments. They cannot stand the fact that the first African-American President is a Democrat; had Obama shared the Thomas/Sowell/Williams/Keyes vision of the world, right-wing whites would have defended him just as ferociously as they have attacked him since the late-2000s.
Parker assumes her readers are stupid. She doesn’t think her audience fully understands that she would be glorifying Obama as a healer and hero if his politics were closer to hers. Her column is one of the year’s most deceitful to date.
UPDATE: From 2004, Benjamin Wallace-Wells on Obama’s DNC address.