Barack Obama, Race, and the Jackie Robinson Ethos

One of the most memorable lines ever written about Barack Obama’s presidency came from Ta-Nehisi Coates. Referring specifically to how Obama handled racism during his tenure, Coates wrote that “For eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell.”

I thought of that when I read a transcript of the interview Jeffrey Goldberg did with Obama’s foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes about his book, The World as It Is. Rhodes said that racism was the “white noise” that was always there in the background of the administration.

Yeah, [as] I described in the book, I really didn’t mean it to be a pun, but basically racism was like white noise to us, in that it was ever-present. It was so omnipresent for all eight years that it’s not that we sat around and talked about it, but it would come out in these kind of moments where we’d be prepping him for like an interview or press conference where we’d say, “You may be asked whether the opposition to you is motivated by race.” And he’d be like, “Yes, of course it is. Next question.” And he wasn’t going to say that publicly.

In response to a question about why he didn’t say that kind of thing publicly, Rhodes talked about the lesson Obama learned early in his presidency from the Skip Gates incident. You might remember that Gates was the guy who was arrested in his own home. When asked about the incident, Obama said the arrest was stupid and, as Rhodes put it, the blowback was insane. Here’s how he described Obama’s reaction:

And he’s like, “I cannot do this every couple weeks. I’m trying to get us out of a financial crisis. I’m trying to get us out of some wars. I can’t afford this spectacle. . . .”

The point . . . is I describe it as he had kind of a Jackie Robinson ethos, which is, “I’m the first African American to do this, so I have to do this job better, twice as good as a like, white person would have to, and I have to take all this stuff and keep my head down. I think late in his presidency he started to find new ways to talk about this. I think if you look at his speech at Charleston, his visit to the prisons, his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, his efforts with criminal justice reform, he found a voice to talk about these things the last year or two that was different, and part of that was, I think, experience, and part of that was we weren’t in a financial crisis anymore.

Obama knew several things that are pretty common knowledge for people of color. First of all, his eight years in office would never be evaluated simply on the basis of being president. For all of history he will be the first African American president of the United States. What other presidents did/didn’t accomplish would be their own legacy. His would reflect on the entire African American community.

Secondly, the old saying sticks around because its true. As the first African American president, Obama would have to perform twice as well as a white person to even have a chance of being judged equally. That was true even though he inherited a financial crisis and two wars. Whenever anyone attempts to evaluate what Obama did/didn’t accomplish during his first term, I always remind them that he was hands on and knee deep in one of the worst quagmires any president ever walked in to.

Given all of that, Obama decided that he didn’t have time for the insane blowback that came every time he uttered the most non-threatening comment about the racism that formed the “white noise” of his entire presidency. Rhodes points out that eventually Obama found a way to talk about the noise. But notice that it was never just “talk” about racism. It was about the promise of “amazing grace,” prison and criminal justice reform and efforts like his My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

Eventually Rhodes explained an opening in himself, as a white man, that resulted from his years of working for Obama.

It was white people who thought that Barack Obama’s election was going to transform race in America and not largely African American people, certainly not the Obamas. They never believed that, because of the lived experience of being an African American in this country.

And so he was far more acutely aware of racism in this country than I was, you know. And far more aware of the forces that might lead to Trumpism, and the fact — I remember some anecdotes of hearing where I was at . . . events in Washington and kind of casual racism that shocked me but it wouldn’t shock him at all, that would happen. I think what I came to see, when I became closer and closer to him, is there is an understanding of the omnipresence of racism in American society that I, as a white person, didn’t fully appreciate until I worked for the first African American president.

I appreciate Rhodes’s willingness to talk about that so honestly and recognize the truth of what he is saying. I too spent many years working primarily with African Americans and had my eyes opened to the “omnipresence of racism in American society.” One of the tricks we pull on each other is the way that white supremacy hides that reality and leads to a denial of the lived experience of people of color.

Rhodes isn’t the first one to compare Barack Obama to Jackie Robinson. The two of them made some similar choices about how to handle being a “first.” Rather than talk about racism, both of them set out to demonstrate the lie of white supremacy by being the best at their chosen profession. I’m sure that neither Obama nor Robinson would criticize a black person who chose a different path. But that in no way detracts from the courage it took for each of them to do it their own way. For Barack Obama, that meant walking on ice for eight years and never falling.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.