Is black America genuinely strong enough to deal with the results of an Obama presidency?
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Over the past year and a half, according to national polls and political pundits, black America has revised its opinion about the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama from “Well, whoop-tee-do!” to “Run Obama Run.”
African Americans now celebrate as he takes the podium in Denver to officially become the Democratic candidate for president, and just possibly in November become America’s first black president. (Note: The one-drop rule for being “black” is still in full effect.)
But should black folk celebrate this historic moment? If elected to the nation’s highest office, President Obama will likely be unable to effectively address problems that disproportionately affect black Americans.
Obama’s campaign has already been under intense scrutiny about how “black” it is. Just one example occurred this past February when Obama’s wife, Michelle Obama, said “for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country” referring to her feeling that America was poised for positive change. Her husband’s critics descended like a vortex of angry hornets.
The next day Cindy McCain, the wife of Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, volunteered: “I just wanted to make the statement that I have and always will be proud of my country.”
Of course, those words come easily to Mrs. McCain: She is rich, white– and blond. But for black Americans who, like all Americans, carry in their pockets portraits of slave-holder dead presidents– George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson– to be blindly patriotic is to be blind to important parts of American history. It is to be blind to their personal experience, which is pockmarked with injustices due to the color of their skin.
True: The issues page of Obama’s official campaign website addresses the war in Iraq, the economy and health care, but unlike McCain’s website, Obama’s website addresses civil rights in ways that seem to have particular relevance to black Americans. In that section he promises to “ban racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal incentives to state and local police departments to prohibit the practice” and “Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing… job training, substance abuse and mental health counseling to ex-offenders, so that they are successfully re-integrated into society.
But if elected president, how far would he get in implementing these reforms before he’d be accused of instituting a “black agenda”? (The term “black agenda” was actually cited on National Public Radio by a Florida voter as a reason some people won’t vote for Obama.)
If Obama is elected, mainstream America will watch him like a hawk, and it’s easy to suppose that progress will stall for the neediest segment of black America.
I base my assumption on my observations of a vocal segment of my countrymen. In January 2007 for instance, in a conversation on a radio talk show about the two head coaches at the Super Bowl (both black), a caller who identified himself as white said, “Now they’ll finally have their black Super Bowl coach no matter what. What more do they want!?”
In a March 2006 review of race in television that ran in a prominent newspaper, the critic mentioned the program Grey’s Anatomy, noting:
“For obvious historic reasons, networks are geared to be most attuned to African-American concerns. Some shows try a little too hard: Grey’s Anatomy, set in Seattle, has among its lead characters three African-American surgeons and one Asian-American… ”
It’s likely that the person who tried “a little too hard,” was not a network executive, but Shonda Rhimes, the creator and producer of the drama, who is black. But of course the television critic didn’t know that.
In 2002 Pat Oliphant, the Pulitzer prize-winning political cartoonist, drew a strip about slavery reparations. I’ve tried to find an online copy of the cartoon, but it seems to have vanished like an entry in the old Soviet encyclopedia. Still, accounts by the Associated Press and the Student Press Law Center confirm my memory of the strip: In it Oliphant depicts a conversation between Abraham Lincoln and an adviser. Lincoln is offering black people civil rights, affirmative action and “all sorts of other preferential entitlements.” (I was tickled to see Mr. Oliphant refer to civil rights as a “preferential” entitlement.)
In the strip the advisor tells Lincoln, “They want all that and the money.” In the corner of one panel, Oliphant’s trademark penguin adds, “They also demand the Academy Awards.”
If Obama is elected president, mainstream America will likely say, “You black people have your Miss Americas. You have your black Super Bowl coach. You even have your Academy Award winners. And now, finally, you have your black president. What more do you want!?”
While it’s unlikely McCain will do anything to address problems specific to black America, it’s unlikely Obama will be able to. No matter who is elected, the new administration will inaugurate a new era for native-born Americans of African decent. They will have to engage their full powers of analysis to figure out effective strategies for economic, political and educational progress. Regardless of who becomes president, black America will need to not only put on its collective thinking cap, but fasten its collective seat belt, because the next few years will be a very bumpy ride.