For many Americans, Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney on Tuesday, Nov. 6, was monumental. It alleviated the qualms of those dealing with unemployment and unaffordable healthcare, as it insured personal liberties such as women’s right-to-choose and same-sex marriages. More symbolically though, President Obama’s reelection secured the hope of what was always an elusive American Dream—now characterized as post-racial, where anyone, even a black man who works hard, can achieve anything.
Some have even said that he represents the end of America’s racial fatigue and levels out the playing field. No one can claim they’re being left behind anymore.
African-Americans, in particular, believe in this dream, perhaps more so than anybody else, because it seemed so impossible for them for so long. They participated in the election in record numbers as they did in 2008, refusing to be deterred by unexpected long lines at voting sites and slews of other widely-reported voter suppression tactics employed by the GOP across the country. A New York Times exit poll showed the president received 93 percent of the black vote.
But beyond the visible manifestation of this American Dream, President Obama’s victory also represents its crippling paradox–which distorts the standard of leadership a people that has come so far and dreamed so long deserves.
Throughout his campaign and first term as Commander-in-Chief, Barack Obama has embodied the possibility of the American Dream while largely ignoring issues that malign black communities across America. He has exhibited incredible wisdom in his stewardship of the tough issues facing Americans today (terrorism, immigration, the economy), but hasn’t proposed significant programmatic plans to help eradicate those that systematically plague the majority of black people. If America is an emergency room, the black community is a patient still waiting to be examined.
Instead, vague, universal language is used by Obama and the keepers of the dream–keeping hope alive–which after all is what dreams are all about, right?
Nevertheless, the longstanding complications for blacks are well-documented. Their soaring population inside prisons, the so-called “achievement gap” in public education and chronic unemployment are just a few symptoms of their larger predicament. It is underscored by a jobless rate that reached 14.3 percent, according to the latest report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Nov. 2, 2012. That’s nearly double that of the national average of 7.9, which by American standards is considered a crisis. This is not even considering black people who linger outside of the scope of the U.S. Department of Labor’s statistics, because they have either stopped looking for work, or survive in the shadows of the Black Market economy. And it certainly doesn’t capture the growing population in and out of the prison system. So, the story of the chase so far for Black America is that things are even worse than most of us realize.
Early as January 2010, the midway point of the Obama Administration, the Economic Policy Institute—a nonpartisan economic think-tank—projected that national unemployment for blacks would reach a 25-year high, with the rates in five states exceeding 20 percent. And for blacks with college degrees, the road to prosperity didn’t appear much promising either. At the end of 2010, the reported jobless rate for college-educated blacks was 7.3 percent; and by August 2011, 46 percent of all black youth were unemployed. All statistics that, in turn, become more exacerbated when you take into account the middle-class is declining.
Not much has changed.
Yet, by and large, the black community has given President Obama’s Administration an unmitigated amnesty sealed with the belief that he simply doesn’t have time to deal with their problems. “Patience” and a “we’ll take what we can get” attitude has become the call to arms. Even when former Obama champions like Tavis Smiley and Princeton University professor, Dr. Cornel West, have urged him to pay more attention to the poor and working-class of this country, blacks themselves quelled their barks by dismissing them as “haters.”
The blind romanticism of where he’s gotten, continues to supersede what he’s doing, and for whom.
President Obama hasn’t tolerated much of the cries either. On Sept. 24, 2011, during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Phoenix Awards Dinner in Washington D.C., Obama responded to the criticism that he isn’t doing enough for black people.
“Take off your bedroom slippers,” the president said to a ballroom full of black members of Congress. “Put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do…”
This radical departure from the cool, measured responses Obama is known for delivering under pressure on other issues, revealed two correlating tragedies: the disappointment that the black community’s problems were seen as “complaining” by the first black president of the United States, and the community’s unwillingness (or perhaps inability) to marshal a relationship of accountability that compels him to have to pay attention. Every leader is required to meet the needs of all the parts of his/her constituency.
“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” Mohandas Gandhi once said, so the president’s reaction was not only irresponsible, but callous.
But if truth be told, this demonstrates the myth of the American Dream, because when measured by the reality of its most vulnerable dreamers, we see irreconcilable differences.
In his groundbreaking book, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, Tom Burrell describes this jarring racial reality as a “paradox of progress.”
“It weakens the impulse to understand or help those still scorched at the bottom of America’s melting pot,” Burrell writes. “It fuels the perception that all is well and ‘racism is dead,’ and suggests that those still wallowing in poverty made conscious choices to live in that stratum. If not, many reason, they’d simply follow Halle (Berry), Tiger (Woods), Oprah… They’d quit bellyaching, grab those bootstraps, and go to work!”
Even since the days of slavery, there have always been a few blacks who succeeded, despite the failures of the dream. There have always been some, in spite of the obstacles placed before them, who overcame and attained positions of power—and made it out of the larger condition. But even then, it often resulted in the majority being left out in the wilderness. In some ways, the continued existence of this old form of plantation politics speaks to how much work still needs to be done.
The Legacy of Black Folk
The irony of Barack Obama’s ascension exposes the false sense of inferiority that still exists in black America; a sense of inadequacy that has become so vapid that it would seem out of place and out of order to demand and expect relief from a black president. It used to be such a popular punch line—the thought of a black president—and as oxymoronic as it always seemed in black people’s eyes, one now sits inside the White House. On a pedestal that must remain undisturbed.
What then is the meaning of hip hop artist, Young Jeezy’s now-iconic line: My president is black?
This cannot be what the dream is all about. This can’t be what Ida B. Wells and those who fought for the right to vote, died for? What other community would cast its vote for any leader without a covenant?
But for black people, the relationship is convoluted and warped by their history with the American Dream; so Barack Obama is protectively packaged in the black American psyche — defined by what he can do for all Americans, while equally defined by what he can’t do for them.
Hope is pyrrhic without results.
It’s worth noting that this relationship between black president and black people in many ways has allowed those who are paying attention to see post-racial America in its proper context. When Harvard University professor, Henry Louis Gates, a friend of the president, became a victim of racial-profiling in his own home, Obama spoke out about race like never before since arriving in the Oval Office. He said the incident showed “how race remains a factor in society.” The comment drew such an avalanche of criticism, though, that it had the president doing damage-control in the aftermath. He regretted making them and said he hoped the situation could become a “teachable moment.” It could’ve been a teachable moment for Obama’s presidency, indeed. It was an opportunity not to just point out race, but a golden occasion to address police discrimination and brutality in the black community, which has been one of the most pervasive forms of systematic oppression in America, dating back to the slave era. With Stop and Frisk policies victimizing blacks all over the country, the president missed the mark in tackling the problem in a meaningful way.
The reality is he couldn’t have. He’s still bound within the rules established by the American Dream. In some ways, he too became a casualty of Stop and Frisk when the authenticity of his citizenship was called into question by “birthers” and people like Donald Trump. It created a debate that became so annoying that he, the first black president of the United States, was compelled to produce his birth-certificate.
The old adage that “no man can rise above the condition of his people” is still true today.
This is not about attaining “political” influence. Presidencies, Governorships and Mayorships are effective tools for directing resources, but are temporary and limiting, because of the terms and conditions imposed on those who sit in these offices. This is about the black community establishing an atmosphere of empowerment where cultural integrity becomes the backbone for the standard of leadership that emerges out of its collective body.
An unsettling precedent has been set. Only time will tell if black America ends up on the right side of this story. Because as Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” And so far, for the most part, that’s been the narrative for black people.
Jean McGianni Celestin, senior writer at The Haitian Times, is a New York-based writer with a focus on race, sports and politics. He holds a B.A in Political Science and Minor in History from Penn State University, and was a member of the Selected Writers Workshop at New York University. Follow him on Twitter; he can be reached at email@example.com.