Barack Obama and the Legacy of Reconstruction

Is Barack Obama right that race relations are not worsening now?

New Yorker contributor Dorothy Wickenden posed this question during a podcast conversation with Eric Foner and Jelani Cobb a few weeks ago. She was referencing statements the President made about whether state violence against black men represented a downturn in race relations. “From the perspective of African Americans, or Latinos in poor communities,” the President said, “who have been dealing with this all their lives, they wouldn’t suggest somehow that it’s worse now than it was ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago.” The podcast itself is about the legacies of Reconstruction and the legacies of the Obama Presidency. The conversation becomes, essentially, one about what President Obama has accomplished and how his policies and his presidency have influenced black lives.

The question about Barack Obama and race relations is a bad one. Understanding what black peoples’ lives look like today requires that we take a long view of history and a broad view of power and disempowerment. Obama’s statements about black peoples’ reactions to violence come across as insensitive, but they emerge from a dialogue that substitutes the vague concept of race relations for the real feelings of individuals and communities have about real problems. The insensitivity of the answer follows from that of the implied question. Jelani Cobb makes the key point that the conversation needs to be about racism, rather than the meaningless, though oft-invoked idea of race relations.

At first, the basic premise of the conversation–juxtaposing Reconstruction and the Obama presidency–seems strange. And, of course, it’s problematic to reduce the President’s legacy to his failure to conquer racism. The legacies of Reconstruction have been being shaped for a century and a half. Those legacies were defined in many ways by the limits of the Thirteenth Amendment, which explicitly permitted involuntary servitude when used “as a punishment for crime.” But Cobb and Foner help mold the conversation into one that underlines compelling parallels and shows that the strange connection has legs beyond the sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s end. Notably, our political dialogue is plagued by fears about Southern, and conservative, victimization, as well as anxieties that the creation of equality represents an oppression of the privileged.

History, Cobb says, lends itself to “extended paraphrases.” Juxtaposing Reconstruction and the Obama presidency can help highlight the endurance of structural racism and perhaps explain why we struggle to have a real conversation about it. What was important then, and is now, was not friendly relations across a color line, but rather the circumstances that make life more difficult and dangerous on one side of that line. Understanding the limits of emancipation and of Obama’s policies gives us a long lens through which to think about what the law, and what any President, can actually accomplish. In Reconstruction, in the 150 years since Appomattox, and today, we have seen too often the failures of both national and local governments to promote equality, failures that make a conversation about race relations irrelevant. We might think of the past six years as a strange reflection of Reconstruction, two eras in which selective black achievement allows too many people to accept the violent suppression of black freedom.

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Christopher Bonner

Christopher Bonner is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He specializes in African American history, particularly black protest in the early United States. He is at work on a manuscript titled “The Price of Citizenship,” which examines black activists’ efforts to construct American citizenship before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Follow him on Twitter @63cjb.