And although it seems heaven sent
We ain’t ready, to see a black President, uhh
It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact
The penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks
But some things will never change
– Tupac Shakur, Changes
I remember 2008 as clearly as if it were just last year. I was one of those reluctant Afropessimists, so convinced that this nation would never vote a black man in as president of the United States. He won the Iowa Caucus, and I was still skeptical, among my friends. Will.I.Am gave us the Yes, We Can mashup, and I was perplexed by the wave of hope so many began generating. It wasn’t until the Democratic National Convention that year that made me start to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Dave Stewart’s American Prayer video ode to Obama used to tear me up (if I’m being honest it still does – for different reasons today), and I cried, whooped, hollered and cheered with everyone else on Election Night when the “unthinkable” happened.
The euphoria was so sustaining that when I drove over the speed limit on I-87 North on my way to a speaking engagement the following day, I had no fear of being pulled over by the state troopers (nor of any consequences if I did). What a difference eight years make! The only disturbance that day was when I made a wrong turn upon arriving at the venue, which prompted some yelling from a car full of young white men, who were inaudible over my triumphant music playing in my car. “Oops, sorry…I ain’t sorry” was my own sentiment at the time as I ignored them and drove off to park, having perfected a “Boy Bye” attitude years before Beyoncé’s “Sorry” anthem.
Didn’t you know? We just elected our first black president, and a new day was dawning!
It is thoroughly amazing the way we imbue our symbols with so much power, so much so that it even momentarily transformed my pessimism into optimism and hope.
That quickly dissipated for me on Inauguration Day 2009. Hundreds of thousands came to D.C. to witness the historic moment. So many of our older African Americans made the trip in the freezing cold to taste a bit of history. The Nation’s magazine cover imagined a pantheon of black spirits past – Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Emmett Till, the four little girls bombed in Birmingham, et. al. – on the steps there with him. And with all that good will and promise, President Obama said nothing about race or about the symbolic moment he represented in his speech.
Again, I expressed my pessimism to my more hopeful friends and family. Did he really think all those people traveled to biting cold Washington, D.C. just to celebrate him, the individual, versus him, the symbol? Why did he try to downplay race?
As it turned out, this would be our president’s regular response to race and racism: reluctance. When his friend, esteemed Harvard public scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested for “breaking in” to his own home, President Obama called the arresting officer “stupid,” rather than address the problem of racial profiling at its core. The backlash from white police officers and their allies prompted the infamous “beer summit,” in which our first black president thought a nice sit-down would solve our racial problems.
Then came the more outrageous conservative politicians, the disrespectful “You lie!” hurled during his State of the Union address. When former president Jimmy Carter tried to intervene and call out the racism, our black president dismissed the claims. More pessimism on my part: Anyone who knows anything about how race works in America knows that when a white ally speaks up against racism, you let them do the heavy work of using their privilege to “talk to their people,” as this clearly frees you up to do more pressing work. As Toni Morrison rightly notes, racism is but a “distraction” to keep you from doing your work.
It wasn’t just this rejection of white allies who would dare to address racism when he would not, but it was also clear that when black people addressed it, his administration was quick to silence and repress, as with the case of Shirley Sherrod, whose words were twisted and distorted against her by conservatives.
Somehow, despite these setbacks and a raving right-wing party driven to prevent his re-election, Obama prevailed over Mitt Romney in 2012. Again, here is the illusion of a nation “ready for a black president.” But were we ever really? History will clarify this point years down the line. What we should note, however, is both the insistence on his white opponents (from Senator Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign in 2008 to Senator John McCain’s general election campaign later that year to Romney’s campaign in 2012) to rest on their so-called laurels of whiteness to galvanize them over his black excellence (and failing spectacularly) and the brilliance of a campaigning Obama, who knows how to tap into our perpetual hope and optimism and Americans’ desperate desire to believe in our self-projected image of freedom, equality, and democracy. This desire is so palpable, we often ignore what else is simultaneously brewing amidst these messages of hope.
From my own pessimistic side eye, I had witnessed the online messages of gleeful white extremists who anticipated the increase in their ranks with a black presidency, the FBI reports of how such extremists had infiltrated law enforcement, how with each election of Obama came an increase in the sales and stockpiling of ever-available guns and assault weapons. Is it any wonder that he presided over more than a dozen mass shootings during his tenure? Is it any wonder that a militarized police has been unfairly targeting black men, women and children, as well as other marginalized peoples: Native Americans, Latinxs, disabled?
I write this reflection in the wake of watching The President and the People, a townhall that aired Thursday night on Disney’s affiliated TV stations, including ABC network. Once again, I am witnessing a president – coming to the end of his two-term tenure – still reluctant to use words like race and racism when addressing police and gun violence, as Kimberlé Crenshaw noted in a Facebook post while also blasting him for centering black men in his mention of the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative that ignores #SayHerName and other campaigns highlighting the impact of such violence on black women and girls.
Such racial reluctance is dangerous, as we are seeing. We must be able to name the problem, or nothing will be resolved. And, as we have been learning these past eight years, symbols are not enough to effect “hope” and “change we can believe in.”
Having said that, I must push back against some commentators on Black Twitter, who have rightly expressed frustrations over the President’s carefully controlled remarks during this townhhall that came down the middle in the constructed divide between “Black Lives” versus “Blue Lives” (a false equivalence between a career choice versus an entire race of people). Yes, as some have noted, far too many of “the People” are expecting one black man to overturn 400 years of racial oppression. However, symbols have their own power, as was seen when President Obama’s remarks over the unjust murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman precipitated the volatile breakdown in racial responses to this incident. Up until he offered the words, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” most responses were sympathetic about what had occurred to Trayvon Martin. Unfortunately, after our president’s comments, this prompted Fox News and other conservative outlets to galvanize support for Zimmerman, who was assisted in fundraising for a good defense team that went up against a lackluster prosecution.
Let us remember: Black Lives Matter was birthed in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal on June 13, 2013, and the repetitive nature of witnessing video-recorded police shootings since then has spawned an international movement. But just as the FBI and various law enforcement officials are starting to criminalize BLM in the wake of the Dallas shootings, we are in need of a leader who must call out the underlying problem of white supremacist violence and toxic masculinity underlying these divides. This comes with a leadership willing to be truthful about our nation’s history and present. It must be willing to confront the deep-seated rage that currently manifests in weapon-stockpiling, police crackdowns and the civilians who call them in as reinforcement, mass shootings, and the rise in Republican candidates like Donald Trump – all manifestations that certainly cropped up as a result of a black presidency, not despite of it.
It is quite easy to become ever more pessimistic about race in America, but every Afropessimist stores up in their imagination creative visions to dig our way out of the tunnel of darkness toward light. After all, our black ancestors witnessed far worse. Perhaps this moment reflects the growing pains of living under a “first.” Perhaps it will be years (or decades) before we get our next black president. Black or another non-white, whoever that person may be, let us hope we can learn from this history. Next time, maybe we will develop a Department of Racial Justice, the way that the Homeland Security Office emerged post-September 11. We need more than one individual, more than a symbol, to fix this.permission.