It comes as absolutely no surprise that the BBC’s correspondent in New York should write a fawning piece about Barack Obama’s “legacy” regarding race relations, but it’s worth taking a look anyway.
Barack Obama sealed his racial legacy the moment he sealed victory in the 2008 election – a black man would occupy a White House built by slaves, a history-defying as well as history-making achievement.
On this point I am in agreement: the election of a black man to the office of the US President was indeed hugely symbolic, and in some ways very important. On that basis alone, Obama’s Presidency will go down in history.
In 1961, the year of Obama’s birth, there existed in the American South a system of racial apartheid that separated the races from the cradle to the grave.
In some states, his very conception – involving an African father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas – would have been a criminal offence.
Thus demonstrating that governments can and do get things catastrophically wrong when they adopt policies based on race. Some of us believe governments should therefore refrain from doing so altogether, but alas we appear to be in the minority.
Little more than half a century later, a black man ran the White House – occupying the Oval Office, sitting at the head of the conference table in the Situation Room, relaxing with his beautiful young family in the Executive Mansion – a family that has brought such grace and glamour to America’s sleepy capital that it is possible to speak of a Black Camelot.
America’s sleepy capital that has a murder rate of 60 per 100,000 population, a rate of forcible rape of 53.4, and is the 13th most dangerous city in which to live and work in the US. I’ll come to the “grace and glamour” bit in a minute.
In legacy terms, his very presence in the White House is one of the great intangibles of his presidency. Just how many black Americans have been encouraged to surmount colour bars of their own? Just how many young African-Americans have altered the trajectory of their lives because of the example set by Obama?
To the nearest approximation? None.
And behaviourally, what an example it has been. Because of the lingering racism in American society, the Obamas doubtless knew they would have to reach a higher standard, and they have done so, seemingly, without breaking a sweat.
I agree with the author that Obama has barely broken a sweat during his Presidency, save perhaps when he was playing golf instead of addressing crises of national importance. That’s half the problem: he seemed to think attaining office was the job. But the idea that “lingering racism” propelled the Obamas to set higher standards raises a few questions. Such as “What standards?”
In deportment and personal conduct, it is hard to recall a more impressive or well-rounded First Family.
Well, judgements as to a family’s deportment and personal conduct are best made by those closest to them, not sycophantic journalists who receive only carefully arranged photoshoots, pre-written speeches, and filtered information. Let’s wait until the Obamas are gone from the White House, their contemporaries retire, and the memoirs begin to appear. Taking part in Carpool Karaoke and making saccharine speeches when the cameras are rolling doesn’t tell us much; how Michelle treated the kitchen staff will. And insofar as class and grace is concerned, didn’t George W. Bush and his wife exemplify that as a First Family? Leaving his policies aside – as we are with Obama on this point – Bush was unfailingly polite and dignified and I don’t think anyone had a bad word to say about him as a person, nor his wife.
The “when they go low, we go high” approach to racists who questioned his citizenship has made the Obamas look even more classy.
“When they go low, we go high” was not an approach with which the Obama’s dealt with racists, it was what Michelle Obama used as a rallying cry during her campaigning for Hillary, only for her husband to prove the exact opposite when his policies were roundly rejected by the electorate a short time later. If I know this, why doesn’t the BBC correspondent in New York?
Also, why is it racist to question Obama’s citizenship? Look, I don’t subscribe to the whole “birther” thing, but if there are certain criteria which must be met when running for President of the USA, then why is it wrong to ensure a candidate is legible? One would have thought there would be a US governmental body that ensures a candidate’s eligibility as a matter of course, but apparently there isn’t hence speculation abounds. This is something that needs fixing a lot more urgently than the Electoral College.
His family’s dignity in the face of such ugliness recalls the poise of black sit-in protesters in the early 60s, who refused to relinquish their seats…
Indeed, Obama does come across as somebody extremely reluctant to relinquish his seat. Even if we take the reporter’s comments about Obama’s dignity in power at face value, what about during the transition and afterwards? At the rate he’s going, and if he and his wife don’t learn to stop carping from the sidelines, his family are going to look about as dignified and classy as the Kardashians before too long.
America’s racial problems have not melted away merely because Obama has spent eight years in the White House. Far from it.
Well yes. We did notice.
Indeed, the insurmountable problem for Obama was that he reached the mountaintop on day one of his presidency.
As I said: attaining power was the job. Obama knew everything about getting elected and nothing about governance. He didn’t even seem interested in it.
Achieving anything on the racial front that surpassed becoming the country’s first black president was always going to be daunting.
True. But not making things worse should have been achievable.
Compounding that problem were the unrealistically high expectations surrounding his presidency.
Expectations based on empty “hope and change” promises made during his campaign.
His election triumph is 2008 was also misinterpreted as an act of national atonement for the original sin of slavery and the stain of segregation.
Ah, so you mean it wasn’t as symbolic as everyone made out?
Yet Obama did not win the election because he was a black man.
Indeed. And Hillary didn’t lose because she was a woman.
Doubtless there have been substantive reforms. His two black attorneys general, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, have revitalised the work of the justice department’s civil rights division, which was dormant during the Bush years.
Those Bush years which were presumably full of civil rights abuses, race riots, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement?
The Affordable Healthcare Act, or Obamacare, as it was inevitably dubbed, cut the black uninsured rate by a third.
Because healthcare policies are best judged in terms of race.
Partly in a bid to reverse the rate of black incarceration, he has commuted the sentences of hundreds of prisoners – 10 times the number of his five predecessors added together.
He’s helped black people by releasing black criminals back into their communities at unprecedented rates. This is apparently something America’s first black President should be praised for.
As well as calling for the closure of private prisons, he became the first president to visit a federal penitentiary. “There but for the grace of God,” said a man who had smoked pot and dabbled with cocaine in his youth.
Thus reinforcing the belief that the American justice system is so stacked against black men that only good luck can keep them out of prison. Again, this is something we are supposed to be praising.
Race relations have arguably become more polarised and tenser since 20 January 2009.
Though smaller in scale and scope, the demonstrations sparked by police shootings of unarmed black men were reminiscent of the turbulence of the 1960s.
Indeed, we need to go back 50 years before we see a country so fraught with racial tensions as today’s America.
The toxic cloud from the tear gas unleashed in Ferguson and elsewhere cast a long and sometimes overwhelming shadow. Not since the LA riots in 1992 – the violent response to the beating of Rodney King and the later acquittal of the police officers filmed assaulting him – has the sense of black grievance and outrage been so raw.
Historians will surely be struck by what looks like an anomaly, that the Obama years gave rise to a movement called Black Lives Matter.
Alternatively, historians might be cruel enough to identify a direct link between Obama’s words and actions and the increase in race-related violence in America during his time in charge.
Public opinion surveys highlight this racial restlessness. Not long after he took office in 2009, a New York Times/CBS News poll suggested two-thirds of Americans regarded race relations as generally good. In the midst of last summer’s racial turbulence, that poll found there had been a complete reversal. Now 69% of Americans assessed race relations to be mostly bad.
The title of this piece is “Barack Obama legacy: Did he improve US race relations?” He got there in the end, but I think that question has now been answered.
An oft-heard criticism of Obama is that he has failed to bring his great rhetorical skills to bear on the American dilemma, and prioritised the LGBT community’s campaign for equality at the expense of the ongoing black struggle.
Another oft-heard criticism is that pandering to “victim” groups and dabbling in identity politics is pretty much all he ever did.
But while he was happy to cloak himself in the mantle of America’s first black president, he did not set out to pursue a black presidency. He did not want his years in office to be defined by his skin colour.
Strange, considering that’s all he and his supporters ever talked about.
His famed race speech in the 2008 primary campaign, when his friendship with a fiery black preacher threatened to derail his candidacy, was as much about his white heritage as his black.
A white heritage that he wheeled out when it suited him and never mentioned it again.
Besides, there were pressing problems to deal with, not least rescuing the American economy in the midst of the Great Recession and extricating US forces from two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
How did that withdrawal from Iraq go in the end?
Rather in those early years, it was as if he was trying to position himself as a neutral arbiter in racial matters, though one sensed his preference was for not intervening at all.
As his presidency went on, however, it became more emphatically black. He spoke out more passionately and more intimately.
And by sheer coincidence, race relations plummeted to their lowest levels in half a century.
Telling reporters that his son would have looked like Trayvon Martin, the unarmed high school student shot dead in Florida by a neighbourhood watch coordinator, was a departure.
Ah yes, taking sides in the middle of an ongoing investigation and attempting to influence the outcome. That was a departure, all right.
But that month Donald Trump had also announced his improbable bid for the White House, and the forces of conservatism were starting to rally behind an outspoken new figurehead, who sensed that nativism, xenophobia and fear of the other would be central to his electoral appeal.
He also sensed people were fed up with Obama and his politics.
That America’s first black president will be followed by the untitled leader of the Birther movement, a candidate slow to disavow support from the Ku Klux Klan and happy to receive the backing of white nationalists,
Trump was slow to disavow support from the KKK? As Wikipedia would say: citation needed. You might as well claim Obama was slow to disavow support from the Black Panthers.
Donald Trump can easily be portrayed as a personal repudiation and also proof of racial regression.
True, but not as easily as somebody who has seen race relations deteriorate over eight years in charge while he relentlessly pursued race-based policies.
The truth, though, is more complicated.
Yes, it is, isn’t it?
Obama is ending his presidency with some of his highest personal approval ratings, and clearly believes he would have beaten Trump in a head-to-head contest.
And Connor McGregor thinks he could beat Floyd Mayweather.
Moreover, although Trump won decisively in the electoral college, almost three million people more voted for Hillary Clinton nationwide.
“Nationwide” meaning “mostly in California”.
But the black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a persuasive case that Obama has always been overly optimistic on race, in large part because he did not have a conventional black upbringing.
His formative years were spent in Hawaii, America’s most racially integrated state, and the whites he encountered, namely his mother and grandparents, were doting and loving.
Obama was not the victim of discrimination in the same way as a black kid growing up in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, or even New York or Illinois. As a result, he may have underestimated the forces that would seek to paralyse his presidency and to impede racial advance more broadly.
Indeed, that’s why so many people saw his visiting prisons and saying “There but for the grace of God”, and claiming Trayvon Martin could have been his son, as empty political posturing which only inflamed racial tensions.
Indeed, Trump’s victory, messy though it was, can easily be viewed partly as a “whitelash”.
Much of his earliest and strongest support came from so-called white nationalists, who saw in his candidacy the chance to reassert white cultural and racial dominance. Some of the loudest cheers at his rallies came in response his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim invectives.
Why, it’s almost as if eight years of racial politics under Obama has ushered in a new era of…racial politics. There’s Obama’s legacy right there: getting white people to vote along racial lines. Well done, Barack!
The BBC spends part of its £3.5bn tax on British owners of televisions to pay for reporters to sit in New York and pen articles like this. Worth every penny, I’m sure.