More and more I’m hearing grumbling from the black community that Obama isn’t doing enough to help us out. From not appointing a black woman to the Supreme Court (and I do agree, it’s high time that bridge gets crossed), to taking too long to give black farmers their settlement money, Obama is looking like, well, any other president. As much as I would like for him to be the Great Black Hope and focus on lifting up the black community, I recognize his reality — his political opponents are all too eager to claim he’s playing the race card or offering preferential treatment to black people because of his race. I mean, these are people who expect apologies when they get called racist for calling a black person a nigger.
Let me take a second here to explain something. I feel kind of a kinship with Obama. We are both half white, both raised by a white mother and grandparent (his grandmother, my grandfather), both grew up with little to no contact with our black fathers, and both struggled with defining ourselves in a world that wants to put you in a neat little box. When all the drama around his radical black pastor, Reverend Wright, started during the campaign, I understood why Obama would attend a church led by an ideologue like Rev. Wright. And I understood why Rev. Wright was an ideologue. Because when you’re a light skinned black person, or half white, or in any way do not fit into the mold of what people think a black person is supposed to be, you feel like you have to prove yourself. You have to fight to be black. So, many go the militant route. I speak from experience, because I became intensely interested in African-American and African history partly in response to criticism I faced from other black folks that I wasn’t “black enough”. It became my mission to learn as much as possible about our history, culture, and current situation in the world. I’m glad I did, because it enabled me to be a much better advocate for equal rights, and a much more informed opponent of racism. I just wish the impetus for my enlightenment wasn’t me trying to defend my place in the black continuum. I think Obama may have faced down the same issues I did, so I can see the position he’s coming from.
Since Obama was elected, many white people seem to think race is no longer an issue and are annoyed when PoC point out that it still is. Barack is in a delicate situation. On the one hand, he full well knows that there are serious, systemic inequities between the races that need to be addressed. But on the other, any time he focuses on race, he’s accused of, well, focusing on race. To most white people, the objective is to be “colorblind”. Just don’t talk about race and it will go away. Unfortunately, things don’t work like that. We don’t need to deny that there are differences between races. We just need to recognize that those differences don’t mean that PoC should be discriminated against, and we need to fight for equality across the board. Sometimes that entails things that white people label “reverse racism”, like affirmative action. Sometimes diversity does need to be enforced because white people aren’t going to change on their own if they don’t have to. But since we apparently now live in a “post-racial” world, in white folks’ eyes, that is tantamount to racism towards white people. It’s an unfortunate truth that most white people don’t understand institutionalized racism. They see racism as simply a one-on-one reality. If they personally don’t hate PoC, they aren’t racist. If they personally don’t discriminate against PoC, racism doesn’t exist. If there’s a black president, we’ve made all the gains we need to to have equality between the races. Being white is a very self-centered identity.
So Obama must walk the tightrope between the actual realities of race dynamics and what white people think those realities are. Whereas our white presidents consistently focused on improving the situations of the members of their race, it was not seen that way by white people, because white is the default. If Obama spent his time focusing on issues that affect only black people or other PoC, he would be seen as being “racist” towards white people, or a militant ideologue. It doesn’t matter how small the issue is. To avoid that labeling, he must avoid race for the most part. He is constantly reminded that he has to govern for all citizens, and in America the majority of the citizens are white.
I want Obama to be bold and deal with racial issues head on. I want him to focus on creating equality between the races. But the fact is, he’s a politician. His job depends on keeping white people placated. So I don’t expect much different from him as far as racial issues than I would from any other President. Am I disappointed? Of course. Surprised? No.