It seems the palava surrounding the question of whether or not Barack Obama did his due for black folks during his presidency has resurfaced.
Was he truly for the people, or was he more concerned with preserving his legacy? While I wouldn’t say that the latter was his sole objective, I also don’t believe that Obama did as much as he could have to help black people. But to be fair, there is no one person that can undo the ills that plague the black community in a mere 8 years.
What he did do though, is something subtle, yet immensely powerful: he, by simply being who he is, gave black folks a voice.
Here me out…
There is a scene in the movie, The Butler, where the character that plays Martin Luther King Jr. tried to convince Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo) that even though his father’s job was embarrassing to him, his being a butler made him subversive. Because he was seen as dependable, kind, and poised by white people, he was doing his due to chip away at African-Americans’ perceived inferiority. Obama’s tenure as president also embodied this subtle revolution. He did not make loud proclamations nor did he start a revolution on behalf of black folks. Instead his work for the black community came from his being a mixed black man who consistently displayed careful and thoughtful rhetoric.
Before delving into how Obama’s identity and rhetoric were integral to his work for black folks, it is important to mention that Obama did enact policies that directly impacted them. A perusal of his White House Archives site reveals a list so long of these accomplishments that it became impossible to narrow them down1. Some that spring to mind though are: My Brother’s Keeper, his Private Prison Order, as black men are disproportionately incarcerated 2 , as well as his budget to eliminate funding for private colleges3. Still, policies change. They can be reversed. A president may fight tooth and nail to bring forth change through lawmaking, and another president can come in and (attempt to) undo all of the predecessor’s work. As a matter of fact, we see this happening right now.
What no one can change though, is that just by being a black man in the White House, Obama has either inadvertently or directly created a spark in black minds – specifically in black youths’ minds – that says striving for the presidency is no longer an empty dream, but rather an attainable goal. Even more important than that though, specifically as it relates to the black community, is that Obama had the audacity to use his power to shed light on the real issues that black people face in America. He unabashedly used his platform to provide a nuanced perspective of race issues, even when his words were controversial.
This was evident in the Trayvon Martin case when he boldly stated, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin”. It was pithy yet powerful, and it woke people up. It shook the souls of some, and pissed off others. But it still woke people up. By speaking those words, he, as the leader of this country, humanized Trayvon Martin, and thus humanized millions of young black boys that would otherwise be written off as thugs or troublemakers who decidedly “had it coming”.
On another occasion, during his “Speech on Race” he said, “I love my grandmother, but she, on more than one occasion, has said that she was afraid of black men.” Some may argue that other presidents have also spoken on behalf of the injustices that black people face. While that is true, no other president has been able to pair policy with personal experience. Obama’s ability to point out a major bias by using his own experiences in a mixed-race family provided an opportunity for us to check our own perceptions so that we may change them.
Obama is half black and half white. He knows the nuances of straddling two worlds; and his speech and his rhetoric embodied that. We may not be living in Jim Crow America, where overt prejudice was legal and discrimination was expected, but we do, however, live in an America where subtle prejudice and racism are prevalent and gentrification is the new normal. Obama understood this. He knew that racism in our world is oftentimes subtle, and that discrimination is difficult to legislate. He knew that he couldn’t pass laws that forbade microaggressions but that bringing awareness to them was his best bet to incite change. The president may not be able to legislate conversation, (and no one wants us to repeal the First Amendment,) but we do need to be more responsible with our rhetoric; a point Obama clearly understood.
So, in retrospect, did he do enough for black folks? No. There is still important work to be done. There are still laws to be passed. There is still prejudice to be checked. But when it was important, when it was time to speak out, and when it was time to use his identity and his experiences to offer a much-needed perspective on tense events, he never failed.