I’ve always been an apologist for Barack Obama since reading Audacity of Hope shortly after it was published in 2006. I think he’s the most careful and sophisticated interpreter of and proponent for deliberate democracy to be elected president in over a century. I was therefore really excited to receive the first substantive edition of his presidential addresses, We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama (Bloomsbury, 2017), edited by E. J. Dionne and Joy-Ann Reid. It was a rewarding experience to read through some of these classic speeches, many of which still move me today. Found within those words is the message of hope and change that first made me interested in presidential politics–not to mention awaken me from my previous political views–and it reaffirmed my proud feeling for having supported Obama for the past four years. Compared to the words and orders currently coming out of the White House, Obama’s message felt like healing balm.
But I must admit that I’ve become increasingly skeptical concerning the power of Obama’s overall narrative of hope. I’ve blogged previously about how the President embodied only one tradition within the black political legacy, and that it actually diverged in significant ways from the radical message of more prophetic voices like Martin Luther King Jr. Obama’s message of hope draws from the classically liberal philosophy of progressive change over time, the fervent belief that society is moving toward a better good, despite temporary reverses and roadblocks. No matter America’s shortcomings in the past, her ideals still hold pure today, and the goal for the reformer is to better align the America’s reality with America’s principles. On the other hand, the prophetic tradition, as exemplified by those who pushed for Civil Rights, believed that humanity tended toward sin and corruption, that society was prone for stagnation, and that change only came through radical action. Theirs was not a message of hope but of direct protest.
Besides Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose Between the World and Me is a manifesto for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, is the most persuasive voices for this prophetic voice today. His story is much more gritting, realistic, and often has little room for Obama’s optimism. Indeed, Coates’s phenomenal long-form Atlantic article last year, “My President Was Black,” argued that Obama could only be elected because he wasn’t from this more pessimistic tradition.
But another significant voice is Eddie Glaude, who teaches religion and African American studies at Princeton. It was quite a juxtaposition, then, that the same weekend I (re-)read Obama’s famous addresses I also read Glaude’s fantastic Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (Crown, 2016). (I know, I know; I’m a year late.) In many ways, the latter is meant to be a direct indictment of the first. Glaude, while acknowledging much of what Obama accomplished and symbolized, still identified him as a “confidence man” who “sold black America the snake oil of hope and change” by saying what the nation wanted, rather than what we needed, to hear. Most of his policies, including the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, were merely “a Band-Aid for a gunshot wound.” Glaude didn’t mince words. Most chapters identified structural problems with American society, rooted them within historical and cultural contexts, and then emphasized Obama’s inability and unwillingness to actually address either.
At the center of Obama’s shortcoming, according to Glaude, is his commitment to an American ideal. A metaphor of American exceptionalism, the belief that underneath the struggles there are transcendent American values. As a firm believer in the nation’s democratic ideals, Obama, like many white liberals, casts the country’s problems as “aberrations” rather than concluding that “inequality and racial habits are part of the American Idea.” Specifically, white supremacy–which Glaude defines as “the way a society organizes itself” based on “a set of practices informed by the fundamental belief that white people are valued more than others”–has always been the governing mechanism of America’s political tradition. A failure to recognize that foundational fact renders any reform effort as inadequate. Instead of addressing entrenched racial habits embedded in society, we instead perform “racial theater” whenever a particular moment of race violence crops up, only to return to the status quo weeks later. That Obama’s tepid remarks following the episodes of Jeremiah Wright, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown are heralded as landmark addresses only shows the depressingly low boundary for discourse. Here’s Glaude on Obama’s speeches concerning race:
For much of his presidency, Obama constantly contorted to avoid the racial land mines of American politics. The acrobatics affirmed the troublesome idea that serious engagement with racial inequality in this country is anathema. The irony is glaring, isn’t it? The first black president can’t call attention to the racial habits that get in the way of genuine democracy, but his election can read some to believe the illusion that we are post-racial.
It is in this way that Obama’s presidency could be as much a hindrance to black equality as an accelerant. Conservatives can proclaim that we have made progress by electing an African American POTUS, yet little progress toward racial rights actually take place. In Obama’s reticence to inflict “white fear,” the inevitable backlash to steps toward racial equality, he was severely limited in what he could say and accomplish. He constantly had to reaffirm that he was “not the President of Black America”–as if there haven’t been plenty presidents of “White America”–and he often justified, rather than attacked, white rage. In his address distancing himself from Reverent Jeremiah Wright’s rhetoric, for instance, Obama equated Wright’s prophetic anger with that felt by his white grandmother who distrusted black men. As if both of those feelings were based on similar foundations. And to preserve his message of “hope,” he typically fell back on the classic narrative of self-help, community decay, and slow-form liberal progress. Glaude explains how the threat of white fear curtailed much of Obama’s words.
White fear requires that we make white people feel comfortable about race…It also entails translating the specific concerns of black communities into something more universal issue can’t be all about black people. We have to lift all boats. All of this happens because of one unmistakable fact: if we talk directly about black suffering in this country we risk alienating of large segments of white America, jump-starting their fears…Obama’s election did little, if anything, to uproot [these fears]. In fact he conceded to their terms.
Rather than assuaging fear, Glaude argues, we should instead directly confront it. Until that blockade is toppled, efforts for racial equality will be severely limited. In this context, the “No Drama Obama” mantra takes an ominous hue.
Glaude’s book is far more than a critique of Obama. Rather, it is a careful overview of what he calls the “Black Great Depression” that has plagued African American communities long after the Great Recession subsided. It also posits tools for future battles, focusing specifically on local activism. I heartily recommend it.
But I was particularly taken by yet another example of the poignant divergence within the black political tradition. (Or should I say, traditions.) And it made me reconsider my own love for Obama’s speeches. Am I attracted to them because they console the precious myth of white liberal progress? Does my own background and privilege predispose me to sympathize with a philosophy that doesn’t rock the boat? Obama’s message makes me feel good–gives me goosebumps!–but Glaude’s reminds me that I should feel uncomfortable.
As a historian, I should recognize that history’s biggest moments are rarely those that reaffirm traditional values, but rather introduce new ones.