Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Obama and the Politics of Race

Every American president - George Washington included - has had to address questions of race. Barack H. Obama is no exception. For all of these men, the question includes political, moral, and personal considerations. For Obama, the personal dimension of this question is obvious yet unclear. It is more than obvious, inasmuch as he is the first American president to have half of his heritage - his bloodline, his family tree - from Africa, and half from Europe: the first biracial president. It is unclear, inasmuch as Obama's relationship to his biracial lineage is somewhat uncomfortable.

The son of a white woman and a black man, Obama was raised in social circles which were conspicuously free of African influences. Abandoned by his father as an infant, he was raised largely by his mother and her parents: his mother's mother was the vice president of a bank and able to fund a nice lifestyle and private schools for young Barack. Of the other men who would temporarily function as father-figures for Obama, none were of African descent, and all would casually leave Barack and his mother, moving on, and further destabilizing Obama's self-image.

Ann Dunham, Obama's mother, carefully managed his career and early childhood. Much of his childhood was spent outside the United State, primarily in Indonesia. When he was on United States soil, she arranged for him to attend private schools. Thus he did not attend an American public school - the very institution which he encourages for all American children. This was one factor in a larger dynamic in which Ann Dunham kept Barack largely apart from African-Americans. Attending schools in Indonesia, he was surrounded largely by Asians, and by a few ex-patriots of European descent, but not by students of African heritage.

Randall Kennedy, an African-American scholar and law professor at Harvard, notes that

Early on in his presidency, Obama was pressed by some activists and politicians to offer race-specific policies to address the disproportionately high rates of unemployment that have long plagued black and other racial-minority communities. He steadfastly refused to do so.

Responding to requests from black voters, Obama said,

"I can't pass laws that say I'm just helping black folks," he responded when asked about Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) criticism of his employment policy. "I'm the president of the United States. What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those that are most vulnerable and most in need. That in turn is going to help lift up the African American community."

While alienating himself from black voters - fewer of whom would vote for him 2012 than in 2008 - Obama also revealed a procedural muddle: as president, he has little to do with "passing laws," because that is primarily Congress's task.

"Here Obama was engaging in the old trick of creating a straw man to knock down," Kennedy continued. "The CBC was not requesting policy aimed at 'just helping black folks.' It was requesting policy that would be intended to assist Americans as a whole but 'particulary those who are most vulnerable' in economic downturns."

Like Professor Kennedy, many black voters who supported Obama in 2008 were disappointed after the president was inaugurated. Historian Edward Klein writes:

Despite Obama's failed economic policies, grievances between black leaders and the black president were kept under wraps for quite some time. White Americans were hardly aware of the family squabble. But those grievances finally surfaced in a dramatic way in the summer of 2010, when Shirley Sherrod, the black Georgia state director of rural development for the United States Department of Agriculture, was forced to resign under orders from the Obama White House.

In a large-scale example of the urban legend phenomenon, the media and the public nurtured the belief that Sherrod had discriminated against white farmers and directed federal aid toward black farmers. The Obama administration ordered Sherrod fired, without examining the strength of the accusations against her, and before evidence emerged suggesting that she might not have given preferential treatment to black farmers.

By firing Sherrod without looking into the matter more carefully, Obama once again revealed himself to be politically inept. Unknowingly, he had picked a fight with the wrong black person, for not only was Shirley Sherrod falsely maligned by the White House, but it turned out that her husband, Charles Sherrod, had played a significant role in the 1960s civil rights movement. Charles Sherrod had been a Freedom Rider along with John Lewis, a prominent member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a longtime Georgia Congressman.

The disconnect between Obama and the African-American community is not only a question of political ineptness, but also of a fragmented personal identity in Obama's psyche. Although his campaign for the presidency was based upon the fact that he is an African-American, his administration has demonstrated a lack of perceptiveness toward black concerns.

As might be expected, the African-American political elite quickly came to the defense of the Sherrods. "I've known these two individuals - the husband for more than fifty years and wife for at least thirty-five, forty - and there's not a racist hair on their heads or anyplace else on their bodies," Congressman Lewis said.

One may well imagine that the blacks who voted for Obama in 2008 did not imagine that they would be defending their fellow African-Americans against Obama's unjust treatment: unfair and racially-motivated treatment. In Obama's mind, formed as it was by his mother's planning, the blacks in America are "them" - not "us" - Obama does not view himself as part of their community: and perhaps rightfully so, having attended white private schools, paid for by his grandmother's large salary from the bank at which she was vice president. Obama may have African-American genes, but he is not the product of the American black experience.

"I don't think a single black person was consulted before Shirley Sherrod was fired - I mean, c'mon," said Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina, who had ditched Hillary Clinton to support Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. "The president is getting hurt real bad. He needs some black people around him."

But Obama isn't comfortable with some black people around him. That situation wasn't a part of his formative years - not as a child, an undergraduate, or a graduate student. Congressman Clyburn continued by saying that

"some people over there [in the White House] are not sensitive at all about race. They really feel that the extent to which he allows himself to talk about race would tend to pigeonhole him or cost him support, when a lot of people saw his election as a way to get the issue behind us. I don't think people elected him to disengage on race. Just the opposite."

The CBC has many voices agreeing in this assessment of Obama:

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the representative from the District of Columbia, concurred: "The president needs some advisers or friends who have a greater sense of the pulse of the African-American community, or who at least have been around the mulberry bush."

Only when the farce threatened to hit the national media, and threatened to erode Obama's reelection bid, did he clumsily move to repair the damage.

Never one to graciously admit his mistakes, Obama finally phoned Shirley Sherrod and spoke to her for a grudging seven minutes. Obama said that he felt that the incident had been blown up way out of proportion, and he refused to apologize personally for the national humiliation Sherrod had suffered. When he offered Sherrod another job in the Agriculture Department, she politely declined.

The telling fact is that in 2012, fewer blacks voted for Obama than in 2008. Why? The pre-election polls did not guarantee Obama an easy victory; so they didn't stay home because of confidence in his certain reelection. Clearly, many African-Americans are less than enthusiastic about him than they were in 2008, and not satisfied with his performance in office.