One of the implicit (and sometimes explicit) questions posed in the new January/February issue of the Washington Monthly is whether Barack Obama’s election and re-election as president has actually helped or hindered the long-frustrated drive for racial equality in this country. As Paul Glastris notes in his introduction to this issue, Obama has been greatly inhibited in his own discussion of race:
[W]hile it is true that Obama, as measured by his November vote totals, retains the overwhelming support of Americans of color, that support was accompanied by yet another political compromise. America, it seemed, would reelect its first black president, but only if he didn’t talk about race.
That unsurprising when viewed from the perspective of history, argues the University of Connecticut’s Jelani Cobb. Like Obama, Abraham Lincoln became as much a symbol of America’s self-satisfaction with its progress towards racial justice as of its failures to deal fully with the legacy of slavery:
The by-product of our modern, mythical Lincoln is that he allows us to shift our gaze to one American who ended slavery rather than the millions who perpetuated and defended it. By lionizing Lincoln, we are able to concentrate on the death of an evil institution rather than its ongoing legacy. The paradox is that Lincoln’s death enabled later generations to impatiently wonder when black people would cease fixating on slavery and just get over it.
Indeed, America’s racial history is full of this impatience: the end of slavery, the promulgation of the mythology of “separate but equal,” the repudiation of that doctrine in the (de jure) desegregation of schools and public facilities, and various wars on poverty, have all been greeted with the words, sometimes smug and sometimes resentful: That should be enough! What more do these people want? And that’s true as well with the election of Barack Obama, which seemed to provide a moral justification for a new wave of racist sentiment cloaked in self-righteous claims that racism was dead (except for the “racism” of those still fighting for racial justice). As Cobb notes:
The heralded “Age of Obama” began with a sugar high of postracialism, but four years later the number of whites subscribing to explicitly racist ideas about blacks had increased, not diminished. The vision of a black person executing the duties of the nation’s highest office was supposed to become mundane; we were supposed to take his identity for granted. Somewhere there was a little-voiced hope among black people that his simple existence as president would be a daily brief for our collective humanity, that we would be taken to be every bit as ordinary as the man occupying the Oval Office. At points in the last four years, it seemed as if we could live in a poetic moment, as if our founding documents could be taken at face value. But the numbers tell us it’s not true. Many Americans have reacted to the promise of the Obama era as a threat, as a harbinger of the devaluing currency of whiteness. The problem is not that these people want to take their country back, it’s that they were loathe to share it in the first place. The recalcitrant racism of the Obama era will be as vexing to the story of American virtue as Lincoln’s racial failings were to those of his era. Lincoln was not as flawless as we’ve been told, and we are not as virtuous as we’ve begun to tell ourselves.
So is Obama’s value to African-Americans entirely symbolic, and perhaps even negative?
Perhaps not, argues Simon van Zuylen-Wood in another article in the new issue. Yes, Obama’s own racial identity has limited his efforts on behalf of African-Americans to “targeted universalism:” non-race-conscious initiatives that happen to benefit African-Americans a great deal because of their needs, especially in the wake of the financial collapse and the Great Recession, not to mention a decade of rapidly increasing inequality. But some of these initiatives, particularly the “economic stimulus” legislation and Obamacare, have and will matter a great deal:
When the key provisions of the Affordable Care Act take effect in 2014, four million more African Americans will have health insurance, raising the proportion of blacks with health insurance from 78 percent to more than 90 percent, according to a November Health Affairs study. Nearly a quarter of all African Americans have the sort of preexisting medical conditions that Obamacare forbids insurers from discriminating against. Moreover, Obamacare will help shore up the finances of the thousands of municipal government and nonprofit hospitals that have been losing money treating the uninsured—hospitals that also happen to be a major source of employment for African Americans.
On a smaller scale, several of Obama’s primary and secondary education initiatives also will likely have a positive long-term effect on African Americans. The administration’s much-praised Race to the Top education reform competition has provided close to $5 billion extra for America’s schools. The stimulus gave $13 billion more to low-performing Title I schools, most of which serve minority students. The Education Department has delivered money to launch a project called Promise Neighborhoods, a holistic, “cradle to career” approach to education. Modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, the project has already dispensed one-year planning grants of $500,000 each to thirty-six neighborhoods, all but a few of which are predominantly African American or minority.
Of less tangible but in the long run still significant is the fact that Obama’s election—and more emphatically his re-election—established that the coalition he commanded is capable of winning future elections, at least at the presidential level, and that there’s little future for a Whites Only party.
But the course of Obama’s second term will tell us a lot more about the benefits and challenges of the 44th presidency to the long and painful history of American race relations.
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