Barack X: Race and the Obama Presidency

In a piece for the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb explains how the Obama presidency has "validated both our hopes and our fears and given dueling legitimacy to optimism and cynicism simultaneously." 

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In a piece for the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb explains how the Obama presidency has "validated both our hopes and our fears and given dueling legitimacy to optimism and cynicism simultaneously."

... There is an obvious downside to this familiarity with the obstacles implicit within a black Presidency. Obama at times tends toward insouciance regarding black voters who, epidermal affiliations aside, nonetheless represent roughly a quarter of his electorate and the single largest and most reliable voting block in the Democratic Party. That casual arrogance was on display when he warned the Congressional Black Caucus (already wavering in their support for him) to "stop complaining," during a speech in 2011. There are moments where even amid the racial minefield his Presidency inhabits, he appears to have been let off easy; black America has settled for a brother who feels our pain, rather than evaluated how effectively he’s alleviated it. Yet even this frustration yields layers of complexity ...

Even slick, encrypted racism might inspire a kind of historical reflux, remind us of the terrible limbic appeal of bigotry, and put us collectively in a bad head space. Things have changed, just not the things that many of us suspected on Election Day.

Malcolm X occupied a similar crossroads in American history, a point at which a vast chunk of history had fallen away and a new vista of possibilities emerged. His criticism of integration inspired a view of him as the antithesis of the movement associated with King. A more subtle reading of him suggested that he was a herald who saw more starkly than many the unpaved places in the road ahead. The demise of segregation was as stunning to his generation as the election of Barack Obama was to this one. The troubles and complexities that would follow both those events were seemingly cloaked by momentous victories -- encrypted, as it were, by the tides of change.

The Obama Presidency has thus far validated both our hopes and our fears and given duelling legitimacy to optimism and cynicism simultaneously. It has pitted the audacity of hope against the recalcitrance of memory. If his election validated the ideals of King, what has happened since then lends credence to Malcolm X. What remains clear is that whether it’s a function of defiance or affirmation, Obama has already been inducted into a narrative black America tells itself, one in which we are the central characters and we are the primary deed-holders to our own triumphs. Whether or not he is reëlected is secondary to this concern. The more enduring question is whether black people will maintain a broader faith in America because a black man has been elected President, or despite it.

Read Jelani Cobb's entire piece at the New Yorker.

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