The Deadening of Blackness in the Age of Obama

His Lasting Legacy: In this monthly series we’re taking a look at President Barack Obama’s legacy during his final year in office. In this installment, we discuss how Obama won the presidency but black Americans paid the price.

Schoolchildren from the Potomac Preparatory Charter School take part in a die-in during a protest outside the Office of Police Complaints as part of a planned “28 Hours for Mike Brown” protest Nov. 25, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
Schoolchildren from the Potomac Preparatory Charter School take part in a die-in during a protest outside the Office of Police Complaints as part of a planned “28 Hours for Mike Brown” protest Nov. 25, 2014, in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images

After George W. Bush ran the country into the ground, we all clearly and desperately wanted change

Black voters, especially black women, overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama for president. Certainly, as a self-identified African American, his candidacy was historic, but he won the black vote because he professed an agenda that we believed would be good for the nation as a whole. Most in the black community almost instinctively acquiesced to the Faustian-like bargain: President Obama could not be held accountable to the unique concerns of black voters lest he be accused of racial favoritism and, thusly, not re-elected. 

But despite forgoing concerns unique to black communities, we are on the front lines when it comes to the virulent, racist backlash on his presidency; and we are getting it from just about every conceivable angle: Affirmative action is on the chopping block—aka the Supreme Court—yet again; voting rights have been gutted largely to circumscribe the black vote; and we have learned in the most painful ways possible that law-enforcement officers across the country have declared open season on black people.

The parallels to the epidemic of lynching that plagued the nation during and after Reconstruction are terrifying. Back then, racists circulated postcards of the unlawful killings, some of which were orchestrated by angry white mobs; many with the consent of—if not carried out directly by—white police. 

In the age of Obama, we now have the videos. 

Videos that show children like Tamir Rice, 12, gunned down in seconds. We have footage depicting once living, breathing black women and men fatally cut down in an instant by racist officers. In the past, the narrative was that black men raped white women, and black women and children who were the victims of lynching supposedly aided and abetted those accused black men or had themselves somehow affronted whites—an action itself severe enough to also merit death sentences. 

Now the narrative for black homicides is this: The police feared for their safety. 

We are battling a racist, homicidal justice system bent on our destruction with a black man in the highest office in the land, a president with whom we have no real track record of success when it comes to having black political needs met. 

Obama’s few attempts to directly impact black and brown folks have been gendered and exclusionary. It’s also unclear how impactful initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper will be; so far, it’s been most successful at getting buy-in for the use of its federal funding. Moreover, black and brown girls had to wait seven years for his office to roll out any sort of initiative that addresses their disproportionate representation in various judicial systems.

Yes, Obama visited a prison—though he only acknowledged male prisoners rather than the scores of black women being brutalized disproportionately in the U.S. criminal-justice system. Yes, he has been advocating for reforms, and he pardoned dozens of prisoners incarcerated under inequitable drug laws, but we signed onto his agenda for change—not only the pardon of 50-some individuals. Even his call for decriminalizing marijuana can only be described as halting at best.

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