Democracy in Black: 3 Writers Wrestle With President Obama’s Blackness

Black scholars Michael Eric Dyson and Eddie Glaude Jr., along with MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid, examine Obama’s two-term struggle with being black in the presidency.

President Barack Obama (second from left) pictured at a Congressional Black Caucus event dinner in Washington, D.C., Sept. 24, 2011, where the president admonished the CBC to “stop complaining.” Pictured with Obama are Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the Rev. Joseph Lowery, first lady Michelle Obama and Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.).
President Barack Obama (second from left) pictured at a Congressional Black Caucus event dinner in Washington, D.C., Sept. 24, 2011, where the president admonished the CBC to “stop complaining.” Pictured with Obama are Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the Rev. Joseph Lowery, first lady Michelle Obama and Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.). Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

The shade that one Black Lives Matter activist threw President Barack Obama Thursday while declining an invitation to a White House Black History Month event only seemed surprising to those not paying attention.

During both of Obama’s terms, and even before, a visible minority of black activists—some prominent, some not, and from different age groups—have criticized their president out loud when they felt their community slighted. They have been, and still are, disappointed because, they say, most of what they have gotten from him is shallow symbolism, while other constituency groups have gotten attention to specific, targeted policies. It seems like a long time ago since those days in 2008 when Barack Obama represented so much to so many, particularly those in the black, sometimes radicalized, grassroots: A new black history was visible, with new opportunities and new freedoms possible.

Eight years later, the experiment in black American democracy is almost finished, and black authors have come forth to discuss Obama and his often-overlooked-by-him constituency. The books are The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America, by Michael Eric Dyson; Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons and the Racial Divide, by Joy-Ann Reid, national correspondent for MSNBC; and Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, by Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

These fine, very well-written and thought-out books dissect Obama from a decidedly black perspective, analyzing his complicated relationship to his identity as a black president. Glaude’s book takes it a step further, and forecasts what the open-source leadership of post-Obama America is going to look like. These works make it plain: Barack Obama is a man knowingly trapped within white supremacy’s borders, who has had to purposely create false equivalencies of white systemic racism against blacks and white people’s grievances over the idea that other groups are getting ahead of them.

In these books, Obama is a sincere manipulator of black style, substance and history who uses his personal story as a template to create a new America. His new America, however, comes at the expense of unpopular black history and reality. He has what Reid calls “competing inner visions.” He is fought at every turn by institutional racists in the Congress and blatant racists outside of it, and a fearful white public that, as Claude postulates, purposely “disremembers” what it wants to forget. Meanwhile, the scared whites see the black planet coming.

All the black racial markers of the Obama administration are explored, including his “race speech” explaining Jeremiah Wright, his controversial pastor; Obama’s comments on the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest; the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin; his remarks at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington; and, perhaps most important, his “sermon” at the eulogy of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the preacher and state senator who was killed in last year’s Charleston, S.C., church massacre.

All these incidents and more are dissected and diagrammed in great detail. Reid lays out the arguments that Obama caused within black America’s intellectual, media and leadership circles (think: Tavis Smiley vs. Tom Joyner, or Cornel West vs. everybody but Tavis), giving us a needed, and well-told, chronology of how a black president split apart black liberals and leftist activists, people who used to see each other as comrades and friends.

(Dyson and Reid paint Obama’s first U.S. attorney general, Eric Holder, as a hero in the Obama presidency, as the kind of unapologetically black, outspoken government official who Obama, as president, can’t mimic. But Holder tells Dyson that if he and his boss had, by an act of fate, attained reversed positions, Americans would have seen a public Obama similar to Holder’s persona, and vice versa.)

The writers are sympathetic to Obama, particularly Dyson, although that doesn’t stop him and Glaude from jumping on Obama with both intellectual boots. Glaude refers to Obama as part of a Democratic Party snake oil “confidence man” tradition started by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. At one point, Dyson charges that this “crossover messiah,” a man who combines the qualities of the visionary Abraham Lincoln and the retrograde Bill Cosby when he talks about race and who is “rooted in, but not defined by” black America, committed an act of “disloyalty” to the black struggle when he told the Congressional Black Caucus to “stop complaining” in a now-infamous 2011 speech. (Dyson correctly argues that Obama never scolded, say, white female students about sexism at Barnard College that way.) However, Dyson fights to redeem his subject at his book’s intellectually dramatic close.

This sympathy that the trio shows may have something to do with the fact that their situations mirror his own. All three writers are Ivy-degreed and are working at the top echelon of their “white” fields. It’s perhaps why their collective analysis purposely ignores, or radically downplays, the black radical traditions and their struggles against an illegitimate structure called America. Looking at the 21st century through that lens would make them judge themselves, and Obama, too harshly. So Obama is as legitimate as America and its systems.

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