President Obama at the March on Washington's 50th anniversary (Getty Images)
President Obama at the March on Washington's 50th anniversary (Getty Images)

At the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb delivers trenchant criticism of President Barack Obama's leadership. Responding to his remarks on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Cobb asks, "Has a black presidency moved us closer to the ideal of King's dream, or reflected its exhaustion as a real possibility?"

Four years have passed [since "Obama addressed a similar hallmark of racial history, the hundredth anniversary of the N.A.A.C.P.’s founding"], and yet his speech on Wednesday was dismally similar to the one he gave in 2009. That Obama could not — or would not — elucidate his plans to address the intractable realities of race and the economic consequences of those realities, even as he acknowledged that "black unemployment has remained almost twice as high as white unemployment, Latino unemployment close behind," calls into question the logic of a black Presidency in itself. There was something despair-inducing about the way he said "change doesn’t come from Washington, it comes to Washington," an oratorical turn that cloaked the fact that something vital was being reneged upon. Both Presidents Carter and Clinton, each of whom spoke before Obama, made reference to their own debt — political and otherwise — to the civil-rights movement. Aside from the tacit allusions to his own race, there was nothing in Obama’s speech that could not have been delivered by either of them. Whether that is cause for celebration or disappointment is subject to debate, but, at the very least, it suggested there was unread fine print attached to "We Shall Overcome." Obama’s black support in the past two elections stemmed in part from the idea that as President he’d be a symbol of the civil-rights movement — and, more substantially, from the hope that he’d exist as an agent of it.

Instead, President Obama approaches race as a participant-observer, a man whose perspective was formed on the penumbra of our bruised racial experiences. This was unquestionably an asset during his first campaign, when the very possibility of his election offered validation of the battered faith from which the movement sprang. No one with a lesser understanding of these matters could’ve crafted the masterstroke that was the "More Perfect Union" speech he delivered in the midst of the controversy over Jeremiah Wright. In his reëlection campaign, when the ghosts of voter disfranchisement rose up and drove African-Americans to the polls with a determination rooted in the scar tissue of history, the act of voting for Obama seemed an extension of that struggle. He is unparalleled in conveying these insights, as he did in July when he spoke to the wounds that the George Zimmerman verdict had reopened in black America. But when he is speaking about race on his own terms, it becomes easier to suspect that he deploys that insight cynically. 


Read Jelani Cobb's entire blog entry at the New Yorker.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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