There is a deeply embedded danger in the collective black American consciousness to defend the cultural and political blackness of President Barack Obama.
On the surface, his very presence in the Oval Office is an act of political revolution, an unprecedented response to this nation’s inherent anti-blackness. But when his destructive neoliberal politics prioritize white Americans, and his personal politics seem to pathologize blackness, what then, is revolution?
This black family in the White House, while certainly a switch from the lily-white inhabitants of the past years, is only a cosmetic kind of revolution; they just look different from the Clintons and the Bushes and the Kennedys. They exist in a space that both challenges white power and solidifies it.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent piece for The Atlantic, he does an excellent job of positioning the racial nuance of President Obama’s past with his centering of whiteness. Obama himself acknowledges that his working assumption of white benevolence is different from first lady Michelle Obama’s baseline, and that has been evident these past eight years in his willingness to openly castigate or patronize black people—the demographic that has remained the most supportive of him despite being neglected and ignored by “our black president.”
Even though Obama has hosted some very black events, such as the BET-sponsored bash a few weeks ago—and has had Larry Wilmore playfully and shrewdly refer to him as “my [n—ga]” at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner—that is not enough. Even though Obama has married and loved a black woman for most of his adult life, that is not enough.
Even though he sang "Amazing Grace" at a black funeral and Al Green any other time, these things are not enough and should never have been considered enough.
During a time of escalating state-sanctioned violence, President Obama has repeatedly placed the onus on black protesters to be docile, to be peaceable and agreeable. Black protesters who are responding to militarized police forces as powerful as any insurgent army in occupied Iraq have largely been positioned as the problem to be solved.
We are at war, but Obama made it clear to Coates that he’s “hurt” by the seemingly uninformed expectations of black and Latinx activists who don’t understand how difficult it is for him to navigate through the constraints on the office.
This is why the mere appearance of blackness is not sufficient, especially when the egregious human rights violations in Flint, Mich., continue to occur on his watch. Obama’s blackness cannot shield him from the legitimate criticisms that most metrics for black quality of life have either not improved very much or have gotten worse since he has been in office.
America’s drone program, first enacted by President George W. Bush but subsequently expanded by President Obama, will go down in history as one of the worst foreign policy decisions in modern times; there is seemingly no accountability for the many innocent people killed in what can be classified as war crimes.
In addition to this, while Obama may indeed be better than his predecessors at respecting and honoring the U.S. government’s treaties with Native American peoples, he certainly has not used those treaties, which should have protected the Standing Rock Sioux tribe from corporate invasion, to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
As the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump looms large in 2017, I predict that we will collectively attempt to hold on to the sacredness of President Obama’s blackness. “My president was black” will offer us a modicum of comfort as we watch these white supremacists take control of the government. Critics of Obama may even find themselves wistfully looking back on the time when blackness—beautiful, glistening blackness—not only filled us with pride but also offered the illusion of safety that has been shattered by Trump’s Cabinet full of Ku Klux Klan sympathizers.
However, we cannot and must not forget that if we airbrush the legacy of President Obama, we are guilty of the same kind of ahistorical enshrining and revisionism that has defined this nation’s genocidal character. We cannot gloss over Obama’s flaws simply so that we can hold too tightly to his blackness and his politically advantageous performance of it while in office. We are not obligated to absolve him.
History will have to deal with these aspects of Obama’s presidency, and even as Rolling Stone has anointed him as the best president in U.S. history, the question of “best” for which America will always hang over his legacy.
Daniel Johnson studies English and creative writing at Sam Houston State University. In his spare time, he likes to visit museums and listen to trap music. Follow him on Twitter.