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.
What’s worse is that the Department of Justice has been near complicit in the deadening of blackness by mostly engaging in after-the-fact studies of violations of black civil rights. How many officers have been arrested and charged for their evident criminal activities? How many independent inquiries have they led into specific murders of unarmed black people by police—Sandra Bland, for instance? We have the videos that show black people being victimized and murdered, but just as with the lynching postcards of old, though the faces and conduct of white murderers are clearly visible, somehow no one is ever held responsible.
If anything, the DOJ’s inaction might be making our situation that much more dire because it has ultimately signaled, on a national scale, that killing unarmed blacks will amount to few, if any, actual consequences, while at the same time it may well have emboldened the worst strains of anti-black white supremacy.
The glaring disparities in the treatment of peaceful black protesters and armed, white domestic terrorists arguably broadcasts more than anything that white supremacy is thriving and being coddled by a bigoted justice system—all with Obama at the helm.
Those of us fortunate enough to have thus far avoided being shot dead by police must confront the further deadening of blackness as white officers protect our murderers, cowards like Dylann Roof. Recall the bulletproof jacket and the takeout that police secured for him after his capture in the slaughter of nine African Americans who had welcomed him in prayer into their church in South Carolina. We witness white officers like the one who shot Walter Scott in the back, killing him as he fled unarmed, getting released on bail.
Obama is not responsible for racism in America, but as the president of the United States, he has a responsibility to combat it, actively, for the good of all, but especially to ensure the safety of those most vulnerable to its vicissitudes: black people.
Also in the His Lasting Legacy series:
“Historic Presidency, Historic Opposition: The Legacy of President Barack Obama”
“Fighting Racism in the Age of Obama”
Kali Nicole Gross, Ph.D., a Public Voices fellow, is an associate professor and associate chair of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow her on Twitter.