by Yvette Carnell
In one of the most racially objectionable defenses of President Obama during the 2012 election cycle, Melissa Harris-Perry slyly accused white liberals who were not fully on-board with reelecting Obama of being racist. It was one of the most coercive–and creative–manipulations of well meaning white guilt that I’d read. It assumed that any falling out with Obama among white liberals was a consequence of a race based double standard, not taking into account the electorate’s expectations of a man who promised transformation in not only his rhetoric, but his very existence.
Harris-Perry wasn’t alone in her willingness to employ blackness as a political tool. Most black journalists were willing to stake their by-lines on defending Obama and relished the notion of being cast as interpreters for the black community at the media outlets where they worked.
Now, however, with Obama’s poll numbers plummeting and a second term defined more by inertia than “change we can believe in”, black journalists and pundits who once swore by the ‘chess not checkers’ political acumen of Obama are quietly abandoning ship and hoping the black community won’t notice.
When I began sharply criticizing President Obama in late 2009 and early 2010, I was quickly dismissed as a “hater” or a “crab in a barrel” by clods who mistook insults for ideas and worn out adages for arguments. Most other Obama critics faced the same sort of heckling from the peanut gallery, so it is interesting to now watch mainstream black media types distance themselves from Obama as his presidency comes to a close.
For example, MSNBC’s Toure in 2011 said Dr. Cornel West’s criticisms of Obama were tied to idealism rather than realism” , then accused candidate Mitt Romney of “n¡ggerizing” Obama.Now that strong words no longer matter since Obama is in his final term and officially a lame duck, Toure has happened upon his spine, admitting that Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” charitable initiative is not enough because it doesn’t address “structural racism.” The real question is, when during Obama’s term has the president addressed structural racism and when has Toure ever cared?
The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates, who once compared Obama to Malcolm X, recently penned a brilliant call for reparations, which actually served as an unintentional admission of how little was accomplished on behalf of blacks by the first black president. Even NewsOne‘s Roland Martin, adopting my critique almost verbatim, now says “the election of President Obama has made black folks act like they stuck on stupid that somehow we cannot offer real critiques based upon public policy.” You couldn’t have paid him to say that in 2010. Why? Because he was behaving a lot like the people he now says are “stuck on stupid.”
Still, the most surprising, albeit soft spoken, backtracking comes from Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, who admits that Obama’s presidency has mostly benefited blacks in largely symbolic ways:
Obama’s place in the hearts and minds of blacks does not rest on the success of that or any other initiative. Tragically, the expectations of many blacks have been diminished so severely that they do not require much from Obama. This is an observation, not a critique. Perhaps the black conventional wisdom is right, reflecting a resigned but accurate assessment of the very narrow limits within which Obama can maneuver.
Perhaps the blacks who champion Obama are right to intuit that in becoming president at all, he has already done the most that could reasonably have been expected at this juncture in American history. After all, by doing so, he has irrevocably changed the nation’s imagination.
So it’s all come down to “imagination” as opposed to transformational policies? That’s Obama’s legacy in so far as blacks are concerned? The answer to that question is ‘yes’. On some level, this was destined to be our end since blacks never fully emerged from the afterglow of election night or inauguration day. The conversation never became about what the first black president could do to upend policies which have for years beat us back from the doors to full equality, but how we, the black electorate, could protect Obama from racist attacks. We’d get riled up any time someone used the term “tar baby” and we swiveled our necks in disgust when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wagged her finger in the president’s face, but when presented with epidemic rates of black incarceration and unemployment numbers, all we could muster as a response was, ‘well, the president’s only one man… he can’t do everything.’
The saddest part really isn’t that the president came up far short of the bar he’d set for himself during his first campaign, but that black journalists and pundits aided Obama, a president who has never had a black agenda, by furthering the delusion that the president was actually pushing policies intended to benefit blacks. We may never be able to change what these folks did or said to manipulate collective black thought in order to ensure support for Obama, but we should at least remember their names. They’re easier than ever to spot these days as they’re all jumping from the Obama bandwagon at breakneck speed, so we can tick them off, one by one.