Rethinking America, Richter Scale

Obama’s Haunting Legacy

A two-term presidency spent on running away from Black America.

Takeaways


  • Barack Obama has spent much of his presidency running away from the fact that he is a black man.
  • Barack Obama: a two-term black president who did very little for people of his own color.
  • Obama’s election gave white America an ounce of comfort about its “liberalism.” But what has it given black America?
  • The U.S. political culture is great at celebrating “events” and crises, but very poor at tackling structural issues.
  • Obama will leave office knowing that LBJ did more for blacks than the first black man elected to the Oval Office.

Barack Obama has spent much of his presidency running away from the fact that he is a black man. Perhaps he did so because he genuinely believes the harmonious vision he preached at the 2004 convention. Perhaps he sought to assuage the fears of people bound to hate him either way.

Whatever the reason, it seems the last thing he wanted to become known for is that he would be the one President in recent memory who did something meaningful for young black men.

In fact, it could be said that Obama – the 2008 presidential campaign notwithstanding – has spent much of his time running away from African-American issues. He and his campaign handlers were afraid that it just wasn’t a “cool” issue that would sit well with most voters at election time.

Turning a blind eye

But even after he was reelected in 2012, his approach did not change. Meanwhile, African-Americans continued to experience the challenges facing many U.S. communities, especially young males, in a much more acute fashion.

Even if the sitting U.S. President finally felt liberated and were to tackle this particular topic now, it wouldn’t matter any longer. He is a “lame duck,” which is a nice term to say that his political influence is vanishing fast.

Unfortunately for Obama, the understandable rage especially of young black men has come to haunt him — yet again. This time, it wasn’t “just” in a suburb of St. Louis in the middle of the country. It happened in the city of Baltimore, the next largest city close by the U.S. capital.

The writing had been on the wall all along. Anybody who has ever driven through the destitute, blighted areas of large parts of downtown Baltimore in broad daylight had to wonder about this powder keg.

But rather than tackling the underlying issues head on, the president was busy running away from his race.

U.S. opinion leaders, whenever things flared up in the banlieues of Paris, have often reflexively claimed that France’s problems with its minority youths could not happen here in the United States.

Well, it has – and it just did again. True, the situation is not exactly comparable. In the French case, the frustration that boils over from time to time is largely that of the children of mid-20th century immigrants.

In contrast, in the U.S. case, it is the offspring of people that have been here for hundreds of years. Advantage: France.

Clinton culpability

The Clinton family is slowly coming to terms with its own role and responsibility in the steady deterioration of the situation of young urban blacks. Bill Clinton’s policies in the 1990s pushed mass incarcerations, often even for petty crimes.

That may have conveniently curried favor with white “law and order” voters after the crisis years of the 1980s, but it did nothing to address the underlying problems, joblessness and lack of investment and training.

These incarceration policies also had the “benefit” of creating jobs in structurally weak rural areas (like Arkansas), where prison guards became about the only growth industry. (And, in a crueler twist, many states exploited a legal loophole allowing them to “employ” low-level convicts for a fraction of minimum wage, further hollowing out the local economies.)

Perversely, these policies also created true equality between black and white in one regard – about the same total number of prisoners are whites and blacks, even though the latter account for less than 13% of the overall population.

chart criminal justice system
Graphic Credit: Washington Post

America, anno 2015, thus finds itself near the end of the reign of a two-term Black president who did very little for people of his own color.

A shallow legacy

The stain on Barack Obama’s record historically will be that he used the race issue as an attribute to get elected – and then did his best to forget about it.

His recent remark about the events in Baltimore, referring to “thugs and criminals,” on the face of it is of course true on some level. Some of the black rage manifested itself in criminal acts. And he did question the police actions. But his words seem narrowly designed to show his indignation and pretty much leave it there.

In the end, this president is a perfect reflection of the mainstream media, à la CNN.

The media decamped into downtown Baltimore for a few days of breathless reporting (and may even try for a Pulitzer-garnering feature series), before the cavalcade simply marches on.

It always happens that way. The U.S. political culture is great at celebrating “events” and crises, but very poor at tackling structural issues. Not enough excitement in that – unless it translates into building out the national security state. That’s a profitable venture for many companies, generating lots of Congressional appropriations.

Urban crises, or so it seems, are thus good for bouts of media titillation, but not for any serious efforts to tackle them.

It is a true shame that Obama will leave office knowing that Lyndon B. Johnson, a white man from very conservative Texas did more for black people half a century ago than the much advertised first election of a black man to the Oval Office.

The latter event, often described as historic, was certainly good for Barack Obama. It also gave white America an ounce of comfort about its “liberalism.” But what about black America? Aside from pure symbolism, nothing much.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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