Here is a man of great intelligence and wit. A man with a beautiful smile and an equally intelligent and beautiful wife with two lovely children. He is studied, with great gifts of oratory and persuasion that placed him in the most visible seat of power that the world has known: President of the United States of America. As the first person of color to win the presidency, he has endured a delicate dance of protecting the dominant institutions of the American empire while attempting to give continued hope that the arc of American life will bend toward justice, if we believe in them and trust that the outcomes are good even if they are not perfect.
This is a laborious job in most circumstances. The attempt to direct a country of 300 million people of various backgrounds that the narrative of American exceptionalism, unquestioned moral good, and the possibility of economic advance is open to all, but to do so when you have inherited a great recession and a bungled invasion seems to tilt the balance to the impossible. However, this was a challenge he willingly sought because of his belief that he could navigate us through with his abundant abilities.
Obama entered with a sense of post-racial hysteria fanned by both the corporate press and his own electoral team and administration. His task in the area of racial politics was to make us all believe we shared a common destiny from a history forged through different experiences but still with common values and goals. His technique was to avoid saying anything about Black people. He could openly support policies for the other segments of the population, but for us he let his swag speak for him. This was policy enough, with of course the added boot-strap language the Black community always gets. He seemed to believe for a time that his mere presence was a fulfillment of racial togetherness as opposed to being the right person at the right time to fill a position.
When racial issues began arising — first on the campaign trail with his former pastor Rev. Wright and then after his election with the arrest of historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates — Obama began refining what has become his signature style of racial discourse. He attempted to explain the grievances that Blacks and whites have with each other, including assessing the competing interest of being Black and being a police officer who controls Black bodies. He used a balanced grievance approach. He attempted to guide us through our troubles by informing us what each group has been experiencing. In this way we could understand where the other side was coming from. He believed that his is extraordinary gifts of speech would serve us all in the impossible task he took on of explaining away history as opposed to examining it.
His most heroic attempts have been wistful sonnets about the American political will to address and overcome strife. He treats us all to post-modernist arguments that there is no right and there is no wrong, just perspectives. The juxtaposition Obama gives us is of two aggrieved groups who must find a middle way. The sweet sounds make us pause in our tracks, until anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American history notices that we are not two sides who are missing each other for lack of a mediator to help us understand. Obama is a wonderful painter of images, except the canvas is made of crushed bones and ground flesh.
Obama did not create the world he inherited, as he has pointed out, but he does embrace its fabric and texture. He will not lift the veil to serve a larger purpose, but hopes only to use his charisma to keep the lid on and hopes that things begin to settle down. There is no deconstructing of the American identity; instead we must suspend truth for the continued unity of the empire.
Black people are asked to pretend that the police and the larger white male population is somehow an aggrieved group worthy of comparison to the Black experience in America. Obama attempts to sell us such feeble arguments that compares the historical loss of millions of lives, culture, language and land to that of a slightly diminished white-male historical dominance. The enslavement, rape, lynching and mass incarceration of a people later herded into ghettos, with no collective control over institutions that govern them, is compared to lower middle-class, white-male economic stagnation. The current taking of Black lives with a “shoot first” mentality, that encourages purposeful and mistaken shootings by the police, will never be punished by judicial institutions because there is always a justification: He had a wallet or a candy bar that looked like a gun. She was assertive. He moved too fast. He moved too slow. Her eyes darted. He looked like he was dangerous. Sometimes these things happen. The collective control of Black bodies by state institutions through prison, schools, healthcare, workfare, child services and policing is somehow comparable to the angst of diminished white male demographics on the scales.
Obama, who has not attended the funeral of any Black person killed by the police — as that would send the wrong message to such militarized institutions — will continue to make sure the agencies that have control over black Bodies are given due respect, that proper remorse is paid. The structures of white supremacy and racism always have an excuse when Black bodies fall, but no excuse will ever do for anyone who falls while wearing blue. The recent shootings against the police were committed not by activists or community people but by people trained by the U.S. government. The same government that claims to deplore violence at home will take no responsibility for blow-back when it trains, teaches and desensitizes 18-year-olds to kill anyone they decide is an enemy to the U.S. in foreign lands.
The post-war, post-recession post-racial presidential warrior will not be able to deliver on ending inherited U.S. wars, on diverting resources to improve economic conditions in Black (or white) communities or on improving the racial climate. That should not be taken as a failure but a mismanaged attempt to keep the status-quo functioning while selling us on lovely words of hope and change. Obama’s presidency was never supposed to be the end of war or economic inequity or racial conflict, but a better-managed system after the previous disaster of Bush.
The job was too big, however because the lie of equal grievance was too big. The purposeful misguiding of people on the historical and current purpose of white supremacy being a malfunction of American history as opposed to the root of American history was way too big to manage. In the twilight of his presidency, I am sure he can see the threads coming apart, leaving a talented man of great gifts, which could have been used in service to his community and the larger world as little more than a caretaker of a crumbling empire that a few beer summits and sentimental sweet words could not overcome.
Kamau Franklin has been a dedicated community organizer and movement attorney for over 20 years, first in New York City and now based in the South. For 18 years he was a leading member of a national grassroots organization dedicated to the ideas of self-determination and Malcolm X. He worked on various issues, including youth organizing and development, police misconduct, creating sustainable urban communities and led electoral campaigns. He blogs at grassrootsthinking.com and can be followed on twitter @kamaufranklin