Racing Obama: Are critiques of ethnic solidarity useful?

The conflict between different race ideologies has been ongoing during President Obama’s term. There are those who recognize the historic importance of a black president in a country as racially divided as the US. And there are those who are frustrated–despite having our first black president, some argue, there hasn’t been an actual shift in the quality of life of black and/or poor Americans. These two viewpoints are often overlapping, making race talk rather complicated.

Fredrick C. Harris writes of the latter in the Sunday Review pages:

But the triumph of “post-racial” Democratic politics has not been a triumph for African-Americans in the aggregate. It has failed to arrest the growing chasm of income and wealth inequality; to improve prospects for social and economic mobility; to halt the re-segregation of public schools and narrow the black-white achievement gap; and to prevent the Supreme Court from eroding the last vestiges of affirmative action. The once unimaginable successes of black diplomats like Colin L. Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Susan E. Rice and of black chief executives like Ursula M. Burns, Kenneth I. Chenault and Roger W. Ferguson Jr. cannot distract us from facts like these: 28 percent of African-Americans, and 37 percent of black children, are poor (compared with 10 percent of whites and 13 percent of white children); 13 percent of blacks are unemployed (compared with 7 percent of whites); more than 900,000 black men are in prison; blacks experienced a sharper drop in income since 2007 than any other racial group; black household wealth, which had been disproportionately concentrated in housing, has hit its lowest level in decades; blacks accounted, in 2009, for 44 percent of new H.I.V. infections.

Mr. Obama cannot, of course, be blamed for any of these facts. It’s no secret that Republican obstruction has limited his options at every turn. But it’s disturbing that so few black elites have aggressively advocated for those whom the legal scholar Derrick A. Bellcalled the “faces at the bottom of the well.”

Harris is right about a few things–racism still exists, so does inequality, some people will excuse any-damn-thing Obama does–no matter how many drones are involved and sometimes when people see “one of their own,” in a place they have never been they start to relax. Every social movement has those that run the gamut from single issue advocacy, single identity politics, structural critiques, justice focused solutions or radical critique and disbelief of anything that resembles the status quo. That’s just how we lefties roll and it’s what makes us great (even when we hate each other!).

While I think Harris makes some really legitimate points he’s overlooked a few realities facing social change, identity politics and a changing America: 

1. Social change takes time––the many moving parts of pushing for social change include everyone from the most left of ideologues to the President. We might not be happy about it–but throughout history, it’s been the slow, unsexy, work of creating consensus and working for justice on the ground both outside of and within the system that has made life better for disenfranchised Americans. Many of the great achievements around equality needed support from the government–especially of the Supreme Court–one reason alone, a Democratic president is better if we want to maintain things like affirmative action or access to abortion.

2. Racism is no longer a black and white issue–one of the most frustrating things about reading piece after piece about race and Obama is the failure to mention or even recognize the impact that Obama’s identity has had on communities that are not black or white. Obama isn’t just about the progress and evolution of black identity–the questions of his citizenship, ability to get the job done, or whether he belongs, irrelevant of how ridiculously hard he’s worked, are ideas that many people of color relate to. For people like my parents, who came to the US after the civil rights movement, they couldn’t relate to the post-Civil Rights cadre of voices like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, but they can relate to a brown man who’s kept his head down, worked his ass off, has great credentials and is still questioned for if he’s doing a good job or not.

3. Current political conditions are terrible–President Obama is working with a set of very difficult political conditions–an immovable Congress, an uncomfortably racist citizenry, a terrible economy and pressure to maintain a global military presence if he even wants to think about  staying President. I suppose he could say, forget it, I’m not standing for these things–but we should all recognize and agree the alternative would for factual, real, policy related reasons, be so much worse for marginalized communities.

As someone who has always recognized that my tastes–political, cultural and musical–are not the mainstream (almost as an identity itself), I have never believed or hoped that the President of the United States of America’s politics would reflect my own. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold him accountable, but I, like many people, can both understand and recognize what’s amazing about Obama’s presidency and where he must be pushed, resisted and even fought. I just believe, and I’m pretty sure Harris agrees–that latter is going to have to happen after he’s reelected.

It’s after that, we can not only continue to hold him accountable on the issues that impact our communities, but we can push the race conversation to include all the different ways belonging, otherness, citizenship and identity impact us and restrict our choices and lives.

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