Dr. Boyce: Has the Obama Presidency Improved Race Relations? Sure, Why Not…Yawn
by Dr. Boyce Watkins
As I fought through the last dreadful miles on my daily slog on the treadmill, I passed the time glancing at the TV screen above. My daily workout is the only time I get a chance to watch TV, and I was glad to see what I saw. On the screen were two of my respected colleagues, Georgetown University Professor Michal Eric Dyson and Professor James Peterson at Lehigh University.
The question of the day was whether or not race relations in America have improved under the Obama presidency. I turned my head to the side and thought about the matter for a second. With sweat pouring from my forehead, I realized that the answer was a resounding “yes.”
Some might be tempted to believe that race relations have worsened under Obama, since his presence in the White House has produced a violent reaction from every yahoo, buffoon and hillbilly within a 3,000 mile radius. Most of us can agree that the degree of hatred being spewed toward Obama is unprecedented, uncalled for and un-American.
At the same time, we have to realize that change doesn’t typically occur without struggle. America is a nation that is addicted to racial inequality, like an alcoholic who drinks two beers before breakfast. Our nation functions at its most peaceful when white men are at the top of the ladder, with the rest of us demoralized at the bottom. Any change in the pre-existing hierarchy upsets the system until it adjusts to a new equilibrium.
Obama’s sacrifice opens the door for America to not be so shocked the next time a black person occupies the Oval Office. In fact, the next black president might even have the courage to do something for black people. Obama’s contribution to racial progress, while notable and clear, effectively amounts to being the first Negro to get into the White House and not make too much trouble for the white folks. He is the Jackie Robinson of Presidential politics: The man who got through the door and tried to blend in without making much of a stink.
Mind you, an improvement in race relations is not the same as an improvement in the state of black America. By deciding to be effectively AWOL from the African American community for the last four years, President Obama has made a grand exchange with white folks, one that tends to benefit the top 1% of African Americans at the expense of millions who have lost their jobs, lost their homes and have relatives suffering under the holocaust of mass incarceration. If you believe that racial progress in America is the result getting approval and validation from white people, then the Obama presidency might very well be your trump card.
Some might say that President Obama is not responsible for “negro problems,” since they existed before he became president. After all, he is the president of all the United States, not just black America..for some, this means that ignoring black America entirely is justifiable, a clear reflection of the massive self-esteem problem that comes from 400 years of blatant racial oppression. We don’t have to be invisible in order for Obama to be successful.
Yes, Obama can’t be expected to solve all of these “petty negro problems” by himself, but you can certainly hold him accountable for not trying. While Obama’s access to the White House has been a power boon for wealthy black folks who went to Harvard (Valerie Jarrett will now be invited to the finest social gatherings), nearly every statistical indicator shows that black quality of life has worsened during the last four years and it’s silly to presume that it’s all because of Bush.
In some ways, you can compare Obama to the police officer who stands and watches his relative being beaten to death by the police chief. Standing up against the injustice might cost him his job, so his other relatives might forgive him for doing nothing. After all, the police chief was beating on his relatives long before he ever got the position.
There might be some, on the other hand, who find it morally reprehensible that he didn’t at least try to stop the beating when he could have. In his mind, the decision to stand by as injustice prevails is either a decision to protect his personal standing with the police force, a fear of the man in charge or a belief that the suffering of others should be allowed for the greater good.
The analogy here is that the same resources that the Obama White House has given to appease gays, Latinos, and other groups that don’t love him as much as black people do could have easily been shared with the black community (he doesn’t need anyone’s permission to pardon some of the black men serving 50 years sentences for selling drugs). The decision to allocate these resources elsewhere (similar to the decision of the officer to stand down in the example above) either comes from self-preservation, a fear of angering white racists who would punish him politically or a belief that protecting his presidency somehow adds to the greater good.
But as it pertains to the ability of whites and blacks to get along, the Obama presidency has certainly been a good thing for America. The problem is that as a community, we’ve taken a huge step backward, there’s no denying that. To pretend that Obama had no obligation to help solve the problem of racial inequality in America is to say that all of us have no obligation to help anyone but ourselves. That’s not what community building is all about.
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