Monday, September 2, 2013
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM BY JELANI COBB
For the entirety of his Presidential career, Barack Obama has attempted to reconcile the competing strains of “We Shall Overcome” and “Hail to the Chief.” At the outset of his Presidency—in ways that he spoke about explicitly on Wednesday, in his speech before the Lincoln Memorial—there was a causal relationship between those ideals: his election was the ultimate validation of the audacity at the heart of the simple creed that drove the civil-rights movement. Yet Obama’s speech, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, also laid bare the contradictions in those two themes and raised a dispiriting question: Has a black Presidency moved us closer to the ideal of King’s dream, or reflected its exhaustion as a real possibility?
In the summer of 2009, Obama addressed a similar hallmark of racial history, the hundredth anniversary of the N.A.A.C.P.’s founding. He articulated a breadth of understanding of the concerns confronting black America, the mutated strains of intolerance that remained despite his election as the first black President. As he approached his conclusion, he broke into the oracular rhythms of the black church and whipped the attendees into standing ovation. He’d given a great speech, but he’d also struck an implicit bargain with his audience: his capacity to understand race, his willingness to reassure black people that he comprehends the nuances of our difficulties, would substitute, at least for a time, for tangible evidence of his work to address them. Often, when Presidents give speeches like that before key constituencies, they announce initiatives or executive orders. Obama announced that he was one of us. At the time, just six months into his Presidency, that seemed to be a promissory note of sorts.
Four years have passed, and yet his speech on Wednesday was dismally similar to the one he gave in 2009. That Obama could not—or would not—elucidate his plans to address the intractable realities of race and the economic consequences of those realities, even as he acknowledged that “black unemployment has remained almost twice as high as white unemployment, Latino unemployment close behind,” calls into question the logic of a black Presidency in itself. There was something despair-inducing about the way he said “change doesn’t come from Washington, it comes to Washington,” an oratorical turn that cloaked the fact that something vital was being reneged upon. Both Presidents Carter and Clinton, each of whom spoke before Obama, made reference to their own debt—political and otherwise—to the civil-rights movement. Aside from the tacit allusions to his own race, there was nothing in Obama’s speech that could not have been delivered by either of them. Whether that is cause for celebration or disappointment is subject to debate, but, at the very least, it suggested there was unread fine print attached to “We Shall Overcome.” Obama’s black support in the past two elections stemmed in part from the idea that as President he’d be a symbol of the civil-rights movement--and, more substantially, from the hope that he’d exist as an agent of it.
Instead, President Obama approaches race as a participant-observer, a man whose perspective was formed on the penumbra of our bruised racial experiences. This was unquestionably an asset during his first campaign, when the very possibility of his election offered validation of the battered faith from which the movement sprang. No one with a lesser understanding of these matters could’ve crafted the masterstroke that was the “More Perfect Union” speech he delivered in the midst of the controversy over Jeremiah Wright. In his reëlection campaign, when the ghosts of voter disfranchisement rose up and drove African-Americans to the polls with a determination rooted in the scar tissue of history, the act of voting for Obama seemed an extension of that struggle. He is unparalleled in conveying these insights, as he did in July when he spoke to the wounds that the George Zimmerman verdict had reopened in black America. But when he is speaking about race on his own terms, it becomes easier to suspect that he deploys that insight cynically.
Obama’s tic for rhetorical evenhandedness meant that even in his discussion of racial inequality, he had to nod to black failings by pointing to “self-defeating riots” and “criminal excuse-making.” And his tendency to chide black America in public appears all the more cynical when compared with his refusal to point to his own responsibilities to that community as Commander-in-Chief. On Wednesday, he spoke of “the debt that I and millions of Americans” owe “those maids, those laborers, those porters, those secretaries; folks who could have run a company maybe if they had ever had a chance,” but he suggested no way to make good that debt, no responsibility on his part, whether as a black man or as President, to see it repaid, in any other way than by simply acknowledging it. His Administration is not responsible for black unemployment being double white unemployment, but it’s entirely insufficient for him to so simply make mention of that fact en route to a facile point about the work that’s still left to be done.
Not long ago, Jay Z fended off charges that, by comparing himself to Barack Obama and arguing that his mere existence as a powerful black man was a form of philanthropy, he was showing himself to be nonchalant in the face of the struggles of black America. His critics said that it was evidence of the rapper’s arrogance growing into terminal narcissism, but there was an iota of a point to be considered. To the alumni of housing projects or cotton fields, the kind of one-per-center glory Jay Z represents isn’t simply evidence of capitalism’s ability to produce plutocrats but a defiant assertion of the right of blacks to exist and thrive in America’s most privileged echelons. Obama would not make a statement as obtuse as Jay Z’s, but looking at his Presidency now, from its midpoint, it seems entirely possible that history will regard his biggest contribution to black people as his mere existence.
The President was right in his assertion Wednesday afternoon that Martin Luther King, Jr., had not died in vain, but neither did he die to be merely commemorated. He died in the pursuit of racial equality in this country. If we haven’t yet reached that day Dr. King spoke of, then it’s required of us to ask the President—even a black one—what he’s doing to bring it about.