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In the Age of Obama, Black America Suffering the Most

Racial advancement is increasingly understood not as a process of social change but of individual promotion -- the elevation of a few black faces to high places.
 
 
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The following article first appeared in The Nation magazine. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

When Barack Obama was pondering a run for the presidency Michelle asked him what he thought he could accomplish. He replied, “The day I take the oath of office, the world will look at us differently. And millions of kids across this country will look at themselves differently. That alone is something.” His victory was indeed something. The world certainly looked at America differently, though this had as much to do with who he wasn’t -- George W. Bush -- as what he was, black, among other things.

Polls show that African-Americans indeed look at themselves differently. A January 2010 Pew survey revealed huge optimism. The percentage of black Americans who thought blacks were better off than they were five years before had almost doubled since 2007. There were also significant increases in the percentages who believed the standard-of-living gap between whites and blacks was decreasing.

But for all the ways black America has felt better about itself and looked better to others, it has not actually fared better. In fact, it has been doing worse. The economic gap between black and white has grown since Obama took power. Under his tenure black unemployment, poverty and foreclosures are at their highest levels for at least a decade.

Millions of black kids may well aspire to the presidency now that a black man is in the White House. But such a trajectory is less likely for them now than it was under Bush. Herein lies what is at best a paradox and at worst a contradiction within Obama’s core base of support. The very group most likely to support him -- black Americans -- is the same group that is doing worse under him.

This condition was best exemplified by Velma Hart, the black chief financial officer for a Maryland veterans organization, who backed Obama in 2008. She told Obama at a town hall meeting in September, “I’m exhausted of defending you…. My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives. But, quite frankly, it is starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we are headed again.” In November Velma Hart was laid off.

If it were white Americans who remained this loyal to a Republican president under whom they were doing this badly, the left would be claiming false consciousness. If a Republican president were behind statistics like these, few liberals would be offering that president the benefit of the doubt.

So, how do we explain this apparent inconsistency? There would appear to be three main reasons. The first is white people. Not all of them. But enough. Half of white Americans in a Pew survey shared the birthers’ doubt that Obama was born in this country. After the president produced his long-form birth certificate, Donald Trump demanded his college transcripts (claiming he was not smart enough to get into the Ivy League), and Newt Gingrich branded him the “food stamp president.” In the face of such brazenly racist attacks, defending Obama’s right to the office becomes easily blurred with defending his record.

Second, the post-civil rights era concept of corporate diversity, which many black people have embraced, is central to his symbolism. Racial advancement is increasingly understood not as a process of social change but of individual promotion -- the elevation of black faces to high places. Instead of equal opportunities, we have photo opportunities. “We have more black people in more visible and powerful positions,” Angela Davis told me before Obama’s nomination. “But then we have far more black people who have been pushed down to the bottom of the ladder….There’s a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change.”

 
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