Wake Up, People! How to Get Past African-American Pessimism in the Age of Obama

Barack Obama takes the oath of office for the second time as president on Monday, January 21 on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Once again, a black man becomes the most powerful human being on the planet. Black children will continue to see someone who looks like them in charge, and many in the older generation will smile brighter and step livelier, thanking the Creator for allowing them to behold the closest thing they’ll see to the Promised Land.

But there’s a generation in between – too young to remember the bloody Civil Rights battles of the 1960s, and too old to feel unadulterated hope. Some members of this African-American generation see Obama’s accomplishment through a veil of indifference. For them, feeling good about Obama is blocked by a Negroidal nihilism too high to get over; too low to get under.

I’ve talked to some of these folks about how Obama’s election is the potent proof that white supremacy can now be written in lower-case. I’ve pointed out to them that while racism is not dead, it certainly is dead-on-arrival as the unmoving, unchanging, unwavering force that conscripts the black, brown and beige to the gray hells of second-class citizenship. But for some, it’s hard to see the possibilities that await us. They tilt their head, shrug their shoulders, or just give you that old standby: the “Negro, please” look, designed to banish you from the tribe for not knowing “what time it is.”

Afro-pessimism is rampant in the hood, but it also lives in academia. Dr. Cornel West, when asked if he would serve in Obama’s White House, said, “[t]hat’s not my calling. Yeah, brother, you find me in a crackhouse before you find me in the White House."

Afro-pessimism comes from a painful and brutal history of slavery and its aftermath. And statistics tell us that we still have a lot not to cheer about, like the 14 percent unemployment rate among blacks (nearly double the national average) or the monstrous murder rate in Chicago, where 80 percent of the 500 homicide victims in 2012 were black. We are depressed when we hear that the gap in high school graduation rates for white and black males only narrowed by 3 percent in 10 years, and when we learn that, stunningly, 40.2 percent of all prison inmates are black, even though we are only 13.6 percent of the U.S. population.

Those horrors are real. But what is also real is that against unimaginable odds, we are still here. We forged ourselves, with the full, white weight of the Western world bearing down us, into what W.E.B. Du Bois called “a small nation of people.” This black nation is united less by any single African, pre-American past than by what Ralph Ellison termed “an identity of passions.” We are a multicolored branch of humanity that won a centuries-spanning struggle that liberated master and slave. To say that we all emerged in heroic fashion would be a lie. Being human, people tend to go inward and internalize the degradation and lack of hope around them. That, of course, is not an exclusively black thing, as evidenced by the sad condition of Native Americans, Kurds, Roma and many other oppressed people on the planet.

While pessimism under unrelenting and brutal conditions is understandable, it ceases to be useful when we refuse to believe that better conditions are possible because believing it sets us up for disappointment. The presidency of Barack Obama becomes too much to process, and we shy away from the work of overhauling negative thinking. We shift into thinking that any kind of African-American advancement is a sham, a trick, a hustle; an unforgivable delusion unfit for those who keep it real.

Afro-pessimism is bad enough when it’s just about lack of positive action. But it plays out in our young people in the worst aspects of popular and hip-hop culture, where a black kid is called “acting white” for speaking in non-accented Standard English, and God forbid, excelling in school. Add those incendiary ingredients to the American-as-apple-pie love for violence and you have a recipe for reverse-revolution; where black prison culture is celebrated and rewarded by the larger white community and by the media’s insatiable appetite for black life on the mean streets.

The good news is that Afro-pessimism is a cultural response, and though it is shaped by socio-economic forces, it is reversible through the same kind of positive, cultural engineering that all humans are capable of. For starters, Afro-pessimists should consider our political history – as black people, and as Americans. Remember that most of our victories don’t happen overnight. Second, we need to carefully scrutinize the president’s policies and the strategies that underpin them. As the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote in the New York Times:

“Mr. Obama’s writings, politics and personal relations suggest ... that he prefers a three-pronged strategy. First, he is committed to the universalist position that the best way to help the black and Latino poor is to help all disadvantaged people, Appalachian whites included. The outrage of black over-incarceration will be remedied by quietly reforming the justice system … Second, Mr. Obama appears convinced that residential segregation lies at the heart of both black problems and cultural racism. He is a committed integrationist and seems to favor policies intended to move people out of the inner cities. Third, he clearly considers education to be the major solution and has tried to lavishly finance our schools, despite the fiscal crisis. More broadly, he will quietly promote policies that celebrate the common culture of America, emphasizing the extraordinary role of blacks and other minorities in this continuing creation.”

Here are two examples that support Patterson’s analysis: 1) the president’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit in 2010, which benefited about 2.2 million African American families and nearly half of all African American children, while extending unemployment insurance to benefit over a million African Americans; and 2) the African-American Education Initiative, an executive order created to improve the “… educational outcomes for African Americans of all ages; and help ensure that African Americans receive a complete and competitive education that prepares them for college, a satisfying career, and productive citizenship.” 

Examining evidence of Obama’s positive effect on the black community can help lift the veil of Afro-pessimism, and allow us to view his reelection in a more realistic and positive light. Remember, we are witnessing an event that was unimaginable less than 10 years ago. If a black, mixed-race brother raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, with a Muslim-sounding name a few years after 9/11 can win the presidency twice – especially after four years of vicious racist attacks – then simply put, all is possible.

We no longer have the option of rising to our lowest expectations.


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