Michael Eric Dyson
The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 368 pages
- Introduction: The Burden of Representation
- How to Be a Black President
- “Invisible Man Got the Whole World Watching”
- Black Presidency, Black Rhetoric
- Re-Founding Father
- The Scold of Black Folk
- Dying to Speak of Race
- Going Bulworth
- Amazing Grace
- President Obama’s Speeches and Statements on Race
- About the Author
Barack Obama‘s black presidency has shocked the symbol system of American politics and made the adjective in “representative democracy” mean something quite different than in the past. Obama provoked great hope and fear about what a black presidency might mean to our democracy. His biracial roots and black identity have been a beguiling draw and also a spur to belligerent reaction. White and black folk, and brown and beige ones, too, have had their views of race and politics turned topsy-turvy. What many Americans of all colors believe is that race fundamentally defines America and is a dividing line drawn in blood through the nation’s moral map. Many metaphors of race drape the nation’s political framework: Barack Obama argued in his famous March 2008 race speech in Philadelphia that slavery is the nation’s original sin, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice claimed that racism is our country’s “birth defect.” 1 Race is the most durable link in the nation’s chain of destiny; it is at once a damning indictment of our quest for real democracy and true justice, and also a resilient category of individual and “group identity—one that cannot be reduced to either mere pathology or collective pride. Race is both the midwife of glorious achievements like jazz and the black freedom movement and the abortive instrument of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. Race is the thing we cannot seem to do without—and the thing that we cannot seem to get rid of.
Race is the defining feature of our forty-fourth president’s two terms in office. Obama’s presidency is a lens to sharpen the details of American ideas about race and democracy. His presidency also raises the question of how much closer the election of a single black man may bring us to a more just and inclusive society. Barack Obama has finally made transparent the idea that our country cannot fully flourish without embracing a black identity that is the quintessential expression of the American character. What we all intuitively sense is that this presidency turns on their ear all the ways we have historically looked at presidencies, and perhaps, even more broadly, at our very democracy. Obama certainly bears what James Baldwin called “the burden of representation.” 2
That brilliant phrase refers to the weight and meaning of blackness for individual and collective racial bodies, and for literal and symbolic bodies too. This presidency, unlike all others before it, is analyzed and understood through our obsession with race in the body of the president himself and in the “psyche of the nation he governs. A black presidency is undeniably interracial in the same way that Obama’s body is composed of black and white genes. Obama’s presidency is the symbolic love child of Notes on the State of Virginia and The Fire Next Time 3.
Thomas Jefferson and James Baldwin gaze at us from immortal perches separated by two centuries and two races locked in fateful struggle. But Jefferson and Baldwin are separated only by time and race; they are united in their unrelenting sexual and political preoccupation with the “other.” Jefferson and Baldwin can finally be joined in the full complexity of a conversation about race and American politics across time—a conversation that is constantly evoked but never fully engaged, as if it were held behind doors that are locked to everyone who would participate. And yet Obama is snared in a fascinating paradox: a man seen by many observers as the key to the locked doors of conversation about race is most reluctant to take charge and unlock the treasures of racial insight and wisdom.
What we learn about Obama says a lot about what we learn about ourselves; his racial reality is our racial reality. And it is never, ever static. That truth becomes apparent when we understand just how much we as a nation project our expectations and frustrations onto Obama’s presidency, and how he effortlessly represents our deepest doubts and our most resilient hopes. We must concentrate on what Obama says and does—on what speech he gives or what policy he enacts or fails to implement. We must also grapple with what Obama literally means, what his ideas amount to, what veins of ideology or sources of racial imagination he taps when he speaks, and where we travel as a nation by welcoming or resisting the social pathways his presence lays before us.
Obama’s presidency represents the paradox of American representation. Obama represents for all of us because he stands as the symbol of America to the world. He also represents to the American citizenry proof of progress in a nation that has never before embraced a black commander in chief. Yet a third sense of representation has a racial tinge, because Obama is also a representative of a black populace that, until his election, had been excluded from the highest reach of political representation. These three meanings of representation are the core of Obama’s paradoxical relationship to the citizens of the country he represents: he is at once a representative of the country, a representative of the change the country has endured, and a representative of the people to whom change has been long denied and for whom that change has meant the most.
Of course critics may read “black presidency” as a term that denies Obama the agency and individuality that mark genuine social and moral achievement. To say “black presidency” is already to have “reduced Obama’s presidency to something less than any other presidency. But the term also imbues the presidency for the first time with the true promise of democracy on which this country was founded. The paradox of representation is thus two-sided: a member of a minority group deliberately excluded from opportunity now stands at the peak of power to represent the nation. The idea of race both qualifies and enhances the representative stature of the presidency. When it comes to race, representation in America is always an internal barometer of privilege, through the exclusion of blacks and others, while at the same time, given how central to our lives race has become, it is also an external barometer of justice.
In The Black Presidency I examine Barack Obama’s political journey to tell a story about the politics of race in America—our racial limits and possibilities, our tortured past and our complicated present, our moral conflicts and aspirations, our cherished national myths, and our contradictory political behavior. The cultural impact of Obama’s lean black presidential frame will be far more enduring than partisan debates about his political career. Obama has changed the presidency itself; the ultimate seat of power has now been occupied for two terms by a man whose body translates in concrete terms our most precious democratic ideals. Obama gives African legs to the Declaration of Independence and a black face to the Constitution. Obama’s black presidency cannot be erased by political will even as Congress thwarts his legislation. The paradox of representation Obama symbolizes is not up for judicial review even as the Supreme Court troubles the black vote that helped to sweep him into office.
The existence of a black presidency signals for some people an end to racial categories that have plagued America since 1619. The post-racial urge rises in a society seeking to avoid the pain of overcoming its racist legacy. Obama’s presidency has defeated the post-racial myth, not with less blackness but with more of it, though it is the kind of blackness that insinuates and signifies while hiding in plain sight. The presidency is now permanently marked by difference, one that transcends Obama himself and may pave the way for a female president whose gender will be far less noteworthy for Obama’s having been the first black president.
A black presidency and the politics of a lived American democracy are like a transmission and its motor: the motor creates the power and the transmission makes the power usable. A black presidency necessarily engages the identity and meaning of an American democracy that was for so long an efficient engine for excluding black participation. Some may worry that the term “black presidency” is code for a delegitimized presidency that undermines democratic institutions and ideas. But Obama’s achievement gestures toward what the state had not allowed at the highest level before his emergence: equality of opportunity, fairness in democracy, and justice in society. Our system of government gains more legitimacy when it accommodates demands for justice and adjusts to the requirements of formal equality. Obama’s presidency, paradoxically, both critiques and affirms a political order that stymied the ambitions of other black politicians—an order he now heads.
I grapple in The Black Presidency with what happens to the psyche and racial identity of a nation when a two-century-old white monopoly on the presidency is broken for two consecutive terms. Then, too, we must ask how and what the blackness of Obama signifies to other blacks.
Obama’s eight years in office will be referred to as the only black presidency until another black person is elected. If the first line in his obituary reads “first (and perhaps only) black president,” is he forever fixed in the American mind with a racial reference that he labored hard to overcome? Obama lives with a burden and possibility that no other black person in our history, perhaps in world history, has ever had to shoulder.
A brief survey of other figures might shed light on Obama’s unique historical situation. Margaret Thatcher looms large 4. Thatcher-as-prime-minister is the nearest analogy we have to Obama-as-president. Of course, the biggest difference between Thatcher and Obama is that Thatcher was “overtly ideological and Obama is anti-ideological, the very reason he was electable. There are other differences. Is Thatcher’s premiership, these many years later, evaluated as “a woman’s leadership” or “the Thatcher Years”? For the first few years of her tenure, not to mention before her election, when she was opposition leader—imagine an American woman in the late seventies as the political and ideological leader of one of our two ruling parties—critics mused about how or whether her gender determined her style of governing. But Thatcher was so hard-line, in truth, heartless, in so many areas—in other words, so stereotypically “masculine”—that in time she was thought of no longer primarily as a woman but as a steely power player, albeit a female one: “the Iron Lady.” 5 (Can we imagine a time when Obama would not be seen as black but merely as president? For that matter, should Hillary Clinton or another woman become president, can we imagine her beyond gender on these shores?) Still, by the time she lost power in 1990, British women were not, because of her position, living in a post-gender world, and they still are not today 6. Yet some of us naïvely believe that Obama’s rise has removed race from the national landscape.
Other analogous figures come to mind, including Benjamin Disraeli, the first Jewish prime minister in the United Kingdom, and John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president. Each offers instructive similarities. Disraeli’s Jewish identity forced him to assure the largely Christian constituency in nineteenth-century Britain that he would not favor Jewish citizens 7. In the same vein, Obama has not favored blacks, opting, arguably, to underplay their interests in order to reinforce his racial neutrality. Kennedy assured American citizens that he would not take his marching orders from the Vatican 8. Obama went him one better: he pushed aside the former, if greatly weakened, black political pope, Jesse Jackson, and helped to enshrine a new one, Al Sharpton, while keeping at a distance the Congressional Black Caucus, the archbishops of black politics.
Disraeli and Kennedy had, as did Thatcher, their whiteness, an escape hatch that Obama lacks. If boxer Jack Johnson possessed “unforgivable blackness,” then Obama is plagued by inescapable blackness 9. Disraeli soothed the fears of the masses about his Jewishness, Thatcher toned down her femaleness, and Kennedy downplayed his Catholicism and emphasized instead the catholicity of his politics. All three appealed in their own way to the under-girding whiteness that bound them to their constituencies beyond gender and religious difference. Yet color trumps all for Obama; to have one’s presidency examined through the lens of race before any other is as different as Obama’s election itself.
Bill Clinton’s case is not quite like the other figures’, each of whom possesses a quality—ethnicity, gender, religion—that makes their political experiences analogous to Obama’s presidency. But the example of Clinton, steeped in the cultural signifiers of blackness rather than race, still offers an intriguing parallel to consider 10. Toni Morrison and Chris Rock dubbed Clinton the nation’s “first black president”; the white politician from Arkansas shrewdly manipulated the meanings and symbols of blackness to his advantage 11. Clinton strategically embraced blackness to gain the black vote while signaling white suburban voters that he would not bow to Jesse Jackson’s leadership 12. Before his impeachment, Clinton “signed a crime bill that sparked a deadly spike in black incarceration and signed into legislation welfare reform that cruelly cut black bodies unable to find living-wage work from public assistance 13. After his political trial by fire, Clinton embraced Jesse Jackson and played upon black sympathy as smoothly as he blew his sax. Clinton prefigured Obama’s even more complicated use of black ideas and black identity while occupying the Oval Office.
Obama, however, stands alone as the only black person to occupy the world’s pinnacle of power. What he does, says, and means is as important to the future as it is to our own moment. We must grapple with Obama in the present to set the baseline for his interpretation in the years to come. The Black Presidency is my contribution to that goal.
In an Oval Office interview the president granted me for this book, he told me, “In the same way that some of the people who don’t like me probably don’t like me because of race, there are some people who probably like me because of race and put up with me in ways that they wouldn’t if I weren’t African American—the folks in African American neighborhoods who identify with me even if they disagree with my policies. And my hope would be that when you wash out those aspects of it, that people are judging me on what I do as opposed to who I am.”
The Black Presidency wrestles with the words and actions of a singular human being who rose to the summit of American power; it also measures the racial currents his life captures and conveys, and offers the president informed and principled criticism.
Finally, this book asks, and engages, every complex question suggested by its subject. Is it reasonable to expect more than Obama has offered black people and the American public? What are the salient issues provoked by a black presidency, and how does it affect our ideas of race? How does Obama’s relationship to his black elders reflect generational conflicts in fighting for progress in black America? How does Obama’s racial identity influence our understanding of his duties? How does the way he speaks reflect the “black cultures that molded him? What can we learn from his major race speeches about the ideas that shaped him and the way he confronts racial crises? How does Obama respond to the plague of police brutality that has swept the nation—and the revived racial terror that stalks the land? How does Obama’s habit of scolding black America reinforce harmful ideas about black culture? How does Obama’s emphasis on law and order, personal responsibility, and respectability politics obscure the structural features of black suffering? What—and who—would it sound like if Obama cut loose and said what he really believes? In The Black Presidency I answer these and other questions while confronting Barack Obama’s—America’s first—black presidency.”
1. Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union,” in The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union,” ed. T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2009), p. 237; Condoleezza Rice, interview on Face the Nation, CBS, November 27, 2011, .
2. Quoted in Henry Louis Gates Jr., Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 18.
3. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, annotated ed. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1998); James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963; repr., New York: Vintage, 1993).”
4. John Campbell, The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer’s Daughter to Prime Minister, abridged ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2011); Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).
5. Moore, Margaret Thatcher, pp. 298–333; Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso Press, 1988).
6. When Baroness Thatcher died in 2013, President Obama issued an official statement and noted her gender as a defining element of her legacy: “As a grocer’s daughter who rose to become Britain’s first female prime minister, she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.” “Statement from the President on the Passing of Baroness Margaret Thatcher,” April 8, 2013.
7. Although Disraeli was baptized into the Church of England at the age of twelve, his Jewish heritage remained a central feature of his existence and identity. See Adam Kirsch, Benjamin Disraeli (New York: Schocken Books, 2008). Thanks to historian Gerald Horne for suggesting the parallel between Disraeli and Obama in a brief, serendipitous conversation in an airport.
8. Thomas J. Carty, A Catholic in the White House? Religion, Politics, and John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Campaign (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). For a fascinating comparison of Obama and Kennedy, see Robert C. Smith, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and the Politics of Ethnic Incorporation and Avoidance (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013).
9. Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).
10. Dewayne Wickham, Bill Clinton and Black America (New York: One World/Ballantine, 2002).
11. Toni Morrison, “The Talk of the Town: Comment,” The New Yorker, October 5, 1998, pp. 31–32. Chris Rock said in an interview in the August 1998 issue of Vanity Fair that Clinton was “the first black president.” He also said that Clinton was “the most scrutinized man in history, just as a black person would be. He spends a hundred dollar bill, they hold it up to the light.” See Jonathan Tilove, “Before Bill Clinton Was the ‘First Black President,’” Newhouse News Service, March 6, 2007, . In 2008, in Time magazine, when asked if she regretted referring to Clinton as the first black president, Morrison said that people “misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.” See Toni Morrison, 10 Questions for Toni Morrison, Time, May 7, 2008. Indeed, in The New Yorker, Morrison wrote: “Years ago . . . one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. According to Morrison, Clinton’s blackness became even clearer when “the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the (impeachment) persecution.” Morrison, “Talk of the Town,” p. 32. During a 2008 Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina televised live on CNN, journalist Joe Johns asked Obama if Clinton was the first black president.
“Well, I think Bill Clinton did have an enormous affinity with the African-American community, and still does,” Obama said. “And I think that’s well earned . . . (O)ne of the things that I’m always inspired by—no, I’m—this I’m serious about. I’m always inspired by young men and women who grew up in the South when segregation was still taking place, when, you know, the transformations that are still incomplete but at least had begun had not yet begun. And to see (those) transformations in their own lives(,) I think that is powerful, and it is hopeful, because what it indicates is that people can change.
“And each successive generation can, you know, create a different vision of how, you know, we have to treat each other. And I think Bill Clinton embodies that. I think he deserves credit for that. Now, I haven’t . . . I have to say that, you know, I would have to, you know, investigate more of Bill’s dancing abilities. You know, and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother.” Wolf Blitzer said, “Let’s let Senator Clinton weigh in on that.” Hillary Clinton then humorously retorted, “Well, I’m sure that can be arranged.” “Part 3 of CNN Democratic Presidential Debate,” January 21, 2008.
12. Kenneth O’Reilly, Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton (New York: Free Press, 1995); Manning Marable, The Great Wells of Democracy: Reconstructing Race and Politics in the 21st Century (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002), pp. 77–84.
13. President Clinton admitted, both in a foreword to a book on criminal justice and in a speech before the 2015 NAACP convention—the day after President Obama at the same convention offered his landmark speech denouncing mass incarceration—that his policies had been wrong and harmful. “Plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long—we have overshot the mark. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, we now have 25 percent of its prison population, and an emerging bipartisan consensus now understands the need to do better.” Clinton also argued that it is “time to take a clear-eyed look at what worked, what didn’t, and what produced unintended, long-lasting consequences.” He said that “some are in prison who shouldn’t be, others are in for too long, and without a plan to educate, train, and reintegrate them into our communities, we all suffer.” See “William J. Clinton: Foreword,” April 27, 2015, (from the book Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, ed. Inimai Chettiar and Michael Waldman (New York: Brennan Center for Justice, 2015)). In his 2015 NAACP speech, Clinton conceded his error as president: “Yesterday, the president spoke a long time and very well on criminal justice reform. But I want to say a few words about it. Because I signed a bill that made the problem worse and I want to admit it.” See Eric Levitz, “Bill Clinton Admits His Crime Law Made Mass Incarceration ‘Worse,’” MSNBC.com, July 15, 2015, . For the deleterious (racial) consequences of welfare reform, see, by Peter Edelman (who resigned as the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services in September 1996 in protest of Clinton’s signing the welfare reform bill), “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done,” The Atlantic, March 1997. Also see Dylan Matthews, “Welfare Reform Took People Off the Rolls. It Might Have Also Shortened Their Lives,” Washington Post, June 18, 2013; Zenthia Prince, “Welfare Reform Garnered for Black Women a Hard Time and a Bad Name,” Afro, March 18, 2015, ; and Bryce Covert, “Clinton Touts Welfare Reform. Here’s How It Failed,” The Nation, September 6, 2012.”