A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog.
It might be premature to start talking about the legacy of a president who, according to polls, stands a decent chance at reelection this fall. But in a sense, we’ve been talking about Barack Obama’s legacy since at least the summer of 2007, well before he was elected president. I’m working my way through a great new essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the September issue ofThe Atlantic, and here’s one of the more historically aware statements on Obama’s legacy that I’ve seen recently:
The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.
It’s convenient to think that racial tension in this country has dissipated over the last half-century through the arrival of progressive social legislation and cultural change. But what’s more likely, as Coates suggests, is that new laws and customs have just sublimated racism into publicly acceptable political preferences; it’s not that racism is dead, it’s just that racists nowadays have more legitimate ways to object to people and policies they don’t like, and in a somewhat perverse sense, to defend their views with even greater authority.
This is why it’s important to see Barack Obama in the context of the longstanding division within the black community over whether it’s better to object to the system or master the system. Coates may be right that blacks have typically leaned — or been pushed — towards “protest and agitation” against a system that has never favored them, but there are plenty of people within the black community who have questioned the wisdom of that approach. Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, Michael Steele, and Herman Cain stand out as recent examples, but clearly they have all rejected “protest and agitation” by embracing political conservatism, which is still largely unpalatable to the vast majority of American blacks.
Seen against this backdrop, Barack Obama becomes the nascent model of an American black man who is neither a protestor nor a conservative, but rather a socially established, politically pragmatic liberal. He is, in other words, a conceptual compromise between diametrically opposed philosophies within the black community. That’s not to say that his presidency has been good for black people living in America today, or that he has lived up to the hype, but if you take the longer historical view it’s worth understanding that he represents a new — and perhaps still emerging — type within the black community.
The key question then is whether such a compromised type can effect change in ways that the black community may still need. In comparison to black agitators of the 20th century, perhaps not, but then again perhaps it is time to move beyond the concept of a “black community” as something that is separate from mainstream society. By most measures, Barack Obama has done far less to further any distinctly black or liberal agenda than to show blacks how to be successful and mainstream without completely selling out on values that they feel they must remain committed to. That is a win in certain ways, of course, it’s just that there is a huge difference between remaining conceptually or rhetorically committed to values, on the one hand, and actually pushing those values deeper into the fabric of society, on the other. That is where many liberals — not just black liberals — have been disappointed by Obama’s presidency.