Nothing better defined the precise nature of his circumstances than that triumphal moment of birtherism, in which a sitting President was forced to prove his own citizenship. Viewed through the lens of black history, that moment appeared as Dred Scott remixed, the means by which a President is racially profiled. That humiliation resounded with every black person who’s ever felt that their qualifications were questioned despite years of education, hard work, and sacrifice. It made perfect sense that Donald Trump would follow up the question of Obama’s citizenship with one casting doubts on his academic performance at Columbia. He was trafficking in the greatest hits of white entitlement. For black people, the implications of this were clear: if the most powerful man in the world could be played like that because he’s black, what hope was there for the rest of us?
Cornel West himself unintentionally made the most cogent defense of Obama when he criticized the 2008 race speech. After rightfully citing it for the false evenhandedness with which it treated racial conflict, West offered that it was the best speech that could be given “in a racially immature society.” There is a thematic bond that connects a broad swath of our contemporary politics, a bratty truculence that gives context to the rebranded nativism of birthers, to Rep. Joe Wilson’s Tourette’s-like outburst during a State of the Union address, to Beck’s fevered dissociative ramblings, and the Muslim-socialist-fascist axis imagined by the unhinged. That immaturity found its most honest expression in a 2011 poll in which eleven per cent of white respondents said they felt that they are now the primary victims of racism. It is not hard to imagine that some future historian will refer to the Obama era, or at least the first four years of it, as the Age of Tantrums. Twenty years ago, in the midst of the culture wars, establishment critics assailed multiculturalism as an assault on the fabric of common citizenship. How ironic that it would be a black ma—who rose to prominence in 2006 by asserting that “there’s no white America or black America but the United States of America”—whose Presidency would ignite the balkanization they warned of.
There is an obvious downside to this familiarity with the obstacles implicit within a black Presidency. Obama at times tends toward insouciance regarding black voters who, epidermal affiliations aside, nonetheless represent roughly a quarter of his electorate and the single largest and most reliable voting block in the Democratic Party. That casual arrogance was on display when he warned the Congressional Black Caucus (already wavering in their support for him) to “stop complaining,” during a speech in 2011. There are moments where even amid the racial minefield his Presidency inhabits, he appears to have been let off easy; black America has settled for a brother who feels our pain, rather than evaluated how effectively he’s alleviated it. Yet even this frustration yields layers of complexity.
It’s also worth noting that despite the gossamer-thin margin separating them in this election, the Romney campaign did not, until relatively late in the game, resort to the kinds of coded racial appeals that were a cornerstone of Presidential politics. And when it did, the campaign’s loose talk about Obama undoing welfare reform and its head nod at birtherism seemed half-hearted and desperate, not an integral part of the strategy. Indeed, Romney’s most inflammatory statement—his reference to a parasitic forty-seven per cent of the population—suggested bigoted attitudes that ran along class lines, not epidermal ones. It’s possible that Romney, perhaps inspired by his father’s example, has no stomach for such racial measures. Or that the blowback would alienate more voters than those tactics would win over. It’s also possible that the Southern Strategy wouldn’t fly today because it would ruin our national high. We like ourselves now in the way the blissfully un-self-aware people often do. Even slick, encrypted racism might inspire a kind of historical reflux, remind us of the terrible limbic appeal of bigotry, and put us collectively in a bad head space. Things have changed, just not the things that many of us suspected on Election Day.
Malcolm X occupied a similar crossroads in American history, a point at which a vast chunk of history had fallen away and a new vista of possibilities emerged. His criticism of integration inspired a view of him as the antithesis of the movement associated with King. A more subtle reading of him suggested that he was a herald who saw more starkly than many the unpaved places in the road ahead. The demise of segregation was as stunning to his generation as the election of Barack Obama was to this one. The troubles and complexities that would follow both those events were seemingly cloaked by momentous victories—encrypted, as it were, by the tides of change.
The Obama Presidency has thus far validated both our hopes and our fears and given duelling legitimacy to optimism and cynicism simultaneously. It has pitted the audacity of hope against the recalcitrance of memory. If his election validated the ideals of King, what has happened since then lends credence to Malcolm X. What remains clear is that whether it’s a function of defiance or affirmation, Obama has already been inducted into a narrative black America tells itself, one in which we are the central characters and we are the primary deed-holders to our own triumphs. Whether or not he is reëlected is secondary to this concern. The more enduring question is whether black people will maintain a broader faith in America because a black man has been elected President, or despite it.
Top: Photograph by Christopher Anderson/Magnum. Middle: Photograph by Jelani Cobb.