EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
Any history of black people in America will have to look closely at the year 2014. In a cascading series of events that summer, the racial landscape that the nation’s first black president leaves behind—the worst and the best of it—began to take shape. Historians won’t have to look hard to find the worst: On July 17, Eric Garner died after a New York Police Department officer put him in an illegal choke hold. Three weeks later, a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, killed Michael Brown. Black death has led the news ever since—from Freddie Gray in Baltimore to Sandra Bland in Texas to Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Today, Confederate battle flags fly over victory rallies for the president-elect, a man who campaigned on restoring respect for law and order in the face of those who protested that these lives mattered.
But historians will have to look more closely for evidence of what is arguably Obama’s signature contribution to racial equity in America—one that may not even exist a year from now. There are no familiar names to shorthand this achievement, but here’s one that could work: Robert Woodard, a middle-aged black man I met in the lobby of Newark’s Beth Israel Hospital in April of 2014. He was in a jocular mood, eager to make friends with total strangers and full of the kind of hope that Obama often inspires. Robert told me his best guess is that he had his first heart attack in 2003. He knows he survived seven more after that, because he has the bills to remind him. “All I do when I get them bills…I just stack it,” he said.
Robert is a New Jersey native, but he’d spent most of the last 30 years in North Carolina, where he worked in a convenience store without any health insurance. After each heart attack, he left the emergency room and went back to work instead of going to see a doctor. He was stuck in a catch-22 familiar to the working poor: If he quit his job, he’d qualify for disability and thus for public health insurance, but North Carolina’s paltry disability benefits weren’t enough to support him. So he kept working, even without insurance—and kept having heart attacks. That was his life for more than a decade, and by the time his brother convinced him to move back home, he needed major heart surgery. Luckily for Robert, soon after his return to New Jersey, the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid kicked in, at least in the 32 states that have been willing to participate thus far. North Carolina wasn’t among them; New Jersey was, and that meant Robert could afford a new heart.
Neither President Obama nor his detractors saw political advantage in discussing the Affordable Care Act as an antipoverty or racial-justice program, but it is both of these things, and among the most ambitious versions of either since the Johnson administration. Between the January 2014 launch of new coverage options and Michael Brown’s death that August, the nation’s public-insurance program for the working poor grew by roughly 7 million people. As of this summer, it had gone up by more than 10 million. The Affordable Care Act overall has likely saved hundreds of thousands of black lives, and it has certainly produced one of the most significant advances in racial equity on record: By the end of 2014, in just one year’s time, it had entirely erased the disparity in health coverage between white and black kids.
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So goes the story of 2014, and of the Obama era as a whole. Just as thousands of people were pouring into the streets in outrage at our national complacency with black death, millions of black people were going to the doctor for the first time in years. Obama’s presidency has been defined simultaneously by both crushingly hard times and remarkable opportunity for black Americans, by both Michael Brown’s death and Robert Woodard’s life. It opened with profound hope, and it ends with utter fear.
* * *
Barack Obama’s most famous speech on race is still his first, delivered in March 2008 as he faced accusations of race-baiting for worshipping at the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church in Chicago. Its title, “A More Perfect Union,” says much about Obama’s approach to racial justice. The speech became a Rorschach test for levels of optimism among progressives: People either heard a candidate cynically, if skillfully, distance himself from a political liability; or they heard him inspiringly describe the path toward a unified, equitable, and truly post-racial America. Rereading it today, I see both, but also something more. It wasn’t notable that Obama distanced himself from Wright; politicians don’t fight battles they can’t win. However, the way he executed the task was revelatory.
“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” the candidate declared. “It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country…is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know—what we have seen—is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.”
Everything about Obama’s life story suggested to him that the United States is a remarkable, if deeply flawed, work in progress. In this sense, he’s part of a long line of black political actors who understand that equality in America isn’t something you gain and possess, but rather something you pursue and defend unceasingly. The Constitution doesn’t protect us from oppression; it equips us in a persistent fight for justice. That’s the conclusion Frederick Douglass reached when he famously broke from the radical white abolitionists with whom he’d begun his political life. They were invested in an ideological battle to define the Constitution as a pro-slavery covenant, but Douglass preferred to use that imperfect document to end slavery instead.
What separates Obama from this political lineage, however, is his profound faith in both the possibility and power of national unity. For him, the work of making a more perfect union is not just constant struggle, but constant struggle together. As a result, he has upheld the Democratic Party’s long-standing refusal to match its stated commitment to racial justice with either a policy agenda or a political strategy that explicitly attacks racism and promotes real equality. Party doctrine has long insisted that if America just spreads its wealth and power fairly, racial inequities will disappear without a divisive fight over racism—what Nikole Hannah-Jones has called “trickle-down liberalism.” The hard question—one embedded in the positive and negative extremes of 2014—is whether Obama’s presidency, and the 2016 elections that concluded it, vindicate this doctrine or prove it dangerously naive.
* * *
President Obama spent the weeks between the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown talking, nominally, about the economy. It was a midterm-election year, and so all summer he’d been trying to shame the Republicans in Congress for their intransigence. In Minneapolis, Denver, and Austin, he laid into their blanket refusal to work with him. In Wilmington, Delaware, and McClain, Virginia, he talked about the missed opportunities to create jobs through infrastructure investment. In Los Angeles and Kansas City, he talked about “corporate deserters” avoiding taxes and the need for “economic patriotism.” But in all of these speeches, he eventually arrived at his real target: the bad mood that had taken hold in various parts of the Obama coalition. “Cynicism is a choice,” he kept repeating, “and hope is a better choice.”
These speeches now seem uncharacteristically tone-deaf. The mass mobilization in defense of black life hadn’t yet begun, but it’s plain that the eruptions we’ve seen since have been fueled by more than any single incident of police violence. They spring from communities that have reached their wit’s end, not just with the cops but with at least a generation’s worth of economic and social crises. Donald Trump’s white insurgents aren’t the only people tired of broken promises, and the cynicism Obama tried to stamp out of his coalition that summer is now more clearly understood as the start of a mass awakening, from the Bernie Sanders campaign to Black Lives Matter. Even Beyoncé has joined the chorus. Obama was plainly out of touch with this emerging formation among his own supporters.
Still, he had a point. In each of these speeches, he painstakingly cataloged the economic progress that his administration had made and pleaded with voters to see that those investments were finally starting to pay off. And in fact, that summer marked the beginning of an at least statistical recovery that is now well established. Overall unemployment fell to its lowest point since the Lehman Brothers crash of 2008. Black unemployment had been in the double digits since July 2008, but as Obama began his campaign against cynicism in June 2014, black joblessness had dropped three points from the previous year.
These numbers come with the familiar caveats: A lot of folks just quit looking for work and thus didn’t register as jobless; there were and still are a lot of people working part-time when they need full-time gigs; the employment numbers tell us nothing about wage stagnation. Nonetheless, the recovery that Obama urged us to notice in the summer of 2014 has now reached historic proportions. The Census Bureau reported this September that the country’s median household income grew more between 2014 and 2015 than in any year on record, owing to the fact that so many people went back to work. The growth appeared among all racial and ethnic groups and all income brackets; it was actually greatest at the bottom. Meanwhile, poverty fell more sharply than it had since 1968, and as with household income, this improvement appeared in almost every racial and ethnic group.
Time will tell what really drove these gains, and if they are sustainable under a Trump administration. But if Obama is responsible for them, then surely a large share of the credit goes to the Affordable Care Act and his 2009 stimulus package. These initiatives are case studies in how Obama’s obsession with unity shaped his approach to racial justice. Both efforts were savaged by the left—including myself, loudly and often—as half-measures. We will likely continue to debate whether more was politically possible, but we rarely discuss what it means that these policies were insistently race-neutral affairs. In each case, the problem Obama strove to tackle is inextricably tied to racial inequity: The yawning disparities in both jobs and health care are precisely what inflate the overall rates of unemployment, poverty, and the uninsured. Yet Obama refused to target those disparities in either his politics or his policy-making. Consistent with his “A More Perfect Union” speech, Obama’s greatest legislative achievements were both universal and incremental.
The problem with such race-neutral policies is that the Michael Browns of this world don’t have time to wait for the long game on racial justice. Nearly 23 million black and Latino Americans continue to live in poverty, accounting for more than half of the total. The drop in poverty rates last year may have been historic, but even so, more people are living in poverty than at any time on record. For many of them, the past eight years have been grueling, and the next four to eight years under Republican rule may be unbearable—which brings us to the political problem with Obama’s approach to perfecting the union.
* * *
Barack Obama exploded onto the national scene with a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in which he urged us all to see that the country is not a collection of red and blue states. As the events of his presidency have now shown: He was wrong. Obama’s preoccupation with national unity doesn’t account for the fact that the Confederacy is alive and well, that red states have gotten redder, and that, over the course of his tenure, white nationalism swept up the Republican Party and delivered it to an unabashed demagogue.
Those facts have had harsh consequences for black people. If Robert Woodard had stayed in North Carolina, he’d have remained on the fast track to death. It’s notable that, of the 19 states that have refused to expand Medicaid, roughly half are in the South—places where large, sometimes majority-black populations live under white Republican rule. These people, not the white working class, are the actual “forgotten men and women” of American politics, at best ignored and more often actively harassed by the state. Over the course of the Obama years, we’ve seen Republican-led states revive Jim Crow–era disenfranchisement schemes, hatch plans for drug-testing people who apply for public benefits, openly profile Latinos and Muslims, and gut reproductive-health services for the disproportionately black and brown women who depend on public and nonprofit providers—to name just a few of the horrors that will now intensify with Republicans controlling the presidency and Congress, and in effective control of more than 30 state governments.
Meanwhile, whether in white-nationalist organs like Breitbart News or at Tea Party–led state legislative hearings, Republicans around the country have been perfectly happy to race-bait Obama and his race-neutral policies and politics. This drumbeat of racism and xenophobia, embraced by Donald Trump way back at the start of the birther craze, went unchallenged by either party’s leadership, or the president himself, until it was much too late.
As a result, the union has gotten decidedly less perfect for black people living in red-state America during the Obama years. In fact, even that remarkable statistic about the Affordable Care Act erasing the black/white disparity in children’s health coverage comes with a caveat: At least partly because so many people of color live in GOP-run states that have refused to participate in the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, the disparity was closed only thanks to the law’s subsidies for private-insurance plans. Those plans are the most disappointing part of Obamacare, with their rising premiums and maddeningly familiar failure to adequately cover those who need insurance most.
To be clear, the GOP’s decision to become the party of white nationalism isn’t Obama’s fault, and the economic and social battering of black and brown America began long before he became president. Moreover, Obama proved twice that his message could draw a multiracial coalition even in terrible economic times. Trump owes his presidency in part to the whites who defected when Obama left the ticket. But one wonders where we’d be today if the first black president had called people of conscience to political arms against the racism and xenophobia that were such an open feature of right-wing politics during his tenure.
Obama’s second-most-famous speech on race was his second-to-last one, in which he again found himself explaining the black church to America. Seven years after Philadelphia, Obama was called upon to eulogize the nine black people gunned down by a white supremacist as they studied the Bible at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Obama took as his text that day the hymn “Amazing Grace”: “I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.… For too long,” he continued, “we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career. Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate.”
Mass murder motivated Obama to wield his unifying message as a weapon against racial injustice. What if this had been a hallmark of his presidency? For example, what if he had named the Tea Party rallies that helped kill the ACA’s public option as the proto-nationalist gatherings they were? What if he had called out Republicans every time they used barely coded racial politics to justify criminalizing immigrants, or to tar people who needed public benefits as drug addicts? What if he had fought for targeted stimulus investments in the hardest-hit communities, including the battered white exurbs of the Midwest? In other words, what if he had decided to turn the Democratic Party’s premise on its head and, rather than implicitly ask people of color to accept trickle-down liberalism, had explicitly rallied the white people in his electoral coalition to understand that they would make a 21st-century America work better for themselves by making it more just for people of color, too?
* * *
One of the most charming stories behind Obama’s historic 2008 election is that of Edith Childs. She’s the black woman from Greenwood, South Carolina, who gave the candidate his signature chant: “Fired up? Ready to go!” At a low point early in his campaign, she helped him remember his purpose by hijacking one of his less-inspired voter meetings with that call-and-response.
“It goes to show you how one voice can change a room,” the president told a rally for health-care reform in 2009. “And if it changes a room, it can change a city. And if it can change a city, it can change a state. And if it can change a state, it can change a nation.” This was Obama at his best, connecting individual action to mass mobilization.
But America in 2016 is not the America of 2008. There’s a huge distance between John McCain and Donald Trump. And yet, for mainstream Democrats at least, so much of the 2016 playbook looked and sounded like a return to the tired old assumptions of pre-Obama politics. It was another election cycle in which Democrats fussed over black enthusiasm—which they measure by asking whether black voters are providing the support they need to win the states and districts they’ve prioritized—rather than calling white voters to a higher moral purpose, something beyond merely defending their economic interests.
Black politicos are indeed deeply enthused; they’re now the ones asking whether liberal white institutions are providing the support they need to win the fight for justice. Intended or not, that may be Obama’s twin legacy on race: clarity on the profound threat that America continues to pose for people of color—politically, economically, physically—and a broadening mobilization of people who are fired up and ready to fight explicitly for racial justice.