EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
When Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the South Carolina primary in 2008, the crowds chanted, “Race doesn’t matter!” Seven years later, Obama was back in the state singing “Amazing Grace” after a white supremacist, Dylann Roof, walked into a church and shot nine black people dead, hoping, he had said, to ignite a race war. A few months earlier, Michael Slager, a white policeman in Charleston, fatally shot Walter Scott, a black man, in the back after he’d been stopped for having a broken taillight. Slager was recently tried before a jury of 11 whites and one African American; one white juror held out against a verdict of guilty, and a mistrial was declared.
Race does matter. For those who willfully confused the symbolic resonance of Obama’s presidency and the substantial difference it would make for African Americans, that fact was always going to be a disappointment.
Obama’s ascent to power commenced during the most intense period of the financial crisis, coinciding in real time with a widening racial gulf, as black Americans were hit hardest by the crash. Given the moneyed interests of the Democratic Party and the congressional constraints on his presidency, Obama was unlikely ever to bridge that gulf. Sure enough, the gap between black and white, in terms of wealth, has grown wider under his tenure than it has been since 1989. While one can debate the degree to which Obama—as opposed to Congress or Wall Street—is responsible for that divide, one cannot deny the fact of it: The nation’s first black president presided over a relative decline in black living standards.
For black Americans, reveling in the spectacle of Obama’s first inauguration, 2009 heralded Dickensian days—the best of times and the worst of times.
Indeed, those who prematurely announced a post-racial America witnessed the end of Obama’s second term in a state of heightened racial consciousness. The Black Lives Matter movement has made the nation painfully aware of the lethal consequences of enduring racial inequities. Black people are not more likely to be killed by police now than they were eight years ago; it’s just that we are only now paying attention. America proved that it can elect a black head of state, but it has yet to guarantee that a black person can walk down the street without being summarily executed by the state.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s ascension suggests that if there ever was a post-civil-rights consensus about the nature of equality in a post-racial democracy, it was more fragile than many realized for a significant section of white America.
Trump’s refusal to respect the etiquette of mainstream conservative racism did not simply redraw the boundaries of acceptable electoral race-baiting; it erased them. Five years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman: “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this, while not appearing to.” Trump gave up on appearances, and it worked.
But while symbols shouldn’t be mistaken for substance, they should not be dismissed as insubstantial either. For if those who believed that Obama’s race alone would significantly shift the dial for African Americans were deluded, then those who maintain that his presence holds no value are cynical in equal measure.
The fact that America put a black family in the White House three years after black bodies floated down the streets of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina makes a difference. It suggests there was a sizable electorate in the country ready to hear a different story about what America’s future might be. The fact that Obama won young white voters the first time, that black turnout was on par with white turnout the second time, and that both times he managed to win many of the white suburban or postindustrial counties that Hillary Clinton would lose in 2016 gave hope of a new electoral coalition.
The late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, a fierce critic of Obama’s foreign policy, explained to me why he rejoiced in Obama’s victory by first telling the story of how, in 1941, the Pentagon ordered that no black people’s blood be used for transfusions for whites. “This is a country with a fresh tradition of racism,” he said. “In history that is nothing: 70 years is like a minute. So in such a country, Obama’s victory was worth celebrating.”
In this regard, Obama literally embodied a series of fault lines in which race was just one factor. He was the mixed-race son of a lapsed Muslim, serving as president at a time when America was at war with predominantly Muslim nations and when interracial relationships were gaining pace; the son of an immigrant during a period of growing xenophobia; a global citizen at a time of American isolation and concerns over globalization; and a black president at a time when white Americans were losing their majority status. In short, he was a grand metaphor for a range of social and political anxieties, and a personable, engaging vessel for hopes that those anxieties could be overcome.
His inability to deliver on those hopes has lent him an almost ornamental presence. Long before his second term drew to a close, Obama had both been reduced to and elevated as an artifact. The Movement for Black Lives burst forth almost without reference to him. Despite the portentous expectations of his candidacy, relatively few demands for racial justice were ever made of him. He is the framed picture in the barbershop, the mural on the underpass, the poster at the Boys Club—a symbol of what America might do and be that stands in stark contrast to what it is and does.