Obama’s Success Stirs Anxiety

Posted by on Sep 24th, 2008 and filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry


I TOOK a trip to the barbershop one Sunday of last month for a hair-cut. Black barbers and patrons, all of whom identified with the hip-hop generation, were swallowed up in ideal talk about Barack Obama, the first black Democratic nominee for president of the United States of America. As if in a euphoric state, they spoke about the speech he delivered after he accepted the nomination. Soon after I drove to buy groceries at a supermarket nearby and saw older black patrons, most of them clutching their Bibles, with Barack Obama buttons pinned on their clothing for all to see.

Barack Obama’s success is suddenly crystallizing a belief in racial progress. His biography reads like a racial kaleidoscope: his father is a black African who married a white woman from Kansas. He attended grade school in Indonesia and spent his formative years with his white grandfather and grandmother in Hawaii. He completed his undergraduate studies at Columbia University and obtained a law degree from Harvard University, where he assumed the dubious distinction of being the first black editor, then the first black president, of the Harvard Law Review, wherein he supervised 80 editors.

Barack Obama’s first immersion into the civil rights arena was two-fold – first, as a community organizer in Chicago soon after graduating from Harvard law school, and as a civil rights attorney specializing in civil rights litigation. He then taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago law school for 12 years. It would be a mistake, based on this impressive profile, to overlook his dedication to poverty and human rights issues, however. Nevertheless, his political ambitions gained momentum in this very city, where he dedicated himself to electoral politics. His political career accelerated; he fulfilled his political duties as an Illinois state senator; and he now represents the same state as a United States senator.

If, on January of 2009, Barack Hussein Obama will have won the presidential contest and will have assumed the highest office in the land, many black intellectuals and civil rights advocates fear that this belief in racial progress will fade away and will quickly be replaced by an ominous conclusion: that President Obama’s success will sound a death knell for true racial justice. Their fears have already been encapsulated through Obama’s severed relationship with the Rev. Timothy Wright. Barack Obama’s political maneuvering on this score only serves well to enhance his chances for the presidency and to perhaps woo white and independent voters.

In addition, Obama’s political posturing has convinced black intellectuals, civil rights advocates and ordinary black folks, that he may not, as president of the United States, keep the pressure on alleviating already entrenched socio-economic disparity through social policy. Lawrence Bobo, W.E.B. Du Bois professor of sociology and African and African American studies at Harvard University, is clear on this point: “If Obama becomes the president,” he asserted, “every remaining, powerfully felt black grievance and every still deeply etched injustice will be cast out of the realm of polite discourse. A black president means that America no longer has any race problem to talk about! White folks will just stop listening.”

I agree. Not only will Barack Obama’s rise to success as a political maverick frustrate new efforts at intensifying new civil rights initiatives, but his hypothetical rise to the presidency will stultify the drive to address fully a palpable degree of racial re-sentiment still percolating within America’s democratic society. I disagree with the young barbers and patrons on this one.

It will be noted here that the Enlightenment philosophy of “natural” government as advocated by the British philosopher John Locke ushered in political institutions based on property relations and established legal mechanisms aimed at resolving disputes arising therein. However, the founding fathers of this American democracy , while advocating liberty for all human beings within the abstract, had severely curtailed liberty for blacks and treated them as property; consequently, America’s political institutions disproportionately tilted the moral standing of whites vis-à-vis blacks, resulting in an unmistakable level of racial re-sentiment that remains with us today. Three hundred plus years of systematic discrimination against blacks through that “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery here in America, along with Jim Crow segregation laws, erected an unjust social structure featuring an enormous gap in economic wealth between whites and blacks. Barack Obama’s success, black intellectuals and civil rights advocates say, doesn’t address economic inequality, a failing criminal justice system, and a failing public school system. They fear that Obama, as president of the United States, might not advance an aggressive social policy agendas aimed at elevating black socioeconomic parity with whites. While the fortunes of African-Americans did improve during and after the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, studies now show evidence of a setback. According to a recent issue of the New York Times, about 25% of blacks lived below the poverty line in 2006, compared with 8% of whites. In the same vein, a New York Times/CBS News poll reports that 53% of whites say that blacks and whites cannot achieve socioeconomic parity in America, with 30% of blacks agreeing on that score.

More importantly, though, Obama’s success ignores basic racial re-sentiment which social scientists attribute to a historic legal segregation of the races. They say that a large body of social scientific evidence point to a persistent level of cultural stereotypes about blacks – they are lazy, unintelligent and sexually inhibited. Primary season polls showing clear evidence that a substantial number of whites will never vote for a black presidential candidate. And ordinary black folks encounter racial prejudice or re-sentiment through daily social interactions with whites – at the deli, at the retail store, in corporate board-rooms.

So how does all this evidence square with this unbridled optimism among some ordinary black folks, including those I saw in the supermarket some time ago? The political philosophy of liberalism, as advocated by civil rights advocates in the 1960’s, culminated in legislation guaranteeing African-Americans the dictum of “one man, one vote”, a political reality that eroded soon after the American civil war some one hundred years before. However well-intentioned the adherents of liberalism – both black and whites alike – were in calling attention to the injustice perpetrated by state and federal laws and a deleterious social relationship between blacks and whites then, their efforts aimed only at signing legislation guaranteeing blacks the right (finally!) to vote. The assumption is, therefore, that there is no need to press for grievances further, as legislation was designed to address socio-economic issues only.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 operates on a paradigm that aims to rehabilitate black socio-economic standing vis-à-vis whites on an individual basis only (italics mine). What remains, however, is an inability, on the part of liberals, to explain why millions of disaffected black youths are excluded from the American mainstream in areas such as health care and education, or whether liberalism is able to reach these millions of black youths. Why? Liberals refuse to base explanations for this exclusion on “cultural factors” that include “distinctive attitudes, values and predispositions”, along with “…the resulting behavior of its members”. Such statistics accompanying labels such as “socio-economic parity”, “income levels” neglects “cultural factors”. Consequently, there is no need, among liberals, to attempt to seek compensation for harm committed against blacks during chattel slavery and no investigation on black behavioral patterns arising from this heinous period in modern history. This “belief” in racial progress, then, is a euphoric state of mind; evidence “on the ground” suggests otherwise.

Bev Smith, a black radio talk show host based in Pittsburgh and syndicated internationally, echoes professor Lawrence Bobo’s sentiments on Barack Obama’s success: “There’s an assumption now that we’ve [blacks] made it…Our concern is that we [blacks]get lost in the shuffle”.

The writer is a recent revert to Islam and can be contacted at:

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