As the presidential election season moves forward, more analysis and attention is being devoted to the incumbent and his challenger. And while Barack Obama has been a potent symbol of Black ascension politically, a recent commentary questioned how far the president has been willing to go on matters of race and why.
Writing June 1 in the Washington Post, political science professor Frederick Harris examined the president’s campaign rhetoric when wooing Black voters and his reluctance to deal with matters of race except in time of racial crisis or racial animus, such as the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida or the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., in his own home.
“In theory, these two episodes offered opportunities for Obama to discuss reforms to the criminal justice system–an issue he had raised early in his campaign–but instead, he limited his response to tamping down potential racial conflicts, then quickly moving on,” argued Prof. Harris, who is also the director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. The Harris essay came a week before the expected release of his book, “The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics.”
“Obama has pursued a racially defused electoral and governing strategy, keeping issues of specific interest to African Americans–such as disparities in the criminal justice system; the disproportionate impact of the foreclosure crisis on communities of color; Black unemployment; and the persistence of HIV/AIDS–off the national agenda. Far from giving Black America greater influence in U.S. politics, Obama’s ascent to the White House has signaled the decline of a politics aimed at challenging racial inequality head-on,” said Prof. Harris.
“And Black Americans are complicit in this decline. Fearing that publicly raising racial issues will undermine the president in the eyes of White voters, African Americans appear to have struck an implicit pact with Obama. Even as we watch him go out of his way to lift up other marginalized groups (such as gay Americans) and call for policies that help everyone, we’ve accepted his silence on issues of particular interest to us. In exchange, we get to feel symbolic pride at having a Black president and family in the White House.
“For Black America, it hasn’t been a good deal. While racial disparities in unemployment, wealth and justice continue to grow in an era imagined as post-racial, it appears that the nation is instead becoming non-racial, mostly ignoring the problems of inequality that continue to affect the life chances of many Black people.”
The title of the commentary was “Still waiting for our first Black president.”
The observations by Prof. Harris about race dodging and using Black loyalty for political benefit should not just be assigned to the president but can be applied to the Democratic Party as a whole, including President Bill Clinton, dubbed “The First Black President.” Prof. Harris rightly notes that in the 1980s and 1990s there was the vaunted rise of the “non-racial” Black politician in Virginia Governor Doug Wilder, New York Mayor David Dinkins and Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and others, whose political fortunes rose on the wings of crossover and appeals to White voters by not appearing too closely aligned with Black voters.
However their careers were not spectacular and in the cases of Gov. Wilder and Mayor Dinkins, little respect or regard was accorded either man and any hint attacks on the politicians were racially motivated was met by howls of outrage from Whites, and accusations that the men were playing the race card.
In the case of President Clinton, whose “New Democrat” credentials included being pro-death penalty, scapegoating welfare recipients but not offering tools needed to survive after succumbing to a program that demanded total dependence, lobbing a few missiles into Africa in the name of fighting terrorism and opening the way to lock up plenty of Black men, it was all about style and Black hope that someone was at least listening.
“Former President Bill Clinton left a legacy in the prison system during his eight years in office that was more punitive than both of his Republican predecessors Ronald Reagan and George Bush combined,” noted a 2001 Final Call newspaper article based on a report from the Justice Policy Institute.
“Furthermore, in the last two decades the rate of Black incarceration more than tripled, rising from 1,156 Blacks in jail per 100,000 Black citizens in 1980 when Mr. Reagan took office, to more than 3,620 per 100,000 Blacks in 1999, near the end of Mr. Clinton’s term, according to JPI’s report, ‘Too Little, Too Late: Clinton’s Prison Legacy,’ ” The Final Call said.
“After more than a decade in which the Black incarceration rate increased by an average of 138.4 per 100,000 per year, more than doubling the number of Blacks in federal custody between 1980 and 1992,” the article noted.
It could be argued that taking Black voters for granted goes back at least as far as Abe Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation and role as Civil War commander-in-chief, made Blacks loyal to the Republican Party for decades. By 1936, Blacks flocked to the Democratic Party hoping to benefit from the New Deal but found discrimination in federal hiring and access to federal programs.
So the current presidential dilemma is not new but reflects the continued problem of trying to fit the Black men and women into a system that was never designed for their benefit. This country was founded for and by White males with a certain amount of economic and social capital, and privilege. Since passage of the 14th amendment, there has been an attempt to find a suitable place for the so-called America Negro.
Electing Mr. Obama does not and could not resolve that dilemma and as the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan noted in a recent message in San Diego, a well-intentioned president, or well-meaning president isn’t enough today. He also warned that in this critical hour, hope does not lie in political leaders or presidents of either party.
According to the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, this is the Day of Judgment foretold of in the Holy Qur’an and the Bible and the Black man and woman of America fulfill the prophetic picture of the children of Israel held in bondage by a powerful Pharaoh. America fits the prophetic picture of Egypt–that would assign all presidents the role of pharaoh.
Pharaoh’s role was not that of liberator. Moses and Aaron were authorized by God to contend with Pharaoh for the children of Israel and to deliver them. In the end, it was God who would determine the future for his people, not a powerful ruler.
America is the modern Egypt and Blacks have been toiling under harsh taskmasters and making bricks without straw since we arrived on these shores. But our time in bondage is up, we should not expect a beneficent White man or a kindhearted Black man managing White interests to rescue us. We should be looking for a powerful God and his servants who will say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”
We respectfully declare that the modern Moses, who offered a program of separation, is the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Min. Louis Farrakhan is the modern Aaron. Study scripture and see who matches the parts described in the holy writ. Also note Pharaoh could not save the children of Israel and was a loser himself for not complying with the demands of God.
America cannot solve her problems nor control her own fate, if she could, she would certainly be in a better position.
The challenges that Mr. Obama faces are not personal, they are prophetic. If we recognize that reality, it will govern our expectations and our actions. And if we expect to be free, our Brother President can’t do it–but Moses and Aaron, backed by God can and will.