Paragraphs on Barack
Note: This is a series of disjointed paragraphs and thoughts representing only a portion of my thoughts on Barack Obama’s presidency and the effect it had on my life. If it feels incoherent to you, well, that’s probably because it is.
When I reflect on the past eight years of former president Barack Hussein Obama, I find myself both amazed and perplexed by his brilliance. I see myself both inspired and frustrated by his decisions. And I feel myself deeply saddened by a great but likely ephemeral legacy. The most unacknowledged fact of Barack Obama’s presidency is that he was the first black American for which the general populace had great expectations. Yet he, like Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior, exited his time in spotlight with the same fate: the narrative of his deeds controlled not by those who had the most gain from his actions but by those who had the most to lose.
Barack Obama is a polarizing, divisive figure. But that was no more his own fault than it was the fault of his predecessor, Dr. King or Dr. King’s predecessor, W.E.B Du Bois or his predecessor, Frederick Douglass. What some may argue was divisiveness was merely the existence of a black man in a position of power shining the light on the racism of nuance. Nuance is very powerful: it can bring depth to a conversation and prevent us from entering the realm of hyperbole. However, in the context of racism, it has the unfortunate effect of obscuring its user’s underlying feelings behind a wall of flawed reason, much like the existence of cockroaches are obscured by literal walls.
Historically speaking, Barack Obama is lucky to have made it out of the White House alive. While not as progressive or radical as the future platform of Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama’s platform had succeeded in doing doing something not seen since the days of Fred Hampton: pulling in a significant coalition of working class whites and African Americans. Those who have dared to struggle and create an all-encompassing platform that required both African Americans and working-class white Americans to ignore their differences for common economic benefit have always enjoyed astounding, but short-lived success. These initiatives have typically ended in a violent fashion. Bacon’s Rebellion ended with the implementation of racial slavery. The Fusion Party of North Carolina ended with a coup in Wilmington, North Carolina. The implementation of segregation followed. Martin Luther King Jr.’s talks of economic justice and antiwar speeches ended at a hotel in Memphis. The Rainbow Coalition ended when the FBI and the Chicago Police Department murdered Fred Hampton. The War on Drugs followed. Barack Obama spoke of expanding access to affordable healthcare. Donald Trump followed.
The most confusing aspect of Barack Obama’s presidency is reconciling his love affair with the surveillance state and his understanding of the relationship between African Americans and the police. I’ve argued many times with my parents that liberties taken at the national level by the NSA and FBI serve as a recommendation for local law enforcement agencies. A man of Barack Obama’s intelligence had to be aware of such a relationship now that he resided in the executive branch. But seemingly every action he took defended this cozy relationship. Local police forces continued their militarization until the Black Lives Matter movement pressured the administration into limiting access to military equipment. (Note: This is an indirect relationship. Many of the Black Lives Matter protests highlighted to viewers a disturbing picture of police forces with military-grade equipment. Public opinion then forced the administration to acquiesce and limit some of the equipment provided). Edward Snowden exposed a large domestic spying apparatus. Supported by Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who are more concerned with their security than their freedom, the administration created a false narrative around the Snowden incident. And yet, this administration granted the most clemencies on prison sentences in a long time (13 presidencies, I think?). They started to phase out the use of private prisons on the federal level. And law enforcement morale decreased as a result of the Department of Justice investigation into Ferguson’s racist policing (Note: if your morale decreased because it was exposed you covered up abuses of power, then your personal decrease in professional morale is a good thing). I could discuss this forever, but I won’t.
A Personal Touch
Professionally, I learned a lot about Barack Obama’s presidency both through his successes and failures. Always be professional. Publicize your accomplishments. There is a time to stand firm and there is a time to compromise; knowing the current time is paramount to your success. Optimism is the public face of leadership. Never underestimate the power of empathy and understanding. Your greatest asset is not your ability to execute but your ability to accept feedback. I learned a lot personally as well. High achievers in the African American community need to work much harder than their peers to overcome stereotypes, even if you’re the president. And even if you overcome those stereotypes, some people will never be satisfied with the idea that you earned your way to your current position. Being great means incorporating legitimate criticism while rising above criticisms that are illegitimate.
As a Christian, Barack Obama really made me take one on the chin. I remember when he was first elected. I didn’t want to go to my conservative Christian high school the next day because I knew what to expect. Or so I thought. The first day was basically a funeral. People believe President Obama was a communist. People believing he was a Muslim despite being a Christian black supremacist months earlier. People saying he wasn’t really American. Despite my wanting to be happy, excited, and hopeful that day, I remained silent. A day of momentous achievement in American history ruined by the ignorant laments of bitter teachers, bitter classmates, and especially, bitter parents. I couldn’t help but walk away with the impression that my ostensibly Christian school felt that it was not for a black man to be President of the United States. Just like I vividly remember some of my classmates openly complaining about one of my black classmates acceptance into the University of Michigan as an “affirmative action decision.”
As a Christian, I know Jesus expects me to reconcile those two events. After leading this country for eight years, I know Barack Obama expects me to do the same. But I can’t reconcile the idea that people who claim to worship the same God as me would denigrate the achievements of one of their own classmates. I can’t reconcile the fact they probably thought the same thing about me. I can’t reconcile the lack of worth the people of God placed on the residents of the city I call my hometown. I can’t reconcile that as the Black Lives Matter movement took flight, they would dismiss the idea of police brutality and even goes as far as supporting a reactionary Blue Lives Matter movement. I still can’t reconcile the fact that the school purportedly created to teach me about my value as a child of God has made me question my value among the body of believers more than nearly anything else. But if I continue to say “No, I can’t,” I demonstrate that I have failed to understand why President Obama, a man with whom I strongly identify, decided to run for president in the first place: To show all Americans, that in fact, yes we can.
Author’s Note (3/29): I stopped being lazy and added in some links. I’ll try to avoid doing so ex post facto in the future.