The Obama Phenomenon
Why Barack Obama was the Worst Thing to Happen to Black Radicalism, and the Increasing Dangers of Black Neoliberalism
For as long as I can remember, Barack Obama’s ascent to the White House has been described as revolutionary. The day of the inauguration, Black people all over America cried, laughed, danced, at the reality of a Black man, the first ever, sitting in the White House seat where 43 white men previously sat. I danced too. I was in the fourth grade, and we celebrated with an Obama party. My classmates and I were ecstatic, chests swollen to extraordinary proportions, with the knowledge that our childhood president would be Obama.
Looking back on it, I see we were dancing to a requiem. The Obama Presidency was exalted as a new beginning in American history, a revolutionary chapter. Finally, we thought. Our generation’s first of many revolutionary heroes. The kinks are being ironed out. The table is being righted, the playing field is being made smooth. Nothing could have been further from the truth. While the rise of Obama was definitely the start of a new American chapter, it is one directly antithetical to Black liberation. I like to think of it as the Obama phenomenon, the brazen repackaging of gilded neoliberalism as a newly forged Black revolutionary path.
Instead of the concrete action we deserved and the Black revolutionary savior we had hoped for, we were met with Obama, who was a disappointment. From his repressive neoliberal politics and defense of drone-targeted violence, to his pallid, and frankly, pitiful approach to addressing anti-Black racism in the United States, Obama was not to be our liberator in any true sense of the word.
It would be hard to imagine that Obama was not well aware of the precarious position he filled. As difficult it may have understandably been, it was his responsibility, as is the responsibility of any Black person in a “high place”, to shine a spotlight directly on the face of American anti-Blackness. However, during his Presidency he did the exact opposite, choosing instead to assuage white fears, making an active choice to steer clear from any serious confrontation with anti-Blackness.
At the Democratic National Convention Address in 2004, Obama delivered one of the most influential speeches of his career, often referred to as “the speech that made Obama.” The Keynote Address transformed Obama into a rising star within the Democratic party, and an overnight national and global sensation. To thundering applause, he explained exactly how he viewed racism and anti-Blackness in the United States, proclaiming that “There’s not a Black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America. There’s [just] the United States of America.” Obama’s deliberate erasure of the very palpable and obvious systematic differences and calculated injustices in communities of color was indicative of his approach to racism in the United States. His reluctance to address the reality of race and anti-Blackness in America was counter-revolutionary, lacking, and boldly, post-racially absurd. In addition, his refusal to facilitate the difficult albeit necessary conversation demonstrates that beyond the symbolism of his color, he had no concrete desire to address, much less contribute to the true liberation of Black people.
Even during the most galvanizing incidents of police brutality in United States history, Obama’s response was sorely lacking. During his presidency, we witnessed the deluge of very public police murders of dozens of unarmed Black men, women, and children. The most notable of those names include Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Sandra Bland, though many more Black men and women died at the hands of trigger-happy police officers during his presidency. As horrifying and unjust as they were, the rapid succession and uproar that these tragic incidents brought created a plethora of opportunities for the discussion of abolition, from the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, to the civil unrest in Ferguson just a year later. Yet the first Black president remained remarkably reserved, defending police officers, arguing that they were not to be demonized, but reformed. Following the spate of police murders in 2014, Obama issued an Executive Order focusing on police reform and training, as well as releasing an implementation guide for police departments to follow to reduce police brutality. A year after the implementation guide was released and distributed, 15 police departments agreed to implement the recommendations. There are roughly 18,000 police departments in the United States.
Following the grand jury decision in Eric Garner’s murder, Obama said:
“Right now, unfortunately, we are seeing too many instances where people just do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly. And in some cases, those may be misperceptions; but in some cases, that’s a reality. And it is incumbent upon all of us, as Americans, regardless of race, region, faith, that we recognize this is an American problem, and not just a Black problem or a brown problem or a Native American problem. This is an American problem. When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that’s a problem.”
In Obama’s eyes, police brutality may very well have been simply an American problem separate from race. His refusal to deeply engage with American anti-Blackness may be a nod to his fairly privileged upbringing in progressive, multiethnic Hawaii, where he was raised lovingly by two white grandparents. Obama’s middle class reality granted him the privilege of shelter from the harsh realities of the intricacies of anti-Blackness and related class oppression experienced by millions of working class Black Americans. His middle class upbringing made him the perfect candidate for the neoliberal role, and his quick tongue, Ivy League charm, and dazzling charisma only worked to his advantage. Obama was easily palatable — Black, but not too Black — and his constant side-stepping of race unless it had to do with his personal identity was a major blow to Black radicalism in the United States, and the Black community as a result.
Supporters of Obama often cry, “He’s just one man! He can’t do it all! He did what he could!” I respond, simply filling a position as a Black person and championing the symbolism of “first Black whatever” isn’t enough to deem one revolutionary. It is not enough to simply occupy a space. Are we fighting for occupancy in the spaces of our oppressors, or are we fighting for liberation? These bizarre, fake-progressive odes to civil disobedience are misguided, shallow, and dangerous, because they further cloak the anti-Blackness that continues to pervade our lives by falsely parading inclusion as the remedy. Anti-Blackness is no longer the common lynching or cross burning, but systemic economic and social violence, from housing and labor inequity to health disparities and inequitable food access. Obama supporters also protest, “If he came right out the gate with all of that radical stuff, he would have never become President!” Again I ask, is occupying the position more important than doing the actual job? Would you rather have a Black president or be free?
Obama’s victory had several counter-revolutionary implications, the most dangerous of them the most subtle. The angry white man who doesn’t want a Black man for President is hardly my concern. The white man who now believes that since Obama is president, racism is a thing of the past is a minor concern, and is dangerous, but to be expected. But the Black man, who believes that the anti-Blackness that he is a victim of is obsolete, is a terror.
I fully expect neoliberal ideology from white people, who use every Black success, every Black first, every Black anomaly as an excuse to no longer address anti-Blackness. As to be expected, after Obama’s victory, many white Americans considered the slight inconvenience of racism to finally be a thing of the past. “Post-racial” became a generously sprinkled word in white political discourse. They gave themselves pats on the back, congratulating themselves for voting, a job well done. Now that a Black man sat behind the Oval Office desk, anti-Blackness would no longer pose any threats to the lives of Black people, and therefore, all the complaining and griping should now stop. For many white Americans, Obama’s presidency was the final scrap of evidence needed to close the case on the supposed fallacy of anti-Black racism in the United States.
America’s understanding of critical race theory and the depth of anti-Blackness has always been disappointing, but the Obama phenomenon further cemented the superficial understanding of racism as nothing more than subjective personal preference and public displays of outward bigotry. Instead of drawing attention to the more insidious fundamental injustices caused by America’s anti-Black institutions — the carceral system, the credit system, the labor and housing markets — the Obama phenomenon obfuscates the Black American reality, helping to further cloak societal and institutional anti-Blackness. The Obama phenomenon renders anti-Blackness as even more invisible and “ridiculous sounding” than before, and while I fully expect this ideology from white people, it has been horrifying to hear it spill from the mouths of generally well-meaning Black people.
Obama’s presidency was the sunrise to Black neoliberalism, which I fear is only now truly awakening. It seems that in the well-hidden quagmire of anti-Black social policies and norms, much of the Black community has gotten caught up in the growing swell of neoliberalism, deeming it the path to revolution and eventual liberation, instead of another anti-Black fallacy. The more we embrace diversity and inclusion instead of liberation and revolution, the further we slip away from the truly post-racial world I imagine. In the age of identity politicking champions like Kamala Harris, the Black liberation struggle is in grave danger in the face of neoliberal identity politics, and I fear that this is only the beginning of a long string of Brown-skinned oppressors in the White House. It seems that putting a few Black faces in high places has become enough for us. We have abandoned critical analysis of influential Black heavyweights, choosing to do nothing but praise and support them, regardless of who they are and what they represent. The Obama phenomenon has overseen and facilitated the shift of the most radical racial group in the United States to the center, working with capitalism instead of against it, arguing against true liberation and selfless struggle, and instead for begrudging acceptance and reluctantly allowed quasi-liberties. Radicals are now seen as the wayward contrarians.
The Obama phenomenon is a shallow ideology shrouded in counter-revolutionary concepts. It often provides a cover for racist-apologists, opportunists, elitists, homophobes, classists, and transphobes to somehow become representatives of our community, transforming the word “revolution” to something merely symbolic — someone achieving something great by capitalist or imperialist standards on behalf of their entire race. Revolution is a powerful word, and it shouldn’t be used lightly, especially when used to describe counter-revolutionary things or people. The false sense of hope and security that neoliberalism offers is tempting, but false nonetheless. It should be approached like the python it is — a comforting, reassuring squeeze at one moment, a crushing death grip the next.
We are a far way from a Black militant party or a nationwide organization with a stronghold like the Panthers had, but the least we can do is carefully examine the Obama phenomenon and call it like it is. We must apply this level of critical evaluation to all Black leaders who claim to be for the people, and respond to them solely based on what they do, rather than who or what they claim to represent. It is our responsibility as Black people to not only secure our liberation, but get to the truth that has been obscured from our plain view, instead of accepting the easy way out that neoliberalism presents. We deserve more than a smiling, Brown-skinned figurehead from Pennsylvania Avenue with honey-covered buzzwords that give us a revolutionary feeling devoid of revolutionary action. We deserve better than what neoliberalism has to offer, and it’s time to move accordingly.