I think I can speak for many Africana Studies professors when I say President Barack Obama has been ever on the lips of my students the last four years. I actually first began teaching college courses in the fall of 2008. So my four years of teaching has paralleled President Obama’s first four years in office.
The Obama discussions have been wide-ranging—serious, comical, personal, intellectual, critiques, praises—and everything in between. I have most enjoyed the intellectual debates that emerge without fail almost every time a student says something provocative about President Obama.
Four major ideas have dominated Obama discussions in my classroom (and seemingly in society at large) during the first four years. As I reflect on these ideas during the week of his second inaguration, the disunity does not startle me. What startles me is that all four of these ideas are false.
False Idea #1: Racial Messiah
President Barack Obama is the racial messiah redeeming America from a racist to a post-racist society. He embodies the colorblind present and future, and the death knell of a color-conscious past.
Although in 2012 it may seem crazy, we must not forget that quite a few Americans (black people included) were articulating this idea. It was one of the unwritten messages of President Obama’s first campaign, as he embodied racial hope and change for many people. Initially, people believed it, argued it, defended it, hoped for it to be true. Four years later, after Troy Davis, after Trayvon Martin, with race relations on the ground largely unchanged, the “racial messiah” idea has all but exited Obama discussions, particularly in the progressive and black communities. Conservatives, however, still regularly utilize this false idea to demonize race-specific programming.
False Idea #2: Racism’s Offender
President Barack Obama is the quintessence of black positivity and respectability. He is smart, articulate, compassionate, charismatic, morally superb, a family man, and not angry with white people. His regular black positive image consistently defies every negative black stereotype and thus reduces white racism.
For many, false idea #1 was a pipe dream, an American dream. Americans, specifically black Americans, were more likely to believe this second proposition was reality, was certain. They did not believe racism would be eliminated by President Obama. Based on the (false) premise that racism stems from whites not seeing enough black positivity, a segment of Americans believed President Obama’s positive black image would at least reduce racism. Four years later, we have witnessed the falsity of this prophesy. In fact, recently an AP survey found that anti-black attitudes have risen three percentage points since 2008.
False Idea #3: Black President for Black People
Since he identifies as African American and his father is Kenyan, the core or a significant facet of President Obama’s agenda should be to advance African America and Africa. Not only that, he should be talking about what Americans refuse to talk about—race. Black people helped put President Obama in office and as a black president he should be helping them, talking about and working to eradicate racism.
This has been the most controversial idea. Whenever a student in my classes asks what President Obama is doing for black people, why hasn’t he done more for black people, discussions quickly transform into heated arguments. Most people, who have held firm to this idea, had a seemingly simple and reasonable expectation that since President Obama identifies as black he should use his policy power for black people. This apparently logical and reasonable expectation is actually illogical and unreasonable. Nothing in his pre-presidential record and campaign rhetoric demonstrated he had a black agenda, that he would focus on black people.
False Idea #4: Powerless President in Racist America
President Obama desires to do more for black people, he desires to advance more progressive causes, he desires to move to the left, but he can’t. Strategically, he would be relentlessly ridiculed. It is political suicide. Politically, he has been held back by the Republican party and racist Washington. He does not have the power to do it on his own. He has to work with and compromise with a racist Congress and racist local governments. The fault is on Republicans and racists, not President Obama for his shortcomings.
While the third idea has been the most controversial, this fourth idea has almost certainly been the most popular. I championed it for a few years. This idea has been principally used to counteract those who have criticized President Obama. It is also the way we personally justify why President Obama has not done more for black people. But this idea is just as false as the first three. After President Bush launches a multi-billion-dollar War on Terror from the oval office, we have turned around and miraculously disempowered the American presidency. President Obama uses his presidential platform to controversially endorse gay marriage and the Dream Act. These avowals were not political suicide, as many thought they would be. But then we still argue he is restrained politically from addressing mass incarceration and systemic racism.
As we enter into President Obama’s second four years, I am hoping these four false ideas do not once against dominate our discussions. President Obama is not powerless. That is not to say that Republicans and racists have not put up roadblocks. President Obama never said he would have a black agenda. That is not to say that President Obama should not do something significant for each segment of the coalition that kept him in office. President Obama’s positive image has not, is not and will not reduce structural white racism. That is not to say that President Obama has not reduced the individual racism of some white people. President Obama is not the racial messiah, the conduit for a post-racism America. That is not to say Obama’s presidency has not opened up a new chapter in America’s racial story.
Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at University at Albany — SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. Follow Dr. Rogers on Twitter at @DrIbram