Barack Obama is not a black leader. He’s a leader who’s black. This is not an insignificant distinction. In order to become President, he had to promise to be President for all the people and not be someone who would be a special friend to the black community, and he has lived up to that pledge. Black America has enjoyed the spiritual boost and pride injection that’s come from seeing the brother break the highest glass ceiling and strut through the White House lawn and parade his beautiful family before the world. But when Obama turns to governing, it’s a different story.
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When he spoke of Trayvon Martin, Obama did so in a humane and paternal way, though he was careful not to bias the ongoing Department of Justice investigation. But more crucially, he was careful not to racialize the situation, which has become a racialized time bomb. Obama leavened his comments by using a rhetorical device he often employs, which is to universalize the situation. He said, “I think about my own kids,” which personalized the moment but risked coming close to pointing out the racial aspect, so he immediately followed that phrase with a universalizing statement: “Every parent in America should be able to understand why it’s absolutely imperative to investigate every aspect of this.” A moment later he repeated that pattern: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon, and all of us Americans are gonna take this with the seriousness it deserves.” This rhetorical gesture signals to black Americans that he’s not avoiding race — he references it in coded ways — but avoiding making white Americans feel guilty about racism. He gives everyone a way to feel that these issues are their purview while downplaying the pernicious impact of racism on the moment.
Obama has been extra vigilant about all this ever since he said the cop who arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr. had “acted stupidly.” Then, Obama voiced what many black Americans felt and wanted him to say while also insulting every police officer in America, which backed him into a corner, thus making the “kumbaya” beer summit a political necessity. Was it an attempt to foment peace and interracial harmony? Sure. Was it something of a disgrace because two brilliant and accomplished black men and the Vice President were sitting on an equal plane with a police officer who had abused his power and made an arrest that was, well, unintelligent? Yes. In that debacle, Obama paid dearly for stepping off the lofty perch on which he soars over American racism by never calling it out too boldly. Aides told me he resolved not to make that mistake again. Now if you ask the President about double-digit unemployment among blacks, he’ll tell you that he cares about all Americans getting jobs. Fair enough, but black Americans have particular problems stemming from racism, and sometimes we need help. I doubt black Americans realized that voting for Obama meant a spiritual leap forward but a pragmatic step back. Programs or hires that Clinton and Bush would have made and looked magnanimous Obama will avoid because they would make him look cronyist.
But Obama is dealing with one of the challenges that befall many successful blacks. Racism doesn’t end when you become successful; you just encounter different strains. But when your position in life seems to be evidence that racism can’t hold everyone back, then it becomes nearly impossible to call out the racism you encounter. Especially in workplaces that you want to remain in: you may hit the glass ceiling, but you cannot speak of racism. It’s a chess piece you can never move. Even if you’re right, it’s ultimately anti-pragmatic and counterproductive. White people hate being called racist, — for many, it’s one of their biggest fears in life — so pointing it out rarely helps you get what you want. It often does little more than end the conversation. Successful women have experienced the same thing: even when they encounter sexism, they cannot crow about it. Obama knows he cannot publicly attack racism the way a black leader would, which is part of why he’s in the Oval Office. He cannot overtly lead on issues of race because that would compromise his ability to lead in every other area, and it would confuse the issue for many who wrongly think he’s a harbinger of the end of racism. He equivocates about race, dancing in a way that’s so light-footed, he avoids stepping on any toes and inspiring the hard work that will lead to real change. He’s not a black leader. In a way, there are none.