(This article is accompanied by photos of my family’s visit to the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta last March.)
Martin Luther King would have been 88 years old today, but it’s never a bad day to think about and learn from Dr. King. I grew up in Berkeley where his birthday was a holiday before that became federally mandated. The other night, I went to my son’s MLK assembly and thought, I guess it’s getting harder to get people here who speak from personal, civil-rights-movement experience, huh? But just when I’m thinking some of these hoary routines need updating, I remember: oh right, Barack Obama.
(The theme of the assembly was “Unity.” Our convener, Ms. Cherry, said, “when I say U-N-I, you say T-Y. U-N-I…” We said “T Y!” Actually those of us who know the Queen Latifah song were kind of singing our “T Y.” I thought, oh, let’s play the song. I found it on my phone. About twenty seconds in, Latifah sings “Who you callin’ a BITCH?” I’m thinking, oh, so that’s why Latifah doesn’t have a well-known anthem. Damn.)
I’ve seen all our prominent, often-published African-American male intellectuals explain Obama’s legacy. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Michael Eric Dyson. Jelani Cobb. Chauncey DeVega. Jamelle Bouie. Van Jones. Charles Blow. Cornel West. Let’s make it clear: they’re smarter than I am. They’re better than I am. You should read them before you read this. I would argue that their ongoing prominence is as rich and strong a legacy as Obama has produced.
Compared to them, and compared to the famous Jay-Z lyric (“Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk, Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run, Obama ran so we all can fly”), I’m just a white guy with a privileged perspective, trying to say something they haven’t already said. I find myself slightly haunted by a comment of Dyson’s: “I read in a December poll that 62 percent of black people said the election of President Obama was the most important event of their lifetimes. Fourteen percent named the assassination of Dr. King.” Dyson is taken aback, and so am I: should we really elevate Obama so far above the Doctor? And if we do, what does that mean?
The old joke was that Bush was so bad, America was even ready to make a black man President.
Now that joke is too painful to recall. The joke targeted America’s residual racists. Few people were thinking that the answer to that joke would be to replace “Bush” with “Obama” and “black man” with “white racist.”
I want to agree with all the hagiographies: greatest President of our lifetimes and so forth. But let’s face it, when you’re standing between W Bush and Drumpf, there’s a nonzero chance that you’re going to shine just a little brighter than if you were standing between, uh, I don’t know, almost any other elected Republicans (outside of Sarah Palin, most of them tend to do their homework).
Reading these first drafts of history, history starts to look like teleology and inevitability. Did Bush have to be followed by Obama? Did Obama have to be followed by Trump?
Maybe it’s because every day since November 8th has felt like an alternate reality, but I keep thinking of other contingencies. What if Gore beat Bush in 2000? In other words, what if Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had woken up on the other side of her bed? If Gore had won, would Obama have risen to the same prominence (not having to oppose the Iraq War, for example)? Or what if Bush beat Gore, but then Hurricane Katrina just happened to happen a year earlier, in 2004? After Kerry wins in a landslide in 2004, does Obama really win in 2008? What might the John McCain presidency have looked like from 2008 to now? What might the Colin Powell (Republican) presidency have looked like from 2008 to now? Would the requiems for the first black Presidency now be cast with the same “I guess it had to be this way”-ism?
The reason that the contingencies matter is: Obama’s presidency has been defined by certain factors that would have defined any presidency from 2008 to 2016, and I don’t believe Blow, Coates, Cobb, or the rest of our African-American intellectuals fully address at least three of those factors. The first two of those three are the financial crisis and the Democratic Party’s decades-long struggle to provide health care for every American. Sure, one can argue that Bush’s policies led to the financial crisis, but let’s face it, most of the precedents were rubber-stamped by both parties. If Bush hadn’t said that every American should be a homeowner, Gore might well have said something similar.
Any centrist Democrat taking office in January 2009, whether Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden or Tom Hanks, would have probably reacted with similar policy prescriptions. And any such President would have then been pilloried by the right for reacting to the crisis by focusing on health care instead of a more explicit jobs program. However, only in the case of an African-American President would these criticisms be tinged with dog whistles about “redistribution” to people who supposedly hadn’t earned “handouts.”
The third factor was of course the rise of political correctness as enforced through social media; as I’ve written many times, the current climate really began in 2006 and would have been a factor in any hypothetical Presidency froom 2008 to now (say, McCain’s or Powell’s). Obama’s Presidency was arguably both cause and effect of legalized same-sex marriage, increased feminism, and #blacklivesmatter, but it was hard to understand these without factoring in Obama.
In a way, Obama in 2008 and 2009 was a beneficiary of all three factors: the financial crisis gave urgency to changing parties at the top and a baseline from which Obama could always cite his numbers as an improvement; health care gave Obama a lasting achievement, a claim to Rushmore; political correctness in social media gave his supporters a power (that they wouldn’t have had in 2004) to tweet, “Why are YOU saying that?” to prejudiced antagonists.
Yet the three factors significantly racialized Obama’s presidency. You can sit there and tell me that the first black President would have been a racial brouhaha no matter what, but I (perhaps naively) believe that Obama showed up in Iowa in December 2007, readying for the presidential caucuses, thinking that his Presidency need be no more racialized than, say, the fictional Presidency of Dennis Haysbert on “24.” Obama would be like Morgan Freeman in most of his films, as trusted amongst whites as he is amongst blacks. He would be a quiet role model as little black boys visited the Oval Office and touched his nappy head, but anyone speaking about him in racial terms would be as shamed as anyone in the 21st century publicly asking if a black man can play quarterback.
However, it didn’t work out that way, and certainly that’s partly because some Americans watch Morgan Freeman’s movies with, say, Clint Eastwood and think “that black guy is getting too uppity.” It’s partly because Mitch McConnell declared that his goal was to make Obama a one-term President. But it’s also because of these three contingent factors. Obama’s understandable reaction to all three was to live by, and be defined by, centrist-Democrat wisdom on all three, which kept him from the hard-left position on any (including political correctness: recall his speeches at black colleges telling them not to blame whites). He never really disavowed the left-center position, which is why he was more focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership than income inequality per se. This was both Obama operating within his wheelhouse as well as a reasonable calculation: precedents suggested that gestures to the left made while occupying the center should have been enough to pass off the Presidency to the next Democrat. And let’s face it, it almost worked. Bill Belichick and his Patriots don’t get to the Super Bowl every year, but it’s hard to argue that there’s a better NFL coach. Sometimes you set up the pieces as well as you can, and the other team gets lucky, or an oddly timed public letter from the FBI, whatever. And suddenly, Martin Luther King’s moral arc of the universe looks like it just bent the wrong way.
King, as you may have heard, had a dream. I also had a dream: the first black President without a financial crisis to clean up, a longstanding fight for health care to inherit, and overly strident liberals on social media. I had a dream of the presidency I believe Obama wanted, which would have brought red and blue states together, reduced longstanding partisan divisions, and normalized a non-white-man in the White House. But “normal” no longer seems to be on the menu. The GOP wouldn’t let Obama be normal, and God knows there’s nothing normal about a race-baiting President-elect who encourages the perception of electoral collusion with a hostile, autocratic foreign power. Maybe King knew all along that America couldn’t help but freak out over race. Maybe that’s why he started and finished every Presidential administration, and indeed every day, with prayers. Maybe we should do the same.