Obama’s legacy of a pre-post-racial era

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Kath­leen Parker

— As Barack Obama’s pres­i­dency takes a back­seat to the psy­chodrama known as the 2016 elec­tion, his­to­ri­ans, spec­u­la­tors and re­vi­sion­ists are busy writ­ing his pres­i­den­tial epi­taph.

Not least of the re­vi­sion­ists is Obama him­self. At a re­cent com­mence­ment ad­dress at his­tor­i­cally black Howard Univer­sity, Obama noted that his elec­tion did not, in fact, cre­ate a post-racial so­ci­ety. “I don’t know who was prop­a­gat­ing that no­tion. That was not mine,” he said.

This re­mark stopped me for a mo­ment be­cause, well, didn’t he? Wasn’t he The One we’d been wait­ing for? Wasn’t Obama the quin­tes­sen­tial bira­cial fig­ure that would put racial dif­fer­ences in a lock­box for all time?

This was the nar­ra­tive, to be sure. But, if not Obama’s, then whose?

In ret­ro­spect, it was mine, yours, ours. White peo­ple, es­pe­cially in the me­dia, cre­ated this nar­ra­tive be­cause we loved and needed it. Psy­chol­o­gists call it pro­jec­tion. We made Obama into the im­age of the right sort of fel­low. He was, as Shelby Steele wrote in 2008, a “bar­gainer,” who promised white peo­ple to “never pre­sume that you are racist if you will not hold my race against me.”

Obama wasn’t so much the agent of change as he was the em­bod­i­ment of a post-racial Amer­ica as whites imag­ined it.

But Obama’s message, beginning with his 2004 ad­dress to the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Bos­ton, has al­ways sug­gested that he would be at least a mes­sen­ger of unity, which sounded an aw­ful lot like post-racial. “There’s not a black Amer­ica and white Amer­ica and Latino Amer­ica and Asian Amer­ica; there’s the United States of Amer­ica,” he said.

Most in the me­dia lis­tened to those words and were spell­bound. Up in the press sec­tion, swad­dled in hope and pow­dered with the pixie dust of change, we were tee­ter­ing dan­ger­ously close to clasp­ing hands and singing “Kum­baya” over pos­tra­cial s’mores of milk choco­late and marsh­mal­lows. I re­mem­ber turn­ing to my col­league and say­ing, “We’ve just heard the first black pres­i­dent.” Lit­tle did I know. We ran into Obama later that night in the lower lobby of a ho­tel. He was talk­ing to a soli­tary fan in an oth­er­wise empty area. We in­tro­duced our­selves. Obama was po­lite, gra­cious and, yes, flat­ter­ing in a know­ing way. We three parted com­pany


and my first im­pres­sion of the pres­i­dent re­mains un­changed. He reads peo­ple well and gauges pre­cisely what they want to hear. All good politi­cians do, but some are bet­ter at it than oth­ers.

That many in­ter­preted Obama’s message as post-racial made some kind of sense. The di­vide be­tween red and blue states may be seen as also split­ting along racial lines in some cases.

Eight years af­ter be­ing elected as the first black pres­i­dent of a whitemajor­ity na­tion, Obama is shrug­ging off any re­spon­si­bil­ity for hav­ing con­trib­uted to the post-racial ex­pec­ta­tion. Is this be­cause, racially, things ac­tu­ally seem worse? But what if they weren’t? What if there had been no “Black Lives Mat­ter” move­ment, no Trayvon Martin, no Fred­die Gray, or any of the oth­ers who were killed by po­lice in the past few years, or, in Martin’s case, by a vig­i­lante?

I’m guess­ing he’d have grabbed that nar­ra­tive in a bear hug and given it a great, big, sloppy kiss. His re­marks to a grad­u­at­ing class, in­stead of dis­avow­ing that silly post-racial thing, would have cel­e­brated his great­est achieve­ment — the heal­ing of Amer­ica.

How lucky are you, class of 2016?! Here you are about to launch your life in a post-racial era, heirs to a heroic legacy and a fu­ture of sun-drenched days. When you want the tides to come in, you let me know. Heh, heh, the truth is, I wasn’t able to pull that one off. But I did end racial dishar­mony! Not too bad. One can dream (and joke). But all those aw­ful things did hap­pen. And per­haps hav­ing a black pres­i­dent gave com­mu­ni­ties the strength and courage they needed to raise their voices. And maybe hear­ing a black pres­i­dent speak to the brav­ery of po­lice of­fi­cers, the ma­jor­ity of whom act in good faith, was help­ful to whites feel­ing the stigma of racism at­tach to their own in­no­cence.

Did Obama do enough to make good on his in­ten­tions, if not prom­ises? We’ll know in a gen­er­a­tion or two, per­haps. In the mean­time, the real truth is that Obama sized up the elec­torate and, in the ul­ti­mate act of flat­tery, im­i­tated their pro­jec­tions. Then he gave them pre­cisely what they wanted, not a post-racial world but a pre-post-racial one — a cus­tom-de­signed, rain­bow-hued, stream­lined fan­tasy of hope and change.

Kath­leen Parker is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact her at kath­leen­parker@wash­post.com.

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