As I watched the 44th president of the United States deliver his final State of the Union address this past Tuesday, I found myself drifting back to the night of his first speech as president-elect. Yeah…that night was different, wasn’t it? For the millions of change agents who’d just voted him in, that evening took on the attributes of a nationwide, quasi-religious revival as we tuned in to watch and hear the long-awaited American race savior preach the gospel of a new American experience. Just take a moment to remember that moment. Even for those of you who, like me, turned a skeptical ear to the not-infrequent claims rippling forth from that Election Night that we stood on the precipice of a post-racial America—whatever that means—that this was a time of unbridled, and mostly rational optimism cannot be denied.
But that was then.
Today, if President Obama is honest with himself and others, as perhaps he is in private conversations with family, close friends and top advisors, I’ll bet he’s not quite as hopeful about America’s future as he’d like us to believe. Although his actions—and more often, inaction—at times might suggest otherwise, I know from his occasionally candid public forays into the mine-ridden topic of race that he understands with perfect clarity that African-Americans aren’t nearly as well off as most had hoped while gazing into the glimmering future portended by his historic November 2008 victory.
So what went wrong? Hmmm…how can I explain? Ever seen that George Clooney movie The Perfect Storm? Without much exaggeration, I can report that many African-Americans have fared just as poorly over the last seven years as Clooney’s fishing boat, the Andrea Gail, in its final voyage. And worst of all, African-Americans did the one thing we couldn’t afford to do, the one thing I never thought we’d even contemplate: give in to the fiction that demanding our president to work hard at alleviating the particularly insidious challenges we face would irreparably damage his presidency by stymieing his ability to bring about the broader change Democrats worked so tirelessly to make possible back in 2008.
So let’s talk about just a few of the things African-Americans got as a consequence of our failure to hold this president personally accountable to the folks who voted for him at a higher proportional percentage than any other group in America: disproportionately high unemployment numbers, near unconscionable home foreclosure rates, and a staggering number of unarmed black boys and men lying dead in our streets—some killed in broad daylight. But to be clear, though he could have and should have served as a more forceful advocate for black issues, Barack Obama is not ultimately to be blamed for these bad facts. Obama didn’t fire black folks or demand that corporations lay them off, Obama didn’t remove us from our homes for missing one-too-many mortgage payments, and he certainly didn’t murder anyone. But I’d argue that our political inaction as a people over the last seven years emboldened those Americans who find life far more comfortable when African-Americans sit on the margins of the very society whose wealth our forefathers built free of charge…I mean, it’s true (#Facts as kids are fond of saying these days).
Meanwhile, we sit back and ask ourselves silly questions like, “How can it be that we’re worse off now after nearly eight years with a president who looks like us?” For those of you still searching for the answer, I’d direct you to your local library—and please run, don’t walk. There’s not much time. Fair warning: you might need to take a week or more off from work or school because you’re going to need that much time just to scratch the surface of the answer to that question. But since I’m a pretty nice guy, and because I’ve done a good deal of that reading already, I’ll give you a hint. The answer to that question is the same as the answer to the following: “Why are all the black and brown people being pushed out of our major cities?” Here’s the relevant news flash…wait for it…we’re just not valued the same.
Now I’ve got a question for you. Did you vote in 2010? Most of us didn’t. If you must you can go ahead and take a look at the numbers, but that’s not necessary. You need only look at what happened to the House and Senate in that election cycle.
In my humble opinion—humble, not uninformed—nothing was more devastating to the cause of black political and socioeconomic empowerment than our decision to spend that first off-year election cycle on the sidelines, just sort of hoping that Barack Obama—lest you forget, notwithstanding the Harvard Law degree on his wall, still a black man in America—would fix everything all by himself. Our 2010 inertia is rendered even more perplexing in light of the generally known and accepted historical truth that American society has not once been transformed, particularly in the realm of race and civil rights, without the application of consistent, unyielding pressure on the forces of the status quo.
If the first seven years of the Obama presidency have fallen short of our expectations, and I believe the jury has rendered a decisive verdict on that question, we have ourselves to blame first. The sad truth is that for most of his tenure, President Obama’s hands were tied securely behind his back; and although African-American hands didn’t fasten the knot, through our inaction and what at times amounted to outright delusions of grandeur regarding the mechanics of the political process in Washington, we unwittingly purchased and delivered up the rope. Just a few days shy of MLK Day, I’m left wondering just what precisely my generation—and yes, some in my parents’—has learned from the intrepid action taken by our black AND white predecessors in the fight for civil rights and equality under the law. Perhaps this friendly reminder will refresh your recollection, and maybe, at long last, spur you to act in a similar spirit of fearlessness: our slain angel, Martin Luther King, Jr., referred not to the fierce urgency of tomorrow, or of yesterday—but of NOW. What, if anything, are we prepared to do now?