Our black president
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“Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk
Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run
Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly,” Jay-Z.
In 2010, Jay-Z, Young-Jeezy, and Nas released a song proudly declaring, “My President is Black.” With little under a month of Obama’s last term in office, I am running out of time to proudly declare that as well.
So why do I, a suburban white girl, tear up whenever I remember that our first African American president will be succeeded by the man who championed the Birther movement?
There is a multitude of reasons. Beyond his success, legacy, intelligence, and charisma, his race means a lot to me and other people my age. For high schoolers especially, all we’ve ever really known is having an African American president. Sure, we were alive when Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were in office, but we were too young to pay attention to, or even understand, their presidencies.
However, we weren’t too young to understand what was going on when Obama ran for president in 2008.
Around that time, I developed a deep fascination with the Revolutionary War and Civil War. I vividly remember my trip to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, in which I was taken through the Civil War and the struggles of slavery. Viewing the infamous image of a slave’s back covered in gashes while listening to whipping sounds shook me to my very core.
While I do not remember the night of Obama’s historic election, I do remember watching his inauguration. As I watched, I wrote a letter to his daughters, inquiring about their new life at the White House; however, Michelle responded to me, to which I was very disappointed at the time.
Fortunately, my peers have better memories of November 4, 2008.
Jared Lawless (12) was still living in New York at the time of Obama’s election, and his father was in Illinois house hunting.
“I was watching CNN and called my dad when they announced Barack Obama had won the presidency to celebrate,” said Lawless.
As third graders, many of us were too young to watch the results, like Emily Lightman (12).
“The night of the election, my mom made me go to bed before the election was over and told me she’d wake me when a decision was made. The following morning, she woke me and had a smile from ear to ear. She said, ‘We just elected our first black president.’ Hearing that was unforgettable,” said Lightman.
Some of us were able to make it through the night, though, to celebrate the historic victory.
“I remember screaming at the top of my lungs at twelve in the morning. Fortunately, we weren’t the only ones celebrating, seeing as there were cars blaring music up and down the neighborhood,” said L’oreal Bang (12).
What us suburban nine and ten-year-olds were blissfully unaware of, though, was the blatant racism that flared as a reaction his victory.
The Tea Party essentially began after Rick Santelli, a commentator for CNBC, called for opposition to Obama’s mortgage relief plan for the housing crisis of 2008. In that opposition, he referenced the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The far-right eagerly answered his call.
“Activists brandished signs warning that Obama would implement ‘white slavery,’ waved the Confederate flag, depicted Obama as a witch doctor, and issued calls for him to ‘go back to Kenya.’ Tea Party supporters wrote ‘satirical’ letters in the name of ‘We Colored People’ and stoked the flames of birtherism,” said Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for the Atlantic.
The racist forces in the Tea Party have manifested themselves into the alt-right movement that supports Trump.
“Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups, and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization. Characterized by the heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters eschew “establishment” conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value,” said the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Even before the rise of Trump, the opposition to Obama’s presidency continued when he was reelected.
“We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign,” said Kevin McCarthy, a Republican representative from California on the night of Obama’s inauguration.
Way before high school, I fought for Obama’s successes, telling people that he would be able to get more accomplished if there wasn’t a gridlock in Congress. I still believe that. Of course, the blame on Democrats’ inability to dominate both houses comes both from strategic Republican gerrymandering and low Democratic voter turnout.
While some of the opposition actually was about ideological differences, the racism Obama faced cannot be denied.
“I believe he has experienced racism on a daily basis. This is America, and unfortunately, it hasn’t changed dramatically since the 1950s. The only difference is that derogatory terms and racist terms are disguised or dismissed. It is only seldom prevented,” said Bang.
Despite all of the setbacks Obama faced, his accomplishments are remarkable, especially considering he is a progressive.
“He revitalized a Justice Department that vigorously investigated police brutality and discrimination, and he began dismantling the private-prison system for federal inmates. Obama nominated the first Latina justice to the Supreme Court, gave presidential support to marriage equality, and ended the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy,” said Coates.
I mean, he wrote an essay about being a feminist, after all! (To think he’s being succeeded by a man who bragged about sexual assault… this is one of the many reasons why I sobbed on election night this year).
As a Democrat, that is to be expected. That’s why when I wrote about his accomplishments an article last year, I dealt with more complex topics, such as economic policies and diplomacy. Long story short, Obama has been an excellent president. If you don’t believe me, refer to this extensive list of his accomplishments.
Nonetheless, Obama has faced a great deal of criticism for the rise of police brutality and the endurance of systemic racism in the legal and penal systems under his presidency. Perhaps tensions have increased under his presidency, though; Trump did get elected, after all.
While I do wish that the African American community saw significant improvement in issues like economic inequality, mass incarceration, poverty, and voter suppression, saying that Obama did not do anything to help them is simply false.
Obama’s administration has done the following for the African American community: “Filing lawsuits to block controversial, GOP-backed voting laws, reducing the disparity in prison sentences between crack and powder cocaine users, defending affirmative action, demanding police departments like the one in Ferguson change their practices, trying to limit the number of young minority students who are suspended from school, and taking steps to shut down for-profit colleges that often prey on minority students,” said Perry Bacon Jr., a writer for NBC News.
I also think that the change we seek can be sought at local and state levels of government. In fact, one of the points of pride for the Founding Fathers was the autonomy that they granted the states. The general populace tends to be somewhat politically engaged during the mid-term and general elections, but the fight for change is an ongoing battle that requires the participation of all who seek it.
Despite Obama’s administration not doing much to reduce the racial wealth gap– which is largely a result of the Great Recession, according to CNN Money– his election is significant, especially to the African American community.
“I believe his presidency has given us hope. Many times we are hesitant when it comes to doing bigger things. We are afraid of being denied or shut down based on the color of our skin. We try to blend in because that’s what the world expects us to do. Barack Obama becoming president was a wake-up call for us to stop limiting ourselves, and actually push past our standards,” said Bang.
Of course, that inhibition is not largely self-induced. The American Dream is simply harder to achieve in a society that favors white people.
“There are no clean victories for black people, nor, perhaps, for any people. The presidency of Barack Obama is no different. One can now say that an African American individual can rise to the same level as a white individual, and yet also say that the number of black individuals who actually qualify for that status will be small,” said Coates.
That entrenched disadvantage is something that my generation must work to reduce, and hopefully, eliminate. Young people always vote for Democrats in larger numbers, though our turnout isn’t high enough to make us as formidable of a force as we could be.
While it is typical for young people to be liberal, this excerpt from an article in The Atlantic explains the phenomenon in the current generation of millennials.
“The under-30 cohort is the most diverse adult demographic in American history, and minorities have historically been to the left of the country as well. [Also], even young white men and women are more liberal than their parents, particularly on three social issues—gay rights, immigration, and marijuana—and generally on their willingness to accept more government involvement in income redistribution and universal health care,” said Derek Thompson.
When looking at exit polls by age and race over the past three elections, all demographics voted for the same party, except for whites aged 18-25. In 2008, 54% of whites aged 18-25 voted for Obama. Despite eight years of progress, 47% of whites aged 18-25 voted for Trump last month.
While I’d eventually be interested in studying the factors accounting for these trends, I’m disheartened now. I thought that our generation was largely more progressive and accepting. I thought that we would collectively work to reverse racism in our country. However, the majority of white millennials who voted proved me otherwise. Nevertheless, 55% of all millennials voted for Clinton, in comparison to the 52% of baby boomers that voted for Trump; we need not totally despair.
Obama and Clinton alike warned young people against cynicism following the election results.
“Many of you are at the beginning of your professional public and political careers. You will have successes and setbacks, too. This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it. It is– it is worth it,” said Clinton in her concession speech.
As someone who broke down after the election, that meant a lot to me. I know I am not alone in cherishing growing up under the first African American president.
“I really would’ve liked to see Obama followed by the first female president, but unfortunately that did not happen. One day it will, I know that much. I am so proud of the election and reelection of Obama. I really will miss him and all the progress under him: two SCOTUS justices, health care reform, saving the auto industry, saving the economy from the Bush era, ordering the death of Osama Bin Laden, and marriage equality,” said Lawless.
Lightman was similar in her sentiment.
“I think he was an inspiration, not only to the African American community but to anyone who was hoping to see change in our country. His election showed a growing progressive movement in our country” Lightman.
The movement is indeed growing, seeing as Clinton did win the popular vote. The majority of the electorate voted against bigotry. The majority of the electorate supports the LGBQTIA + community, Muslims, immigrants, women, and people of color.
Do I believe that every Trump supporter is a racist? No.
However, I do believe that Trump was able to take advantage of economic anxiety and blame basically anyone who wasn’t a white man. His cabinet picks, who are primarily white, rich men, prove that.
I can only hope that the majority of them voted based on policy. Policy aside, Trump’s blatant bigotry should have been off-setting to any American.
Victoria J, a writer and blogger from Houston, put it best on election night: “What a privilege it must be to be able to look past a presidential candidate’s racism because it won’t ever affect you.”
Voters who switched from Obama to Trump serve as a counterexample for the racist narrative. Others believe that that phenomenon reinforces racism in our country.
“To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster,” said Coates.
So, yes, Obama’s race matters. It mattered in 2008 and 2012, but now that he is being succeeded by a man whose campaign heavily relied on racism, it matters even more. It means that our country is capable of progress and acceptance, but we’re not completely there yet.
“History does not move in straight lines; sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backward,” said Obama.
My fellow Americans, the battle for justice just got a lot more difficult. However, it is only over if we let it– and we mustn’t.