This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
When Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States, I received a warning of sorts from my late great-aunt, Myrtha Overstreet. She lived to be almost 101, and when she was 98 she voted in Cleveland for Obama’s first election. She did so with a sage’s sobriety. I called her to ask her if she ever thought she would live to see a black president. She told me, “No, but now that he’s in there, he’ll be just another politician.”
My great-aunt’s wariness understated what was coming. Seven years later, as Obama’s presidency enters its final year, the collective optimism that African Americans had at the beginning of his presidency has collapsed. At the beginning, the percentage of African Americans saying race relations were good soared from 29 percent to 59 percent in New York Times polling. It was back down to 28 percent this past summer.
This feeling of letdown is well justified. Obama’s historic individual achievement has been upstaged by collective ugliness, ranging from videotaped police brutality, the Charleston church hate killing, and race-baiting by Republican presidential candidates.
Astonishingly, many blame Obama himself for racial dissonance. The same New York Times poll also found that white Americans were nearly three times more likely to say the Obama presidency itself has driven black and white people further apart, while African Americans were nearly three times as likely to say Obama has brought the races closer together.
Obama did not come close to winning the majority of white voters in either of his victories, despite economic disaster at the end of the George W. Bush administration and political paralysis after 2010 inspired by the Republican-dominated Congress, both of which furthered economic divides for most Americans, white as well as black. In fact, Obama’s percentage of the white vote slipped from 43 percent in 2008 to 39 percent in 2012, according to exit polls.
From the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Donald Trump, to the blacks-want-free-stuff imagery of Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie’s bombast that not even Syrian child refugees should be admitted to this country, the Republicans seem dedicated to living out Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that many white politicians reacted to the 1965 Voting Rights Act with a “witches’ brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths and whole lies.” Ohio, which Obama won both times, also elected Republican Governor John Kasich, who eliminated same-day registration and voting. Wisconsin, which Obama won both times, elected Republican Governor Scott Walker, who slashed early voting. North Carolina, which voted for Obama the first time, then for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, enacted a voter-ID law that is being contested in court. All of this is compounded by blatant gerrymandering, bolstered by the 2013 decision by the conservative-leaning Supreme Court to end federal pre-clearance of redistricting plans in states with racist histories of districting.
The fact that this is happening in the era of the first black president is no surprise to historians and civil-rights legal experts who recall the backlash of half a century ago, even a century and a half ago. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York and author of the 2010 book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, said there are clear parallels to how Emancipation and Reconstruction after slavery were met with the wall of segregation codified by Plessy v. Ferguson, and how the brutally won civil-rights gains of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s were slowly dismantled by the 20 combined years of President Reagan, both President Bushes, and the conservative-leaning Supreme Court they left behind.
“To the degree that Obama represents an apotheosis of what the nation can achieve,” Muhammad told me, “his presidency has also revealed a nation unable to sustain an enduring commitment to civil rights. Obama also represents the unfinished business of America as we’re seeing attacks on voting rights and the evisceration of equal protection and due process rights in our criminal justice system. If we think of Plessy v. Ferguson as the beginning of one era in our long racial saga, Shelby v. Holder represents another milestone. And not one we, as a nation, will look back on and be proud of.”
Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says the Obama backlash “has come at such a fast clip, it’s difficult to wrap your mind around it.” Nelson noted how a concealed-handgun license is sufficient to vote in Texas, but a student photo ID is not, and how someone in Alabama can vote with a government employee ID, but not with a public housing ID. “When you think of the demographics of who is in public housing and who is in the public workforce, it tells you a lot,” Nelson says. “Just when we should be leveraging the gains of the civil-rights movement, we’re instead redoubling and retracing our steps in the face of severe retrenchment. It’s as if some people are saying, ‘You had your black president for two terms and now you should go quietly into the night.’”
Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota speaks at a news conference with the Congressional Progressive Caucus on October 27, 2015. Behind him, from left to right, are Representatives Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, and Barbara Lee of California.
Such sentiments run deep even in the white generation that voted most heavily for Obama. Two years ago, in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for his Florida killing of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the Pew Research Center found that a majority of white Americans 18 to 29 years old felt the topic of race was “getting too much attention.” Since then, an onslaught of videotaped police brutality has created somewhat more awareness by white Americans of injustice dealt to African Americans. But the moment the topic drifts away from undeniable visual evidence on CNN and YouTube, collective white denial and delusion remain operative. In a CNN/ORC poll this year, half of white Americans believe the Voting Rights Act is no longer necessary and 81 percent believe African Americans in their community—despite a trove of modern job and housing discrimination data to speak to the contrary—have as good of a chance as white people in getting “any kind of job for which they are qualified.”
IS IT POSSIBLE THAT Obama did something that legitimated white voters circling the wagons? Not likely—the wagons were circling long before he took office. The best example is guns. During the first seven years of President George W. Bush, the nation averaged 9.2 million gun sales a year with little fluctuation, according to the FBI data on background checks.
In 2008, as Obama closed in on the White House, there was a new record of 12.7 million background checks for gun purchases, according to the FBI. From there, gun sales soared to insane levels for a so-called developed nation, to an average of 20.5 million checks a year from 2012 to 2014. That is more than double the counts of the Bush era.
Many historians and sociologists see clear parallels, also reaching back to Reconstruction, to gun procurement frenzies by white Americans coinciding with cycles of political attacks on black enfranchisement. The late Ben Agger, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who co-edited a book on the Virginia Tech massacre, told the Chicago Tribune in 2008, “I almost hate to say it, but there is a deep-seated fear of the armed black man, because Obama now commands the military and other instruments of the justice system. They are afraid Obama will exact retribution for the very deep-seated legacy of slavery.”
Race relations scholar Charles Gallagher of La Salle University told CNN last year, “Whites walking down Main Street with an AK-47 are defenders of American values; a black man doing the same thing is Public Enemy No. 1.” That certainly rings true in a country where white men cheerfully plop down in Starbucks with handguns exposed to show solidarity for open-carry laws while 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 22-year-old John Crawford were gunned down in split seconds in Ohio for holding toy guns.
Nearly seven full years into Obama’s presidency, September polls by Public Policy Polling and CNN/ORC respectively found that 54 percent and 43 percent of Republicans think he is a Muslim. Depending on the poll, a third to two-thirds of Republicans believe Obama was not born in the U.S. or are unsure. Republican leaders, from Obama’s emergence to the present, insist on inciting voters to believe Obama is not as patriotic and Christian as white people. Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate said of Obama, “I am so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America.” Mitt Romney, the 2012 presidential nominee, said he was “frightened that we have a president that fails to understand America.” More recently, leading Republican candidate Donald Trump refused to correct a supporter at a town hall event who insisted Obama is a Muslim, and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani flat-out said at an event for Wisconsin’s Walker, then a candidate for the GOP nomination, “I do not believe that the president loves America.”
With all the innuendo and animus, not to mention the imagery of angry white men more armed than ever, Obama was almost in an impossible position to do what certain white people feared—enact policies to overtly overcome racial economic, education, and housing discrimination and the resulting disparities. With a Supreme Court chipping away at affirmative action and taking aim at voting rights, Obama was a political Jackie Robinson. No matter how much the Republican Party spiked him with inflammatory politics, he could not dare respond in kind.
DESPITE THE GROWING number of people of color in the U.S., the congressional map has created a national white echo chamber. A 2014 Washington Post analysis found that 75 percent of Republican House constituents are white, well above the 62 percent national non-Hispanic white population. Democratic districts are far more racially balanced. In the states, politics against immigrants and taxes and suburban and rural resistance to bolstering urban infrastructure, public education, and anti-poverty programs reflect a historic collapse of local and regional Democratic power.
According to The New York Times, Republican control of governorships has increased from 22 to 32 since 2009. Democratic losses in state legislatures since Obama was elected are among the worst in more than a century, with 816 Democratic lawmakers ousted and Republican control of legislatures doubling. The Times quoted Tim Storey, an analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures: “Republicans have more [state] chambers today than they have ever had in the history of the party.”
Though the non-white share of the electorate is increasing, this shift is not showing up in the share of representation. In an analysis by National Journal earlier this year, lawmakers of color represent only 15 of the nation’s 318 majority-white congressional House districts. That small percentage contrasts dramatically with the 38 percent of districts that are majority of color but represented by white politicians (44 of 117).
Those contrasts stand to sharpen. Mostly white suburban and rural enclaves change slowly compared to economically volatile urban congressional districts, where voters of color were historically packed. While no one would bet against Overland Park, Kansas, remaining wealthy and overwhelmingly white for years to come, places like Harlem, which sent Adam Clayton Powell and Charlie Rangel to Congress, are changing before our eyes in an influx of Latino immigrants and white gentrification. Such districts could conceivably go from black to Latino to white representation.
Among the few African Americans entrusted with a majority-white district is Keith Ellison of Minnesota. His Fifth Congressional District reasonably mirrors America’s current colors at 69 percent white, 16 percent African American, 9 percent Latino, 6 percent Asian, and 1 percent Native American. Being in one of the liberal pockets of the U.S., and voted into office in 2006, two years before Obama, Ellison says the toughest questions about his electability were more over him being a Muslim than African American.
“The district never had a black rep, but the issue never came up because everybody asked me what it felt like to run as a Muslim,” Ellison laughs. “I never was interviewed by anyone in the media as the first black member of the Minnesota congressional delegation.”
In a district that cast more than 70 percent of votes for both him and Obama in 2012, Ellison says he can go to any Minneapolis urban corner or suburban coffee shop and have a serious talk about the meaning of Black Lives Matter. Minnesota voters, with overwhelming “no” votes from the Minneapolis area, rejected a 2012 referendum to enact restrictive voter-ID laws.
For Ellison, his constituency and the Obama years give him some hope that more enlightened politics and broader acceptance of black politicians will prevail in the years to come. “What you can’t take back is that he has shown that a black person can be a good president and not just a quarterback or a beauty queen,” Ellison told me. “He was headed where the country is largely headed, on climate change, marriage equality, public transit, and expanding opportunity. It was always relatively easy to have those conversations in my district, and Obama made them easier.”
Representative Karen Bass of California walks down the House steps after a vote on October 7, 2015.
Similar to Ellison but half a continent away is Representative Karen Bass, from California’s 37th Congressional District. It takes in much of west and south Los Angeles, with a hodgepodge that is 39 percent Latino, 22 percent black, and 11 percent Asian. Coalition building for her is talking a different political language to her different constituencies.
“African Americans want to hear about the economy, jobs, criminal justice, child welfare, education, and Africa,” Bass says. Latinos are similar with immigration and Latin American issues added in. White groups want to hear about the economy, transportation, the environment, Israel, Iran, and other environmental issues. “The theme that runs through them all is the economy and jobs, so I try to make sure everyone feels connected that way.”
There are other liberal places where black politicians connected broadly. Massachusetts, the epicenter of gay marriage and a national leader in green energy and energy efficiency, gave two terms to African American Governor Deval Patrick. He governed a commonwealth 83 percent white, 11 percent Latino, and only 8 percent black.
And there are a noticeable number of majority-white cities that display a willingness to vote for African American mayors. Denver and Kansas City, Missouri, are both on their second black mayors. Over the years, African Americans have been mayors of other trendy or economically stable cities where African Americans are in a decisive minority, such as San Francisco, Seattle, and Minneapolis.
But there are also plenty of places where one would think it natural for African Americans or Latinos to be on their second, third, or fourth mayor or congressional representative, yet success has been elusive. The most obvious cases are Chicago and New York, which today are less than half white yet have had white mayors for more than two decades, and just one black mayor each. In Chicago, Rahm Emanuel won a second term, wooing the majority of black votes on the south and west sides of town to blunt the grassroots coalition efforts of Latino Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. In New York, Bill de Blasio put together a strong multicultural coalition, with a major promise to end police practices abusive to African Americans such as “stop and frisk.” Interestingly, both cities are currently under a harsh national spotlight for police brutality, most notably the choking of Eric Garner in New York and the riddling of Laquan McDonald in Chicago.
Other cities where African Americans are the leading numerical group but have returned the keys to white mayors include Detroit and St. Louis. That adds up to an uncertain trajectory to David Bositis, who analyzed black electoral participation for many years at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “Do blacks overall have more power now, because Obama has been president? No,” Bositis says. “Not when Republicans control state legislatures and both houses of Congress. I think Obama himself has done a ton of things that are good for the country. The Affordable Care Act is essentially a civil-rights bill. He’s negotiated with Iran, creating new relations with Cuba, dealt with the recession when he took office.
“But I don’t know how far you can extrapolate that. There [have] not been a great deal of other black statewide election successes around the country, other than say, Cory Booker [former Newark mayor who became New Jersey senator] and Kamala Harris [the African American and South Asian California attorney general, currently the presumptive front-runner for the Senate seat of retiring Barbara Boxer]. She’s a heavy-hitter, but to win statewide like she did is still very hard for a black candidate.”
In a report this year commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the Joint Center estimated that the number of black elected officials has grown from less than 1,000 in 1965 to more than 10,000 today. But they are still vastly underrepresented. African Americans are about 13 percent of the voting-age population, but 10 percent of members of the U.S. House, 8.5 percent of state legislatures, 5.7 percent of city councils, and 2 percent of the U.S. Senate. Latinos, who make up 11 percent of the voting-age population, comprise 7 percent of the House, 5 percent of state legislatures, 4 percent of the Senate, and only 3.3 percent of city councils.
Part of this reflects the much lower turnout in local and off-year elections. The most recent poster child for that was Ferguson, Missouri, a 67 percent–black town outside St. Louis that riveted the world with the turmoil over the police killing of Michael Brown. Prior to the killing, municipal turnout was about 12 percent, only one of the six members of the city council was black, and its police force was overwhelmingly white. This year, with the eyes of the nation on its elections, turnout was 30 percent and the council became half black.
But the normally low turnout deeply concerns Ellison and Bass, who wonder aloud if there will be an emotional slump by black voters in 2016, compounded by the Republican assault on voting rights. The turnout in the November 2014 non-presidential general election (36.4 percent) was the lowest since World War II, and it cost the Democrats dearly as Republicans energized by their opposition to Obama solidified their hold on Congress.
City Council candidate Ella Jones, right, greets voters at the polls in Ferguson, Missouri, on April 7, 2015.
Many major states that Obama won both times were below that 36.4 percent average, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, New Jersey, and New York. In fact, New York was fourth-worst at 28.8 percent.
It was enough for Ellison to call for a fresh voting-rights campaign, asserting that the cost of low turnout was the biggest Republican majority in Congress since the Truman administration. “We seem to have forgotten that state legislatures and governors set the rules for who can vote in elections and draw the district lines,” Ellison wrote in a Nation op-ed. “In 2012, congressional Democrats won 1.5 million more votes than Republicans, but lost seats in Congress due to Republican domination of district maps.”
That domination could be solidified very soon as the Supreme Court is hearing and has heard more voting-rights cases this term. They center on disputes in Texas and Arizona over whether the “one man, one vote” concept allows for districts to be drawn up based on total population or only on eligible voting population. Districts based only on eligible voters would clearly advantage more homogenous suburbs and rural areas at the expense of cities, which have more children of color, undocumented Latino residents, and disenfranchised felons, who are disproportionately African American and Latino.
A decision from the high court that exacerbates gerrymandering favoring more sparsely populated white voters, plus the vigorous voter suppression efforts represented by voter-ID laws might not exactly spell doom for those who want to see progressive politics based on a more diverse America. But it surely will mean a war against passivity and cynicism as a new generation of voters of color questions anew the worth of its vote.
James Jennings, urban policy professor emeritus at Tufts University and author of several books on African American and Latino empowerment, says, “This very resistance, however, will help to move black electoral politics further within a progressive framework calling for greater expansion of racial and economic democracy.” He says the Black Lives Matter movement may be an early indication of a call for “greater electoral mobilization in black and Latino communities.”
DESPITE THE POLITICS of backlash, Obama’s presidency will be remembered as transformative on several levels. Expanding family health-care coverage to young adults up to 26 benefited Americans of all races. The Affordable Care Act lowered the uninsured gap between African Americans and white Americans from about 11 percentage points to about 7, according to an October study in Health Affairs done by researchers from the Urban Institute. By turning the EPA loose to set quasi-national environmental policy through new pollution and fuel-efficiency standards, Obama can proudly take credit for unprecedented domestic adoption of renewable energy and for finally making the U.S. a major player on the world climate-change stage. The economic stimulus and auto industry rescue saved jobs in struggling cities, and to the permanent chagrin of the far right, he was the president who got rid of Osama bin Laden. His ending of the ban against openly gay servicemen and servicewomen was an honorable discharge of history, extending the American civil-rights legacy to others.
Obama did do major things he could do on his own, such as doubling the percentage of women and people of color appointed to federal judgeships and other senior government positions. His administration included infrastructure projects for historically black colleges in American Recovery Act stimulus money.
But other Obama actions or inactions are painful reminders of the likelihood that the nation’s first black president always had a white-backlash calculator in the back of his mind.
Clarence Lusane, political science professor at American University and author of the 2011 book The Black History of the White House, told me, “Obama’s in the White House, but lives are being ruined at the local level after program after program is being cut by states that were blue for Obama, but red in state government.”
Lusane said the unrest among ordinary African Americans who deal daily with discrimination, disparities, and increased risk of disenfranchisement reveals how the black political structure has lost a progressive groove. “Most black mayors are now technocrats,” Lusane said. “That’s fine up to a point, but in most cities, massive gentrification is happening and they’re just sitting there letting it happen. We’re just sort of flopping and there’s no second string behind Obama.”
Could it have been different? Historians will long debate whether a stronger, more resolute Obama who fearlessly led America to engage in its unfinished economic and racial business would have succeeded in bridging differences—as he signaled in the 2004 keynote address that brought him to national prominence—or merely would have invited even more vicious backlash.
One of the most senior African American Democrats in Congress, South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, told me that “Obama’s election was the topping out of a leftward drift, following the last rightward drift. The moment he was elected, the pendulum swung right back right. This country has never moved on a linear plane with one historical event building another. We’ve always gone back and forth.”
And the question is: Back to what, or forth to what?
Barack Obama waves at attendees in Grant Park, Chicago, before giving his acceptance speech on Election Night, 2008.
SEVEN YEARS AGO, I WAS on a press riser at Grant Park in Chicago, awaiting the appearance of the first African American president-elect of the United States. When the crowd was asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I quickly realized it was the most multicultural multitude I had ever seen, saying the pledge with a conviction that rumbled through the riser.
Unlike the almost all-white and visibly older crowd watching John McCain’s concession speech, the scene in Grant Park was multi-colored, multi-gendered, multi-sexually oriented, multi-generational. People who wouldn’t have been caught dead boasting they were proud to be an American had their hands over their hearts. If American history were indeed a linear plane upward, that should have been the beginning of an America that would never go backward into backwater politics. Yet racial progress in America has always been fitful.
In retrospect, I should have been as sober as my Aunt Myrtha. The week before heading to Chicago, I visited my dad in the Veterans Administration hospital in Milwaukee, where he was recovering from heart surgery. He wanted to vote absentee, so I went to Milwaukee City Hall to get a ballot.
The clerk told me that the deadline had passed for absentee ballots. I explained that my father was in the VA and surely there must be a provision for someone who had unexpected surgery. She said sorry, you’re out of luck.
I went back and told my dad the bad news. But listening in was his nurse, who happened to be the patient advocate for things like voting. “Oh, they’re just being lazy down there,” she said. “You just wait a minute.” A few minutes later, she reappeared with a piece of paper. “You take this back to City Hall. Your dad as a vet in the hospital has a right to vote absentee past the official deadline.”
I went back down and the same clerk who turned me down before was there. She looked at me with stern eyes and said, “I told you that you were too late.”
I said, “You read this paper. The VA says he can vote.”
The clerk huddled with her supervisor. After many minutes of shuffling their feet, probably to figure out how to save face, the clerk gave me a ballot with no apology for my inconvenience. I took the ballot back to my father and held his trembling hands as this native of segregated Mississippi voted for the first black president of the United States.