Barack Obama, the President of Black America?

What the haters and the hagiographers get wrong.


Late in the second term of his presidency, Mr. Obama has used executive power to fight segregation in housing and discriminatory policing. And in recent weeks, the president has confronted hate more directly. He heaped great contempt on Mr. Trump for renewing his call to bar Muslim immigrants after the Pulse nightclub killings in Florida — even though the gunman was born in the United States. Without uttering Mr. Trump’s name, Mr. Obama seethed, in a rare show of public anger, about Mr. Trump’s disruptive bigotry.


But where has that anger been?

It has been my experience that Mr. Obama and his inner circle bristle at black efforts to hold him accountable on race. They have shown little ability to distinguish loving and thoughtful criticism from unprincipled attack. This approach has signaled admirers to view even reasonable dissent as racial treason.

The Obama administration’s resentment of black criticism hasn’t kept it from tapping the deep well of black solidarity. Thus it is a one-way street: African-Americans should never bother as a group to request that Mr. Obama be held accountable as a black man, yet the Obama administration has from the start skillfully exploited the always strong support for the president.

If the president might reasonably fend off some criticism by noting that Congress has limited what he can accomplish, it is distressing to see what he has made of the powers he has: cabinet and Supreme Court nominations and the ability to use the presidency to highlight racial injustice.

It is true that he brought us the first black attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., but he largely skimped on black cabinet appointments until pressured by black politicians to name more African-Americans in his second term. A few months after Mr. Obama’s re-election in 2012, the Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman, Marcia Fudge, scolded him for the lack of diversity in his second-term cabinet choices. At the start of his second term Mr. Obama had appointed nine new cabinet members, including three women and one Latino. Mr. Obama eventually named Anthony R. Foxx as transportation secretary and Mel Watt as director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency — and added Jeh Johnson as secretary of homeland security, John King Jr. as education secretary and Loretta Lynch as successor to Mr. Holder. It’s a respectable tally, but it doesn’t break any of his predecessors’ records.

The president justly boasts of his record of diverse appointments to the federal bench. On the Supreme Court, however, he has unfortunately passed up three opportunities to nominate the first black woman to the court. “But at no point did I say: ‘Oh, you know what? I need a black lesbian from Skokie in that slot. Can you find me one?’ ” Mr. Obama said in April, referring to the Illinois hometown of Merrick B. Garland, his latest, and stalled, nominee to the Supreme Court. “Yeah, he’s a white guy, but he’s a really outstanding jurist. I’m sorry. I mean, you know, I think that’s important.” Diversity appears to be set off against quality in Mr. Obama’s thinking, a common mistake also made by opponents of diversity.

Beyond appointments, the president’s reluctance to highlight black suffering is lamentable. He seems capable only of being forced to do for black citizens what he willingly does for others. For instance, Mr. Obama traveled to Newtown, Conn., two days after the shooting deaths of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He later called that the worst day of his presidency. Yet he had to be prodded to return to his home base, Chicago, as it suffered a rash of black death.

On that visit, Mr. Obama lamented the absence of male role models, claiming that government alone couldn’t end violence because “this is not just a gun issue” but an issue of “the kinds of communities that we’re building” and that when “a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill.” This was mourning mixed with scolding; in Newtown, there were no reprimands for the grieving.

It has been dispiriting, too, to hear the president remind his most loyal constituents that he is “not the president of black America” — as if they were naïve enough to believe that he represented only, or primarily, black interests. Mr. Obama may not be the president of black America, but he is the president of black Americans, and he owes them the same regard he has for all citizens. He went to New Jersey just a few days after Hurricane Sandy hit. Yet in the face of a more complex, government-made disaster, he took months to make it to Flint, Mich., where thousands of poor black residents are dealing with contaminated drinking water with less immediate federal support than the hurricane victims were offered.

The president has been guided by a view of race that may be termed strategic inadvertency. He believes policies should not be shaped with a view to helping blacks specifically, but supports ideas from which they are likely to benefit. This reflects his faith in universal rather than targeted remedies for black suffering: Blacks will thrive when America flourishes. “I do think that the discussion about targeted strategies versus broad-based strategies is probably the central fault line around which I may be criticized by African-American leaders,” the president told me in an Oval Office interview in 2010. “I really am very confident I’m right on it.” He said that this concept guided how he thought he should govern as president: “I’ve got to look out for all Americans, and do things based on what will help people across the board who are vulnerable and who need help.”

But even the famed sociologist William Julius Wilson, whom Mr. Obama credits as influencing his views on this subject, has changed his mind. In his 2009 work “More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City,” he argued that we should underscore “specific issues of race and poverty.” Mr. Obama would have been wise to do the same.

President Obama is an extraordinary figure who has done some good things in bad times, and some great things under impossible circumstances. As the first black president he has faced enormous difficulties and has had to weather a steady downpour of bad faith from the right wing and racist resistance from bigoted quarters of the country. He has been torn between America’s noble ideals of democracy and its cruel realities of race — a tension he rode into office, and one that occasionally defeated his desire to reconcile the best and worst halves of the nation he governs.

Mr. Obama’s presence in office has reflected our most hopeful embrace of change, even as it throws light on the deeply entrenched bigotry that would reverse such change. He has been reluctant to speak about race, and hesitant to champion the causes of a valuable, if vulnerable, black constituency. He was not always free to relax into his blackness, out of fear that it would frighten white America. There was a lot he couldn’t do. But because of what he did do, the road will undoubtedly be easier for the next black president.

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