I have been in a funk since the day after last year’s presidential election. About a month before the voting, I began to feel as though Donald Trump would beat Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I thought the only hope was that she could eke out a win through the Electoral College. Well, we all know that didn’t happen.
Welcome to the post-Obama world. I am of two minds about the Obamas’ departure from the White House. On the one hand, I am glad that they are no longer in the public eye, a clear target for the virulent, naked racism that has been on display in America since the day they moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. On the other, I wish they could stay forever. They are the embodiment of what we claim to be about in America – excellence, equal opportunity, meritocracy – and they make me so proud. And so since last year’s election, I’ve been thinking about how I feel about the Obama presidency.
First and foremost, I can’t discount that his election annihilated the most long held racial barrier in this country – that a black man could not be president of the United States. (No doubt many of the Framers are spinning in their graves. After all, they didn’t literally mean “that all men are created equal.”) The jubilance and tears on display that night in Grant Park were in part an acknowledgment that what comedian Nick Adams said, “black people don’t get to be President,” was no longer true. No one can underestimate the shattering of that barrier and what it will mean to future generations.
Moreover, I freely admit I didn’t believe white America could or would do this in my lifetime. I have to acknowledge that Barack Obama could not have won the White House were it not for millions of white people who were ready – for whatever reason – to buck history, tradition and racism to cast their votes for them. I remember how shocked I was to see Obama signs in the yards of Upper Arlington – one of the whitest communities in Columbus–on my way to Macy’s or OSU or the Tremont Goodie Shop. It felt like being in the Twilight Zone or on Candid Camera. I continually fought against the urge to knock on doors and ask “Do you know this guy is black?” I even stopped a white woman in Target to ask her where she got her Obama tee shirt! That so many whites took a leap of faith means something important, although at times it’s difficult to figure out what that is. Obama himself said as much when he took the stage after the election was called in his favor; he pointed out that his election was the fruition of the Framers’ theory of democracy–if not its practice. The historian Peniel Joseph, founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, said the election of Obama showed us the “transformational potential that always existed in democracy’s beating heart, but which too often excluded black Americans.”
Third, the majority of black people I know are a lot like the Obamas. The presence of a multigenerational, African American family in the White House normalized black life for millions of Americans. Except for the fictional Huxtables, Americans have never seen a “normal” black family. They are the direct opposite of the way the media and popular cultures depict black Americans. Husband and wife are clearly besotted with each other, their daughters are kind and respectful, and the First Grandmother of the United States (FGOTUS) is an integral and cherished member of the family. White Americans were able to see that blacks are not some alien presence in America, and the Obamas are not an exceptional black family who for all intents and purposes are just like white people, but with brown skin.
Barack and Michelle Obama also reflect the increasing diversity of American society. The president is the son of a black African and a white American woman. He had an Asian stepfather and was in large part reared by his white grandparents. Mrs. Obama is a descendant of slaves and has black and white relatives. Ready or not, they represent the America of the future: multiracial and not majority white.
And now, the bad news. The Obama presidency has shown us in stark and dramatic ways that this country is still as racist as it has ever been. Obama the candidate was able to develop a different kind of coalition than we’ve seen before, one that crossed ethnic and racial lines. But a careful examination of voting data show that he did not do well among whites in most southern states in 2008 or 2012. The fact that he won both elections showed white America that being white and male were no longer guarantees that one would win the presidency. This coupled with wrenching social, economic, and demographic changes, has scared the dickens out of millions of white people. So they have retreated back into that most familiar of American bugaboos: racism.
Despite the legal and moral gains of the middle twentieth century, racism was never eradicated; it was merely tamped down. What brought it to the surface after what appeared to be decades of racial progress? The election of a black man to the highest office of the land. Yet in spite of eight years of being the target of the most invective racial insults ever aimed at public figures in America, the Obamas remained hopeful, dignified and invested in America.
When Barack Obama and his family moved into the White House, it was the first time I was proud of my country. And I miss them already.