Jean McGianni Celestin is a writer who focuses on the intersection of race with culture, sports and politics. Follow him @LiberatedKing.
The American Dream and the Paradox of Progress
For many Americans, Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney was a monumental accomplishment. It alleviated the qualms of those dealing with unemployment and unaffordable healthcare, and insured personal liberties like women’s right-to-choose and same-sex marriages would receive more thoughtful deliberation at the federal level. More symbolically though, President Obama’s reelection secured the hope of what was always an elusive American Dream—now characterized as post-racial, where anyone, even a black man who works hard enough, can achieve it.
Some have even said that he represents the end of America’s racial fatigue and evens out the playing field. No one can claim that they’re being left behind anymore. Obama, they say, is symbolic of that.
African-Americans, in particular, believe in this dream more so than anybody else, because it seemed so impossible for them for so long. They participated in the election in record numbers, refusing to be deterred by unexpected long lines at voting sites and slews of other widely-reported voter suppression tactics employed by the GOP across the country. A New York Times exit poll showed the president received 93 percent of the black vote. An estimated 1.7 million more than in 2008.
But beyond the visible manifestation of this American Dream, President Obama’s triumph represents a crippling paradox. Throughout his campaign and first term as Commander-in-Chief, Obama has embodied the possibility of the dream while largely ducking issues that malign black communities across the country. He has exhibited incredible wisdom and guidance in collaring threats like terrorism, immigration, gay rights and a sinking economy, but has yet to propose a significant programmatic plan towards undertaking those that systematically stifle the majority of blacks in America.
If America is an emergency room, the black community is a dying patient still waiting to be examined.
Instead, vague, universal language is used by Obama and his supporters to keep hope alive, which after all is what dreams are all about, right?
Nevertheless, the longstanding complications for blacks are well-documented. Their soaring population inside prisons, the so-called “achievement gap” in public education and chronic unemployment are just a few symptoms of their larger predicament. It is underscored by a jobless rate that reached 14.3 percent according the Bureau of Labor Statistics report on Nov. 2, 2012. That is nearly double the national average of 7.9, which by American standards is a crisis.
This is not even considering those who linger outside of the scope of the U.S. Department of Labor’s measuring stick because they have either stopped looking for work or survive in the shadows of the Black Market economy. And it certainly doesn’t capture the growing population in and out of the penal system. So, the story of the chase so far for Black America is that things are even worse than publicized.
As early as January 2010, the midway point of the Obama Administration, the Economic Policy Institute—a nonpartisan economic think-tank—projected that national unemployment for blacks would reach a 25-year high, with rates in five states exceeding 20 percent. And for blacks with college degrees, the road to prosperity didn’t appear much promising either. At the end of 2010, the reported jobless rate for college-educated blacks was 7.3 percent; and by August 2011 46 percent of all black youth were unemployed. All statistics that, in turn, become more exacerbated when you take into account a declining middle-class.
Not much has changed. Yet, by and large, the black community has given President Obama’s Administration an unmitigated amnesty sealed with the belief that he simply doesn’t have time to deal with their problems. “Patience” and a “we’ll take what we can get” attitude has become the call to arms. Even when former Obama champions like Tavis Smiley and Princeton University professor, Dr. Cornel West, have urged him to shift some attention towards creating policy that benefit poor and working-class people in this country, blacks themselves quelled their barks by dismissing them as “haters.”
The blind romanticism of where Obama has gotten continues to supersede what he is doing, and for whom.
The president hasn’t tolerated these naysayers either. On Sept. 24, 2011, during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Phoenix Awards Dinner in Washington D.C., Obama responded to the criticism that he isn’t doing enough for blacks.
“Take off your bedroom slippers,” Obama said to a ballroom full of black members of Congress. “Put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do…”
This radical departure from the cool and measured responses Obama is known for delivering under pressure on other issues revealed two correlating tragedies: the disappointment that the black community’s struggles were seen as “complaining” by the first black president of the United States, along with the community’s unwillingness (or perhaps inability) to marshal a relationship of accountability that compels him to pay attention.
“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” Mohandas Gandhi once said. So if blacks are supposed to rescue themselves without government relief, then what one is essentially conceding is that black people aren’t really Americans―if they’re the only sector of the population that is expected to do for self.
And therein lies the myth of the American Dream; because when measured by the reality of its most vulnerable dreamers, we see these irreconcilable differences.
In his groundbreaking book, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, Tom Burrell describes this jarring racial truth as a “paradox of progress.”
“It weakens the impulse to understand or help those still scorched at the bottom of America’s melting pot,” Burrell writes. “It fuels the perception that all is well and ‘racism is dead,’ and suggests that those still wallowing in poverty made conscious choices to live in that stratum.”
“If not, many reason, they’d simply follow Halle (Berry), Tiger (Woods), Oprah… They’d quit bellyaching, grab those bootstraps, and go to work!”
Even in the God-less days of slavery, there were blacks who prospered despite the failures of the dream. There were some, in spite of the obstacles placed before them, who overcame and attained positions of access—and made it out of the larger condition. But even then, it resulted in the majority being left out in the wilderness. In some ways, the continued existence of this old form of plantation politics speaks to how much work still needs to be done and how far we’ve yet to go.
The Legacy of Black Folk
The irony of Barack Obama’s ascension exposes the false sense of inferiority that still exists among black Americans today; a sense of inadequacy that has become so vapid that it seems out of place to demand and expect a plan of action from a black president. It used to be a popular punch line (the thought of a black president) and as oxymoronic as it always seemed for Black America, one now sits inside the White House―but on a pedestal that remains undisturbed.
For many black people, Barack Obama is defined by what he can do for all Americans while being equally defined by what he can’t and shouldn’t have to do for them. This shallow relationship between black president and black populace has allowed some to see post-racial America in its proper context.
When Harvard University professor, Henry Louis Gates, a friend of the president, became a victim of racial-profiling in his own home, Obama spoke out about race like never before. He said the incident showed “how race remains a factor in society.” The comment drew such an avalanche of criticism from white Americans that it had the president doing damage-control in the aftermath. He regretted making them and said he hoped the situation could become a “teachable moment.”
It could have indeed been a teachable moment for Obama’s Presidency, but he missed the mark in challenging the problem in any meaningful way. It was an opportunity not just to point out the presence of everyday racism in its general sense, but to address one of its more oppressive mechanisms: police brutality on black bodies.
Obama should know what it’s like to be profiled after becoming a casualty of the same Stop-and-Frisk practice victimizing blacks all over the country. When the authenticity of his citizenship was called into question by birthers and the likes of Donald Trump, he (the most powerful being in the world) was forced to produce his birth-certificate. The audacity of such a public pat down should’ve imparted a deeper sense of empathy for what blacks experience on a daily basis. But what one can surmise after Obama’s first term in office is the old adage that “no one man can rise above the condition of his people” still rings true today.
The push for Barack Obama to contend with the social issues that are troubling black men and women across the nation is not a silver bullet to the age old black dilemma. More genius and sacrifice will be required than that. But it would at least establish an atmosphere of shared responsibility, which has been largely missing from black political leadership in America.
Only time will tell if Black America ends up on the right side of this chapter in history. A bad precedent has already been set, and so far, too many of us have been willing to accept it.