On Tuesday, November 4, 2008, our country made a decision that would have been unthinkable just a generation before. With the election of our nation’s first black president, Barack Obama was supposed to be the culmination of all of the hard work done by the Civil Rights leaders of the early 20th century.
Obama was poised to usher in a new era of progressive racial consciousness for America. He was supposed to embody the realization of a post-racial society where race did not matter anymore and racism was a thing of the past.
But his very presence in the White House has highlighted something much different, something very subtle and unexpected. As many considered the implications that a black president would have on our nation, we have come to the sobering reality that not only do we not live in a post-racial society, but Barack Obama’s first four-year term has illuminated the fact that the African American community is not a monolithic bloc that votes – and criticizes – merely along color lines. We are a very complex constituency and Obama has been as polarizing as a president to the black community as his views and policies have been to the GOP’s supporters.
Surprisingly, many of Obama’s harshest critics have come from his own community. Take Cornel West, professor at Princeton University, and Tavis Smiley, author and talk show host, for example. These men, two of the most well-known and arguably well-regarded voices of the black community, have very often criticized Barack Obama for not doing enough specifically for the black community. From West’s questioning the authenticity of Obama’s blackness to Smiley’s claims that Obama and his administration have not dealt with black unemployment or our nation’s devastating poverty crisis effectively, there has been no shortage of (un)fair scrutiny of who Obama is, what he represents, and what he has or hasn’t accomplished as commander-in-chief.
The criticisms even go beyond his politics and policies. When President Obama made an about-face earlier this year in his public acceptance of gay marriage, he angered many a conservative black Christian. A group of black pastors has even gone as far as to say that Obama’s support of this very unpopular stance – one touted as the civil rights issue of our generation – might eventually cost him the election. Some conservative blacks’ allegiance to the Bible transcends their connection to Barack Obama as an African American, a startling revelation for many as one reflects on African Americans’ rather precarious 400 plus year relationship with the United States.
But for as many criticisms there are of Obama, some feel that because of his race, he gets a little leeway, especially in the black community that still so overwhelmingly supports him. According to Emanuel Cleaver, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, despite a very disappointing 14% unemployment rate for African Africans, the president will get a pass from the black community by virtue of their racial identification with Obama and their pride of having an African American president.
So what does this say about race, Obama, and the 2012 presidential election? The complexities of race and racial identity are still very much alive in this country and the ascension of Barack Obama to our nation’s highest office has underscored this reality. Even though Obama has enjoyed tremendous support from African Americans as a whole, the black vote is not his by default – nor should it be. We are a multifaceted community that grapples with social and political issues differently and neither Barack Obama nor this election will change that.