Race and The Presidency – “It’s Medicine.”

I had the incredible pleasure this past weekend of being a part of the 3rd Annual C.I.R.C.L.E. Conference for educators.  I joined some pretty amazing presenters as I led a workshop on building relationships across difference, and I had the fortune of seeing Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr, founder of the White Privilege Conference, speak.  He had some awesome points about the work that I am privileged to do for a living, and he reminded me that “no matter how much work we do, there’s still deeper digging ahead.”

One of the points that Dr. Moore made that most resonated with me was about President Barack Obama.  Lately I have found myself profoundly frustrated with the President.  I have thought on a number of occasions, “Why did I vote for this man?” and “Can I vote for this man again?”  Too often I have felt like he was doing little more than continuing many of the destructive practices and policies of his predecessors.  Yet Dr. Moore reminded me of something pretty darn important in his opening remarks at the C.I.R.C.L.E. conference.

“Sometimes I don’t even listen.  Sometimes I turn off the sound and just watch the President.  Seeing him standing there in that position – It’s medicine.”

I realized then that couched in my criticism, much of it legitimate political criticism, is an incredible amount of white privilege.  It is an incredible privilege to be able to forget the context surrounding our nation’s first Black president, a context which I often do forget.  I forget that the image of President Barack Hussein Obama is more than a simple image of the president but rather is the portrait of a man born to a black Kenyan father and white American mother who rose through the ranks of local and national politics to become president of the wealthiest and most powerful country on earth.

In being shaken from my privileged stupor by Dr. Moore, I couldn’t help but think of my experience in the days before and after the 2008 election teaching in a predominantly African American and Black school on Chicago’s west side.  I thought about the lecture given by my cooperating teacher entitled, “Yes We Did” that included, among others, the images below to remind our students of the context in which the first Black president was elected.

On the day after the election, I also had the students do a writing exercise about how they felt upon learning that Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.  Here’s an excerpt from something I composed after the election:

For the past few months, I have seen my students interested in politics in a way that I highly doubt they would have been if this presidential election had been the typical two rich, white men duking it out for the highest office in the land.  If Barack Obama’s candidacy has done nothing else, it has surely helped young people who have long been uninterested or alienated by politics find a reason to sit up and pay attention.

I teach at a school on Chicago’s West Side where the students are predominantly African American/black (and those who are not black are Latino/Latina).  The median income for a family in my kids’ neighborhood is around $18,000.  My kids have it rough in lots of ways, yet every day I enter that school building and find amazing and brilliant young minds who really just want to learn and who want to be encouraged.

Today in particular, though, I saw something different, something pretty incredible.  We began our World Studies class with a writing period where the students recorded their thoughts and feelings about Barack Obama being elected last night.  When we shared out, here are some of the words we heard: excited, nervous, confused, surprised, included.  One student said that she felt like an African American with the stress on the latter word for the first time.  In the midst of these thoughtful reflections, one young man’s words truly gave me pause.  He told us that Obama’s election made him feel free.

Now, stop and think about that.  Freedom is a powerful word, particularly in the African American experience.  How many 15 year olds in prior presidential elections would have described the outcome as liberating?  What does it say about our history and our present environment that led a young black man from Chicago’s impoverished West Side to feel free because of one election result.

I truly believe that white people have no real way of understanding what it means to African Americans to see a black man elected.  To begin to understand, though, we can simply consider the words of this one young, black man:  “I felt free.”

As with my criticism of his budget proposal, there is plenty of legitimate critiques of the policies of Barack Obama to be lodged from both sides.  In all of this, though, maybe we each need to follow Dr. Moore’s lead and take a minute to recognize the vital medicine that comes from simply turning down the volume and watching a strong black man stand before us as the President of the United States of America.


9 thoughts on “Race and The Presidency – “It’s Medicine.”

  1. The evils this nation inflicted upon the black population were indeed terrible and we should never forget that but your assertion that “there is plenty of legitimate critiques of the policies of Barack Obama to be lodged from both sides. In all of this, though, maybe we each need to follow Dr. Moore’s lead and take a minute to recognize the vital medicine that comes from simply turning down the volume and watching a strong black man stand before us as the President of the United States of America.” is intellectually vapid. In no way does the color of anyone’s skin mitigate the harm caused by their policies and to assert this is foolishness.

    Barrack’s presidency should be weighed on its own merits regardless of who his father was. Casting someone in a good or bad light (or a marginally gooder or badder light in your case) is merely racism of a different stripe and begins a road down a slippery slope.

  2. Nathan,

    You completely missed the boat. In no way did I say that the color of Obama’s skin mitigates the effects of his policies. The point that I am making is that in the midst of criticism, we should not forget the incredibly important place that Obama has in this historical moment and that to simply see a black man in that position is “medicine,” particularly for those, like my student, who never thought that reality possible.

    The psychological power that seeing a black man as the President of the United States for both those people of color in this country and people of color around the world is something of incredible value . . . It does not say a thing about his policies, but should send a powerful message to those of us in the U.S. and others abroad about the journey and the African American experience in this country.

  3. Hmm… as a mostly caucasian, I will never truly be able to understand the feeling evoked in a person of mainly african descent upon seeing the first person who is also of largely african genetic material standing in one of the most powerful positions in the world. It must be highly invigorating, especially given the societal context of repression in the US.

    However, since my time in NZ, I have started to gain a small understanding of the plight of the poor. This is the first time in my life I’ve experienced anything close to poverty, and it’s certainly humbling. I feel much more congruency with illegal immigrant farm workers or people living on the street than I ever have been able to appreciate before, and I feel much more anger toward people in positions of privelege and monied interests who greedily hoard their wealth than ever also.

    Let’s not forget that Obama is an increadibly rich man – his net worth is estimated at over $10 million. So, although he may superficially resemble some of your Chicagoan students, how much do they really have in common? How alike are they, really? I won’t attempt to understand the feeling evoked by seeing a black man in power for someone who identifies as black, but I will challenge the notion that Obama really represents them in any way that’s more than skin-deep. How long will it be before we see the nation’s first poor man (or woman) elected president, regardless of skin color? Will a monetarily poor person ever be “elected” to that office?? I may be wrong, but I can’t think of a single president, and precious few politicians at all, who would properly qualify as “poor.” Obama may be a little tanner than our past presidents, but his policies benefit the same miniscule segment of society that presidential policies have always benefitted. And although his visage standing in front of the podium may indeed serve as powerful medicine for the black community, I would argue that it is nothing more than a placebo designed to distract them from the crippling poverty enforced by the same elitist, classist, racist mentality that brought the first Africans to the Americas to slave on the sugar-cane and cotton plantations and that still pervades the halls of power today.

    In our brave new world, the trenches of class warfare are divided not by skin color, but by purchasing power. Woe to him who assumes that a man’s class loyalties may be determined by his epidermal pigmentation. The wise one will look deep into another’s heart before deciding whether he is friend or foe. Eat the rich.

    • Scott,

      While I too see the true, underlying issues of inequality in this country as ones of class and classism, but I see two dangers in basically saying, “Yeah, we elected a black dude, but the real issue is class, so his skin color isn’t that important in the big picture.”

      The first danger is that it takes away the hope that my students described in seeing a black man elected president. For better or for worse (and I would argue for worse), we hide class in our society, but we place race on the forefront. Thus, seeing a black man elected president is a powerful statement for young black folks in this country who can “turn down the volume” and say, “I can see myself as President.” Now, whether or not structurally that is true or real is a larger discussion. What I know, though, is that you can then use that hope to inspire them to challenge themselves in school or to think critically about their neighborhood and its plight.

      Second, to essentially strip the reality of Obama, a black man (or a man of mixed race) down to the idea that Obama is a little “tanner” (Careful there, Silvio Berlusconi) is to remove the significance in the African American experience of a man from a race that has only been “free” for 9% of the time that they have spent on this continent becoming President. The class realities of this country is intertwined with racial realities to this day (hence the black unemployment rate being twice that of the white unemployment rate). Dr. Moore’s point is that we need to take a moment to value that historical shift and hold the space because to simply see Obama in that position changes the psychological realities of those looking at that image. No longer is it simply a rich white man who can access that position (now, maybe, it is rich white men and certain rich men of color – still super problematic). That, in and of itself, is an important change in our psychological reality.

      • Colorado Scott

        I agree that there is certainly an intrinsic value to Obama’s election in demonstrating his success to underpriveleged youth. I think it’s important to recognize, though, that by ignoring the class issue, we simply perpetuate the “American Dream” myth that, with hard work and dedication, “you too could be president one day!” This is the classic pyramid scheme sucker to keep people at the bottom of the pymarid, struggling to support all the weight of those above them, all the while looking up and hopelessly dreaming of one day being at the top. Their time would be much better spent uprooting the current system of depredative usury and throwing off the accumulated weight of those who would be content to sit on their heads. But insofar as his election serves as an impetus for those kids to apply themselves, that’s of course a great thing, and I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.

        Concerning your “Silvio Berlusconi” reference – touche, sir, touche. ; )

        Hope all is well for you back in the land of snowcapped mountains!

  4. I cannot imagine stepping into the quagmire of challenges that Obama stepped into when he took office. His presidency, despite the ups and downs, still gives me hope. He’s a man who is bright, hardworking and devoted to America.

    I taste the medicine, I feel the freedom.

    We mustn’t turn our attention away from hope and progress, even for an instant.

  5. […] . . . and there’s that whole thing where the nation’s first Black president was reelected to a second […]

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