How Barack Obama Failed Black Americans
The country’s first black president never pursued policies bold enough to close the racial wealth gap.
Dr. Darity is an OUR COMMON GROUND Voice
Over the next few weeks, The Atlantic will be publishing a series of responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s story “My President Was Black.” Readers are invited to send their own responses to email@example.com, and we will post a sample of your feedback. You can read other responses to the story from Atlantic readers and contributors here.
Born in 1953, I am a child of the waning years of legal segregation in the United States. My parents, on the other hand, spent about 40 years of their lives under Jim Crow, and all of my grandparents lived most of their lives under official American apartheid. At the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008, my mother and all four of my grandparents were deceased. But my father was alive and well—and absolutely thrilled to have lived to see the election of a black man as president of the United States. Usually deeply cynical about American politics and politicians, my dad could not comprehend my deep reservations about Barack Obama’s leadership. Indeed, he viewed any criticism of Obama as bringing aid and comfort to white supremacists.
My father hardly was alone among black Americans, across all generations. The near complete unanimity of passionate black American admiration for Obama carried with it an absolute resistance to hearing any complaints about the black president. And, indeed, there was much to admire: an exceptional resume, an attractive family with a black wife who is his professional and intellectual equal, handsome and greying toward distinguished maturity, a strategically wise moderate progressive political position, and a place as the—sometimes self-professed—messianic fulfillment of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. For many black Americans, the ascent of Barack Obama to the presidency was equivalent to the moment of jubilee.
An extraordinarily disciplined individual, Barack Obama preempted the smallest hint of scandal by admitting that he had smoked pot during his youth. He even crafted a narrative of a rise from adversity—growing up successfully by the efforts of a single parent despite a missing father—albeit a white single mother with a Ph.D. whose own parents were affluent residents of Hawaii. With every drop of respectability in place, his somewhat icy intellect coupled with his enthusiasm for basketball and for black music across a half century of styles, he was an inordinately appealing candidate, with an ideal combination of the cool and the rational.
Nevertheless, some of those white voters who did not vote for him took his eight years as president as license to assert that the country is post-racial, even while attacking him with both veiled and overt racial slurs. But racism is organic to American life, and it sits at the core of persistence of racial economic inequality. In his fascinating profile of Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to the “mark of a system engineered to place one on top of the other”—to place white over black. He offers some examples: the facts that blacks with a college degree have an unemployment rate almost as high as white high school graduates, that completion of a college education leads blacks to carry twice the level of student loan debt than whites four years after the degree, that blacks experience a significantly higher default rate on their loans, that black households have one-seventh of the wealth of white households, and that black families with $100,000 or more in income reside “in more disadvantaged neighborhoods than white families making less than $30,000.”
Estimates generated from the 2013 round of the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances indicate that black households have one-thirteenth of the wealth of white households at the median. We have concluded that the average black household would have to save 100 percent of its income for three consecutive years to close the wealth gap. The key source of the black-white wealth gap is the intergenerational effects of transfers of resources. White parents have far greater resources to give to their children via gifts and inheritances, so that the typical white young adult starts their working lives with a much greater initial net worth than the typical black young adult. These intergenerational effects are blatantly non-meritocratic.
Blacks working full time have lower levels of wealth than whites who are unemployed. Blacks in the third quintile of the income distribution have less wealth (or a lower net worth) than whites in the lowest quintile. Even more damning for any presumption that America is free of racism is our finding that black households whose heads have college degrees have $10,000 less in net worth than white households whose heads who never finished high school. As we point out in our report, “Umbrellas Don’t Make It Rain”, studying hard and working hard does not enable blacks to eliminate the racial wealth gap. Doing the right thing is far from enough.
I had a queasy feeling about Barack Obama’s candidacy from the moment I heard his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that lifted him into national prominence, a speech that Coates summarizes in the profile. Toward the end of the speech Obama observed that black families in urban centers realized “that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn … that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” “The acting white” libel—a myth that will not die—argues that low school performance for black students is a product of a culturally based black opposition to high academic achievement.
The “acting white” libel is symptomatic of a more general perspective—a perspective that argues that an important factor explaining racial economic disparities is self-defeating or dysfunctional behavior on the part of blacks themselves. And Barack Obama continuously has trafficked in this perspective. Of course, there are some black folk who engage in habits that undermine their potential accomplishments, but there are some white folk who engage in habits that undermine their potential accomplishments as well. And there is no evidence to demonstrate that are proportionately more blacks who behave in ways that undercut achievement, especially since it is clear that blacks do more with less. Nevertheless, Obama consistently has trafficked heavily in the tropes of black dysfunction. Either he is unfamiliar with or uninterested in the evidence that undercuts the black behavioral deficiency narrative. These tropes, in my view, do malicious work.
Apart from black dysfunction, Obama does acknowledge that ongoing discrimination is a partial factor explaining racial inequality and says that anti-discrimination enforcement is the type of black-specific measure that he can endorse. Of course, anti-discrimination laws do not operate exclusively on behalf of black folk. They really are universal measures intended to contain all forms of discrimination, and, while effective enforcement can improve black employment opportunities, it will do little to address massive, inherited racial wealth differences.
Obama’s general position is racial equality can be achieved—or at least approached—via policies that uplift all Americans experiencing poverty and deprivation. Obama has said that “as a general matter, my view would [be] that if you want to get at African American poverty, income gap, wealth gap, achievement gap, that the most important thing is to make sure that the society as a whole does right by people who are poor, are working class, are aspiring to a better life for their kids: higher minimum wages, full employment programs, early childhood education, those kinds of programs are by design universal but by definition, because they are helping folks who are in the worst economic situations, are most likely to disproportionately impact and benefit black Americans.”
But these particular programs—all, even in their diluted forms likely to be under assault under the new regime—are incremental and display no boldness of spirit. Obama’s evocation of the notion that “better is good” and his own acknowledgment that “maybe I’m not just being sufficiently optimistic or imaginative” is testament to his inveterate cautiousness. The timid nature of these policy changes dooms their disproportionate benefit for blacks to be marginal at best.
Admittedly, there is one major initiative that the Obama administration has inaugurated that is black-specific, but it is the exception that proves the rule. It exposes all the issues at play. My Brother’s Keeper is a program premised on the view that young black men constitute a social problem and need interventions that will alter their outlook and actions. The focus is on reforming young men rather than directly increasing the resources possessed by and the constraints faced by their families and themselves. Again, the underlying ideological motivation is the belief in black cultural deficiency, and, again, this type of initiative is another expression of failure to pursue bold policies that confront the fundamental causes of racial disparity in American society.
And the emphasis on exclusively universal programs yields the spectacle of a black president who opposes the most dramatic black-specific program of all—reparations for African Americans. This opposition ultimately seems to amount to a matter of political expediency. In his conversation with Coates, the president appears to acknowledge that there is a sound moral and philosophical case for reparations, particularly if—as Coates presses him to concede—incremental changes in existing social programs will not close the gaps, especially the racial wealth gap. The president ultimately takes the position that it is politically untenable to enact a reparations program. If so—or if nothing comparable can be realized—then I contend that it is impossible to close the racial wealth gap.
But why does the president believe it is impossible? He says “it is hard to think of any society in human history in which a majority population has said that as a consequence [of] historic wrongs we are now going to take a big chunk of the nation’s resources over a long period of time, to make that right.” The United States has taken a small chunk of the nation’s resources over a short period of time to try to make right on the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. Malaysia’s New Economic Policy has taken a large chunk of the nation’s resources over a long period of time to correct the inferior position of the native Malays. However, the native Malays are a numerical majority in their country who also are the recipients of the wealth redistribution program conducted there.
After all, it may be the case that the president simply is wrong about the impossibility of making reparations happen. His deference to achieving “the better” over the determination to achieve “the best” may be a mistake. There are times when the effort to get to “the better”—the marginal change that appears to be an improvement—is so exhausting that its accomplishment becomes a barrier to getting to the best. Mark Gomez at the Haas Institute at Berkeley has said time and again in municipal struggles for minimum-wage increases that the “fight for 15” is easier than a “fight for 10.”
And sometimes Obama’s careful assessments of the political landscape are wrong. For example, he has said repeatedly that you do not win elections by telling the American people that things are going wrong. But that is precisely what Donald Trump did in winning the most recent presidential campaign. Black reparations can become a legitimate policy claim if and when a majority of Americans are convinced that it is an idea with merit. As Obama’s two elections demonstrate it does not necessarily require a majority of white Americans to support such a program. The political challenge is to forge that national majority, presumably with approximately 40 percent of white Americans on board.
Having a black president oppose reparations does not help the cause, particularly when that black president makes the case that an important source of black disadvantage is black folk’s own behavior. But black America should have paid attention to the experience of post-colonial black Africa and the Caribbean; leaders who look like you do not necessarily act in ways that benefit you. So be it. The struggle for reparations—and for black lives and justice—must and will continue, with or without Barack Obama in the fold.