Beaton column: Obama’s mixed message for black America
“We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America.”
— Barack Obama, campaigning for president in 2007
As a member of the right, I voted against President Obama twice because for me he is too far left. But this column is not about right and left. It’s about right and wrong, and Obama’s mixed message to black America about that.
Back when Obama was elected eight years ago, I was pessimistic about his liberal presidency, but I was optimistic about race relations in America. We had journeyed far toward the dream. Electing a black president seemed like the final leg of that journey.
I thought, “What a man, and what a country. No one but Obama could have achieved this, and in no country but America.”
Obama was born to a white mother and raised by her and his white grandmother after his black Kenyan father abandoned them. He was raised not in a failing inner city, but in the prosperous melting pot of Hawaii. He attended prestige universities, including Harvard Law School. He married a beautiful and smart black woman, and they have two lovely daughters.
Surely, I thought, this complicated man with a foot in black America and a foot in white America could bridge the two.
And he did. But it was not by anything he said. It was by who he is. Everyone with open eyes could see that he is smart, articulate and accomplished, but moreover he is by all accounts a loyal husband and a devoted father. He’s a good man.
But politics are complicated and cruel. Because much of Obama’s background and half his genes came from white America, black America initially questioned whether he was “black enough.” That question had to hurt, and he allowed it to define him. For example:
Before the trial for the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a neighborhood citizen-patroller-vigilante, he remarked that, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
C’mon, Mr. President. Whatever you think of the jury acquittal in that case, and the subsequent decision by your Justice Department not to pursue a civil rights action against the acquitted defendant, your hypothetical son would look nothing like Trayvon. If you had a son, he’d be enrolled in a prestige prep school and headed to Harvard, as your daughters are.
His needless words were not only ridiculous, but destructive to the justice system. As a lawyer, he should have known better.
Throughout his presidency, Obama toasted rap musicians who peddle obscene, racist and misogynistic lyrics that he surely must hope his daughters don’t hear.
In the Ferguson case, Obama implied that the police had gunned down a blameless man, and he sent his FBI and Justice Department to pre-empt the local investigation. But they determined that the man was not blameless at all. He was high, had just knocked over a convenience store and assaulted the clerk and had charged the police officer. The narrative that he’d put his hands in the air and shouted, “Hands [are] up, don’t shoot” was a lie.
That lie fueled riots in Ferguson. About those riots, Obama said, “There’s no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests.”
But the Ferguson riots were not peaceful protests; they were race riots founded on a lie that Obama refused to rebut.
Those riots led to Black Lives Matter, an organization that has repeatedly encouraged violence. In a White House meeting, Obama honored them.
Now, eight years after America’s election of a black president, the black murder rate is seven times the white rate – and most of the murders are black-on-black. The black illegitimacy rate is more than 70 percent and still getting worse. Most blacks grow up without a father in the house. After decades of decline, inner-city crime is on the rise again.
It didn’t have to be this way. Obama could have spoken to both white and black America about the culture and condition of black America. Along with asking whites for help and understanding, he could have asked blacks for responsibility and accountability.
Instead, he stirred the ugly pot of racial tensions by implying that whites, and police in particular, are always to blame. That’s unfair and very destructive to whites, blacks and the country.
But now I get to my real point.
Maybe it doesn’t matter over the long run. Despite what Obama sometimes foolishly said and did, he was still a great role model in who he was. Twenty years from now, maybe black and white America will forget the foolish words and deeds, and just remember the good man. And maybe he’ll inspire all of them to goodness.
Until that day, we have lots more work to do.
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