I remember 2008 when America elected the first black president of the United States. If you were on the side of racial equality, it was euphoric. A black president. Who would have thought it? In some ways it was in fact a miracle. The United States of America was finally going to live up to the ideals that were inherent in its declaration of independence, " We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness..." Of course at the time that Thomas Jefferson wrote these words the state of law in the North American colonies of Britain was nowhere near this promise. Jefferson himself was an owner of men and women and children whom he commanded to do his bidding. And it was legal under the laws then in effect. And Jefferson apparently saw no contradiction between that fact and the words that he penned. But the words were there at our founding as an independent nation, proclaimed to the world, and their moral truth could not be denied forever. And indeed, the United States has moved, not without setbacks along the way, to fulfill that ideal.
But the euphoria of electing the first black president was short lived. At every step of the way President Obama was hemmed in by his blackness. He had to bend over backwards to show that he was not too concerned with racial inequities in law and in fact. Obama’s election only briefly masked a strong racial schism in the country. The first evidence of his short leash on attacking racial inequities happened in July of his first year in office when he said a white Cambridge police officer acted stupidly for arresting a black Harvard professor outside his own home. Obama’s approval rating with white Americans dropped 8 points. From that point on Obama had to tread carefully on racial justice issues. In his fight to expand health insurance coverage for instance, Obama could not forcefully point out that it was blacks who lacked adequate health insurance at much higher rates than white Americans. And Obama could never emphasize that black American unemployment rates were often twice as high as for white American unemployment rates, that poverty among blacks was three times as high as that for whites or that wealth among white American families was more than ten times higher than that for black American families, much less propose explicit policies to close these black- white gaps. And whenever Obama did hint at acknowledging these black-white disparities he would often couch it in terms of blacks must try harder as he said in a speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, "Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn — they know that parents have to teach, 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." This is the kind of rhetoric that essentially blames the racial disparities on those who are the victims of the racial injustices that put them there in the first place. What Obama couldn't say if he wanted to be a successful national politician is that it is the racists policies in hiring, in school funding, in segregation in housing and the mass migration of blacks from the more racist southern states to the barely more welcome northern states that disrupted so many black family lives. And he certainly couldn't say this as the first American black president. As I said he had to be cautious and timid on matters of race.
Barack Obama never received a majority of white voters in his two presidential campaigns. In 2008, 55 percent of white voters cast their ballots for John McCain; in 2012, 59 percent of white voters cast their ballots for Mitt Romney. Obama would have lost in a land side if it weren't for the non-white voters.
And the fact that we did have a black American president is largely what gave Trump the opening he needed. Trump seized on the conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States and therefore not eligible to be president. Trump pounded on the theme and it helped him build a following among a base of Americans that has stayed with him ever since. Having a black American president is largely what propelled Trump to the presidency. Trump, unlike almost no other prominent Republican potential candidate for president, was not reluctant to tap into to a majority white resentment of having a black as president of the United States.
There may be one cause for optimism that the United States may one day get another black president and that is the abysmal performance of Trump as president. Could we get a backlash so large that Joe Biden, Obama's vice president wins the presidency overwhelmingly, and that this eventually leads to a presidential victory for Kamala Harris. It's a long shot but maybe I'll live to see a second black American president and the first American woman president in my life time. And maybe she could win the presidency with a majority of white voters on her side. Who would have thought that such a miracle would ever be possible?