Progress and Dialogue in the Age of Obama

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

Now that we have officially begun a new term for President Barack Obama, I'm inclined to reflect on what I wrote four years ago on the historic occasion of his election. In that essay, I ranked Senator Obama's victory at the top of a list of the most "magical transformative moments in African American history", which included the 1863 signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 1938 rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, and, of course, Dr. King's 1963 speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial. Like most people in my field, I had to wonder what some of the greatest heroes of the black freedom struggle—from Frederick Douglass to Shirley Chisholm—would say about such an event. And, like everyone else, I had to temper my enthusiasm with the understanding that while the United States had crossed "The Ultimate Color Line" (as one Esquire article phrased it), the election did not mean redemption for the past, and there was still much work to be done.

There have been a few trends worth noting in this, the Age of Obama, that I suspect will have a salient shaping influence upon the decades ahead, when historians debate the significance of his administration. Perhaps most noticeable is the fact that the public's reactions to the President's policies have, in many cases, become even bigger stories than the policies themselves. In other words, Americans do not simply evaluate the actions of "the President," but the actions of the first black President. We view Barack Obama through the filter of race, coloring our interpretation of virtually every decision that the President has made--from grave matters of war and peace to random comments about popular culture. While the fixation on the historic nature of this administration is understandable, it was impossible, of course, to predict in 2008 some of the ways it would manifest itself. One of the most controversial and poignant examples came last year, when the President weighed in on the Trayvon Martin murder case. "If I had a son," he said, "he'd look like Trayvon." For some, it was a genuine expression of how the tragedy had affected the President on a personal level. But for his critics, it was an inappropriate injection of racial bias. Indeed, the public discourse has come to include a wide spectrum of accusations aimed at President Obama's racial identity, from his supposed favoritism toward African Americans (according to some conservative pundits) to his perceived "selling out" of historically black political interests (according to some progressive commentators). Even years from now, there may be no avoiding this filter of race when evaluating the legacy of our 44th President.

Another trend would be the growing (and painfully overdue) realization that while we now live in a country where a black man can be elected President, the biggest obstacles to equality may in fact be structural: the everyday realities of our economic system and the myriad ways in which the history of American racial relations has both shaped (and shapes) that economic system, and is reflected in its inequalities. The recession that dominated President Obama's first term unmasked a deeply engrained class divide in this country—namely, our enormous disparities in the distribution of wealth, quality of life, and access to opportunity. And decreased funding for public schools, poor health care, draconian drug laws, anti-labor practices, low minimum wage, the prison-industrial complex, structural unemployment and under-employment, out of control access to automatic weapons, gang violence, and the reign of despair among the poor—all these things feed and are fed by these disparities of wealth. For decades, it has been easy to pat ourselves on the back and criticize the blatant racism of the Jim Crow era. In this post-Civil Rights struggle, we are now faced with the task of addressing the system's underlying economic biases that remain hardwired into the American way of life.

Finally, as President Obama's reelection demonstrated, the changing demographics of the country will have an even greater and more long-lasting impact than a single presidency ever could, even of our first black President. This was a recurring theme in the days following the 2012 election, when experts on both sides acknowledged that the American population is accelerating toward greater diversity, which could profoundly reshape the political landscape, just as that diversity affected the outcome of this election. A generation under thirty seems more comfortable with a multicultural American national cultural identity than any generation before this one; indeed, I think it fair to say that this generation simply assumes that identity as part of its being. These young citizens have already made their voices heard in the polls and, barring some drastic shift caused by an economic crisis, they will grow to middle age in a country more tolerant of the varied ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds that make up the American tapestry. Cultural and ethnic diversity, we might say, are a given. The question that remains is how, or if, this diversity will manifest itself in terms of the class divide that continues to define, disproportionately, the gap between black and white.

But, as I wrote in 2008, the progress represented by this symbolic moment in history is neither an undoing of past injustices, nor is it a guarantee of a permanent transformation of attitudes about race. What it can be—if it continues on a progressive course—is an opportunity to further the American political experiment, making it even more inclusive, more open, more conducive to dialogue, and more accepting of necessary structural change.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
February 2013