Privilege At Play in the Oval Office
Obama has advocated more for the LGBTQ community than the black community. Why? Privilege….
When asked about targeted policy for the black community, Obama conveniently responded with “I am not the president of black America. I’m the president of America.” He added, “I want all Americans to have opportunity.” Though these statements were in response to a question specifically about minority-owned businesses, they demonstrate a larger implication in his approach to policy.
This emphasis on inclusiveness, though valid, ignores the racial disparities in this country. For example, the Obama administration has been quick to showcase the now 7.7 percent unemployment rate, which has lowered significantly since 2008. Ignored, however, is the near double 12.6 percent unemployment for black people that has not changed nor been addressed since Obama stepped foot in the White House. Violence is a well-known issue for black constituents living in impoverished areas, especially in Obama’s hometown, Chicago. Nonetheless, it was not until the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that the Obama administration began a discussion on national gun control, offering a policy proposal exactly one month after. As the “president of America,” Obama responded to the national outrage on gun policy after the Sandy Hook shooting. America ignored the violence of its most impoverished areas, and so to did Obama. Further, despite the 2008 campaign promises for tax breaks for low-income workers, education reform, and increased minimum wages- all policy changes needed in the black community- a recent Pew Research Poll cited that only 1 in 4 blacks said the black community’s situation had improved under Obama’s tenure. No one expects one man or his administration to completely fix the plight of one community. Issues facing the black community are rooted in an intricate history of racially oppressive policies, lack of opportunity, and cyclical poverty; among other things. All predate Obama’s short tenure. It is his refusal to speak specifically on policy issues facing the black community that is concerning.
My question: unwilling or unable? While I maintain the right to critique Obama’s misdealings with the black community, I understand his reluctance. Obama’s blackness puts his presidency and political career under more intense scrutiny. If he advocates strongly for black interests, he would be accused of choosing favorites and ignoring the interests of all Americans. His secondary remarks on the Martin case alone sparked a host of outrage from conservative commentators. CNN political contributor, Ben Ferguson, claimed that Obama “said I’m going to be the president for just the African-American community, and everyone else listen up.” A Fox News Radio anchor called Obama a “race-baiter in chief.” Obama understands that he is still a black male the United States, regardless of whether or not he leads it. His “I am not the president of black America” claim is a wise, politically calculated one. I would argue that he doesn’t speak on more policy issues facing black constituents because he knows it would actually be detrimental- a black man’s views of blackness is dismissed entirely in this country. Equally, if he does not do enough for the black community, he is criticized. Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
Conversely, Obama has been able to advocate freely for the LGBTQ community. Just this week Obama picked two openly queer Olympic delegates- Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow- for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Russia. This decision most definitely could be a political “middle finger” in response to Putin’s anti-gay propaganda laws- that barred all queer propaganda and discussion of LGBTQ rights. But that’s not all. This summer Obama renounced Russia’s law and even met with queer activists in St. Petersburg this past September. And in dissenting Putin’s attacks on LGBTQ rights, Obama said, “nobody’s more offended than me!”
Earlier in his first term he officially repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” In the summer of 2012, Obama became the first president to publicly support gay marriage, stating, “At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” His administration has actively criticized states where same sex couples don’t have the right to marry, nor to form civil unions. And recently, Obama has been a vocal supporter of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act—a bill that will prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Obama’s advocacy on polarizing, contentious queer issues has been extensive and effective. While much of the marriage equality movement’s success can be attributed to advocates, activists, and lobbyists, the importance of Obama’s support cannot be denied. His comments raised the political stakes, forced a national dialogue, and gave activists more ammunition with their movement.
The difference in Obama’s responses to these two communities, I think, can be attributed to privilege. Peggy McIntosh, American feminist and anti-racist activist, eloquently describes privilege as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks,” arguing that privilege goes far beyond granted favor, but systematically works to overpower certain (marginal) groups. Though most often critique white privilege, understand that privilege is not simply something granted to white people. Privilege is granted to a number of different groups, on a number of different lines: gender, sexuality, class, etc. This privilege gives privileged members a political clout, which manifests itself in diverse ways. In the case of Obama, his lack of white privilege denies him an avenue to advocate specifically on policy issues facing black constituents. When he does, as seen above, he is criticized for showing favoritism or ignoring the interests of all Americans. His privilege as a straight male, however, has given him free space to advocate on policy issues facing the LGBTQ community- arguably more so than any queer president would be able to do, if that will ever exist of course. Simply put, privileged group members are better persuaded by other members of that privileged group. And while many black voters were drunk with happiness at the idea of having an actual black president, what was not clear at the moment was the sobering burden that came along with being a black president.
In other words, don’t blame the player, blame the game. Though, in being cognizant of racial game at play, remain critical of the player in question.