In less than a month, the first Black president of the United States will complete his final term. Undoubtedly, these past eight years under President Barack Obama provided a very powerful sense of representation to Black people who have survived over four centuries of violent dispossession largely in society’s shadows. With Obama occupying the highest office in the land, Black folks were able to forge important symbols of Black love, Black family, Black resilience, and Black success from which no one in the world could turn away—until now. Under the coming President Trump, Black communities will certainly be pushed farther into the dark once again.
But while giving Black folks the fleeting empowerment of representation, Barack Obama did very little to challenge white society—at least much less than he did to support it. His final acts as president, for example, will not be to pardon Black freedom fighters turned political prisoners and fugitives like Nehanda Abiodun, but to ensure the smooth transition of power to his virulently anti-Black successor.
It is important not to regard the power of representation provided by Obama as something gained despite his propagation of white society, but to recognize how visibility is part of the reason why he did more to propagate white society than work against it. Understanding this is why I have no interest in electing another Black president.
Symbols are potent means of providing people who feel invisible the chance to be witnessed, but witnessing is but a small part of the anti-Black problem. There are no repercussions for a crime that is seen if the witness does not describe a crime occurring, and anti-Blackness is not describable as criminal here. The far too under-acknowledged fact is that Black subjugation is accepted as necessary for white society’s perpetuation. That Black struggles remain unseen might help sustain them in certain cases, but in many others, they are unaffected or even supported by visibility.
There are those who think strong critiques of the Obama presidency stem primarily from a failure to recognize the limitations of the oval office, but my having no desire for another Black president is based entirely upon understanding Obama was constricted by his position.
In his own words, the president’s hands were tied as far as what he could do for Black America because “this is not just a black/white society, and it is becoming less so every year. So how do Latinos feel if there’s a big investment just in the African American community, and they’re looking around and saying, ‘We’re poor as well. What kind of help are we getting?’” For the President, how non-Black people feel about efforts to tackle anti-Blackness is more important than the efforts themselves.
This sentiment, wherein the feelings of others trump the material reality of Black folks, is politically perceptive, like Obama has proven himself to be time and time again. When faced with anti-Black truths like the fact that Black support for congressional legislation actually decreases its chances of passage—which cannot be said of any other demographic—one begins to understand how the “fear of turning off other constituencies with appeals to black Americans” in and of itself is a powerful enough motivator for any president. Because Black struggle keeps white society in motion, sincere attempts to alleviate it would betray all those invested in such a society.
Fear of backlash from a country invested in anti-Blackness would prompt anyone tasked with steering it to avoid [sincerely] tackling anti-Black structures, but perhaps even more so one whose very existence is an appeal to Black America. We cannot forget how Obama was relentlessly maligned for simply stating, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” and how racists used this basic attempt to connect with Black struggles as a rallying cry against him. Obama’s Blackness was always already a threat to his position, and were he to want to keep that position, it was a threat he’d have to work diligently to nullify.
The need to nullify the threat of his own being made Obama’s Black presidency a unique monster. He was forced to go out of his way to ensure he did enough to combat his own Blackness, which often translated into far more personal and below the belt castigations and repudiations against serious calls for challenging anti-Black racism.
The unique monster of a Black presidency mutilates its prey with unique weapons. Rather than a sustained and necessary critique of the anti-Black state, Black people are encouraged to defend the president’s shortcomings, overlook his signing off on the bombs raining down on our children’s heads, and to confuse legitimate critiques with the racism he faced. All of this mutes necessary challenges to the violence of the state in a way neoliberalism requires, diversifying the face of imperialism in order to legitimize it. The feeling of recognition one gains in seeing themselves in high places is a powerful thing, sometimes powerful enough to evoke the need to overlook what is sacrificed in order to attain it.
Obama’s Blackness seductively obscured and excused the presidency’s limitations. Refusing another Black president is a rejection of that obfuscation. It is a rejection of the type of “representation” that does not recognize Black life—that sees us, yes, but as bodies, not as human.
Representation is important, but this is a demand for a fuller representation. It is knowing it is possible to forge important symbols of Black love, Black family, Black resilience, and Black success that do not have limitations that necessarily bolster our oppression. We should know that it is possible to see ourselves in a way that does not rely upon anyone else being able to look away. It is possible to see ourselves in a way that is not threatened with complete reversal every 4 to 8 years.
If the Obama era taught me anything, it is that we can and should invest more in freeing ourselves in ways that are not just what an anti-Black state offers and allows. Let them have that white house and the white violence it is built upon, and let us always fight against it without quandary.