*It is indisputable Barack Obama was the first non-white man to become President of the United States of America. But the question that still lingers for myself and many others, is whether we should be classifying him as the first African-American president?
From its inception, the term African-American was created as a cultural safe haven for the progeny of American slaves. The classification is the marker of a connection that black Americans lost with Africa when their forefathers were brought to America in chains. It is my belief that when Jesse Jackson coined the term “African-American” in 1988, it was specifically tied to the multi-generational cultural cost of American chattel slavery. The category was not connected to those recently migrating from a specific African country, rather it was denoting having been entirely disconnected from the vast continent. That point begs an overdue question: was Barack Obama the first African-American president, the first Kenyan-American president, or just the first non-white president?
In my view, his policies say he was one of the latter, and as such the fanfare by African-American media in his final days is largely misplaced.
By nearly every economic indicator, blacks are worse off than when President Obama was sworn into office. During Obama’s terms, black Americans experienced record lows in small business loans, and saw their lowest home-ownership rates in 25 years. This is along with having record highs in unemployment, and experiencing large amounts of wealth loss under his administration. Since Obama took office, the racial wealth gap grew over 30 percent.
Some will say there was obstruction by the Republicans, and to be fair this may be partially true. Still, President Obama wielded great power, and used little of it to help the descendants of slavery, whose centuries of suffering propelled him to his lofty position. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, “My President was Black” writer Ta-Nehisi Coates states:
Obama had been on the record as opposing reparations. But now, late in his presidency, he seemed more open to the idea…“Theoretically, you can make obviously a powerful argument that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination are the primary cause for all those gaps,” Obama said, referencing the gulf in education, wealth, and employment that separates black and white America. “That those were wrongs to the black community as a whole, and black families specifically, and that in order to close that gap, a society has a moral obligation to make a large, aggressive investment…”
To have the first black president realize on his way out the door that reparations possibly should have been part of policies on the table is more than a problem. Obama calling the direct effects of hundreds of years of oppression the “theoretical” cause for black struggle points to why it is a problem to call him the first African-American president. Black oppression was not theoretically the reason for the racial wealth gap. It was the reason for the inequity, without question. President Obama a man who inherited nearly $500,000 in stock from his white grandmother, and had no black ancestral connection to slavery, stood against reparations being paid to African Americans for much of his tenure.
Obama enacted policies that never succinctly focused on the issues of African-Americans, and at best gave us a few that could theoretically help blacks as it helped everybody else. President Obama largely forgot African-Americans, who were the cornerstone to his unique position. Stepping across the dust of slaves, and remnants of Civil Rights leaders, President Obama, half Kenyan-descended and half white, stood at the mountain top that Dr. King stated he may not be alive to see, and proclaimed nothing focusing on the needs of struggling black families.
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehesi Coates continued, “What Obama was able to offer white America is something very few African Americans could — trust. The vast majority of us are, necessarily, too crippled by our defenses … But Obama, through a mixture of ancestral connections and distance from the poisons of Jim Crow, can credibly and sincerely trust the majority population of this country.”
This assessment was wrong. What President Barack Obama offered America was a way to appear post-racial, without providing the corrections for why America created racial differences in the first place. Media lovefests with Obama’s mixture of personal identity do not change the certainty of his political identity. A man born to a Kenyan parent was able to play Stevie Wonder “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” befriend Jay-Z, and evoke memories of Dr. King to make a nation feel its conscience had been cleaned of its greatest sin, American slavery.
This is not a time for stories about how the first black president made us feel good, it’s time to be honest about what actually happened, in the hope that it’s never repeated. What happened during the Obama years is not a change I can believe in, it was just more of the same.
Antonio Moore, an attorney based in Los Angeles, is one of the producers of the Emmy-nominated documentary Freeway: Crack in the System. He has contributed pieces to the Grio, Huffington Post, and Inequality.org on the topics of race, mass incarceration and economics. Follow him on YouTube Channel Tonetalks.