by Emmanuel Agu
To be forthcoming; yes- living and working conditions for black people have reached some atrocious lows in Obama’s two terms as president: the worst black unemployment rate in 28 years was recorded at was 16.8 in March 2011; 28 percent of all African Americans were living in poverty in 2013, and two out of five African American children lived in relative poverty – the most harrowing statistic of all: a $131,000 disparity between the average income of the white household and the African American.
Perhaps the biggest paradox of all is a Black President coexisting with the Black Lives Matter movement independent of the government. Statistics like these really do not encourage much faith in Obama and his ability as a ‘black president’- but again to merely look at these statistics without considering the economic climate Obama was thrust into would be a misrepresentative and reductive analysis. The ‘Great Recession’ in 2008-13 is widely understood to be caused by a deregulation of wall street during Bush’s Administration and was characterised by fiscal austerity, collapsing of housing markets due to irresponsible lending from the banking sector which (amongst many other contributory factors), could perhaps be lead us to reason these effects on the black community.
One could argue it would have been within Obama’s power to have shouldered the brunt of a failing capitalist system for African-Americans by injecting fiscal stimuli into their locales, but how exactly would that help solve the apparent worsening racial divide in America? Bearing in mind that The President’s mere comparisons of Trayvon Martin to his own self and his children, defending black lives matter; or Michelle’s simple proclamation of “Black Girls Rock!” at the BET Awards have resulted in wild accusations of inciting racial hatred and worsening the racial divide?
Capitalism and Racism are inseparable bed mates, and it goes without saying that when the system fails, the oppressed are first to suffer- I’d urge you to consider criticising Obama for his neoliberalism and preservation of the system as a whole and acknowledge the ideals of the Democrats for a more through criticism of his time in office.
That said though – it does feel like Obama could have done more to help ‘his own’ but I don’t feel he’s ever delivered policy to explicitly harm his community. In fact through pushing Obamacare through congress – over 3 million economically disadvantaged minority ethnicities in the south have now been insured. Obama has also served to decrease the penalty for convictions on drug possession (which minority ethnicities are disproportionately convicted for) undoing much of the work achieved by Clinton’s administration – as well as being the first president in history ever visit prisons. Under Obama the high school dropout rate has reached an all-time low, with the most significant improvements being made in Hispanic/Latinx and African American students. In future I’m sure the development of the ‘My brother’s keeper’ initiative will only help to further the development of young black men across America.
For white America to accept a black man president his voice and actions are limited, forever under the scrutiny of the white gaze
Obama may be one of our own, but expecting him to assume office and somehow dissolve thousands of years of systemic subjugation in two terms of presidency is senseless. For white America to accept a black man president his voice and actions are limited, forever under the scrutiny of the white gaze – it should come as no surprise that Obama is respectability politics in spirit and flesh.
The bigger question I am keen to ask is this: why is it when the oppressed assume seats of power and influence they do not often share with their privileged counterparts, they must be seen as the representatives for the entire community they originate from? There are not endless extended essays, blogs and articles written on Bush’s time’s in office and how he’s detrimentally affected the white male demographic – yet for some reason this is perfectly okay for Obama? It’s Undeniable that Obama owes his seat in office from the votes of a large proportion of black America, and to an extent in accepting their votes he owes them representation and efficient policies to support their liberation- but Obama was voted to be the president of all people’s; the figurehead of a state with a long history of the bloodshed of peoples of many colours, creeds and religions – by that reasoning should be held accountable for the liberation of all peoples.
Not only are we expected to liberate our kin but we are expected to liberate those who face oppression like we do. If we cast our minds back about 1 month ago to the drama surrounding the #BEYAHERO campaign in Houston the tendency to repeatedly demand the work of the oppressed in liberation in a way that is not found in communities of the privileged rears its ugly head. LGBT+ rights campaigners petitioned Beyoncé to wave her magic wand of super-stardom to draw attention to the campaign to uphold the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of 15 different characteristics: including race, sex, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.
The logic was fairly simple- Beyoncé is a southern belle raised in Houston, her empire is sustained massively from the consumption of LGBT+ people, she has many of them employed in her team and the people of Houston are massively inspired by her- surely she would be able to lend a helping hand to those who need it, those that give her so much? Sadly, Beyoncé remained silent; and the ordinance was repealed… which resulted in a lead campaigner writing an article calling all of us to question how much she really cares about her queer fans, and in further exchanges on twitter; just how intersectional her feminism really is.
Of course everyone (including the writer of that whiny article) is able to reason that a celebrity is not an activist- and if speaking for equal rights may not be in her brands’ interest then she is free to do so-But somehow the article came into existence and foolishness and ignorance were proven to be very much alive.
Much like Obama, Beyoncé occupies a seat of power and influence black bodies are systematically excluded from; and in that, her actions and her voice are forever under intense scrutiny of the white gaze. In her simple proclamation of feminist status, naming her tour in honour of her partner, and appealing to the ‘male gaze’ she was subject to a myriad of (often misinformed) articles eager to discredit her feminism in way that her white equivalents are never subject to. The very assertion of a black woman’s feminism not being intersectional is the biggest insult of all; since the very term was coined by a black woman to further understand the cultural nuances of feminism. It should really come as no surprise that Beyonce is seen and not heard – bearing in mind the demonization of Lauryn Hill or Kanye West through their limited chances to speak on current affairs they were quickly thrown into irrational black character tropes (i.e. president bush doesn’t care about black people). I would even go as far as to praise Beyoncé’s inaccessibility- this is not a privilege often extended to black women, and we should respect that. Apparently a seven million dollar donation for the homeless in Houston isn’t enough for the writer of that article, though LGBT+ youth face an increased risk of estrangement and homelessness across the world.
The very assertion of a black woman’s feminism not being intersectional is the biggest insult of all; since the very term was coined by a black woman to further understand the cultural nuances of feminism.
Much like the campaigning sparked by the stonewall riots, and feminist movements; black bodies and black labour are demanded for the liberation of others- when it seems like those plights have reached the top of ‘oppression hill’ and media attention has been garnered, we are forcibly removed from the spaces we helped create; we are not allowed the same agency extended to our counterparts.
The foundation of liberation politics is the freedom of agency of the oppressed; and if that includes liberating their comrades, building their own careers, or simply existing– let’s empower one another by respecting our independent wills.