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As I watched President Obama deliver his State of the Union address, I was drawn to the irony of the moment. Here was the man whose ascension to the White House revealed the true state of our union, and yet he mentioned only in passing our ongoing racial divisions.
Yes, I listened carefully as the president spoke of helping black boys to overcome the odds they face. I also heard the president speak of addressing income inequality and upward mobility. I only wish the president would have mentioned that income is too often tied to race.
Over the past three decades, for example, average family wealth for whites has been six times that of blacks. And today, despite Obama’s presence in the White House, more than a quarter of African Americans remain in poverty. Obama’s presence, while inspirational, has not changed the fact that the black unemployment rate is twice that of whites. And sadly, Obama himself has faced the kind of vitriol that African Americans recognize all too well.
We’ve seen him endure the tumultuous opposition of a corporate-funded and well-organized Tea Party. We’ve observed in stunned amazement as Obama’s signature healthcare law—an idea first proposed by Republicans—was denigrated as socialism. We’ve cringed as the Fox news network has engaged in a ‘round the clock campaign against him. We’ve clucked our tongues at the nonsensical spectacle of the Birther movement helmed by multimillionaire Donald Trump.
Obama’s detractors have said that he’s faced unprecedented opposition due to policies such as raising the minimum wage for federal contractors—a policy Obama announced during his speech. They said that the zeal with which his enemies have attacked him has been par for the course in politics. They said that the tools of the Internet age have magnified partisan enmity. I believe all those things are true.
But in just a few days we will celebrate Black History Month, and as I look back over the hostility that has arisen with every significant achievement by African Americans, I am certain that much of the opposition to Obama is attributable to the color of his skin.
This is a troubling reality, but it is a phenomenon we’ve seen repeatedly in our history.
An affluent African American enclave in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was burned to the ground in a race riot. Rosewood, Florida suffered a similar fate. Jackie Robinson endured racial animus upon becoming the first black man to play major league baseball. Black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was jailed on charges of promoting interstate prostitution due to his involvement with white women and his skill in the ring.
These incidents all have something in common. They occurred after black people refused to stay in whatever “place” the larger society imagined they should occupy. And if past is prologue, these incidents are not just uncomfortable facts to be recounted. They are the precursors to our current socio-political landscape.
Just as African Americans saw affluent enclaves as symbols of racial progress, and sports figures as symbols of racial equality, we also see Obama as a symbol. For us, he is the culmination of our struggle for political power, and the embodiment of King’s dream. For those who hold racist views, however, Obama is a symbol of something else.
To them, he represents the erosion of social order and the disappearance of their perceived superiority. His ascension to the most powerful office in the world represents a personal loss, because in their view, Obama has taken something away from them and handed it to someone else.
I believe that’s why the opposition to Obama has been accompanied by rallying cries that include the notion of taking back the country. My question is, ‘Take back the country from whom?’
As I look back at the history of Africans in America, I see parallels between the past and the present. I see struggle and bloodshed to win hard-fought progress. I see legal and political machinations designed to take progress away. But those things represent more than tales from our past. They also show us a way forward.
Just as African American history makers have always done, Obama will have to focus on the work at hand. He will have to decide which battles to fight now, and which to save for another day, because his presence is about much more than the doors he has already walked through. It’s about the doors he will open along the way.
Obama’s presidency has not been perfect, and I have not agreed with all of his policies or decisions. But in him, I see a man who is history personified. I see a leader who has strived for unity in the midst of division. I see a man who is fighting his way upstream.
I admire those qualities. But if the populist goals Obama put forth in his State of the Union address are to be achieved, Obama, and indeed all of us, must look to history and avoid its mistakes.
After all, if history teaches us anything, it teaches that in order to become one indivisible nation under God, we cannot be a place where liberty and justice belong to one group. We must offer liberty and justice to all.
If we can achieve that, then the state of our union will no longer be divided. The state of our union will be strong.