the controversial Jeremiah Wright]
Black in the Age of Obama
By CHARLES M. BLOW
A hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Dickens opened “A
Tale of Two Cities” with the now-famous phrase: “It was the
best of times, it was the worst of times. ...”
Those words resonated with me recently while contemplating
the impact of the Obama presidency on blacks in America. So
far, it’s been mixed. Blacks are living a tale of two
Americas — one of the ascension of the first black
president with the cultural capital that accrues; the other
of a collapsing quality of life and amplified racial
tensions, while supporting a president who is loath to even
acknowledge their pain, let alone commiserate in it.
Last year, blacks dared to dream anew, envisioning a future
in which Obama’s election would be the catalyst for an era
of prosperity and more racial harmony. Now that the
election’s afterglow has nearly faded, the hysteria of hope
is being ground against the hard stone of reality. Things
have not gotten better. In many ways, they’ve gotten worse.
The recession, for one, has dealt a particularly punishing
and uneven hand to blacks.
A May report from the Pew Research Center found that blacks
were the most likely to get higher-priced subprime loans,
leading to higher foreclosure rates. In fact, blacks have
displaced Hispanics as the group with the lowest
According to the most recent jobs data, not only is the
unemployment rate for blacks nearly twice that of whites,
the gap in some important demographics has widened rapidly
since Obama took office. The unemployment rate over that
time for white college graduates under 24 years old grew by
about 20 percent. For their black cohorts, the rate grew by
about twice that much.
And a report published last month by the Department of
Agriculture found that in 2008, “food insecurity” for
American households had risen to record levels, with black
children being the most likely to experience that food
Things on the racial front are just as bad.
We are now inundated with examples of overt racism on a
scale to which we are unaccustomed. Any protester with a
racist poster can hijack a news cycle, while a racist image
can live forever on the Internet. In fact, racially
offensive images of the first couple are so prolific online
that Google now runs an apologetic ad with the results of
image searches of them.
And it’s not all words and images; it’s actions as well.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2008
hate crimes data released last week, anti-black hate crimes
rose 4 percent from 2007, while the combined hate crimes
against all other racial categories declined 11 percent. If
you look at the two-year trend, which would include Obama’s
ascension as a candidate, anti-black hate crimes have risen
8 percent, while those against the other racial groups have
fallen 19 percent.
This has had a sobering effect on blacks. According to a
Nov. 9 report from Gallup, last summer 23 percent of blacks
thought that race relations would get a lot better with the
election of Obama. Now less than half that percentage says
that things have actually gotten a lot better.
The racial animosity that Obama’s election has stirred up
may have contributed to a rallying effect among blacks.
According to a Gallup report published on Nov. 24, Obama’s
approval rating among whites has dropped to 39 percent, but
among blacks it remains above 90 percent.
Also, this hasn’t exactly been a good year for black men in
the news. Plaxico Burress was locked up for accidentally
shooting off a gun in a club. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was
locked up for intentionally shooting off his mouth at his
own home. And Michael Jackson died after being shot full of
propofol. Chris Brown brutally beat Rihanna. Former
Representative William Jefferson was convicted. And most
recently, the “personal failings” of Tiger Woods portray
him as an alley cat. Meanwhile, the most critically
acclaimed black movie of the year, “Precious,” features a
black man who rapes and twice impregnates his own daughter.
Rooting for the president feels like a nice counterbalance.
However, the rallying creates a conundrum for blacks: how
to air anxiety without further arming Obama’s enemies. This
dilemma has rendered blacks virtually voiceless on some
pressing issues at a time when their voices would have
presumably held greater sway.
This means that Obama can get away with doing almost
nothing to specifically address issues important to
African-Americans and instead focus on the white voters
he’s losing in droves. This has not gone unnoticed. In the
Nov. 9 Gallup poll, the number of blacks who felt that
Obama would not go far enough in promoting efforts to aid
the black community jumped 60 percent from last summer to
The hard truth is that Obama needs white voters more than
he needs black ones.
According to my analysis, even if every black person in
America had stayed home on Election Day, Obama would still
be president. To a large degree, Obama was elected by white
people, some of whom were more able to accept him because
he consciously portrayed himself as racially ambiguous.
In fact, commiserating with the blacks could prove
In a study to be published in the journal Proceedings of
the National Academy of the Sciences this month,
researchers asked subjects to rate images of the president
to determine which ones best represented his “true
essence.” In some of the photos, his skin had been
lightened. In others, it had been darkened. The result? The
more people identified him with the “whiter” images, the
more likely they were to have voted for him, and vice
The Age of Obama, so far at least, seems less about Obama
as a black community game-changer than as a White House
gamesman. It’s unclear if there will be a positive Obama
Effect, but an Obama Backlash is increasingly apparent.
Meanwhile, black people are also living a tale of two
actions: grin and bear it.
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