Is Barack Obama black enough? Should we care? We need to stop arguing over President Obama’s blackness and move on to a more productive conversation.
It’s not that people on both sides of the divide aren’t making good arguments. And these days, we’ve been given a taste of the public debate in the Washington Post. In an op-ed Columbia professor Fredrick Harris points out that while candidate Obama spoke passionately about racial injustice to black audiences, President Obama has shied away from issues affecting African-Americans. Harris even blames black voters for not raising objections, and allowing Obama to get away with the race-neutral stance he and other black politicians have taken to win elections.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Capehart responds by calling the “Obama-doesn’t-care-about-black-people” crowd whiners. Relying on examples from Obama’s policy accomplishments on foreclosures, drug sentencing, HIV/AIDS and jobs, Capehart argues the president speaks to black issues — just not as loudly as his critics would like.
Both sides are right. If there are any doubts about the president’s blackness, just look at how badly his enemies on the right are behaving. Certainly, they think Obama is black enough, and a Kenyan Muslim at that. From the daily death threats and the racially-motivated political opponents, to rants from the likes of Donald Trump and others who question the president’s citizenship, the radical right wants to stop the man. An honest policy disagreement is one thing, but they just don’t like Obama because he’s black. It shows in their opposition to his policies, as Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald.
A true test of the president’s blackness is his decision to draw a line in the sand in the battle for voting rights. A number of states have enacted voter ID legislation that threatens to disenfranchise millions of voters, particularly the poor and members of minority groups. President Obama blocked voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina because they violated federal law by discriminating against blacks and Latinos.
Moreover, some Southern states, like in the days of old Jim Crow segregation, openly flaunt their disregard for the Voting Rights Act. For example, Florida Governor Rick Scott has ignored the Justice Department’s demands that he stop purging voters. This, as Alabama challenges the federal requirement that states with a history of discrimination seek approval for changes to their ballot and districting rules.
At a time when his political opponents appear ready to win an election by eliminating huge portions of the electorate, the president is taking a stand for voting rights that is central to black concerns. And he will energize the African-American base during a crucial election season.
And yet, it was too predictable that the Jackie Robinson of the American presidency would self-regulate his words and actions out of a fear of appearing too black or too angry. The Jackie Robinson syndrome can explain the president’s confusing stance on drug policy. Obama, who as a youth experimented with marijuana, promised reforms in marijuana policy. Yet, his administration has continued senseless drug enforcement policies, which needlessly ensnare young people of color in the criminal justice system through racial profiling and stops and frisks—all for petty offenses or no crime at all.