What Black America Won’t Miss About Obama

John Blake, CNN, July 1, 2016

President Barack Obama was delivering a speech before a joint session of Congress when a white lawmaker jabbed his right index finger at Obama and called him a liar.

The heckling came during his September 2009 address on health care. Obama was telling lawmakers that his plan wouldn’t cover undocumented immigrants when Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina yelled, “You lie!”

Linnyette Richardson-Hall, an African-American event planner, watched Wilson’s outburst on live television in disbelief.

“My alter-ego, the hood-chick, came out of me,” says Richardson-Hall. “I said, ‘I know you just didn’t do that.’ To see him get disrespected so badly, it gut-punches you.”

Richardson-Hall has restrained herself more than she ever expected in the past eight years. She fumed when she saw a poster of Obama dressed as an African witch doctor, online images of First Lady Michelle Obama depicted as a monkey, and racist Facebook comments by white people she thought she knew. Now, as Obama approaches his final months in office, she and others have come to a grim conclusion:

I didn’t know how racist America was until it elected its first black president.

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A psychological shift is taking place among many blacks, and it can be heard in countless conversations over dinner tables, in barbershops and on social media. Some say they’ve never felt so much pessimism about white America, such hopelessness.

They’re almost relieved to see Obama go.

It’s not that black people aren’t proud of Obama or his family. His approval rating among blacks has been astronomically high throughout his presidency. But that pride has been accompanied by pain.

Here are three unexpected ways that Obama’s presidency changed black America.

Change No. 1: Unfriending white America

It was one of the most emotional moments in her life. Kim Coleman was at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008 when Obama accepted the presidential nomination. She called her father, who had grown up in segregated Mississippi, to describe the rapturous scene. And then she wept.

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Eight years later Coleman is experiencing different emotions: betrayal and shock. She’s lost white friends over disagreements about Obama, as well as the issue of police brutality. Even her parents, who used to share dinner and exchange presents with two of their longtime white neighbors, ended those friendships because they felt their neighbors disrespected Obama.

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Some black people unfriended white America during Obama’s presidency. They would hear a stray remark from a white coworker, argue over something that Obama was facing, and suddenly a close relationship would turn chilly.

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Some blacks found that their friendships with whites couldn’t withstand arguments over those controversies. Their suspicion of white people deepened. Richardson-Hall, the event planner, says she unfriended white Facebook friends because of arguments over Obama.

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Change No. 2: Reliving their parents’ nightmares

Tucked away in all the tributes to Muhammad Ali was an unusual story about the late boxer’s connection to Emmett Till. Till was a black teenager who was tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Till’s mother decided to hold an open-casket funeral for her son to force America to confront its racism. Funeral photos of Till’s ghastly, disfigured face were branded in the memory of many in that era, including Ali.

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Imagine Till’s death in the age of social media, images of his battered body being shared and tweeted constantly. Now combine that with racist imagery from the Jim Crow era Till lived in–Sambo dolls with jet black skin and bulbous red lips, blacks eating watermelon–being spread through popular culture every day.

That’s the equivalent of what some blacks say they’ve been seeing for the past eight years.

Obama presided over the nation during the rise of social media. He came into office just as Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms exploded in popularity. Those tools, though, have resurrected some of the most painful memories of black America.

Google “Obama racism” and you’ll see images of Obama being lynched or labeled “Primate in Chief.” Michelle Obama was recently depicted by one cartoonist with a penis bulge under her skirt. These are images straight out of America’s slave era. And many are not tucked away in ugly corners of the Internet. They are publicly displayed at political rallies and in front of homes.

Open displays of racism have become normal again, some say. {snip}

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They’re also experiencing something else from the Jim Crow era–dread of being struck down in public. When a white supremacist shot to death nine worshipers at a South Carolina church in 2015, it evoked memories of the murder of four black girls in Birmingham, Alabama, who died in the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombings in 1963.

Richardson-Hall recalls hearing her grandmother tell stories about growing up in South Carolina during the Jim Crow era. She worried about getting lynched or brutalized when she walked in public. When Richardson-Hall read how Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was killed while walking home one night because someone thought he was a burglar, she started to feel what her grandmother felt.

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Change No. 3: He’s become ‘my brother from another mother’

It may be hard to remember now, but Obama wasn’t actually considered the first black president–Bill Clinton nabbed that honor. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison described him that way in a 1998 New Yorker essay.

“After all,” she wrote, “Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”

Obama wasn’t a beloved figure in the black community when he first ran for the presidency. Civil rights leaders were slow to warm to him. Others said he wasn’t black enough. His mixed-race heritage, exotic upbringing overseas and professorial Ivy League persona didn’t fit the traditional black leader mold.

Some black intellectuals said Obama wasn’t even African-American because his father was from the east African nation of Kenya.

“Obama isn’t black. Black, in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves,” Debra J. Dickerson wrote in a 2007 column for Salon magazine.

If Obama wasn’t black then, he sure is now–because he’s been treated with such racial contempt, some blacks say.

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Obama also dropped plenty of cues during his presidency to let blacks know he was part of their tribe.

At a meeting of black journalists, Obama caused his audience to erupt in laughter when he said:

“I want to apologize for being a little bit late. But you guys keep on asking whether I’m black enough. So, I figured I’d stroll in about 10 minutes after the deadline.”

There were other black-bonding moments: Obama going falsetto to sing a verse from Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at the Apollo Theater; breaking into “Amazing Grace” at the eulogy for victims of the Charleston massacre; his love of NBA basketball and hip-hop music.

Some blacks now see themselves in Obama’s stride. He doesn’t walk with the stiff, chest-thrust-outward, buttocks-clenched-tight stroll of some white politicians. He struts. Michelle Obama calls her husband’s walk “swagalicious.” Even Trump noticed it. He once tweeted that the way Obama exited Air Force One, “hopping and bobbing,” was inelegant and unpresidential.

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What has gone away in the black community are questions about Obama’s identity. Go inside many black homes and you’ll see the president’s picture in the living room right next to a portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

No one is really asking if Obama is black enough anymore.

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Obama has a more optimistic vision of America. Last year he defined American exceptionalism in one of his most memorable speeches, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights campaign. He said that “we do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America.”

“We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past,” Obama said. “We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing.”

Obama will soon be gone from office. Will his successor inspire black Americans to recover some of the optimism they lost during the Obama years?

Or will the promise of a compassionate, multiracial democracy that Obama embodies seem like a lie?

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