Posted on November 8, 2016

How Obama’s Presidency Provoked a White Backlash–and Rekindled a Spirit of Black Resistance

Adam Shatz, Los Angeles Times, October 30, 2016


“When they go low, we go high,” Michelle Obama said at the Democratic National Convention. In the face of a horrifying racist backlash to his very presence in the White House, he has gone as high as an elected official could go.

Obama’s Swahili first name, which is derived from the Arabic baraka, or spiritual wisdom, means “he who is blessed.” Many of us felt, or hoped, that he was endowed with baraka when he was first elected.


Hand in hand, we would follow him to the “post-racial” Promised Land, as if he were one of those “magical Negro” characters in Hollywood films who devote their lives to solving their white friends’ problems. There was always something a bit kitsch about this dream, which was mainly expressed by whites; for obvious reasons, black Americans tend to have a far more sober view of the country’s ability to address, much less transcend, its racial divisions.

As it turned out, the Obama era would supply only one racial miracle: his election. Determined not to be seen as the “president of black America,” he studiously avoided the subject of race; when forced to address it, he succumbed to banalities about the need for a “national conversation.” Faced with the deepening crisis in black America–police killings of unarmed civilians, including children; the epidemic of mass incarceration; economic and political disenfranchisement–Obama seemed unwilling, or unable, to respond with the sense of urgency that once had led him to become a housing organizer in Chicago.

As late as July 2014, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy wrote that for many black Americans, “the thrill is gone.”

In the last two years, however, Obama has finally assumed his historic role with moral seriousness, in part, one suspects, because he accepted the fact that his presidency would not be transformative, and that he could, at best, be a bulwark against the racist furies that it unleashed; a civilized counterpoint to the vengeful white noise of the red states. As Régis Debray famously argued, “Revolution revolutionizes the counter-revolution.” And so it has been with the racial counter-revolution in America, a know-nothing white nativism that has found its führer in Donald Trump.

Many have noted that this movement, which has attracted the support of a sizable minority of white Americans, targets not only black people, but immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims and, most recently, shadowy bankers reminiscent of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” But anti-black animus is the lava at its incendiary core.


For Trump’s followers, “making America great again” means making it white again. Amid the financial crisis, it has become increasingly difficult for cash-strapped whites to acknowledge what they owe to blacks because to do so would leave them feeling spiritually bereft. As their numbers have declined and their living conditions have become harder to distinguish from those of blacks, they have insisted on their racial privilege all the more stubbornly: hence the rise of Trump, with his undisguised appeal to ressentiment.

In black America, the Obama presidency and the backlash it provoked have rekindled a spirit of resistance not seen since the era of Black Power, both in politics–with the rise of Black Lives Matter–and in culture, with the emergence of such figures as Ta-Nehisi Coates, poet Claudia Rankine, rapper Kendrick Lamar and filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins. {snip}

That this culture of protest has arisen during the Obama era is no accident, and to see it flourish is to savor the sweetness of his triumphs, however thwarted they have been. {snip}