What’s Been Missing from Obama’s Response to the Arrest of Henry Louis Gates

having-a-beerWhen the presidential election campaign began two and a half years ago I was a Hillary Clinton supporter. I supported Clinton not so much because she was a woman or that I believed she was the best candidate. I supported her because I believed the hype that she had the democratic nomination in the bag.

I always believed The United States of America would have a white female president before it had a Black male president (a Black female president may have to wait until the next century) and so I didn’t want to waste my vote. But there was another reason I initially supported Clinton over Obama which goes to the heart of my essay and can be summed up in two words: race matters.

My reluctance to support Obama stemmed from what I believed was the Senator’s reluctance to honestly confront issues of race.

I was as excited as many about Obama after witnessing his stirring keynote address at the 2004 DNC convention. I believed a run for the presidency might not be a far-fetched idea. But I later became disillusioned during the Katrina crisis as Obama, in an effort to diffuse racial tensions, stated that the shortcomings in response to that horrific event were a matter of class. Race had nothing to do with it.

I believed Obama’s response to be cowardly and dishonest. Anyone who knows the history of New Orleans knows that race cannot be separated from the events before and after Katrina. It was astonishing to watch a Black politician engage in such blatant denial for his own political gain.

Black candidates and elected officials seeking state and national office know they must scale the racial mountain to assure their white constituents that they are not in it to advance the “Black cause.” In doing so, Black politicians all too often campaign or govern at the expense of their black constituents, downplaying racially charged issues so as not to offend whites.

But Obama well knows that race and class are not mutually exclusive and are often intersecting factors. Racial inequality is real and often has life and death consequences as we witnessed during and after Katrina.

For those of us at the bottom of the racial food chain, achieving racial equality is just as important as health care, the economy, and education as race determines access and quality of access.

Obama’s willingness to obscure these complexities in the midst of such human suffering gave me pause. I honestly did not think I could support a candidate who, to use the words of Kanye West, “doesn’t care about Black people.” Despite my misgivings, however, I eventually came around when some of my colleagues, namely a white middle aged female friend, urged me to listen to Obama’s stump speeches. After listening to both Clinton and Obama, I was convinced that Obama was the better candidate. By December 2007 I was well on my way to becoming an Obama supporter and took the full leap, as many others did, after the Iowa Caucus.

While Obama tried his best throughout the primary election to appear race neutral, fanning the flames of unrest whenever racial animosities attempted to hijack his campaign, the Jeremiah Wright controversy brought race front and center. Hence, Obama was faced with having to do something he had long tried to avoid: address the issue of race head on.

Like many Obama supporters, I was nervous about what he would say in the “race” speech he reluctantly delivered in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008 . Not only was I nervous because of what this could mean to him politically, I was also nervous because of what this could mean for Blacks all over the country.

In addition to his Katrina comments, I had read Obama’s The Audacity of Hope (2006) and frankly was unimpressed with his chapter on race. While he addresses issues of institutional and structural racism, unfortunately, the chapter quickly descends into a discourse on so called Black pathology. His memoir Dreams From My Father (1995) dealt far more honestly with the issue of race. But that was written before he became a politician. And so I sat nervously in front of the TV waiting for the speech. Would Obama yield to the status quo and simply say what was necessary to appease white anxieties? Or would he truly give voice to the reality of continued racial inequality in America? The speech was indeed as anchor Chris Matthews stated, “brilliant . . . one worthy of Lincoln.” Obama, nevertheless, managed to let whiteness off the hook by, in the words of novelist Adam Mansback, “ fudg[ing] the difference between institutional racism and white bitterness.” Despite this shortcoming, I felt Obama had done what was necessary to keep his campaign afloat while at the same time not throwing Blacks under the bus.

My disillusionment with Obama would return again as his visits to various Black churches during the general election yielded didactic speeches of personal responsibility, a message many felt condescending and only designed to garner white votes (i.e. the controversial Father’s Day speech). As appalled as I was at Rev. Jesse Jackson’s remarks that such condescension made him want “to cut his [Obama’s] nuts off,” I could identify with Rev. Jackson’s frustration. Why is it that Obama and others resort to scolding Black parents for not doing their part to insure their children’s success, but never acknowledge that there are Black parents who are actively engaged in their children’s lives? Yes, there are fathers who need to “step up,” but what about acknowledging those who have indeed steeped up and are taking care of their parental responsibilities? Such people are not an exception, but rather the rule in Black communities all over the country. cont’d on page 2


  1. says

    Dear Ms. Colman,

    After reading your perspectives I understand your sense of disillusionment with President Obama.

    I would have to state outright that I am not one of the African Americans whom as you state are “…deeply shaken by Gates arrest.” That statement is wrongfully inclusive as if we are (and remain forever) a monolith of thought and action.
    You know that is not true.

    I agree with the President that class had a lot to do with the disasterous inaction by government with the Katrina victims. Katrina showed the world that the majority of victims, who were Black, were demonstrably poor and unable or unwilling to leave what they had of a life or a home. Katrina also showed the world how America treats it’s poor. The poor Blacks of New Orleans were the poster people of America’s shameful treatment. But, not only Blacks. Hispanics, whites and other economically disenfranchised groups were represented yet not shown forging for food and water, or as the media portrayed them “looting.”

    I will never forget the sick feeling I had in my stomach watching the news and hearing the media people (particularly focusing the camera lens on Black people) searching for food as looters and criminals. Yet, poor whites were part of that matrix as well, even though not evidenced by the camera. I felt ashamed. I could not believe that this was my country.

    I would posit that we have a new paradigm for identifying perhaps the “untouchables” in our society. The “untouchables being poor whites, hispanics, essentially all people of color at or below the poverty line.

    The distinction being made (race and class) is subtle, at least to those of us focused on “race.”
    Some Blacks have been and remain accustomed to defining events like Katrina and recently the Gates fiasco predominantly within the realm of race without entertainng other extraneous factors.
    That is natural considering the history of Black people in the United States.

    Regardless of the “Real Men of Genius” moment at the white house, we are engaged in a teachable moment. We are talking. In this article even, we hopefully agree to disagree on certain points.

    I too am a Black mother of a young son. To tell you the truth I experience daily overwhelming joy coupled with overarching fear. First, when I discovered the sex of my child before his birth. And now, in knowing how some in society may treat him in his teen years and evolving manhood, as a “menace to society.”
    I have even considered leaving this country to raise my son elsewhere.

    All of this is to say that “I feel you.” Yet, I cannot ride with you continually on the coattails of ‘it is absolutely about race argument.’
    Perhaps we as Blacks will experience double jeopardy in being successful thereby generating jealously; and being Black thereby invoking fear and hatred.

    Electing a president, even a Black President does not and cannot usher in a “post-racial America.” That is an idiotic statement for this time and place in history.
    Truthfully, some older (and some young) generations with their poisonous thoughts, ideas, and perspectives will simply have to … die off first.

    My anxiety relative to police misconduct has always been tenfold! The shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York City; the Boston police rustling up Black men with the faked car jacking story by Charles Stuart; here in Cleveland the police shot a young Black man hiding in a closet; and at times it seems open season nationally. My father who grew up in the Jim Crow south tells me things that happened to him, incidents that he witnessed that sicken me and make me weep. What about Emmett Till?

    My outrage is ever present. Yet, my intellect tells me that now, things are more than what they appear to be. Simply put, and however hard to believe, things are not just black and white anymore. There is gray to entertain.

    So, I do not feel the same monolithic sense of betrayal. I see a President attempting to be a President of all people. And not just for political gain.

    Madam, we are talking about this online. We are having a discourse. Many people of color are connected online and talk, and read.
    Many of us doing so, are considered the fortunate middle class.

    Race is still part of the picture, and will forever be. That is the human condition and a condition of being human. The increasing pervasive dynamic is class and the economics of class in this American society. Social class has no race requirements other than educational and monetary markers. Obama intrinsically knows this.

    Adrienne Zurub
    .-= Adrienne Zurub´s last blog ..What Tradition in my life is most important to me? =-.

  2. Pete Daggett says

    Ms Coleman, have you ever heard of Cookes Constant or Confirmation Bias? I get the distinct impression from your article that there is nothing that the President can do that you couldn’t find a way to second guess.

    I voted for Barack Obama… I am not pleased with every move he makes but I do believe that he is doing what he honestly feels he must do and I also believe, that he is clearly focused on healing this country and not trying in vain to live up to your expectations.

  3. frank says

    Very well written. I wonder how different his actions seem when you consider him as an “american african”, who does not have the history of slavery or jim crow in his family line? surely michelle must have brought that into his world view, but he does not have a real history with the reality of america’s past transgressions against blacks. I hope this does not sound to insensitive or ignorant (I am of mixed caucasian/asian decent).

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