The Silence of the Chief

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, October 2012

Khalil Gibran MuhammadOne of the most striking aspects of the first 2012 presidential debate is how little President Obama’s racial identity mattered.  Neither in his own narrative of who he is as a candidate nor in his policy prescriptions did we hear any echoes of his “unlikely story” to become the nation’s first black president. Was this because the subject of the debate was the economy and not social issues? Or because he is a known quantity and can run on his record? Or is it because his presidency has achieved something no Democratic president has since before FDR’s second term?

Unless one assumes that economic inequality is universal in its causes and consequences (or that it is a social issue and therefore a topic for a future debate), how inequality has impacted African Americans during President Obama’s first term is critically important. Not only are black voters his strongest base of support, they have experienced near double the rates of white unemployment and levels of urban joblessness that rival the roughly 40 percent of black Americans unemployed during the Great Depression. 

By contrast, during FDR’s first term he began assembling a “Black Cabinet” of African American advisors to help develop targeted policy solutions to the crisis of black unemployment and economic discrimination. President Truman assembled the first national blue-ribbon commission to investigate civil rights, which included calls for economic intervention. JFK, LBJ, Carter, and Clinton, all to varying degrees, and with mixed policy results, explicitly followed suit.

Granted presidential administrations and debates are not one and the same.

And yet last night’s debate puts in sharp relief how truly historic President Obama’s silence is on this issue. He defined a universal vision of “economic patriotism” focused on lower taxes for the middle class, smarter spending on education, and the benefits of Obamacare. Fair enough, were his Republican opponent Mitt Romney not identified with a political party with elements openly hostile to, and seeking to disenfranchise, blacks and Latinos. Even Romney himself recently dismissed 47% of the electorate who are dependent on government and pay no federal income taxes. Here was coded language referring to lower-income black and Latino voters.

This is nothing new.

What is new is the response from the standard bearer of the Democratic Party. Both in President Obama’s race-neutral policies and in his rhetoric the response is one of disengagement.  In a play on the familiar liberal critic of Reagan’s “trickle down economics,” Governor Romney repeatedly called President Obama’s policies, “trickle down government” during the debate. The irony is that universal wealth accumulation has not broken the yoke of racial inequality and neither has universal government redistribution. Contrary to Republican orthodoxy and popular myth, even if redistributionist policies were disproportionately helpful to blacks at times, whites have always had a head start and been the majority of beneficiaries—from Social Security and Medicare to food stamps and mortgage subsidies.  The effect has been to neutralize or negate major gains in closing the inequality gap, and to distort the past.

For the better part of the past three quarters of a century, Democratic presidents have not had as much leeway to distort or elide our racial past for political gain as Republican presidents until now. They needed black voters to see past their white skin in order to show up at the polls. The President does not; he can simply trade on his brown skin and cool gait. 

President Obama’s own symbolic self—his “unlikely story” as a testament to American Exceptionalism, told so often it need not be said anymore—coupled with his version of the history of government’s role in society, is its own new brand of historical propaganda. Last night he praised Abraham Lincoln for using government for the greater good—for financing the transcontinental railroad, for establishing the National Academy of Sciences, and for building land grant colleges.  The history lesson was this: like Lincoln, “we want to give these gateways of opportunity for all Americans, because if all Americans are getting opportunity, we’re all going to be better off. That doesn’t restrict people’s freedom. That enhances it.”

To the contrary, Lincoln’s universal Civil War policies were implicated in creating new forms of racial misery for blacks after freedom—convict leasing on southern railroads, scientific racism, and second-class education (land grants to historically black colleges and universities did not occur until 1890). It is pretty astounding that President Obama channeled Lincoln through a distorted lens exactly twelve days after the 150th anniversary of the issuing of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, without mentioning that complicated but truly significant step towards real freedom. 

Last night something changed. In the midst of the worst poverty in a half-century and the unprecedented scale of incarceration of poor people, the white guy and the black guy, the Republican and the Democrat, for the first time seemed indistinguishable when it comes to the economics of race.  A little bit or a lot of history was made.

Only time will tell.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is director, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.