Have blacks been giving President Obama a pass on his shortcomings? That’s the argument of Columbia University professor Fredrick C. Harris’s new book, The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics. Harris takes an unvarnished, unflinching—and some would say unflattering—look at the current state of black politics in America through the lens of Obama’s ascendancy to the White House.
The book is bound to be controversial, particularly in the black community, where any criticism of President Obama—especially from a black author—is deemed heresy at best and blasphemous at worst. But this tendency by blacks to go easy on the president over his shortcomings is essentially at the core of this book.
The “ticket” in the title of the book is what gained Obama admission to the White House; the “price” is what it cost blacks in terms of being able to move their political, economic, and criminal justice agendas forward. The core of Harris’s argument is that, while Obama’s win was (and still is) a source of great pride for blacks, it’s much more symbolic than substantive; that he has done no more to address core concerns and issues facing black Americans than any other Democratic president before him, and, indeed, for a number of reasons falling under the umbrella of political expediency, has done far less.
While many heralded Obama’s victory as the ushering in of a post-racial society, Harris is saying not so fast: he only opened the door; we’ve yet to go through it—as the pushback from the right amply makes manifest. Those of us who lived, hoped, and dreamed through the civil-rights era thought the same thing—that racism was on it’s deathbed in America in the late ’60s—only to see it transform, regroup, and roar back to life under other guises.
Harris retraces the roots of modern-day black politics from the dawning of the civil-rights era to Obama’s inauguration. He touches on all of the strategies utilized by blacks to win mayoralties in cities like Cleveland, Newark, N.J., and Gary, Ind., and the development of “deracialization,” which could be characterized as the “Michael Jordan move.” Jordan somehow transcended race and became a great basketball player who just happens to be black. For black political candidates to win outside of their own communities, they had to learn how to go, in the public’s consciousness, to where Jordan was already.
True, Edward Brooke had won a Senate seat in Massachusetts in 1966, and Douglas Wilder became governor of Virginia in 1989, but both were considered anomalies, due in large part to the fact they were mixed race (a fact that would play something of a role in Obama’s victory, as the book makes clear). Harris writes, “A Republican, Brooke felt compelled to distance his victory from the civil rights and Black Power movements.” In other words, after he won, he stiff-armed the movements that made his win possible. Harris writes that Wilder did much the same thing and set the table for Obama, who would come onto the national stage a few decades later.
Blacks completely understood that candidate Obama had to hold himself out as someone who would be “a president who happened to be black” rather than “the president of black folks” if he wanted to win, and so they gave him a pass when he kept them at arm’s length. Or as Harris characterizes it, it became a politics of “a wink and a nod.”
Obama would “wink” at blacks as if to say “You know I’m down with you on your issues, but I can’t speak too much about them,” and blacks nodded back with, “Sure, we know, we understand, but we still got your back.” This Harris states, has allowed President Obama to pay scant official attention to the concerns of blacks, no matter how legitimate they are and for the black electorate to accept such treatment as the cost of avoiding a white backlash. We don’t care to give the right bricks to throw at our shining hero.
The problem, as Harris sees it, is that Obama’s ignoring of black concerns didn’t stop the right from still castigating him at every turn; it just assured that none of the issues of concern for blacks got any attention. Some in the black community (including some members of the Congressional Black Caucus) feel he’s taken the “distancing” strategy too far.
“The idea that demands [by blacks] can’t be made on the standard bearer of the Democratic Party because it hurts the president’s standing bestows too much power and influence on the Right,” states Harris. “It virtually amounts to the Right dictating when and if blacks can set their own agenda.”
The hope, of course, is that during his second term (a stronger probability now in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling on health care), Obama will pay much-needed attention to the legitimate concerns of black and poor people, without whose blind loyalty and dedication to his candidacy he would never have become president in the first place. The assumption is that he will make good on the wink, just as blacks made good on the nod by supporting him in record numbers.
Blacks, of course, are accustomed to waiting; historically our needs have always been the last in line to be addressed, even—nay, always—by the Democratic Party. As it now stands, Harris writes, “the price has not yet proven its worth … for those who still sit at the bottom of society, still believing and hoping in the possibilities of change.”
This forthright book has a purpose: to put Obama on notice that he has a debt to pay, and that his black constituency deserves and expects payment-in-full during his second term. Fair is fair.