Lift All Boats: Barack Obama’s Failed Experiment

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Barack Obama’s final address as president proved to be a soothing balm for a nation noticeably frayed at the seams. That night in Chicago, we witnessed the president harness all of the qualities that helped him get to that podium, addressing millions as president one last time. And, for us, we remembered once more, why we put him there. Part encouraging, part admonishing, but forever hopeful—Obama pitched to us all how he wishes his legacy to be defined. Too bad it's tarnished. The post-racial perspective he brought to the White House proved to be a misjudgment that will diminish his legacy for years to come.

His final address made evident Obama’s intention to exit office believing exactly as he did when he entered—that what combines us defines us. And, how that shared quality—not misogyny, not racism, and certainly not xenophobia—will ultimately prevail. Nowhere was this belief more evident than during an appeal reminding disparate groups—namely native-born and immigrant populations—to heed the All-American rise of the Irish, Italians, and the Poles. Who, as he states, at one point in our history, were subjected to the same stereotypes as immigrants today and thought to “destroy the fundamental character of America.” But, as he continued, “embraced this nation’s creed”, strengthening the nation as a result. This sweeping and characteristically buoyant rhetoric belies its problematic nature, which asserts that all immigrants, through time and effort alone, could be embraced in the same way as the aforementioned.

The audacity of the claim is made more acceptable if one views the world, particularly America, through a post-racial lens—a lens that underestimates the various ways, in which, race deconstructs and reconstructs identity, status, and well-being.

A variant of this way of thought could be traced to some in the academy that sought to explain the assimilation of non-English, non-Protestant groups of Europeans into mainstream America—i.e. the Italians, Poles, and Irish (among others). Ethnicity theory was a framework that accounted for the massive migration and transformation of European immigrants during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In those times, southern and eastern Europeans were perceived as “not quite White.” They commonly found themselves thrown together with the historically oppressed and the common plight of the lowly, often suffering the scorn of the naturalized and better situated. In fact, in the South, slave-owners sometimes employed the Irish where it did not make sense to risk the life of a slave. Ethnicity-based theory prioritized the problems of migration and the contact of different groups (think low-income Blacks and young Whites in Brooklyn); but those using the approach routinely deemphasized race (particularly blackness) and overemphasized the experiences of a select group of people at a unique time and place. Put simply, it assumed that people of color could access the same mobility, and be granted the same opportunities, that European, non-WASP immigrants had acquired.

Like Obama, these theorists failed to engage with normative whiteness, and how its significance continues to reify racial myths, stereotypes, and societal dynamics in general. These non-WASP immigrants did what people of color could not, which was enter the white race and secure an advantage in a competitive, “othered” society. To clarify, it did not mean these groups acquired automatic success; obstacles like poverty were not erased. But, it did mean these groups were now undeniably “citizens of a democratic republic, with the right to elect and be elected, to be tried by a jury of their peers, to live wherever they could afford, and to spend, without racially imposed restrictions, whatever money they managed to acquire.” Most, if not all, immigrants of today, especially those of African origin, have no such luxury.

The American Dream that many speak of, and proudly declared by Barack Obama, has always reflected the dynamics of difference, hierarchy, and marginalization based on race. The genocidal policies directed towards Native Americans in the (re)settlement of America, and towards people of African origin in the organization of slavery has perniciously shaped the treatment and experiences of subordinated groups throughout history. Obama’s mistake is to underestimate this harsh truth, and to believe that the experiences of a few could be applied to that of the whole. His unwavering optimism that human advancement is a matter of course rather than deliberate, emancipatory action has plagued much of his presidency. Time will tell if his stance will change.