As our first African-American president, Barack Obama had the opportunity to personify the final triumph of civil rights, and in the process, become a celebrated and historic figure. Instead, his ironic legacy on race is one of abject failure, as the rioting and looting in Baltimore underscore. The tragic reality is that Obama passed on the opportunity to the “post-racial” president he promised to be when he first ran in 2008.
Instead, he farmed out leadership on racial issues to Al Sharpton, for whom grievance is like oxygen. The prejudgment of George Zimmerman, and related fury, set the stage for Ferguson, which was followed by the murder of New York City police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. Now Baltimore looks like a scene from 1968, with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake having no problem appearing with Sharpton on Thursday, an implicit endorsement of the violence, or at least, the Obama/Holder version of “civil rights.” What a disaster.
Maybe the problem is that Obama is not really our first African-American president. I do not mean this in a racial sense because his mother was white. I mean it in the sense of his connection to slavery and the racial discrimination that followed. Obama’s father was not American, but Kenyan. Obama was not impacted by the legacy of slavery, except in the form of the many benefits accorded him his entire life through formal and informal forms of affirmative action and race-based forbearance.
Obama is conscious of the disparity between his life experience and that of older blacks and civil rights leaders who experienced, or at least can remember, the cruel reality of racial discrimination. Sharpton provides Obama with a connection to this group, albeit an inauthentic one.
In this respect, Obama is a lot like white liberals who reveal their own racism by deferring to Sharpton as a legitimate voice. Clownish, flamboyant, and always on the hustle, Sharpton is an exaggerated, if real, caricature of African-Americans. Unfortunately, Sharpton’s prominence has been greatly enhanced by the White House.
Now even Obama realizes that things have gone too far, and he is reduced to condemning the “criminals and thugs” of Baltimore. Unfortunately, the genie that he, Sharpton and Holder shook out of the bottle can’t be put back in.