I promised my mum that I wouldn’t publicly criticise Barack Obama…but he couldn’t help himself, so neither can I. The former president’s latest intervention was to lecture activists that calls to ‘defund the police’ may be “snappy slogans”, but are bad politics because they risk alienating people. This kind of pandering to racists should come as no surprise. After all, he launched his presidential career by embracing the post-racial delusion that there is no ‘Black America and a White America…there’s the United States of America’. At the first chance he got, he threw his Pastor, Jeremiah Wright , squarely under the bus of the white public opinion, when Wright’s services condemning American racism came to light. Perhaps his most indefensible act of political coonery was publicly sipping Flint water at the height of a crisis that had left disproportionately African American families with a poisoned water supply.
We can’t even say he has a track record of dealing with racism in the United States to defend, because he spent his eight years in office ducking the issue. Singing in a Black church after a racist mass shooting does not count. He was the president not a Motown artist. Recognising that if he “had a son he would have looked like Trayvon” and then creating the My Brothers Keeper mentoring programme for young Black men with absent fathers was actually worse than just ignoring the killing. Trayvon was visiting his father when he got killed but rather than address the issue of racist violence Obama chose to get into bed with right-wing extremists like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and blame the community for their poor lifestyle choices. Obama’s latest comments show that he hasn’t learnt a basic lesson that if you are not alienating certain people you are doing something wrong. There are not always good people on both sides.
So it would be easy to write off Obama and his post-presidential celebrity allowing him to settle in as the uncle (Tom) of the nation. But there is a deeper lesson to be learnt from the case of Obama. He couldn’t have sold out because he never made any promises. He isn’t an Uncle Tom because he never pretended to represent the Black population. Credit to him for creating a whole new category of Black political identity: the White House Negro, someone who danced, cooned, sang, shucked and jived all the way to the presidency.
To understand this we have to separate out the House Negro from the Uncle Tom. Malcolm defines the House Negro as those in a slightly better position who will do whatever they can to maintain their relative privilege including to “identify with the master more than the master identifies with himself”. Malcolm is critical of the House Negro for not being able to see the reality of their condition. But his real scorn is reserved for the Uncle Tom who is handpicked to lead the Black masses astray, relishing their role in representing the race into oblivion. Candance Owens is the perfect recent example of Black skin, White racism. The Tom has to go but the House Negro is a victim of their circumstance and therefore can be redeemed. The truth is that in order to become president, Obama had to do everything we are critical of him doing. Any hint of a Black agenda and he would never have been voted in, let alone serve a second term or even make it to the end of his presidency. Obama wasn’t the problem, the White House was. The clue is in the name; the purpose of the president is to maintain White supremacy. Obama did the seemingly impossible because he didn’t rock the boat.
To try and keep my promise to my mum I want to stress that this is not a criticism of Obama, it is an indictment of us. He isn’t the issue, it is our expectation that any president could ever take the interests of Black people seriously that needs to be condemned. We spent so much time debating whether it was possible to have a Black president we forgot to ask if we should want one. It is clearly a bad strategy to look for leadership on racism from someone who has had to contort themselves in so many different directions to get where they are. That was Malcolm’s warning about the House Negro, they can’t get it because of their position in the House. Only the Field Negro, the masses who felt the full force of plantation brutality could be trusted to lead the way. If we learnt anything it should have been that we cannot rely on any Black elected official to represent the people. In fact, the higher their position, the further away they get from any struggle for Black liberation. Obama has shown us the empty promise of the White House Negro, so maybe he has contributed something to the cause of Black liberation: to make sure we never make the same mistake again.