Just before he left the White House during a visit early 2009, 5-year-old Jacob Philadelphia told President Barack Obama he was curious: “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.”
Obama bent down and invited Jacob, standing by the Oval Office desk, to rub his head. “Yes, it does feel the same,” Jacob discovered after touching the presidential crown.
The iconic moment, captured by a White House photographer, symbolized, for many, the ultimate meaning of Barack Obama’s presidency: He feels the same.
For the first time in the long and often tortured history of Black America, a Black man is the most powerful leader in the world, embraces his blackness and identifies with African Americans on social, cultural and political levels.
Little Jacob’s hand upon his head symbolized, in the most poignant way, this visceral connection. Now, as Obama begins his second term in office and prepares to face the enormous challenges that lie ahead, African Americans in metro Detroit and across the country are reflecting on the true meaning of it all.
While many reasonable people can and are making legitimate arguments about the actual efficacy of some of Obama’s policies and their impact on African Americans, there seems to be almost universal agreement that at a minimum, in symbolic terms, the Obama presidency represents a psychological breakthrough in Black America of revolutionary proportions.
“President Obama is a great role model and broke down a lot of barriers and stigmas about what a Black president can do,” says Brittani Holsey, 20, of West Bloomfield.
“A lot of people didn’t want to vote for a Black president because of the stereotypes associated with Black men, but now they see a stable Black family in the media, and that Black family is a very strong representation of what an American family should be.”
The junior at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo voted for the first time last November. Her vote for Obama was personal and symbolic.
“It meant that not only was I supporting the candidate whose views I personally believe are what’s right for our country, but it also gave me a little hope and motivation to succeed knowing that someone of my same race is our nation’s leader.”
Dr. C. JuJuan Taylor, a native Detroiter, professor and chairwoman of the communication arts department at Schoolcraft College, shares Holsey’s sentiment. While people can debate the impact of the president’s domestic and foreign policies, there is no debate that his presence as a strong, positive Black man leading our nation, who eloquently advocates for strong Black families, is educational in and of itself.
“If Obama could not communicate effectively and dynamically, he would not have had the opportunity to give us this overwhelming sense of pride,” she says.
“His demeanor, his coolness and ability to articulate his policies in a thoughtful and concise way when under attack-and on a world stage, no less-is not only reassuring, but strikes a dagger at the very heart of the stereotype you see in much of the popular media of Black men being impulsive, overly emotive and supercilious. The fact is, this brother can communicate.”
The presence of First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters in the White House, cannot be overstated.
“The sight of this highly educated, elegant dark-skinned Black woman and their two beautiful daughters in the White House helps re-frame the way in which we must talk about Black women and their role in our society.
“The real appeal of Michelle Obama for so many Black woman and girls is that her beauty, strength and grace are relatable and seemingly attainable for many of us. She has hips, hair and lips we can relate to. She looks Nubian, not European. Seeing her and her daughters sometimes with their hair in corn rows not only helps us identify with them emotionally but culturally, too-and, most importantly, it lets us know they identify with us. And that is something we, as Black people, never could have said in the 232 years of our nation before President Obama was elected.”
President Obama’s uncanny ability to persevere resonates with Velma Gocha, a Detroit retiree.
Speaking in reverential tones about the nation’s 44th president, Gocha, 76, says Obama is different because he’s transparent, authentic and worked hard to accomplish his dream. “He is a breath of fresh air,” she says. “He shows us if we dig down deep and look into ourselves, we will find we have resources we have not tapped into. He enlightened me as a Black woman; he is the Moses of our time.”
However, for Brandon A. Jessup, who worked on the national Obama campaign as its Michigan African American voter outreach director, the effect of the Obama presidency isn’t abstract. It has real, material benefits for the city of Detroit and America.
“President Obama’s re-election gives us an opportunity to repair a relationship with D.C. that is needed in order to expand our economy in the global marketplace,” says the 31-year-old native Detroiter.
The Obama administration is supportive of critical Detroit infrastructure and transportation projects such as bringing light-rail to the city and building a second bridge to Canada, Jessup says.
“This will help the city to expand its reach beyond its geographic borders and, at the same time, help us to lower our unemployment rate and send Detroiters back to work with good wages and re-build our middle class.”
Jessup’s claims notwithstanding, many African American scholars quickly point out that while an Obama presidency has made many African Americans feel good emotionally, it hardly has been edifying in terms of Black America’s collective health.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux, an economist, author and former president of Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, cautions people to discern between the symbolism and substance.
She rattles off statistics to make her point: The African-American unemployment rate remains twice that of Whites, the African American poverty rate is three times that of Whites. African Americans only own two percent of the nation’s wealth, and the rate of developing businesses is only a third of whites opening new businesses.
“So people seem to have forgotten or don’t want to deal with the economic gaps,” she says. “President Obama’s victory and election was an enormous symbolic victory for African Americans, and most people were pleasantly surprised when he did win; you saw people really energized.
“But White people wanted to turn this into a post-racial moment without looking at the economic gap that continues to plague African Americans.”
Dr. Mark Naison, a professor of African American studies and history at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York agreed with Malveaux.
In fact, he argues that, notwithstanding Republican obstructionism, Obama’s education policies have had an adverse effect on the Black community by undermining public schools.
“His education policies show that he is capable of taking positions on his own that have damaged the African American community as a whole,” Naison says.
“Privatizing, testing and having public schools put under tremendous pressure with charter schools has basically undermined community stability and displaced a lot of African-American professionals through layoffs and with school closings, and often the teachers replacing them are young and White … the Teach For America types.”
While acknowledging neither African-Americans voters nor moderate and liberal voters had much of an option in Mitt Romney and the
Republicans during the last presidential election, Naison says the crisis in the Black community is too urgent to avoid examining all the president’s policies, objectively critique them and hold him accountable for them.
Despite legitimate criticism, Dr. Henry Louis Taylor Jr., professor and director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo, says it was unrealistic for anyone to expect Obama to turn around 30 years of Republican domestic policy in just four years in office.
“The Republican Party up until Obama dominated and controlled American society,” he says. “I discounted the Democratic presidents who interrupted the chain because they continued the policies of the Republicans. So there was no break in that. For us to bring about meaningful change, we’ve got to be in charge for at least 25 to 30 years. For someone to say we haven’t made progress in four years and we’re trying to bring about fundamental change in American society-that is not going to happen.”
He notes, however, that the Obama administration quietly developed the most meaningful and comprehensive urban policy initiative since the 1960s, and predicts programs such as the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative and the Promise Neighborhoods initiatives will help urban communities rebound. National health care initiatives are included in urban policy.
“It’s something that never would have happened under any other president,” Taylor says.
“The health care disparity among Black and White people is monstrous. This universal health care has the potential of making huge and significant differences in the lives of people.”
Ber-Henda Williams, a well-known poet, author and educator acknowledges the challenges facing Detroit and the African American community even with a Black president. However, the impact of Black children seeing a Black man in the White House who relates to them-just like the little boy in the photo-can’t be underestimated.
“As an educator, it opens up a world of possibilities for minorities in this country and, in particular, students that are in grade school, because when we associate power in our formative ages in generations past, we saw people in powerful positions who were not minorities,” says Williams, 32, of Southfield. “So to me, Barak Obama’s election signifies for minority children that they have the option, the right and support to be whatever it is they aspire to be. He is the symbol of hope.”
TREVOR W. COLEMAN IS A METRO DETROIT JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR WHOSE BIOGRAPHY OF FEDERAL JUDGE DAMON J. KEITH, “CRUSADER FOR JUSTICE,” WILL BE PUBLISHED THIS SPRING.