Friday, April 26, 2013

The first what?

Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison famously wrote in 1998 that Bill Clinton was, "white skin notwithstanding...our first black President."  Morrison was writing about the way Clinton was treated during his impeachment, not about his particularly being interested in black issues or helpful to blacks as president.  That did not stop others from taking it that way, and it's probably not an entirely unfair characterization even if Morrison didn't view it that way.

About a year ago, Newsweek's cover depicted Barack Obama with a rainbow-colored halo and with the headline "The First Gay President." That was surprising to me, because we already had a gay president. His name was James Buchanan, and he was about as openly gay as you can be without actually being out.  Jim Loewen had a great piece in Salon about this issue when the story came out.

Really, Obama can't be fairly described as "the first black president" on anything other than half of his actual race.  Aside from some posturing with respect to the Trayvon Martin murder, he hasn't really been there for blacks on a substantive basis.

Don't get me wrong. Obama is a great symbol.  I was happy to vote for him twice, although, if I'm being honest, it mattered less to me that he was black than that he's a Democrat.  That mattered somewhat less than his vision for the future, and what mattered most of all was who his opponents were and what they stood for.  The fact that he is black was a really nice bonus.  But I would not have voted for Alan Keyes or J.C. Watts or Condoleezza Rice.

No, what Obama is, is the first black white president.  Based on the issues that matter to him, based on his conduct in office, it's pretty clear who gets the sugar and who doesn't when Obama is dishing it out.

Consider for a moment, the following:
  • Little to no investigation or reform of Wall Street's destructive practices;
  • Maintenance of an anti-terrorism program that gives little consideration to civil rights;
  • No focus on jobs;
  • Pushing for cuts to Social Security and Medicare;
  • A universal health care program that is impossibly complex and was written by the health insurance industry, when simply expanding Medicare to cover all Americans would have cost a fraction of what the private-only program will cost; and
  • Unending pursuit of a "grand bargain" with the Republicans on deficit reduction while the economy is sputtering.
I don't pretend that these are "black issues" in any real sense. I happen to think they are issues that almost all Americans should care about and ought to be able to agree on.  But the people who care about the places where Obama has put his priorities--wealthy people--are almost entirely white.  Where there has been an opportunity to side with the masses, where almost all black people reside, Obama is nowhere to be found.

So, if we are assigning people to races based on where their priorities lie, that makes Barack Obama the first black white president.  Which makes him not particularly special, in view of all of the other white presidents we've had.

For the record, that doesn't legitimize any of the more than 90% of criticism against him, which boils down to disliking him, or in most of the cases hating him, because he is black.

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