New York correspondent
10 January 2017
Barack Obama sealed his racial legacy the moment he sealed victory in the 2008 election – a black man would occupy a White House built by slaves, a history-defying as well as history-making achievement.
In 1961, the year of Obama’s birth, there existed in the American South a system of racial apartheid that separated the races from the cradle to the grave.
Whites-only water fountains. Whites-only schools. Whites-only graveyards.
In some states, his very conception – involving an African father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas – would have been a criminal offence.
Washington, too, remained a largely segregated city.
When in the 1950s, a former TV executive by the name of E Frederic Morrow became the first black White House aide not to have a job description that included turning down beds, polishing shoes or serving drinks with a deferential bow, he was prohibited from ever being alone in the same room as a white woman.
Back then, as Morrow recounted in his memoir, Black Man in the White House, African-Americans were routinely stereotyped as sexual predators incapable of controlling their desires.
Little more than half a century later, a black man ran the White House – occupying the Oval Office, sitting at the head of the conference table in the Situation Room, relaxing with his beautiful young family in the Executive Mansion – a family that has brought such grace and glamour to America’s sleepy capital that it is possible to speak of a Black Camelot.
When Jack and Jackie Kennedy lived in the White House, that would have been unthinkable, even though the civil rights movement was starting to hammer more insistently at the walls of prejudice, and seeking legal and legislative redress for a malignant national condition described as the “American dilemma”.
When demonstrators assembled in August 1963 to hear Martin Luther King deliver his I Have a Dream Speech at the Lincoln Memorial, few would have thought that a black man would one day take the oath of office at the other end of the National Mall.
Likewise, how many of the protesters bludgeoned by white policemen on Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma in 1965 would have dared to imagine that, 50 years later, they would cross that same bridge hand in hand with the country’s first black president?
For veterans of the black struggle, those remarkable images of Obama marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma protest became instantly iconographic, a truly golden jubilee.
In legacy terms, his very presence in the White House is one of the great intangibles of his presidency. Just how many black Americans have been encouraged to surmount colour bars of their own? Just how many young African-Americans have altered the trajectory of their lives because of the example set by Obama?
And behaviourally, what an example it has been. Because of the lingering racism in American society, the Obamas doubtless knew they would have to reach a higher standard, and they have done so, seemingly, without breaking a sweat. In deportment and personal conduct, it is hard to recall a more impressive or well-rounded First Family.
The “when they go low, we go high” approach to racists who questioned his citizenship has made the Obamas look even more classy.
His family’s dignity in the face of such ugliness recalls the poise of black sit-in protesters in the early 60s, who refused to relinquish their seats at segregated restaurants and lunch counters even as white thugs poured sugar and ketchup over their heads, and punched, kicked and spat at them.
Yet racial firsts, of the kind achieved by Barack Hussein Obama, can present a distorted view of history and convey a misleading sense of progress. They are, by their very nature, a singular achievement, a milestone indicative of black advance rather than a destination point.
Hollywood did not become colourblind the moment in 1964 that Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win best actor at the Academy Awards any more than discrimination ended in the justice system when Thurgood Marshall first donned the billowing robes of a Supreme Court jurist.
America’s racial problems have not melted away merely because Obama has spent eight years in the White House. Far from it.
Indeed, the insurmountable problem for Obama was that he reached the mountaintop on day one of his presidency.
Achieving anything on the racial front that surpassed becoming the country’s first black president was always going to be daunting. Compounding that problem were the unrealistically high expectations surrounding his presidency.
Media captionBarack Obama: What would he have done differently?
His election triumph is 2008 was also misinterpreted as an act of national atonement for the original sin of slavery and the stain of segregation.
Yet Obama did not win the election because he was a black man. It was primarily because a country facing an economic crisis and embroiled in two unpopular wars was crying out for change.
Doubtless there have been substantive reforms. His two black attorneys general, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, have revitalised the work of the justice department’s civil rights division, which was dormant during the Bush years.
The Affordable Healthcare Act, or Obamacare, as it was inevitably dubbed, cut the black uninsured rate by a third.
Partly in a bid to reverse the rate of black incarceration, he has commuted the sentences of hundreds of prisoners – 10 times the number of his five predecessors added together.
As well as calling for the closure of private prisons, he became the first president to visit a federal penitentiary. “There but for the grace of God,” said a man who had smoked pot and dabbled with cocaine in his youth.
Early on, he used the bully pulpit of the presidency to assail black absentee fathers, and, more latterly, spoke out against police brutality.
But that record of accomplishment looks rather meagre when compared to the drama of hearing “Hail to the Chief” accompany the arrival of a black man on the presidential stage.
Race relations have arguably become more polarised and tenser since 20 January 2009. Though smaller in scale and scope, the demonstrations sparked by police shootings of unarmed black men were reminiscent of the turbulence of the 1960s.
The toxic cloud from the tear gas unleashed in Ferguson and elsewhere cast a long and sometimes overwhelming shadow. Not since the LA riots in 1992 – the violent response to the beating of Rodney King and the later acquittal of the police officers filmed assaulting him – has the sense of black grievance and outrage been so raw.
Historians will surely be struck by what looks like an anomaly, that the Obama years gave rise to a movement called Black Lives Matter.
Public opinion surveys highlight this racial restlessness. Not long after he took office in 2009, a New York Times/CBS News poll suggested two-thirds of Americans regarded race relations as generally good. In the midst of last summer’s racial turbulence, that poll found there had been a complete reversal. Now 69% of Americans assessed race relations to be mostly bad.
An oft-heard criticism of Obama is that he has failed to bring his great rhetorical skills to bear on the American dilemma, and prioritised the LGBT community’s campaign for equality at the expense of the ongoing black struggle.
But while he was happy to cloak himself in the mantle of America’s first black president, he did not set out to pursue a black presidency. He did not want his years in office to be defined by his skin colour.
The impact of Obama’s presence in the White House on a black generation is impossible to calculate
As a candidate, he often left others to attach racial meaning to his candidacy, rather than doing so himself.
His famed race speech in the 2008 primary campaign, when his friendship with a fiery black preacher threatened to derail his candidacy, was as much about his white heritage as his black.
This remained true when he won election. Besides, there were pressing problems to deal with, not least rescuing the American economy in the midst of the Great Recession and extricating US forces from two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Early on in his presidency, his efforts at racial mediation also seemed ham-fisted. The “beer summit” at the White House, when he brought together the black Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates and the white police officer who had arrested him on the porch of his own home in an affluent suburb of Boston, all seemed rather facile.
A clumsy photo-opportunity rather than a teachable moment. Obama, one sensed, wanted to speak out more forcefully – initially he said the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” – but his political cautiousness reined him in.
Seemingly, he did not want to come across to the public as a black man in the White House.
Rather in those early years, it was as if he was trying to position himself as a neutral arbiter in racial matters, though one sensed his preference was for not intervening at all.
As his presidency went on, however, it became more emphatically black. He spoke out more passionately and more intimately.
Telling reporters that his son would have looked like Trayvon Martin, the unarmed high school student shot dead in Florida by a neighbourhood watch coordinator, was a departure.
This new, more candid approach culminated in Charleston, South Carolina, when Obama delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the black preacher slain, along with eight other worshippers, by a white supremacist at a bible study class at the Emanuel American Methodist Episcopal church.
That afternoon he spoke, as he often does in front of mainly black audiences, with a cadence that almost ventriloquised the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and ended, electrifyingly, by singing Amazing Grace.
That month he seemed to be at the height of his powers.
The Confederate flag, a symbol for many of black subordination, was about to brought down in the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol because the Charleston gunman Dylann Roof had brandished it so provocatively.
Obamacare had withstood a Supreme Court challenge. On the morning that he flew to Charleston, the Supreme Court decreed same-sex marriage would be legal in every state. Progressivism seemed to have triumphed. Obama seemed to have vanquished many of his foes.
But that month Donald Trump had also announced his improbable bid for the White House, and the forces of conservatism were starting to rally behind an outspoken new figurehead, who sensed that nativism, xenophobia and fear of the other would be central to his electoral appeal.
That America’s first black president will be followed by the untitled leader of the Birther movement, a candidate slow to disavow support from the Ku Klux Klan and happy to receive the backing of white nationalists, Donald Trump can easily be portrayed as a personal repudiation and also proof of racial regression.
The truth, though, is more complicated.
Obama is ending his presidency with some of his highest personal approval ratings, and clearly believes he would have beaten Trump in a head-to-head contest. Moreover, although Trump won decisively in the electoral college, almost three million people more voted for Hillary Clinton nationwide.
In judging the mood of the country, the 2016 election hardly produced a clear-cut result that lends itself to neat analysis.
What Trump’s election does look to have done, however, is end Obama’s hopes of being a transformative president, not least because of the proposed rollback of his signature healthcare reform.
Truly transformative presidents, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, enact reforms, like social security, that become part of the nation’s fabric rather than being ripped apart. If Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress get their way, Obamacare will be shredded.
Nor has he been transformative in the attitudinal sense. Indeed, Trump’s victory, messy though it was, can easily be viewed partly as a “whitelash”.
Much of his earliest and strongest support came from so-called white nationalists, who saw in his candidacy the chance to reassert white cultural and racial dominance. Some of the loudest cheers at his rallies came in response his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim invectives.
Trump’s message, from the moment he announced his candidacy to the final tweets of his insurgent campaign, was aimed primarily at white America.
The billionaire’s victory also makes it harder to view Obama as a transitional president. Eight years ago, it was tempting to cast the country’s first black president as the leader who would oversee a peaceable demographic shift from a still strongly Caucasian America – the last census showed that 62.6% of US citizens are white – to a more ethnically diffuse nation.
But the talk now is of walls, not human bridges.
Of course, the notion that Obama would usher in a post-racial America was always fanciful, and a claim wisely he steered clear of himself. For all his cries of “Yes we can,” he was never that naïve.
But the black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a persuasive case that Obama has always been overly optimistic on race, in large part because he did not have a conventional black upbringing.
His formative years were spent in Hawaii, America’s most racially integrated state, and the whites he encountered, namely his mother and grandparents, were doting and loving.
Obama was not the victim of discrimination in the same way as a black kid growing up in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, or even New York or Illinois. As a result, he may have underestimated the forces that would seek to paralyse his presidency and to impede racial advance more broadly.
The president has said repeatedly since election night that the result proves that history is not linear but rather takes a zig-zagging course.
He is also fond of paraphrasing Martin Luther King’s famed line that the arc of history bends towards justice. However, that curvature has veered off in a wholly unexpected direction.
Besides, even to talk of arcs of history at this moment of such national uncertainty seems inapt.
For as we enter the final days of the Obama presidency, the more accurate descriptor of race relations is a fault-line – the most angry fault-line in US politics and American life, and one that continues to rumble away, threatening small explosions at any time.
From Obama we expected seismic change of a more positive kind.
And although it was a presidency that began atop a mountain, it ended in something of a valley.