In the heady days after Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president in 2008, some observers wondered whether it would spell an end to black politics. The idea was not that African-Americans would no longer be involved in politics but that black politics after Obama would no longer be centered on racial inequality.
This comfortably dovetailed with the idea that the United States was moving into a postracial era. Among Americans of all backgrounds, there was widespread optimism that Obama’s victory indicated that the country was shedding its long history of racial injustice.
It is ironic, then, as we enter the twilight of the Obama presidency, that his tenure marked the revival of black protests and radical black politics.
The emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is not incidental to the Obama administration but is in many ways a product of it. African-Americans had enormous expectations for the new president. On the eve of Obama’s first inauguration, 69 percent of black respondents told pollsters that Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision had been fulfilled.
Black millennials, many of whom went on to participate in the BLM movement, had the highest voter turnout in their age group — for the first time in the nation’s history. But with high voter turnout came high expectations, and very quickly after Obama took office, those expectations were regularly doused with cold water.
Three factors contributed to young African-Americans’ diminishing faith in Obama.
The first was the administration’s paralysis in the face of worsening conditions throughout black America. Obama became president during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The fallout of the financial crisis was most grievously felt in black neighborhoods across the country. Hundreds of thousands of homes and millions of dollars in savings were lost, and historically high unemployment rates disproportionately affected African-Americans as Obama took office.
But Obama refused to take action to slow down or stop the particular impact the economic crisis was having on black people. Instead, he steadfastly maintained that a rising tide lifts all boats. But this view did not take into account how racial inequality might limit African-American access to the programs and resources that were helping pull white people out of the ravages of the economic downturn. Thus today, even as the Obama administration touts economic recovery, black unemployment is still almost twice as high as white unemployment.
A second factor contributing to the disillusionment is that Obama has not shown the same reticence when publicly chastising African-Americans for a range of behaviors that read like a handbook on anti-black stereotypes, from parenting skills and dietary choices to sexual mores and television-watching habits.
Obama’s insistence that black people had “no excuses” — as he did in a commencement speech to graduates at Morehouse College — seemed incongruent with the structural explanations for the economic crisis that threw so many African-Americans out of work and cost so many their homes and savings.
The idea that the economic crisis confronting African-Americans was not of their own doing was confirmed with the eruption of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the fall of 2011. Occupy forced the growing problems of poverty and inequality into the center of American politics by popularizing the slogan “We are the 99 percent” — as opposed to the wealthiest 1 percent of the population that has enjoyed the bulk of economic growth in recent years. Occupy was often described as a white movement, but in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Grio poll, 45 percent of African-Americans surveyed expressed a positive view of Occupy, and an additional 35 percent said the movement was good for the American political system.
Third, the growing awareness of the excesses of the criminal justice system — from police violence to mass incarceration and beyond — highlighted how little has changed for black America since Obama’s election. Police brutality has always been a flashpoint in black protest. Perhaps no other act by representatives of the state exemplifies the contingent nature of black citizenship. When the police or those who claim to act on their behalf have the ability to take black lives without fear of consequence, it means that black people are not fully free.
The seeds of the BLM movement lay in a murder that wasn’t even committed by police officers: that of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager shot and killed in a Florida suburb by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman in 2012. Martin’s death drew attention to the police violence in black communities that is often hidden by the cloak of residential segregation. Young African-American had expected that they could rely on the Obama administration to condemn the violence they regularly experienced at the hands of the police. Instead, when Martin’s killer was exonerated by a Florida jury, Obama banally declared, “We are a nation of laws.”
This injustice marked the beginning of the protests that would eventually culminate in BLM after Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by a police officer in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. But it was not Martin’s death alone that made him an Emmett Till–like figure for a new generation of African-Americans. It was the inability of the nation’s first black president to connect with the pain and fear of young black people.
For 17 months, the BLM movement has fought to expose the continuing problems of racial injustice and inequality still coursing through the United States. It is possible that the movement might have erupted if someone other than Obama had been president. But the election of Obama and the rhetoric that the nation was becoming less racist raised the hopes of black millennials higher than anyone could have anticipated.
The death and brutalization of so many of their peers — often caught on camera — and the unwillingness or inability of the first black president to act have raised the question of why it was so important to have elected him in the first place. Regardless of how one answers that question, the need to take to the streets has never been clearer.