Racial Politics After Obama

Brandon M. Terry in Dissent:

ObamaThe most punitive, humiliating, and deadly forms of policing fall almost entirely on the poor, especially the black poor. And while the stigma of criminality disproportionately affects African Americans, so does the suffering that accompanies gangs, violent crime, and the underground economy. Neglecting these facts leads to bewilderment when appeals to racial solidarity around issues like criminal justice or gentrification fail to achieve the desired results. These failures of analysis evince such a lack of judgment that they are less likely to inspire sacrifices for the transformative programs of the left than encourage the risk-averse accommodation to the status quo. In the future, leftists of all races will have to make a sustained commitment to grassroots engagement that focuses on working-class and poor black communities, and that is more precise about the ways in which racial injustice and black disadvantage work in today’s America. This will require an ethos of humility and self-criticism that, over time, will generate more powerful ideas, arguments, and hopefully, coalitions. Trust and respect—and substantive political power—will only come from a mutually enriching process of engaging with and arguing over needs (like safety, income, and education) and values (that is, the ethics of punishment, ideals of masculinity, nativism, and so on) as well as policies. This project is difficult to pursue in the heat of a presidential campaign, and we’ve seen both Democratic candidates struggle to adequately address these intersecting issues. But it must command our attention in the post–Obama era.

Bayard Rustin once remarked that he was “eternally optimistic” that “people who become president . . . want to go down as great moral figures, and they make some real effort in trying.” In the horrifying event of a Trump presidency, we may have to revisit this judgment. But for the first black president at least, it seems appropriate. In trying to advance a particular view of racial justice despite political, cultural, and structural constraints, the Obama years reshaped the landscape of racial politics in a way that is difficult to have imagined just eight years ago. For better and for worse, this is our inheritance. How we navigate its perils will leave its imprint on the politics of race in America for some time to come.

More here.