President Barack Obama came to prominence on the soaring rhetoric of racial transcendence. At the Democratic National Convention 10 years ago, many swooned when they watched him proclaim that there’s not a black and a white America, “not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America”; then fell harder when he spoke, in a speech on race during his first presidential run, of his “unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people.” He was a candidate who, for many, made real the prospect of harmony—which has made his statements as president, when push has come to shove, seem all the more anemic.
On Wednesday night, after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner, Obama voiced his commitment “to making sure that we have a country in which everybody believes in the core principle that we are equal under the law.” The president called the inequity of treatment under the law “an American problem”—a problem that unites us. In his remarks, made at a Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, the president struck a tone of lamentation and distance—the law-professor tone he has, by and large, taken since becoming president—at a moment that seemed to many to be especially charged. “I'm not interested in talk, I'm interested in action,” he said.
The muted response came not two weeks after Obama spoke to the public following a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer in the killing of Michael Brown, who, like Garner, was black and unarmed. To many Americans, it seems as if nothing has changed since July 2013, when a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. After that killing, Obama chillingly said that the unarmed black teenager “could have been my son ... could have been me 35 years ago.” But where was the president’s devastation, the fire; what explained his distance from what could have been his signature issue? A headline this week in the neoconservative journal Commentary announced, “America's First Black President Is Failing On Race.” In a biting satirical swipe posted on his public Facebook page, the writer Teju Cole articulated some of this feeling.
'"This is not a black or white problem,' the president said last night," Cole wrote. "'It's a problem of white people fucking with black folk, treating black life as worthless, as they've been doing in this country for centuries,' he failed to add."
Obama’s powers as a writer and orator brought him to the presidential mountaintop but, for now, he gives no sermon. It is the voices of two other black men that dominate conversation on race in liberal corners: Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist and public intellectual with a deep knowledge of American history, and Chris Rock, a beloved and puncturing comedian. On the matters of where the country finds itself at this racially charged moment, and whether to despair—questions Obama seemed more eager to resolve as a candidate than as president—both men have provided related but slightly different answers.
In late November, in The Atlantic, Coates characterized Obama’s responses to moments of racial injustice as marked by “an unmitigated optimism, an urge for calm, a fantastic faith in American institutions, an even-handedness exercised to a fault.” And he more or less understands them.
“Barack Obama is an earnest moderate. His instincts seem to lead him to the middle ground. For instance, he genuinely believes that there is more overlap between liberals and conservatives than generally admitted,” Coates wrote on Nov. 26. “On Monday he nodded toward the 'deep distrust' that divides black and brown people from the police, and then pointed out that this was tragic because these are the communities most in need of 'good policing.' Whatever one makes of this pat framing, it is not a cynical centrism—he believes in the old wisdom of traditional America. This is his strength. This is his weakness. But Obama's moderation is as sincere and real as his blackness, and the latter almost certainly has granted him more knowledge of his country than he generally chooses to share.”
That dichotomy, Coates said, is “more disappointing than enraging. The genre of Obama race speeches has always been bounded by the job he was hired to do,” that job serving as president of a “congenitally racist country.”
Rock, for his part, has expressed something less than rage at Obama. In an interview with Frank Rich published this week in New York magazine, Rock said, “He’s trying to get everybody. And I think he’s figured out, and maybe a little late, that there’s some people he’s never going to get.”
“Everybody wanted Michael Jordan, right? We got Shaq,” Rock said. “That’s not a disappointment. You know what I mean? We got Charles Barkley. It’s still a Hall of Fame career. The president should be graded on jobs and peace, and the other stuff is debatable. Do more people have jobs, and is there more peace? I guess there’s a little more peace. Not as much peace as we’d like, but I mean, that’s kind of the gig. I don’t recall anybody leaving on an up ...
“Obama started as a genius. It’s like, What? I’ve got to keep doing that? That’s hard to do! So it’s not that Obama’s disappointing. It’s just his best album might have been his first album.”
In fact, against the backdrop of piercing hurt, and the thousands who, unusually, took to the streets, both Coates and Rock witness a kind of progress, a long arc.
“Even if you think you won’t necessarily win the fight today, in your lifetime, in your child’s lifetime, you still have to fight,” Coates said on MSNBC Wednesday night. “It’s kind of selfish to say you will only fight for a victory that you will live to see. As an African-American, we stand on the shoulders of people who fought despite not seeing victories in their lifetime, or even their children’s lifetimes, or even in their grandchildren’s lifetimes. So, fatalism is not an option.”
Rock also spoke of parents and children. He told his mother’s stories “of growing up in Andrews, S.C., and the black people had to go to the vet to get their teeth pulled out. And you still had to go to the back door, because if the white people knew the vet had used his instruments on black people, they wouldn’t take their pets to the vet.”
With this in the background, Rock is more of an ameliorator than is Coates.
Countering Rich's claim that there has not been much racial progress since Obama was elected, Rock says things are different for his kids, and not only for the passage of time. And even in this moment, with racial inequality in the front of the national conversation, Rock sees Obama's legacy as surprisingly secure.
“It’s partly generational, but it’s also my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.”