The content of his character: views on Obama and change

By Michelle Chen Jan 19, 2009

According to a new CNN poll, a significant majority of Black Americans believe the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been "fulfilled." And yet the optimism about race relations has faded somewhat since the post-election euphoria has begun to taper. Are people genuinely convinced that the struggle to overcome deeply entrenched racism has finally been won? The spectrum of views on Obama’s new role is a lesson in contrasts. With a Black president entering the White House, the political establishment certainly seems ready to readjust its focus on a surface level. Today, under the fetching headline, "President-Elect Sees His Race as An Opportunity," the Washington Post focuses on not the substance of the nascent Obama presidency, but the emerging Obama aesthetic.

"Obama’s style, his habits, his sensibilities, some scholars say, will create a new White House iconography. " ‘The very fact that he is black means that we’re going to be transforming the aesthetic of the American democracy,’ said Peniel E. Joseph, a presidential historian and professor of African American studies at Brandeis University. ‘Virtually every single thing that he will do from this point on is uncharted territory. His choice of a church. The State of the Union. News conferences. Those all become new.’ "Black-oriented Ebony magazine used a cover photo of Obama emerging from his SUV in a dark suit and black shades to celebrate him as an exemplar of ‘black cool.’ His fondness for pickup basketball is well chronicled. And even his friends have commented on how his loping stride gave him a look of confidence as the cameras caught him walking the White House colonnade during his first post-election visit with President Bush."

Keith Josef Adkins at the Root reflects on the perhaps counterintuitive disparity in the survey: Blacks were more likely than Whites to see the dream as fulfilled:

"…get this, the majority of Whites don’t believe the racial Kumbaya hype, and most Blacks do. Wow, one would think it would be the reverse. I’ve been crystal-clear on this issue: I think race relations in this country stink. I think Black people have helped foster a culture where Blacks dismantling other Blacks is not only commerically-appealing, but it keeps the police employed, the penitientary’s full, and the wig stores out of stock. … Of course, this is not a new trend, but simply a sad one. But what’s even sadder is the minds of those recently-polled Black folks who believe race relations have improved. How is it that the majority of Whites can see the big picture, but Blacks can’t?"

The Black Agenda Report, which was sharply critical of Obama throughout his campaign, sees Reagan, not King, as the President-elect’s ideological antecedent, and predicts that the new administration will reaffirm systemic race and class hierarchies. B-serious at Jack and Jill Politics sees a little more hope in the linking of Obama’s prospects with King’s legacy. He compares Obama’s consensus-building approach as a continuation of the movement strategy that King helped crystallize:

"Though some may harp on his alleged ‘centrist’ or rightward leanings, I think Obama doesn’t get enough credit for the manner in which he is preparing the collective psyche of this country for a paradigmatic shift. "If we are going to solve the problems of our times, we’ll have to do it together. And though that doesn’t require checking one’s suspicions at the door, it does invite us to always be mindful of a bigger picture. Martin Luther King saw the bigger picture. To date, most signs indicate that Obama sees the bigger picture as well. It’s one of the main reasons why I voted for him. It’s the reason why I celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. today."

At Black Commentator, Horace Campbell, a professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University, views Obama through a radical lens: the frustrations and fervor that propelled Obama into office have surpassed the collective vision that real change requires:

"Messages of change, hope and peace during the election campaign had resonated with a population that wanted an end to war, militarism, fear and economic terrorism. Environmental destruction, waste, toxic dumps and toxic assets reinforced the cancers of sexism, racism, homophobia and economic exploitation. These are the elements of counter-revolution that had been set in motion after the Civil Rights Revolution in the United States. The election results of 2008 with the landslide victory of Barack Obama flowed from decades long struggles to democratize US society. The old was in the process of dying but the new was seeking desperately to be born. What was missing was the ideological and political clarity to embrace the moment in a way that would transform the politics of the United States. … "The urgency of the moment could not await the intellectual and ideological maturation of the citizens of the United States."

Maybe King’s "dream" is too simple a benchmark for today’s wildly complex political landscape. But as a historical frame of reference, King’s ideal is worth revisiting now more than ever.