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A field guide for White liberals who want to break up with Obama

By Visitor - Posted on 12 August 2011

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By Lisa Patel Stevens

This is an advice column for White liberals who are in genuine pain over Obama and his lack of superhero savior status as president. This is not a column justifying any of Obama’s actions as President. That is actually a bit beside the point. It’s my advice for how White liberals must see their relationship with Obama as one that was about race from the get go and how they must get real and honest about this if they actually want to save their relationship.

There are a few ways that you could misread this column, so let’s get those out of the way, our ground rules for the therapy session if you will. I am not an Obama backer (in relationship talk, I am not on his side). This is not about Obama. My focus here is you, dear White Liberal, and your role in your own heartache right now. Also, don’t even try to claim that the current Liberal dissatisfaction doesn’t have anything to do with race. We live in a racist society. We are all racialized differentially and positioned in relationship to those processes. So, don’t get scared and leave the column because you don’t want to talk about race and privilege. Sorry, but if you want the pain to get any better, you have to face the racialized music.

The day after President Obama was elected, I showed up for work at my elite private higher education institution, staffed mostly by White liberals. The atmosphere was, like in many other places in the United States, nothing less than euphoric. I listened as one of my colleagues turned to me before a meeting and said, “Isn’t it amazing? In one day everything has changed.” It truly was all I could do to blink. Was this White man honestly seeing the election of an African American man as an instant sea change in the legacies of race, power, politics, and economics that have been shaping daily existence here for hundreds of years? Yep, he was. Unfortunately, this reaction was not at all unique. Liberals and White liberals in particular fell in love with Obama. Hard. The kind of love where fantasy trumps reality. The kind of love that is so completely, fantastically delusional that billionaire Paul McCartney wed Heather Mills without a prenuptial agreement. As we all know, that kind of crazy love has pain in its future.

Over the course of the past few years, I have listened as same said colleague, and many other White liberal colleagues, journalists, and friends have started to feel less amorous and subsequently asked, “Why isn’t it [meaning he] better?” or as Emory political science professor Drew Westen posed in his expansive New York Times column, “What happened to Obama?” These questions have been posed more and more vehemently, and I have, more than once, heard genuine anger, petulance, and hurt. Not unlike a jilted lover. Westen offered a rather weak psychological analysis of Obama and indicted him for not being more like FDR and failing to offer the nation a compelling narrative, such as FDR did through his radio talks. Westen’s piece, which went viral in White liberal circles, was summarily emaciated by Jonathan Chait as flat out wrong in its political science analysis and particularly negligent in its myopic affinity for FDR. Chait took Westen to task for his irrelevant comparisons of a radio age to today’s social media twitterscape. Tom Hayden called out Westen for his complete silence on racism. In fact, Westen’s piece was so widely shared and rallied around precisely because it did not discuss race, racism or the White privilege in liberals’ dissatisfaction with Obama. In our little breakup scenario, Westen is your BFF whose house you go to after discovering that your lover did you wrong. Most times, this friend does not speak truth to you about your own role in the your heartache but details all the ways the other person alone is to blame. But maybe you had a little something to do with your relationship being on the rocks.

What remains largely silent in all the liberal dissatisfaction with Obama are the ways in which White Liberals’ relationship to Obama, his bread and butter demographic, is as imbued with racialized realities as the White Tea Partier in the closest red state. Underneath the discussions and outcries about the manufactured debt crisis, failure to close Guatanamo Bay, extended tax relief for the wealthy, record setting levels of deportations, I hear the peal of Whiteness begging for the election of the first African American president to actually be the redemption they were hoping for. This is the crux of White privilege and the full expression of what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva warned us of in his groundbreaking work, Racism without Racists. It has become so impossible to speak of race explicitly for fear of being called a racist that racism has become fully institutionalized, without needing to stop in the parking lot of interpersonal communications.

But this is, of course, conveniently in denial of the pervasive role that White privilege plays in American institutions. It is precisely because Obama has had to show his birth certificate, twice, that deportations have increased to record levels under his administration, shattering the barely set records by the Bush administration. It is precisely because of the outright Republican agenda, infused with reactionary racism, to defeat Obama’s every move that Obama has become more of a centrist. Remember when Jackie Robinson broke the color line of major league baseball? He did not do it with his fist pumped. He was courteous, pleasant and hit the hell out of the baseball, even while sustaining physical wounds and walking through racist taunts and jeers from his so-called teammates. Obama has been criticized for not being passionate enough. Rarely have I heard such outright evidence that we live in different worlds. I read his lack of passion as what has enabled him to negotiate the largely White worlds of Harvard, old school Chicago politics, and national economic campaign support. It was easy for FDR to ‘welcome [the] hatred’ of his enemies; the viability of his safety and that of his families was never as tenuous as it is for our first African American President.

So, this brings me back to you, dear White liberal, and your deep hurt that Obama is not what you thought you were voting for. Part of the problem is actually with you. Not that Obama could not be leading the country better (I’m still not on his side). But if something bothers you at a such a deeply personal level, the chances are very high that you are not simply a political junkie but that your identity, your racial identity, is wrapped up in your expectations. White liberalism wants Obama to be bold, to turn the Titanic around, to be the caped savior of countless liberal causes, all so that he, and you, could embody the postracialism that those most privileged by the racist reality desperately desire. Most anyone who has looked down the business end of racism knows that it is not that simple. There is not a person in this country whose racialized identity is not activated by the images of this President. For me, I am endlessly proud of his presence in the White House and, like Bryian K. Revoner, am holding out my hopes for the safe and uneventful exit from the White House for President Obama and his family. This, even while I cringe at the actions of an elected imperialist on attack mode. Truly, as a White liberal, how could your racialized experiences of the world and inequity not have something to do with your deep, although illogical and shortsided, desire for one black man to change everything. Overnight.

If you want to break up with Obama, go ahead, but at least be more honest about why you are jumping the ship you wanted built in the first place. Minimally, do not allow yourself to be party to political discourses like the one Westen circulated that wallow in hurt and leave out entire realms of political, economic and societal reality. Each time that you are assigning all responsibility and guilt in Obama’s lap, you are making a poor and simplistic analysis of a vastly more complicated political theatre, but you are also blindly ignoring a context in which racism is institutionalized thoroughly. And since you benefit from that institutionalization, well, it doesn’t make you look so good.

Second, do not then hold up the actions of another single person as the image to what you really desire; this is the bedrock of ill-conceived affairs. It is a second verse in the same wrongly tuned song of overindividualizing complicated realities. The beloved FDR in Westen and thousands of White Liberals’ heartbreak is the same leader who, while coming in at the tail end of an economic collapse and finding ways to wrest the country out of it, also placed thousands of Japanese Americans in concentration camps and started social programs like Social Security on the basis of exclusion of African Americans. FDR vacillated in his policies and enacted racist policies also because of his sociocultural location and his context.

But mostly, be more honest with yourself about the personally privileged hopes you had hinged to Obama. Realize that assigning a racially minoritized person the responsibility of absolving all White folks from their own histories and privilege is outlandish and, yes, racist. Denying the context in which we all are racially socialized only works to the advantage of preserving an unjust system. Stop it.

Finally, figure out how to be in your relationship in a more complicated fashion, one that loves and supports and critiques. Get over the fantasy that you had and wake up to the realities of what it means when the liberal base of this country cannot back and support the multi-layered policy work that needs to happen to protect the poor and disenfranchised. If you don’t, you may be critiquing President Bachman soon. Ironically, that will be less personally painful and probably fun for you (remember the cheap high of watching Tina Fey’s impressions of Sarah Palin?) But it will also be much harder on the daily lives of the disenfranchised in this country.

Lisa Patel Stevens is an associate professor of race, language, and education in Boston. A daughter of immigrants, Lisa has been working on critical participatory action research projects with recently immigrated youth in Boston for the last six years. Prior to this work, she was a journalist, high school teacher, and policymaker. You can read more of her writings here.

President Obama has shown that a Black guy is just as capable of screwing up as a White guy. Now is the time to honor gender equality and elect a woman to show that they can also screw up as well as a Black or White guy.

Obama has been compared to Carter and in that context Ted Kennedy had the forsight to see that 1980 was a lost cause and ran. Democratic Heirarchy does not have the courage to do the same.

There was no way Obama could be in for a second term until I saw what the Republicans have tossed into the litter box.

Would a white male have had to move to the center like Obama? One way to read your article is that we should never vote for a non-white or female again because such a person faces larger obstacles to getting policies for the poor put in place.

So, as a white progressive, I should only vote for white males if I want policies that help the poor (and minorities) to be passed during that president's tenure? It seems as if you are saying the racist culture in this society makes it impossible for a non-white/female to be passionate and advocate for the disenfranchised (ironically, he was able to be passionate during the speeches pre-election. How could racism cause him to be impassionate as president and passionate while running for office? WOuldn;t teh same forces hold true in both situations? Maybe he was just being a politician and telling people what they wanted to hear and not having any intention of following through?

(sorry for formatting issues . .. for some reason my paragraph breaks don't show up here.)

Ok, here's my thoughts upon a single read of the article.

First off, the strengths. I think that it is obviously informed by some close contact with and insight into the psychology of a particular strata of petty-bourgeois white liberal Democrats who are disaffected by the political program Obama has instituted in tenure as president.

There is an attempt at historicizing the ideological connection between FDR and Obama which is interesting, even if overall lacking in two main ways, 1.) it is completely devoid of any analysis of the shifts in capital accumulation that happened during the long transition between the beginning of World War II (aka, during the rise of FDR) and the end of the Post-War boom in the late 50s and onwards until the early 1970s which culminated in Nixon de-commodifying the US Dollar and removing it from the gold standard (sending shockwaves throughout the world economy, where every single world currency was pegged to the USD as a result of the post-war Bretton Woods agreement.) 2.) Secondly, and I would argue completely relatedly, the article misunderstands the role of individual agency amongst strata of the ruling class and state apparatus - in other words, it assigns way too much power to FDR's ability as an individual, white, male to implement social programs and ensure employment. FDR was not able to carry out these programs and policies because of his personal identity - in fact, his personal racial identity had almost no role in this. The reasons why FDR put forward a program such as the New Deal was because it matched up with the material necessities of a crisis-ridden capitalism which needed a World War (II) to temporarily raise its rates of profit and expand its productive capacity. Obama is not able to do this NOT because he is a black male (although the article is correct that as a black male he gets way more racialized ideological attacks than any other president has - since, of course, there's never been a black president before!) -

No, Obama is not able to carry out anything like the New Deal because the material basis of capitalist society has completely shifted since the time of FDR. Nowadays world capitalism is in a incredibly crisis-ridden state that does not pose easy ways out (except new rounds of accumulation in Africa, perhaps?) so it is stuck with attempting to maintain its rate of profit and not let its huge debt problems collapse on themselves by implementing austerity programs which seek to allow the capitalist states to manage their debts (in the US maintaining values of treasury bonds and bills is key). Capitalism, and its shifting phases of accumulation, is the reason that Obama is not able to do what FDR is - NOT his personal racial identity.

What's the importance of this type of analysis? Well, perhaps most importantly is that it's actually historical. Attempting to focus on institutional racism without looking at the historical development of the capitalist nation-state which we call the U$A/AmeriKKKa is hollow at best, and ideologically confusing at worst. Look at what is directly stated in the article . . .

"Get over the fantasy that you had and wake up to the realities of what it means when the liberal base of this country cannot back and support the multi-layered policy work that needs to happen to protect the poor and disenfranchised. "

"Multi layered policy work"??? What does this mean? What kind of policies can be implemented to stop the intense austerity regimes which are being constructed to rip apart public education (as if it was great to begin with!), social security, and deny so many access to healthcare? It's reformist and liberal to suggest that "multi layered policy" can do anything meaningful for the "poor and disenfranchised". I challenge anyone to name a single piece of legislation passed in the last 30 years which has been meaningful for the "poor and disenfrancised" proletariat. I can think of NONE. Even the New Deal, which the author seems to uncritically accept as some type of model of social progress (even granting her absolutely correct partial critique of some of FDRs policies around Japanese internment, etc) as opposed to calling it what it was: KEYNESIANISM! The program of state-intervention into production, along with high intensity military production, which formed the basis of high employment and profitability during the WWII years. This is nothing but the attempt of capitalism to survive its inherent crisis tendencies, not any type of social progress.

This quote highlights the contradictory position of the author in relation to US capitalism:

The beloved FDR in Westen and thousands of White Liberals’ heartbreak is the same leader who, while coming in at the tail end of an economic collapse and finding ways to wrest the country out of it, also placed thousands of Japanese Americans in concentration camps and started social programs like Social Security on the basis of exclusion of African Americans. FDR vacillated in his policies and enacted racist policies also because of his sociocultural location and his context.

On the one hand, she criticizes the intensively racist policies of FDR, while on other hand capitulating to bourgeois ideology by granting that FDR was able to "wrest the country out of" an economic collapse. No mentioning of capitalism, keynesianism, or anything of the sort. This is part of the author's race-reductionism and ultimate acceptance of capitalism as an economic system which must continue to exist without challenge. The real challenge, in her eyes, is "institutionalized racism," not racialized white supremacist capitalism.

So, what would my perspective be? Well, yes, Obama IS an imperialist and a capitalist politician. He also DOES experience racialized attacks from sectors such as the Tea Party and I'm sure major sectors of the white working class. This DOES highlight interesting racial dynamics in the US, most particularly the rising threat of a fascist movement which pits poor white workers AND even sectors of poor black workers against undocumented migrant workers (latino, south asian, etc etc). It's the dynamics amongst the proletariat of the US that we must be most attuned to, not the non-stop confusion of white liberals, or the obviously racist attacks on the president of AmeriKKKa. What's more important than this is to see how the BASE of the tea party and other reactionaries are doing amongst the white proletariat, and seeing how this effects the latino proletariat and black proletariat. What is the current state of black brown relations amongst the working poor? How are white workers reacting to latino workers in the midst of increasing unemployment. How does the ongoing deindustrialization of the US (especially places like DETROIT, where there are huge sections of the city that were once black communities that are ghost towns) relate to racial dynamics amongst the oppressed class?These are the questions which are of a strategic nature if we're serious about making a rev. in a country like the US. It plays too much into the hands of academic abstraction to single out attacks on Obama SEPARATE from the realities of undocumented workers, black workers, and other racialized workers (including whites) which form the actual base of this capitalist society.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. If you got this far right on! I liked reading the article because it helped me flesh out some of my own thoughts . . . I'm down to be totally wrong and would really like to hear other perspectives. I think it's crucial that we understand that the system we're living in is capitalism and that it's in that context that racial dynamics of white supremacy and nationalism play out. Colonialism was compelled by European capitalism to take over the world and racialize it, and capitalism was the result. Capital was forever colored by white supremacy based on this genesis in colonialism. Now we're left with racialized, white supremacist imperialist capitalism and we've got to name it as such in order to really destroy the material basis of racial oppression.

Hello Visitor,

Dear CCI, why do we not get to be actual people? This is Leigh Patel Stevens, writer of the piece in question.

So, in the interest of not creating a back and forth on how you read and, I think, misread some of my points, I want to add momentum to what I believe to be the most worthwhile parts of your (whoever you are, sorry I'm not using your name) contributions.

I particularly appreciate the worthwhile point of how capitalism plays into the structured realities of a ruling class society that is conjoined with a White Supremist racialized identity. They are inseparable and act as such; White supremacy is key to pitting working class White folks against brown and black folks. And, yes, it plays out in owning class' racialized identities as well. A robust engagement with systemic oppression cannot pick its fight solely about race. Or class. Or gender.

I agree with you that the most insidious and far-reaching effects of this capitalist White supremacist society manifest in mechanisms that make the working class fight each other. That is hegemony crystallized. However, I do not agree that there is neither room nor necessity to critique the most privileged in society, particularly while they paradoxically bemoan a system but do not implicate themselves in it. In fact, to sideline a critique of one part of the system is play into the system. There should be ongoing interrogations and destabilizations of several aspects of an oppressive system. That takes vigilance and loving (yep I said it) critique of each other as we work towards a system that doesn't routinely and systemically crush the poor and racialized minorities under its heel.

Part of what we all have to become much better at is seeing the mechanisms of the system, how we each positioned within it, and how those positionalities afford intertwined and historied aspects of privilege and oppression. To that end, I thank you for thoughtful comments. They help.

But you know, I'm not a fan of FDR or believe he delivered the nation from economic despair by way of capitalism. Come on now. The central thesis of the piece is that individualizing and alternately villazining or heroicizing any person in a conversation about an entire system is fuel to the fire of indivdiualistic meritocratic mythology.

Leigh Patel Stevens

The liberal group is such a small base of Obama's support, this is the reason Obama has moved to the center just as Bill Clinton had to. I think liberals might make up less than 10% of the American public. What they think is really irrelevant. They are as big a group as vegans or vegetarians in this country and how many people care what those people think? By the way, I am both white, vegatarian and liberal so I know whereof I speak. I totally agree with the assessment that White Liberal is not an accurate term and European-American is a much more accurate label.

The group you speak of wanted Obama to self-destruct by going totally to the left and alienating most of America. He certainly would have been a one-term president if he had done what they wanted. The writer of this article states she is not an Obama supporter and I want to go on record as saying I am an Obama supporter and will do what I can in my limited capacity to help his re-election campaign. The President has a very limited capacity to influence job creation in this country, that is totally the bailiwick of the business community(spare me the crap about taxes) and I agree with at least 95% of what he has said although I must note it is not as easy to find his speeches online as prior presidents.

I believe a part of this argument about racism also must address the issue I call "territorialism". The take over of this land area in the 1600 to 1700 years was done by Europeans and the resistance (anti-immigration protests, etc) is rooted in this. It is just like the nut job in Norway who went on the bombing and shooting spree at the childrens camp to protest "multiculturalism". I think a united Earth agenda might be the answer here but how to go about this, I don't know. Open to suggestions, ideas...

I admit i am white. I refuse to accept "liberal" I'm way way far left of that- at the very least extreme radical socialisst.

it seems to me you are imagining a stereotype tha may not even exist, but ifit does, it ain't me. I wanted Obama to win, but only because of how awful were bush and cheney.

I had no expectations because all i wanted was for the wars to end and he said during the camaign he wanted to hit Afghanistan harder, and ofcourse he did that escalating the bombing, the drones, spreading it to Pakistan. What is there to like about any of that?

I was never "hurt" or "disappointed" about this man. I was simply enraged at his war mongering. and i'm getting more angry every time he sends another drone to bomb helpless and innocent Afghanistan. I don't give a damn about his race. it's his bmbs i hate.

paul siemering

If you're a Conservative, you're incorrigibly a racist. If you're a Liberal and dislike the Obama Administration, it's because you haven't admitted to yourself that you're a racist. Fascinating.  I wonder who if anyone is allow to disagree with him.

 What fascinates me is how you missed such a clear and well made point. She repeated several times that her point is not about whether or not you agree with the Obama administration. This is not the point. Read it again.

that explaining the workings of systems of oppression, what it means to be anti-racist and how to fight for equity is like a car mechanic explaining what fuel injections has to do with horse power to someone who clearly has no interest in knowing.

Sorry, if my comment is dismissive to you, but your summary trivializes the point of this article.

(1)  'Whites,' give up 'White.' you are European-Americans. How come every other group is called by its continent ('Asian-American, African-Amer, even Native Amer) and you get to be just a 'color'?  White is a political term = invasion, subjugation, and exploitation. If you are not that, you are not 'White.'

(2)  Your essay is right on in confronting European-Americans' expectations of salvation and absolution via their fantasies of what a presumed-non-European President ("the first President whose name ends in a vowel") was supposed to do for them.  BUT what is most discouraging is Europeans' (Americans') ignorant, perception of and misplaced apprehension about Mr Obama's tenor, style and tactics.    (a) He has a headwind as President??  He's had a headwind all his life!! He's Black!!   That headwind scares you-all a lot more than it does him!!  You obsess about it, he could care less!  Chill!!   (b) What happens the moment Mr Obama begins to act even a teensy bit angry or aggressive? More forceful, as you foolishly wish he would be?  Remember, !!He's Black!!!!!  (c)  Do you not see the tactic, through Mr Obama's stance re "town hall meetings," the Tea Party, the recent collapse of Congressional integrity to corporate whoredom -- tactics in which the O team can stay calm, while his enemies are given all the room they need to make _complete_ fools of themselves, to reveal their true cynicism, selfishness and evil for all the world to see -- while Mr O is, after all, still **President of the United States**  -- *of course* his WM enemies can't stand taking orders from an N-word!!     But when he is ready, after all the foolishness is fully on display, Mr Obama will....  PUT THE HAMMER DOWN.   No matter how "disappointed" you are now, *ye of little faith,* scaredy White liberals, grow some guts!!   WORK for Mr Obama's re-election -- don't chicken now!!   Like the oppressed have always done, he is sizing up the fools who oppose him, and in his second term, will use all the power at his disposal to clean house for real.  This is EXACTLY what his enemies fear the most!!!  Ye of little faith!!!   Chill!!    Pay, play, work, dig -- make SURE he is re-elected. Don't you DARE vote for poor Ross Perot, dear Ralph Nader, dear Dennis Kucinich, or anyone else! Aw-w-w, you're disappointed now?? Jus cuz you ain Black don mean you can't dig dis!

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