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