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Category: Politics, Race/Ethnicity

What Obama Really Means for Black America and Beyond

| November 21, 2008


The soon-to-be first family presents a potent role model. Here, the author, a sociologist and African American Studies assistant professor at Northwestern, describes the other half of the political agenda that is essential if we are to embrace the “politics of personal responsibility.”

The global celebration of President-elect Barack Obama's victory, punctuated by the teary faces of civil rights activists such as John Lewis, represents a historic moment that almost is beyond words. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the victory, with omnipresent images of the soon-to-be first family, has re-ignited the call by political leaders and media commentators alike for African Americans to once and for all lay down the burden of “black victimhood.” Barack and Michelle are held up in the media as role models for a black community that has witnessed black families struggle and all too often falter.

Prescribed for decades in the black community, personal responsibility and community efficacy are being pushed in the context of what Barack Obama accomplished. The message: stay in school, work hard, and build strong families. By playing by the rules, you will earn your place among the prosperous and powerful.

This point of view has value, but something crucial is missing from the analyses of the newly emboldened purveyors of personal responsibility who argue that blacks must step up now and make changes.

“Stepping up” to the example that the Obamas have set as role models can only be realized if government and corporate interests meet individuals halfway. A call to value education is difficult to embrace in failing schools. A challenge to leave the street corner is less enticing when no jobs await you and the home you return to is dilapidated. And a plea to parent your children is much harder to heed without the support of a living wage, health care and a safe neighborhood.

Can progressive politics be married to the politics of personal responsibility?

Personal responsibility is now verboten in some circles, associated with the limitations of 1996 welfare reform and the public attacks that the black poor have endured from black and white observers. The term must be reclaimed and coupled with a political agenda that empowers rather than degrades marginalized groups.

The millions of newly registered voters living in disadvantaged communities should be encouraged to seize this moment to work together and improve the world around them. But placing the burden for progress solely on the shoulders of the disadvantaged ignores the historical wrongs and present-day environmental barriers that systematically confine their economic mobility: residential segregation, substandard schools, limited work opportunities and a tattered social safety net that often fails to help them weather the hardest of times or guarantee basics such as health care.

Obama’s keen political instincts and in-depth understanding of the relationship between economic instability and race, gained from his years as a community organizer, suggest that he gets this. But he also needs us as a nation to remain aware and committed to addressing the sober realities of poverty and racism that still haunt us. It takes a media willing to investigate the barriers that halt the progress of many and journalistic advocates ready to explore solutions. It doesn’t make sense to lecture disadvantaged communities to embrace personal and collective efficacy without supporting policies that break down the serious obstacles to such success.

Can we lift up Obama as a role model for black achievement while getting behind a policy agenda that addresses many of the entrenched economic disparities that are causes and consequences of black strife?

The recent conversation about the historical and social significance of Obama’s victory has largely taken place apart from the discussion of the three issues that will likely dominate the policy agenda during his term: the current economic crisis, the health care system and the nation’s reliance of foreign oil.

These massive projects can provide political cover to ignore those at the bottom of the economic and social ladder in favor of targeting the voter-rich middle class. Or they can offer a political opening to pursue opportunities that allow more low-income and working class Americans—a disproportionate number of who are racial and ethnic minorities—to enter the middle class as the president-elect attempts to lift all boats.

The fundamental question for Obama’s domestic agenda will be: Just who lives on the Main Street that he has signaled as his priority, and can those of low socioeconomic status call it home along with the rest of Americans?

We must harness the hopefulness and collective commitment fashioned by this watershed moment in the life of our country for Americans most in need of hope. With each reach up the economic ladder, all Americans should be met by an administration and a public willing to extend its grasp in return.