This book tells an important story about black politics in the U.S. Frederick Harris shows how it went from Malcolm X arguing for specifically black justice to Barack Obama playing neutral on the topic of race to get (and stay) into the White House. Harris follows black political figures from Malcolm X to the first black person to run for president to more and more black politicians around the country (specifically Chicago) to Obama, who was still in his first term when this book was published.
Of course, Obama wasn’t the first black person or black politician to act race neutral. Toning down blackness to thrive in white spaces is a standard rhetorical move that got turned into a legitimate political strategy before him. Because eventually just getting the black vote isn’t enough. You do still need white votes. So the idea is to get the black voter in the primaries then drop them right after. The message goes from policy ideas to public shaming. From yes the government should deal with unemployment and incarceration because they are issues that severely target black people, to respectabilities politics and a bootstraps mentality. That’s for the working class white vote. And wallah. Now you have black and white voters.
There are also obviously more aggressively anti-black black politicians than Obama, but when he did this move, he told black people to wait and that he had to be a president to everybody. Tried to say he believes in trickle down policies, which is garbage by itself. But!!! he did actual policy stuff for the Tea Party and for LGBTQ issues (which, Harris doesn’t point out, is also a black issue). So it wasn’t that he couldn’t do anything. It was that certain black issues specifically wouldn’t get addressed. That’s why black people continue to be the most unemployed and most imprisoned group in the U.S. even tho there are more and more black people are in government positions.
It’s crazy because that’s the exact thing Martin Luther King Jr. argued for–immediacy, to not wait one more minute–and yet politicians still tell black people to just wait until help reaches them. I find that so crazy looking back. MLK really wasn’t playing around about race and poverty and got killed for it. Largely ignoring those two issues puts (and keeps) Obama in office but, as this book asks, at a major cost. I mean, almost ten years later, Obama is out here making statements about the need for new policies as a response to recent racist killings. Like bro you were literally in office when Trayvon got killed, and what did you do?
Best line: “Today, draconian policies targeted at poor and working class blacks now receive the public backing of black elites whose influence and status in American society provide cover for racist practices and policies.” -Frederick Harris