Obama and Black Lives Matter: An epilogue

Why Obama did not do enough for Black Lives Matter.

US 44th Presidency, Barack Obama retrospectives
The election of Obama offers a noteworthy parallel context in which to consider the emergence of BLM, writes Morgan [Jeffrey Arguedas/EPA]

I don’t like to write about Barack Obama any more. It’s become painful. I love him and what he represents. His wife is a national treasure. I admire his daughters and their poise. I held my breath during his farewell address, counting down the moments until he stepped off stage into the protective cover of the secret service. And now, I’ve found myself grateful that he actually survived.

Historically, in order to pursue the presidency, you needed to believe in some version of the American dream and the principles of bootstrapism. Obama believed that the nation merited hope. Yet, he remained under attack, and so did we.

Perhaps, then, it is significant that under a black president the Black Lives Matter movement, demanding nothing but the right to live and be counted, originated. Let me be clear: BLM was a youth-led grassroots movement and a response to state-sanctioned violence. It needed no permission to arise.

But the election of Obama offers a noteworthy parallel context in which to consider the emergence of BLM because it put a fine point on racial inequality and signalled the frustrations of a generation coming of age after the Civil Rights Movement.

An exemplary black man was elected into the highest office in the nation – twice – and not only was he subjected to the harshest, most racially-charged criticism himself, but the day-to-day lives of black and brown people improved very little. That the president himself kept silent was a reminder that revolutions begin not with the power but with the people.

I recognise Obama did not do enough for Black Lives Matter directly. But what president, I wonder, would have done more? The status quo has always been white supremacy, and the presidency serves to reinforce it. Still, it’s been difficult to resolve loving Obama and feeling his lack of engagement was a missed opportunity.

Obama, the president

I worry that the persecution activists experienced under Obama, who offered lukewarm support, will now intensify with real and more violent repercussions under Donald Trump.

When people are already dying en masse, it is belittling to argue that it’s better than it was. If 1892 was the most violent year of lynchings in the United States – 161 black people that we know of were murdered – then what good does it do to tell black youth that things are better if 258 black people were killed by police in 2016? The comparative lens doesn’t hold.

Obama’s actions are no surprise. The office of the presidency is predicated on the idea that this government is infallible and American democracy with its checks and balances is perfect in design. Even top-down calls for action only imagine change within the existing parameters. The president, by his very nature, is not meant to be an agent of fundamental social change.

Obama, the Chicago-based community organiser, would have certainly been an outspoken proponent of BLM. Obama, the scholar of Critical Race Theory, knows respectability politics are a farce. Obama, the president, was different.

Obama's presidency and his legacy - both tainted by the emergence of Trump as successor - serve inadvertently to further explain the continued frustrations of BLM.


Even so, we saw moments where Obama spoke candidly about race. In 2012, when he addressed the murder of Trayvon Martin, he said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” His words, although nearly a month after Martin’s murder, were unequivocal as he attempted to humanise the dehumanised – using his own perceived exceptionality to argue Martin’s life should matter as much as the life of the president’s hypothetical son. 

The blowback was unrelenting. Obama was accused of race-baiting. From this moment on, his responses to police brutality were couched in language of universalism, that this is an issue for “all Americans”.

In 2015, on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, Obama again addressed race head on, stating racism still exists and “it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.”

Once again, the outcry was intense with many shocked the president used a slur unbecoming of his office. The fact that eight presidents owned slaves while in office seemed to slip their minds. People were angry that Obama evoked race.

Both moments occurred later in his presidency, and in hindsight, signalled his intention to speak more frankly about race before he, rightly or not, shirked the responsibility in favour of respectability.

Obama’s legacy

In that sense, Obama’s presidency and his legacy – both tainted by the emergence of Trump as successor – serve inadvertently to further explain the continued frustrations of BLM.

They are physical proof that respectability politics are invalid and that the system was never built with black people in mind. We see this every day as “identity politics” becomes a slur and the political concerns of marginalised groups are dismissed while those of white Americans are simply politics.

BLM is an active response to police brutality against black communities, but more broadly it is a response to unfulfilled promises of racial equality and equity under a black president.

INTERACTIVE: What has each US president left for their successor?

Many of us imagined what it would look like for black children to come of age under a black president, and what sense of possibility might result. The nation didn’t change for the better and options for marginalised people remain limited. Instead, through BLM, we witnessed a generation acutely aware of what they are disallowed – not only their right to respect but to safety.

Obama’s legacy is malleable. In the end it will be shaped by the path of the nation. History may see him as inextricable from Trump – the immensely qualified and rhetorically cautious Obama followed by the oafish, unfiltered Trump. Must be nice to be wealthy and white.

What might it have meant for the president to be an outspoken ally?

Maybe nothing. Obama was so consistently disrespected and obstructed. Maybe everything, because it might have worked to reframe the political arena as both parties would have to acknowledge the validity of the cause without the false equivalency of blue lives or the distraction of all lives.

Like Trump, he might have broken American politics, but in this case for good. As it stands, neutrality is more desirable than regression, but it is by definition not a progressive move. Obama told us there was nothing false about hope, and we believed him. We still do. It will be interesting to see what he may do now in his role as private citizen, without upholding the office that held him back.

Danielle Fuentes Morgan is an assistant professor. She writes about African American literature and culture, comedy, and the 21st century. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.