The Emancipation of Barack Obama

Why the reelection of the first black president matters even more than his election

Charles Dharapak/AP

In early 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, the Georgia politician Henry Benning appealed to the Virginia Secession Convention to join the Confederate cause. In making his case, he denounced the “Black Republican party” of President Abraham Lincoln, arguing that his election portended “black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything.” The predicted envelopment surely took longer than he thought, but by 2008, Benning looked like Nostradamus. After the black governors, the black legislators, the integrated juries, Benning’s great phantom—“black everything”—took human form in the country’s 44th president, Barack Obama.

A sober observer could have dismissed Obama’s election in 2008 as an anomaly rather than a sea change. As the first black presidential nominee, Obama naturally benefited from record turnout among African Americans—turnout that might not be sustainable in future elections. He also benefited from an opposition that was saddled with two wars, an unpopular incumbent, and an economy in free fall. In black communities, there was a distinct awareness of the situation: if white folks are willing to hand over the country to a black man, then we must really be in bad shape.

Entering the 2012 election, Obama was no longer a talented rookie; he was the captain of the football team, with a record vulnerable to interpretation, and to attack. The economy was still sluggish. American troops were still being shot in Afghanistan. His base seemed depressed. And the most-loyal members of that base, African Americans, were facing an array of “voter ID” laws that had—what a coincidence—bloomed following his election.

These voter-ID laws were functionally equivalent to a poll tax. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University concluded that the cost of compliance with the recent measures would, in most cases, easily exceed the price of the Virginia poll tax ($10.64 in today’s dollars), which the U.S. Supreme Court famously declared unconstitutional in 1966. This new type of poll tax seemed to foreordain fewer African Americans at the polls, not more, and thus an election that did not resemble 2008 so much as all the elections before it, elections wherein white demography proved to be American destiny.

In fact, these fears proved unfounded. If anything, the effort to reinstate a poll tax appears to have backfired. The black community refused to comply with expectations, and instead turned out in droves. In 2012, minority turnout across the country exceeded 2008 levels; unlike the turnout of other minorities, however, black turnout was not fueled by demographic growth but by a higher percentage of the black electorate going to the polls. For the first time in history, according to a study by Pew, black turnout may even have exceeded white turnout.

You could be forgiven for looking at African American history as a long catalog of failure. In the black community, it is a common ritual to deride individual shortcomings, and their effect on African American prospects. The men aren’t doing enough. The women are having too many babies. The babies are having babies. Their pants are falling off their backsides. But November’s electoral math is clear—African Americans didn’t just vote in 2012, they voted at a higher rate than the general population.

The history of black citizenship had, until now, been dominated by violence, terrorism, and legal maneuvering designed to strip African Americans of as many privileges—jury service, gun ownership, land ownership, voting—as possible. Obama’s reelection repudiates that history, and shows the power of a fully vested black citizenry. Martin Luther King Jr. did not create the civil-rights movement any more than Malcolm X created black pride. And the wave that brought Obama to power precedes him: the black-white voting gap narrowed substantially back in 1996, before he was even a state legislator. The narrowing gap is not the work of black messiahs, but of many black individuals.

The second chapter of the Obama presidency begins exactly a century and a half after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect. Much like the proclamation, the Obama presidency has been a study in understated and reluctant radicalism. The proclamation freed no slaves in those lands loyal to Lincoln and was issued only after more-moderate means failed. Yet Lincoln’s order transformed a war for union into a war for abolition, and in so doing put the country on a road to broad citizenship for its pariah class. The 2012 election ranks among the greatest milestones along that road. We are not yet in the era of post-racialism. But the time of “black everything” is surely upon us.