At 8 years old, I nervously stood in a third-grade classroom listening to the two black women standing over me. One was Lillie Costin, not only the first black teacher I ever had, but the first black teacher I’d ever seen. The other was my mother, who told Costin, “Teddy is smart and well-behaved, but don’t hesitate to pop him if he acts up.” Costin—God bless ’er—told my mother she would keep an eye on me. And then, as I sheepishly took my seat among the gaggle of my new giggling classmates, the two ladies exchanged The Look.
In the simplest terms, The Look is unspoken dialogue that confirms both sides are, as black parishioners often say, “on one accord.” In my case, it was a mother’s plea and a sister’s promise to pay special attention to this child and not allow him to get lost in the system. It wasn’t an agreement for favoritism; it was a pact to stay particularly attuned to my development and ensure I was not shut out from any opportunity. They both knew that no one understands the plight of a black student better than a black teacher.
In 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama rode the highest black voter turnout in U.S. history to the White House, black voters felt The Look had been exchanged. It was the electoral version of what happened that morning in third-grade. African American voters, frustrated by the government’s lack of responsiveness to decades of socioeconomic disparities, felt that a black president could give them special attention and understand black America’s grievances better than any other. They didn’t assume, much less expect or desire, that Obama’s election would translate into a glut of administrative and legislative actions geared toward black people. It wasn’t favoritism African Americans sought; they simply wanted an acknowledgement that structural racism is real and some executive resolve to address it from the first president to have experienced it firsthand. But things haven’t gone quite as they had hoped. And frustration has given rise to a new generation of black voters and activists, a generation who uses more overt and dynamic techniques to influence the political agenda.