The “acting white” libel is symptomatic of a more general perspective—a perspective that argues that an important factor explaining racial economic disparities is self-defeating or dysfunctional behavior on the part of blacks themselves. And Barack Obama continuously has trafficked in this perspective. Of course, there are some black folk who engage in habits that undermine their potential accomplishments, but there are some white folk who engage in habits that undermine their potential accomplishments as well. And there is no evidence to demonstrate that are proportionately more blacks who behave in ways that undercut achievement, especially since it is clear that blacks do more with less. Nevertheless, Obama consistently has trafficked heavily in the tropes of black dysfunction. Either he is unfamiliar with or uninterested in the evidence that undercuts the black behavioral deficiency narrative. These tropes, in my view, do malicious work.
I worried that it was possible for the symbolic and inspirational aspects of having a black president would be more than offset by the damages that could be done by the messages delivered by a black president. And it has been damaging to have Barack Obama, a black man speaking from the authoritative platform of the presidency, reinforce the widely held belief that racial inequality in the United States is, in large measure, the direct responsibility of black folk. This has been the deal breaker for me: not merely a silence on white physical and emotional violence directed against black Americans, but the denial of the centrality of American racism in explaining sustained black-white disparity.
Apart from black dysfunction, Obama does acknowledge that ongoing discrimination is a partial factor explaining racial inequality and says that anti-discrimination enforcement is the type of black-specific measure that he can endorse. Of course, anti-discrimination laws do not operate exclusively on behalf of black folk. They really are universal measures intended to contain all forms of discrimination, and, while effective enforcement can improve black employment opportunities, it will do little to address massive, inherited racial wealth differences.
Obama’s general position is racial equality can be achieved—or at least approached—via policies that uplift all Americans experiencing poverty and deprivation. Obama has said that “as a general matter, my view would [be] that if you want to get at African American poverty, income gap, wealth gap, achievement gap, that the most important thing is to make sure that the society as a whole does right by people who are poor, are working class, are aspiring to a better life for their kids: higher minimum wages, full employment programs, early childhood education, those kinds of programs are by design universal but by definition, because they are helping folks who are in the worst economic situations, are most likely to disproportionately impact and benefit black Americans.”