10 Years After Obama, Has Change Really Come To America?

In an excerpt from his latest book, writer Kevin Powell examines how we got from the historic election of Barack Obama to the equally historic election of Donald Trump.
November 2018 will mark 10 years since the election of Barack Obama.
November 2018 will mark 10 years since the election of Barack Obama.
Spencer Platt via Getty Images

In the summer of 2004, I was assigned to cover the Democratic National Convention in Boston by Black Entertainment Television (BET), in partnership with CBS. So I found myself roaming through that city’s FleetCenter wondering if then-Sen. John Kerry, the party’s nominee for president, could actually defeat President George W. Bush and the Republican Party’s uncanny ability to make him seem like a woefully unqualified and unpatriotic candidate.

I cannot recall if there was a buzz about Illinois Sen. Barack Obama giving the keynote speech for the convention. What I do recall is that I was struck by how baby-faced he was, how polished Obama was as a speaker—what folks call charisma—and by the fact that he was very clear about his message: that there is only one America and that the divides were senseless.

Bush and his administration had wreaked havoc on the American people in that first term. Folks were mad thirsty for something, for someone, for anything, that would offer them an alternative to what we felt, to be blunt, was evil and sheer stupidity in the White House. Obama embodied that.

He was dynamic, handsome, had pushed his way up from a working-class life to become a Harvard-trained lawyer. He had been a community organizer, and the very fact that he was half-white and half-black meant that right in his blood was the ability to speak to a range of people, to be a unifier, as manifested in this, his first national speech.

And as we moved beyond that July 2004 speech, to Obama getting elected to the U.S. Senate and Bush. getting re-elected to the presidency, to the human tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, to the various wars in various places, to the nasty rifts that continued among Americans, to a persistent and loud rumor that Obama would indeed run for president. You could almost feel the desperation in the air for that to happen, for him to save us.

“Obama, no matter how noble his campaign, was being propped up to mask the searing racism and economic injustices of our country.”

And when the day did occur in February of 2007, in the same Springfield, Illinois, where Abe Lincoln had begun his political career, I knew in my gut that we were about to experience something like a phenomenon that we had not experienced in decades in the United States. And sure enough, we did.

His was a presidential run for the ages.

And I knew it was every inch a mirage, a lie, in my bones, because I knew America too well. I felt that Obama, no matter how noble his campaign, was being propped up to mask the searing racism and economic injustices of our country. It was as if one single person, made to be a kind of superhuman superman, a savior, could, like an animated Disney character, hypnotically evaporate what far too many Americans had long experienced, physically, emotionally, spiritually and economically.

Even with my doubts I too, like many, hosted an election night watch party—Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008—at a nightclub in New York City’s Greenwich Village called Element. Those who were complete strangers reached across race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, no religion, ability and disability to hug each other as it was announced that Obama had won! People openly wept, some convulsed in total shock and had to sit down, on a chair, on the dance floor, particularly when now President-elect Obama came out on the stage in that frosty Chicago air and declared, “Change has come to America. . . .”

Obama had become president of these United States. I cannot stress enough the massive psychological effect Obama’s presidential victory had on this country. For whites, it was an opportunity to say they had participated in the impossible, getting this black, this biracial, this multicultural man, into the White House, that it proved there were white Americans who did view the others, at least others like Obama, as equal.

For black people and other people of color, like my mother, it validated their lifetimes of hardship and abuse and neglect by this country, even as we have been as patriotic or more patriotic than our white sisters and brothers. It meant that elusive American Dream had come one giant leap forward. It meant, for the first time, that when children of color went to school, they would no longer see images solely of white male presidents of the United States, but now someone who could be them, and they, him.

During those eight years of the Obama administration, I would watch the unconditional love for Obama slowly begin to disappear, beginning with the battle over health care for all Americans—“Obamacare.” I observed the indisputable sound and fury of white people, including angry white men in the United States Congress, declare war on the president.

I would notice that Obama, over time, would get more death threats. Despite being billed as a unifier when he was running for office, he was just as swiftly turned into a polarizing figure, hated by certain kinds of whites, revered by most black folks even as a growing chorus wondered, aloud, what he was doing for us.

"Change has come to America."
"Change has come to America."
EMMANUEL DUNAND via Getty Images

I think President Obama started with the best of intentions, did some good things given the mess he was handed from Bush. Yet the sad reality on this 10th anniversary year of Obama’s historic election is not much has genuinely changed for the vast majority of Americans.

It is not actually his fault, because the president of the United States is fundamentally a mouthpiece or a figurehead position for the power structure of this country. A power structure, many have learned, because of things like the Occupy Wall Street Movement, that is woefully slanted toward the richest 1 percent of our population.

Obama did what he could with what he had to use, but the truth is that this is not about the president of the United States at the end of the day. It is about power and privilege, who has it and who does not. There is nothing inherently wrong with being wealthy. That is not my issue and, heck, I would love to be wealthy myself, as long as my wealth white by stepping on or over my fellow human beings.

The issue is we do not, and have never, been a democracy. All people in this land never been treated equally. Like never. We know what happened to Native Americans, to Africans who were enslaved. But we also know that poor whites have not been treated equally either or poor people of any background. Nor have we treated women of any race as equals. If we did, if we do, then there would be no need for #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in the 21st century, over 200 years since the American Revolution.

And along the way, we have also disparaged Native Americans, the Irish and Jewish and Italian and Polish and German and Japanese and Chinese and Puerto Rican and Mexican people, among many others. We have hated on Arabs, Muslims, the disabled, and we certainly have hated on lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender and queer people. We have been equal opportunity with our hate, equal opportunity in our reckless disregard for full democracy, with each new era, each new generation, identifying someone new to hate.

“White manhood is mad fragile in our nation, has always been, and by and large has always been defined, at least partially, by its oppression and domination of others. This is the autobiography of America.”

At the core of what is America is whiteness, or, rather, heterosexual white maleness. The straight white man, in the main, as the doer of all that is great and noble and good and heroic. This is what we were taught when we were children as we were given the stories of Christopher Columbus discovering America, of George Washington never telling a lie, of Abe Lincoln freeing the slaves, of Woodrow Wilson being the great protector of American democracy during the years that marked World War I.

White manhood is mad fragile in our nation, has always been, and by and large has always been defined, at least partially, by its oppression and domination of others. Racism is both the crutch and the weapon of those white men in America who are highly insecure and utterly mediocre and who fear the power and genius of the others. This is not a fairy tale. This is not a mirage. This is the autobiography of America.

So, as I heard the shock of folks when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in that November 2016 presidential election, I wondered what history they had read, or not read, which America they had been living in their entire lives. For the rise of Trump and the last stand of angry white men—of angry white people—are not new; for this racism is not new, not even remotely. Nor is this belief system called white supremacy new, either, and nor is it solely confined to people, back then, or now, who are defined as conservatives, as racists, as not believing in the equality of us all.

Whenever there have been victories of any kind for black people, for other people of color, in our America, there is almost an insanely immediate reaction of great discomfort and great backlash. It happened with the civil rights movement, it happened with Obama. It is a sick need to prove superiority, to restore the so-called natural way of things in America, which means white people at the top and the rest of us scrambling at the bottom, evermore.

Indeed, what set the table for Trump was the racist backlash to Obama and those congressional members who vowed to block anything he did, those whites in power who fanned the flames of fear by placing blame on immigrants, on movements like Black Lives Matter. Those whites made it seem as if they were more patriotic, as a matter of fact, than any other group in America.

For sure it is problematically ironic that Black Lives Matter was birthed during the two terms of the nation’s first black president. For sure, I do believe that even the explosion of police and civilian murders of black bodies was likewise a backlash to the Obama years, be it George Zimmerman gunning down black teenager Trayvon Martin, or Dylann Roof blowing away black folks in a prayer circle he had joined in that Charleston, South Carolina, church. These are acts of racial terrorism, designed to create fear, paranoia, a sense of doom.

And the Republicans, as toxic as they wanna be, were hellbent on stopping everything President Obama tried to do, even if it meant hurting economically their own white working-class and middle-class base. They could simply blame the struggles of those white sisters and brothers on Obama, Obamacare, Mexicans, immigrants, black people, Muslims, anyone and anything that was—and is—an easy target.

Their anger at Obama, at the others, was manufactured, in a sense, and it also was—and is—real.

JIM WATSON via Getty Images

That is why this is, without question, an American tragedy, the presidency of Trump, the leadership of both him and his vice president, Mike Pence, and what all of this has wrought.

When Trump won, I already knew that he would, in spite of his ugly, sexist comments about grabbing women by their _______, and in spite of his crude and vicious attacks on Mexicans, blacks, Hillary Clinton and so many others. He comes from the same racism that makes me paranoid, every single day of my life, whenever I leave my home, so paranoid that I may never come back alive, that I retreat to grab my wallet, or at least my driver’s license, so that I can be properly identified if something should happen to me at the hands of the police or some white racist, specifically, simply for being a black male in America. Trump’s bravado and racism and sexism may have shaken the very foundation of legions of white liberals, but it was not a surprise to any of us, me, my mother, people like us, who have had to survive this sort of political and emotional and spiritual molestation our entire lives.

As I have watched the solemn yet brave march of women in Hollywood, the media, politics, the arts, in academia, in the sports world and corporate America stepping forward to proclaim #MeToo. What has not been lost on me are the number of liberal or progressive white men they are accusing, very powerful white men, who have raped and molested and harassed and discriminated against or alienated so many of these women.

I honestly never thought I would ever witness something like this, where white men in power would be challenged in this way.

“Until people who are outraged by the injustices done to them feel equally the injustices done to others, nothing will ever be permanently transformed in our America.”

I have wondered, as we have seen men halted in their tracks upon accusations of sexual violence in some form, why has this not happened with systemic racism in the 400 years that black folks have been in America, given how much nonstop violence and harassment we have faced? Why has there never, like never, been the same massive reaction, the same challenges where the guilty or the accused have been forced to come clean, to resign, to leave careers behind, in the wake of their racist abuse of us?

Until people who are outraged by the injustices done to them feel equally the injustices done to others, nothing will ever be permanently transformed in our America.

That is what democracy looks like, equals, yes, but also having the humility and dignity to listen to those who have been victimized by whatever power and privilege you might have. You have both historical and present-day benefits. So, the questions: What are you going to do, to challenge that, in your white communities, within your white families?

What are you doing to educate or re-educate yourself not to be racist, not to be so fragile, as a white person regardless of your gender or gender identity, so that you do not get bent out of shape any time a person of color says anything that challenges the very real white supremacy that permeates every corner of America, and this world? Or do you actually believe, sister, brother, fellow human being, that white supremacy is only something that is owned by racist right-wingers who show up in places like Berkeley, California, or Charlottesville, Virginia, to spread violence and fear and hate?

At the end of the day, I simply cannot erase my skin color even as I am clear I have to challenge sexism and classism and homophobia and transphobia and all forms of hate and oppression, always, within myself. What I am saying is that even within our different marginalized groups, there remains, still, a very real skin-color hierarchy. And while that goes on, that tiny minority that controls everything continues to horde its power and its privilege, and it continues to dictate to the rest of us what we can and cannot do, who we can and cannot be.

Because, again, this is so much bigger than who is president of the United States. Because this is so much bigger than the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. This is so much bigger than Trump ever getting impeached and us winding up with the equally problematic Mike Pence. This is about the very soul of America, which way forward will we choose, or do we remain stuck, or do we continue to drift backward?

“There has to be that radical revolution in this nation, where people come first, not power and privilege.”

In other words, it should be basic for any human being to know that that love is better than hate, peace is better than violence, knowledge is better than ignorance, courage and compassion are better than fear, and a healthy respect for difference is always better than just tolerating people.

If nothing else, Obama’s presidential run in 2008 revealed, if just for the months of that historic campaign, what we could be when the best of who we are comes together for a common purpose; when there are love and compassion and kindness and nonviolence and peace and a vision for the human family; when we are coming together, not fighting or destroying each other.

This is why Barack Obama touched many in 2008. This is why both Bernie Sanders and Trump touched many in 2016. Yes, I am putting their three names together because whether we like it or not, what they have in common, is that they said what people felt, they said what people needed to hear. This is why, even with their many shortcomings, it suggests a different path for American leaders.

This is why, I believe, people in America rejected both the Bush and Clinton political dynasties in 2016. People are tired of business as usual, the same recycled political speak, the same names and faces, no matter how well-intentioned. Polar opposites, yes, but Sanders and Trump represent truth-telling to their followers. Moreover, that truth-telling has got to be rooted in what is best for all people, not just some people. That truth-telling has got to be about healing people, not hurting people. That truth-telling cannot be limited to when politicians are campaigning, nor is it just American politics that needs to be transformed.

Most importantly, we need a new kind of American and global leadership, whether someone holds a political office or not. For sure, it cannot just be an endless line of people running for political office—women, people of color, LGBTQ people, disabled Americans, others. No. There is a reason why countless people detest and do not trust politicians.

There has to be that radical revolution of values Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of in this nation, where people come first, not power and privilege; where there is opportunity for all people, not career moves and relationships that only benefit a few; a revolution where people matter more than things, where people matter more than sporting events, where we do not continue to prop up symbols that do not translate into justice for all.

The above is an edited excerpt from Kevin Powell’s latest book, My Mother. Barack Obama. Donald Trump. And The Last Stand Of The Angry White Man available wherever books are sold on Sept. 4.

Kevin Powell is an author and an acclaimed political, cultural, literary and hip-hop voice in America. Follow him on Twitter.

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