In the first hours of the new year in 2009, just weeks before Barack Obama was to be inaugurated as the next president, shots rang out in Oakland, California. A transit officer named Johannes Mehserle shot an unarmed 22-year-old black man who lay face-down in handcuffs on a public transportation platform. His name was Oscar Grant.
Dozens of witnesses, many of whom were returning to Oakland after New Year’s Eve celebrations, watched in horror. Some captured his killing on smartphones. Shortly afterward, black Oakland exploded in palpable anger, with hundreds, then thousands of people taking to the streets, demanding justice.
Perhaps this outcry would have happened under any circumstance, but the brutality of Grant’s death in the few weeks before the country’s first black president was to take office felt like a shock of cold water. Police brutality had long been a fact of life in California, but the country was supposed to have entered into a post-racial parallel universe. The optimism that coursed through black America in 2008 seemed a million miles away.
A local movement led by Grant’s family unfolded across the Bay Area to demand that prosecutors charge and try Mehserle. Protests, marches, campus activism, public forums and organizing meetings sustained enough pressure to force local officials to charge Mehserle with murder. It was the first murder trial of a California police officer for a “line of duty” killing in 15 years. In the end, Mehserle, convicted of involuntary manslaughter, spent less than a year in prison, but the local movement foreshadowed events to come.
As for President Obama, he turned out to be very different from candidate Obama, who had stage-managed his campaign to resemble something closer to a social movement. He had conjured much hope, especially among African Americans – but with great expectations came even greater disappointments.
‘Yes, we can’
In the heated race for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Obama distinguished himself from the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, by campaigning clearly against the war in Iraq and vowing to shut down the Guantánamo military internment camp. As the campaign continued, he spoke of economic inequality and connected with young people who were underwhelmed at the prospect of voting for yet another old, white windbag in the form of John McCain.
Black people’s enthusiasm for the Obama campaign could not be reduced to racial solidarity or recrimination. Obama electrified his audiences, as in this speechfrom January 2008, after the New Hampshire primary:
We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.
But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: yes, we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: yes, we can.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: yes, we can … Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.
But it was only in March 2008 that Obama finally gave a comprehensive speech on race, in which he pulled off the feat of addressing the concerns of African Americans while calming the fears of white voters.
Obama had been pressured for weeks to rebuke his pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright, who had delivered a sermon titled God Damn America, referring to the wrong the United States had committed in the world. Obama’s political enemies had unearthed the sermon and tried to attribute Wright’s ideas to Obama. Obama used his platform in Philadelphia to distance himself from Wright, whom he described as “divisive” and with a “profoundly distorted view of this country”.
He went on to contextualize Wright’s angry comments and condemnations as based on his having come of age in a US where legalized discrimination – where black people were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions or the police force or the fire department – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations.
No one running for president had ever spoken so directly about the history of racism in government and society at large. Yet Obama’s speech also counseled that a more perfect United States required African Americans “taking full responsibility for our own lives … by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”
Obama couched his comments in the language of American progress and the vitality of the American dream, but the speech was remarkable nonetheless in the theater of American politics, where cowardice and empty rhetoric are the typical fare. In that sense Obama broke the mold, but he also established the terms upon which he would engage race matters: with dubious even-handedness, even in response to events that required decisive action on behalf of the racially aggrieved.
He spoke quite eloquently about the nation’s “original sin” and “dark history” but has repeatedly failed to connect the sins of the past to the crimes of the present, when racism thrives, when police stop-and-frisk, when subprime loans are reserved for black buyers, when public schools are denied resources, and when double-digit unemployment has become so normal that it barely registers a ripple of recognition.
Before Ferguson, Obama’s Philadelphia speech was as close as he had ever come to speaking truthfully about racism in the US, even though he presented himself as an interested observer, a thoughtful interlocutor between African Americans and the country as a whole, rather than a US senator with the political influence to effect the changes of which he spoke.