Barack Obama said in his final news conference that he planned to use his time off from politics “to do some writing.” I am hoping in his post-presidency, he begins to write a different racial history from the one he proclaimed from his presidential pulpit.
His is the story of America’s racial past that I am sure many Americans heard at celebrations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this month, as they stared down Donald J. Trump’s inauguration. While Mr. Obama granted in his farewell to the nation that “we’re not where we need to be,” he also said, “The long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.”
When I watched the inauguration of President Trump on Friday, I did not see a nation in the forward motion of racial progress. I saw someone who pledged to take us away from progress and to new walls and more stop-and-frisk and law and order and the post-racial imaginary and to Jeff Sessions and the alt-right.
Mr. Obama’s popular history of continuous racial progress does not explain how a candidate passionately endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan could succeed the first black president. It does not explain why millions of Americans felt the need to declare that black lives matter during that first black presidency. It does not explain why the mass incarceration of black and brown bodies followed the racial justice movements in the 1960s. It does not explain how Jim Crow could emerge out of the ashes of slavery, and why slavery expanded out West after Congress voted to outlaw the importing of slaves in 1807.
Mr. Obama has said, as he did in his farewell, that “for every two steps forward, it often feels like we take one step back.” Is that it? Is President Trump a step back?
In other words, Mr. Obama sees in America’s messiness and complexity a single historical force taking steps forward and backward on race.
But what if there have been two historical forces at work: a dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism? What if President Trump does not represent a step back, but a step forward?
Americans have been well schooled in racial progress. That progress has been real over the course of history, and to deny its forward march is to deny all the successes of courageous activists who challenged slavery, and who are challenging segregation and poverty and the 45th president today.
But to deny the forward march of racism is to deny the successes of American racists. We have paid less attention to the progression of racism that often follows racial progress: how the law, the lyncher and the creditor replaced the master, the whip and the slave patrol in locking black people into destitution to white exploiters.
Racial disparities in everything from wealth to health have persisted in the United States because racist policies have persisted, and oftentimes progressed. When the Obamas of the nation have broken through racial barriers, the Trumps of the nation did not give up. They organized and sometimes succeeded in putting new racial barriers in place, new discriminatory policies in our institutions. And they succeeded in developing a new round of racist ideas to justify those policies, to redirect the blame for racial disparities away from their new policies and onto supposed black pathology.
Discriminators, for instance, did not sulk upon the election of the first black president. They embraced the post-racial idea and stamped it onto Mr. Obama’s forehead. They persuaded the Supreme Court to overturn federal preclearance of new voting laws, since the nation was post-racial. They instituted new voter restrictions aimed at African-Americans “with almost surgical precision,” to quote the appeals court that struck down North Carolina’s voter identification law last summer.
Voting restrictors justified their new laws by claiming corruption in the voting process, deftly redeploying the old racist idea of the corrupt black politician. And all of this forward motion of racism yielded the presidency of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress, just as all of the forward motion of racial progress since the 1960s yielded President Obama and the diverse congress of protesters.
Both racist and antiracist groups have made progress. Both forces — the racist force of inequality, and the antiracist force of equality — have progressed in rhetoric, in tactics, in policies. Both forces have drawn inspiration from America’s founding creed of liberty.
I am reminded of the lesson Abraham Lincoln offered on April 18, 1864, as he gave encouragement to Marylanders anticipating the future of their state without slavery. “With some the word ‘liberty’ may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor,” Lincoln said, “while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.”
These two forces have been at war ever since a slaveholder [Thomas Jefferson] wrote America’s heralded philosophy of freedom. And they remain at war this weekend, organizing separate marches to protest or praise the arrival of President Trump.
We can no longer parade the exceptional twin, and try to hide away the other history. If we do, Americans will continue to be stunned when they behold voter restriction policies, the millions in prisons, the police shootings of innocent human beings, and the election of someone like Mr. Trump. Americans will not expect, let alone have the wherewithal to combat, the progression of racism that historically has come after racial progress.
It is interesting to note that Mr. Obama’s racial progress story can be traced back to Cold War propaganda, especially a United States Information Agency pamphlet titled “The Negro in American Life.” Published around 1950 or 1951, the pamphlet acknowledged the past failings of slavery and racism and declared racial progress had been made possible by the power of American democracy. It posed the success of black elites — and not the black masses — as the standard of measurement for racial progress, while admitting “much remains to be done.”
The racial progress narrative remains a political statement of American exceptionalism, not a realistic picture grounded in serious research and reflection. That is why I am hoping that outside of the political whirlwind of Washington, Mr. Obama will write a different history in his post-presidency. I am hoping Americans can separate their history from their politics, and not impose onto the story of the past what they think they know about the present, what they want for the future.
Maybe I am hoping for too much. But then again, I learned from Barack Obama the audacity to hope.