Black America: We didn't know how racist America was until it elected its first black president
Obama's presidency caused some blacks to "unfriend White America"
Will racism stop being 'normal' after Obama leaves office?
President Barack Obama was delivering a speech before a joint session of Congress when a white lawmaker jabbed his right index finger at Obama and called him a liar.
The heckling came during his September 2009 address on health care. Obama was telling lawmakers that his plan wouldn’t cover undocumented immigrants when Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina yelled, “You lie!”
Linnyette Richardson-Hall, an African-American event planner, watched Wilson’s outburst on live television in disbelief.
“My alter-ego, the hood-chick, came out of me,” says Richardson-Hall. “I said, ‘I know you just didn’t do that.’ To see him get disrespected so badly, it gut-punches you.”
Richardson-Hall has restrained herself more than she ever expected in the past eight years. She fumed when she saw a poster of Obama dressed as an African witch doctor, online images of First Lady Michelle Obama depicted as a monkey, and racist Facebook comments by white people she thought she knew. Now, as Obama approaches his final months in office, she and others have come to a grim conclusion:
I didn’t know how racist America was until it elected its first black president.
“What has happened over the past eight years – there’s no way to unlive or unsee it,” says Mashaun D. Simon, a political blogger and teaching assistant at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
There’s been a lot of talk about angry white Americans and the rise of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. But what about the anger that many blacks and others have felt over the treatment of Obama? What might that anger give rise to, and how is it changing them?
A psychological shift is taking place among many blacks, and it can be heard in countless conversations over dinner tables, in barbershops and on social media. Some say they’ve never felt so much pessimism about white America, such hopelessness.
They’re almost relieved to see Obama go.
It’s not that black people aren’t proud of Obama or his family. His approval rating among blacks has been astronomically high throughout his presidency. But that pride has been accompanied by pain.
Here are three unexpected ways that Obama’s presidency changed black America.
Change No. 1: Unfriending white America
It was one of the most emotional moments in her life. Kim Coleman was at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008 when Obama accepted the presidential nomination. She called her father, who had grown up in segregated Mississippi, to describe the rapturous scene. And then she wept.
“I had hope running through my veins,” she says. “I felt like I was more a part of America.”
So did millions of other Americans. Obama’s election was described as “unthinkable,” a “breakthrough,” a “national catharsis.” When he gave his acceptance speech before a jubilant crowd at Chicago’s Grant Park, America seemed like it had entered The Promised Land. Even people who didn’t vote for Obama were moved to tears.
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible … tonight is your answer,” Obama said, standing in front of a row of American flags.
Eight years later Coleman is experiencing different emotions: betrayal and shock. She’s lost white friends over disagreements about Obama, as well as the issue of police brutality. Even her parents, who used to share dinner and exchange presents with two of their longtime white neighbors, ended those friendships because they felt their neighbors disrespected Obama.
“People I never thought of as racist, people who borrowed money from me – I’ve seen things come out of them that I never thought of,” says Coleman, who works for a nonprofit in Oklahoma that serves the elderly.
Some black people unfriended white America during Obama’s presidency. They would hear a stray remark from a white coworker, argue over something that Obama was facing, and suddenly a close relationship would turn chilly.
Fenise Dunson was a career adviser at an Illinois college in 2008 when some of her white coworkers started warning her about Obama’s first presidential run. “We won’t let this happen,” they said. Or, after he was elected: “He might be president, but you’re not in control.”
“You don’t know where this is coming from,” says Dunson, who now teaches at a college in Maryland. She wondered whether “people had been politically correct and they had really been feeling this way for a long time and now they feel like they can be vocal about how they feel?
“It’s unsettling. You wonder who you can trust.”
Relationships often ruptured over dueling narratives about Obama’s opposition. For some people he was being treated the same way as previous presidents – roughly. President George W. Bush was called a war criminal and compared to a chimp. President Bill Clinton was impeached. President Lyndon B. Johnson was dubbed a “baby killer.”
But some blacks saw racial venom in the way Obama was treated. White public figures called him “boy,” a “food-stamp president,” an “animal” and a “tar baby.” One governor wagged her finger in his face. The President was even forced to “show his papers” – release his original long-form birth certificate – after “birthers” led by Trump questioned whether he was born in the United States.
Trump’s demands that Obama prove his citizenship evoked the slave era when freed blacks were often forced to show their “certificate of freedom” to justify moving freely in public.
Others cite political norms that were violated under Obama. They said no president had been refused a hearing or vote for his Supreme Court nominee since 1875; had a request to address a joint session of Congress rejected by the speaker of the House; or had senators go behind his back to attempt to scuttle his negotiations with another country.
Some blacks found that their friendships with whites couldn’t withstand arguments over those controversies. Their suspicion of white people deepened. Richardson-Hall, the event planner, says she unfriended white Facebook friends because of arguments over Obama.
“These are people I’ve known for years,” she says. “I was like, ‘If you think this about him, what do you think of me?’”
Change No. 2: Reliving their parents’ nightmares
Tucked away in all the tributes to Muhammad Ali was an unusual story about the late boxer’s connection to Emmett Till. Till was a black teenager who was tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Till’s mother decided to hold an open-casket funeral for her son to force America to confront its racism. Funeral photos of Till’s ghastly, disfigured face were branded in the memory of many in that era, including Ali.