It turned out to be much more – and much less – than expected.
For all of the justified euphoria over the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama on Friday will leave behind many of the same structural inequities African-Americans coped with under his predecessors.
Which raises the question: What did it all mean?
Putting race aside, his accomplishments with no Republican cooperation are Rushmorean: pulling the nation out of the Great Recession, saving General Motors and the auto industry – a significant sector in places like Buffalo – and providing health insurance for 20 million Americans. The stock market has soared while joblessness has plummeted.
He did all of that while he and his family set a standard for intelligence, grace and dignity in the face of unrelenting hostility, putting America’s best face forward even as some Republicans showed another part of their anatomy.
But for all of that, the numbers don’t lie.
The black jobless rate – typically about double that of whites – remains so after eight historic years. When he took office in 2009, Census figures put the average annual black unemployment rate at 14.8 percent, compared to 8.5 percent for whites. In the final quarter of 2016, it was 7.9 percent, double the white rate of 4.0 percent. Americans of all colors benefited from an improved economy under Obama, but in terms of changing that ratio, the color of the president mattered little.
Ditto for lifting people out of poverty. In 2009, Census figures show, 25.8 percent of blacks were poor, compared to 12.3 percent of whites. Now the rate for blacks is 24.1 percent, more than twice the white rate of 9.1 percent, according to federalsafeteynet.com.
And the big number – net worth, a measure of this country’s racial legacy, with accumulated advantage compounded as it’s passed from generation to generation – tells an equally dispiriting story. The median wealth of white households was $144,200 in 2013, compared to just $11,200 for blacks, a Pew Research Center analysis of Federal Reserve data showed. And Pew found the gap – about 13 to 1 – actually increased after the Great Recession.
But Barack Obama could not focus on any of that – for obvious reasons. The most he could do was promote policies that lifted all Americans in poor cities like Buffalo with the knowledge that in some cases blacks – by starting so far behind – might benefit more.
Even when he merely talked about race, as in the Trayvon Martin and Henry Louis Gates cases, it was too much for some.
Still, the symbolism of both black possibility and black ability cannot be ignored. He has changed the country.
Yet the question I raised about candidate Obama early in 2008 remains: If the only way a black can win office is by not addressing the structural inequities, how far have we really come?
As Obama’s victories proved, about 40 percent of white voters were ready for a president who is black. That is significant. But it never meant all of them were ready to specifically help blacks. The racial obstacles are more subtle than when Lyndon Johnson pushed through landmark civil rights bills and, as this past election demonstrated, we are not prone to grappling with subtlety.
So for all of the promise of a history-making presidency, the African-American community – which didn’t get in its predicament through race-neutral policies – will have to get out of it that way.
That means organizing, educating and voting. It means doing the best they can for themselves in a nation that thinks it already has done enough, regardless of the color of the person it puts in the White House.