The Dream That Never Was: Black Millennials and the Promise of Obama
I'm not prepared to paper over the faults in my perceptions of politics. I'm not ready to confront whatever comes after post-race. I'm not ready to eulogize whatever vestiges of Black Camelot remain. And I don't know if I'm equipped for the world After Obama.
2,999 days between Election Day 2008 and Inauguration 2017.
I won't be ready for day 3,000.
Like me, my generation of black millennials—I'll go with "Generation O" here—has developed its identity alongside the legacy of Barack Obama. Even those who supported other candidates or parties have had their blackness filtered in some way through the prism of Obama's image. I was 19 during that momentous election cycle, still a child in all but law. For many of us, in a more idealistic season in our lives, the campaign season that precipitated that election was both an introduction to politics and to organizing. Obama's campaign was not only political, but steeped in the history of social activism and community organizing. My first taste of all three was canvassing for him in the South Carolina primaries. Like me, many of my peers and closest friends cut their political teeth while helping with organizing efforts.
For that reason, Obama's election felt like our personal victory. It was a victory for all progressives and for much of Black America. Obama became a sort of totem for the ascendant power and character of black millennials. The election of The First Black president was a historical singularity and our place in his vanguard gave us gravity. It also connected us deeply with the Civil Rights Movement and ensured us as spiritual successors. Obama's legacy was the live wire connecting us to The Dream so hoped for by Martin and Malcolm and Fannie and all the brave freedom fighters. The jubilation that I felt: the jumping for joy; the tears. They were not just my own but those of people who'd marched before me. The experience was spiritual.
But that idealism soon eroded.
What we didn't expect was the false dream of blind post-race would supplant and masquerade as the dream of post-racism. The struggle to reconcile the president's racial identity and its meaning within American racial and cultural structures led us to interesting, unexpected places. The alternating currents of willful ignorance of racial issues and virulent racist responses to the president frustrated many black millennials, especially those indoctrinated on Obama's progressive ideal of hope. We were left struggling to find a way to voice our concerns when the momentum of the campaign ended.
Luckily, the rise of platforms like Facebook, WordPress, and Twitter gave Generation O a renewed voice, one that did not depend on traditional outlets and systems. The post-racial climate may have weathered our idealism but it did lead to a sort of golden age of young black media creators. Many conversations I had with friends who are members of this new creative class centered around how the climate created by Obama's presidency gave them inspiration and space to operate. Among them are editors and contributors for news and culture publications who got their start writing about the campaign in campus papers. The power of President Obama's candidacy and subsequent presidency revitalized black media for a new social media age.
The recession equally shaped us. It stunted the growth for all millennials on the traditional upward curve of American adulthood. The Great Recession left us saddled with debt, deprived of savings, overeducated and underemployed, and deeply dissatisfied with the dissonance between American ethos and reality. Even now, in the midst of a recovery, we make up 40 percent of all unemployed individuals, still have a double digit unemployment rate, and struggle with savings and debt. This dissatisfaction led to another movement motivated, in part, by millennials: Occupy. And though black millennials were more harshly affected by the recession than others, Occupy only partially addressed our most pressing concerns—racial wealth gaps, state and private violence against people of color, and the deeply flawed criminal justice system.
But our movements would come. They would come in the form of protests over black bodies being consumed within the maw of white paranoia, fear, and police oppression. Troy Davis and Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and too many cases in between. We mobilized. We leaned on many of the structures and lessons first tapped into during the 2008 election: social media webs, mass protests, media pressure, legislation, lobbying, and marches. And as we now know that Darren Wilson will not be tried in a court of law for killing Michael Brown, we protest in sorrow and anger while questioning what it means to be black in America at the present moment.
President Obama has now put us in a place where continuing the struggle from Ferguson means directly defying him and forging a protest identity that diverges sharply from his legacy.
With that examination comes a measured ambivalence about the man to which we hitched our wagons. I reflect on the long, drawn-out recession, a hostile racial climate, a wide national pattern of disregard for our lives, and my ongoing frustration with a culture that seems intent on depleting and casting aside color. As Obama's presidency has given us the wings by which we have taken flight and as we take pride in our kinship with and through him, so we also must realize that true equality and change in the systems that oppress us may be promises beyond any one man's ability to keep.
We've felt the nagging twinge of disappointment with Obama's presidency before. His comments on race have always veered toward respectability politics, a strain of thought that many young black people are rejecting. For instance, his repeated remarks on black fatherhood and echoing the hollow sort of "no excuses" black deficiency theory common to Conservative race-baiters has put me at odds with him. Even Obama's second-term flagship effort at reaching black youth, My Brother's Keeper, has been taken to task, most notably for its exclusion of black and Latino girls. The long-promised "discussions" on race that seem to be annual speech inclusions always fizzle out, even when we thought we'd turned a corner with Obama's candid remarks on race after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Whether by inability, inevitability or insensitivity, this presidency hasn't quite been what many hoped for when they voted for Obama, myself included. Tepid comments about Ferguson in which he chastised protesters, upheld a legal process many of us are more than skeptical of, and said just about everything but what we wanted him to say leave Obama out in the cold with those who were once his staunchest supporters. President Obama has now put us in a place where continuing the struggle from Ferguson means directly defying him and forging a protest identity that diverges sharply from his legacy.
Even for those of us who don't blame the president for not doing more to change the racial and social climate, continuing activism rooted from Ferguson means that developing movements will be disconnected from Obama's desires. The current climate of activism is outgrowing the sort of idealism that once connected us so strongly to Obama.
So what does it all mean? What does the prospect of the giant monolith of Obama fading away mean for the generation of black individuals empowered and molded in part by his existence? The midterm elections were the first real taste for me, as they were my first election cycle as a voter where President Obama was not the main news item. As his own party members ran from him, this midterm felt different than 2010. The Affordable Care Act, the policy crux of Obama's legacy, was on the line in 2010. Voting in 2010 felt like I was adding fuel to a dream of democracy I helped create. And stemming the tide of conservative resistance long enough to allow the ACA to take root and for our lives to be impacted by it felt like a second great victory.
Voting in 2014 was an exercise in cynicism. The ancestors were quiet in my ear, and heading to the polls felt more like me convincing myself that things would still matter the same way. I'd played a part in electing the first black president in our country. Did I really need to vote every time from then on to make good on their struggle?
Midterms are always dull affairs, but many of my friends share the same apathy about the current political process as I do. There's a sense that 2008 was our political zenith, but there's also a dogged self-reliance that has been born of Generation O learning to cope with disappointments and developing its own defenses in a sometimes-hostile environment. The black activists, writers, teachers, scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs, and inventors that I came of age with are ready to step up and fill the leadership void. While Obama's legacy remains our crown jewel and still a major part of our identities, idealistic hope has given way to an optimism grounded in day-to-day reality. We know that we have power to organize, whether it is exercised through electing a transcendent candidate or putting some buses together to go protest in a small suburb.
I suspect we'll be just fine in 2017.
Vann R. Newkirk II is a freelance writer, blogger, sci-fi novelist, and Matlock enthusiast. You can find him at @fivefifths on Twitter.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]