As It Happens

Professor says Obama's failure to boldly confront racism paved way for Trump presidency

In style and substance, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama stand in stark contrast. But a professor of African American Studies argues that Obama's non-confrontational style opened the door to Trump.
US President Barack Obama delivers his farewell speech in Chicago last week/US President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower after meeting with Martin Luther King III (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Andrew Harnik/AP)

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In a few days, U.S. President Barack Obama waves goodbye to the White House. And while his eight years in office have no doubt proved historic, many are wondering what exactly his legacy will look like.
Last week, As it Happens spoke with a personal friend of President Obama, the Reverend Alvin Love. He believes the president will leave a legacy of hope. 

But not everyone's assessment is so glowing.

William A. Darity, Jr. is a professor at Duke University. (Duke Photography)

William Darity Jr. is an economist and professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He wrote a piece published in The Atlantic called "How Barack Obama Failed Black Americans". Professor Darity spoke to As it Happens guest host Helen Mann from Durham, North Carolina. Here is part of their conversation.

Helen Mann: Professor Darity, you open your piece in The Atlantic by talking about your father. What was his view of Barack Obama?

William Darity Jr.: Well, my father's view of Barack Obama was very enthusiastic. I think my father was thrilled about the prospect of actually having a black president in the United States — something that he, like many other folks, didn't anticipate would happen in his lifetime. 

He invoked the claim that black kids are less likely to work hard in school because they're afraid of being accused of acting white. This has always struck me as a very, very peculiar argument and a very dangerous one.- William  Darity  Jr.

HM: You write that your father was typically cynical about politics. He couldn't comprehend your reservations, however, about Barack Obama. Why do you think that was?

WD: My father had somewhat of a reverential attitude towards Barack Obama and towards his family collectively. And I think that it obscured his capacity to actually have a critical eye about Barack Obama. I don't think my father was unusual in that. There was a lot of joy in the black community in the United States over the election of Barack Obama.

HM: You write that you had a queasy feeling about Barack Obama's candidacy, going back to that famous speech in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention that so many people lauded and saw him as this amazing character who was going to be someone big in shaping the future of America. What was the first sign for you he might not live up to expectations?

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle on Monday at the "Malia and Sasha's Castle" — the playground the Obamas donated to a family shelter in Washington, D.C. (Susan Walsh/AP)

WD: There was a point in the speech where he invoked the claim that black kids are less likely to work hard in school because they're afraid of being accused of acting white. This has always struck me as a very, very peculiar argument and a very dangerous one. But it is also an argument that is suggestive of a more general perspective, that argues that black folk in the United States are essentially responsible for their own predicament — that there's dysfunctional behaviours that we engage in and the like. And I think Barack Obama used those tropes continuously throughout the course of the campaigns and over the course of his two terms as president. And so, unfortunately, I think my queasy feeling was fulfilled. I'm disappointed in a way that I was prophetic about what was going to happen.

"I don't view  Barack   Obama's  practices as having saved the American economy." -William Darity  Jr.

HM: Of course, Mr. Obama took power in the midst of the "Great Recession." He has been lauded by many for being someone who got the economy back on a solid footing, who saved the U.S. auto industry. What were you hoping that his response to that economic crisis would be?

WD: I was hoping that his response to the crisis would take the form of direct actions on behalf of the folks who were most severely harmed by the downturn. So instead of providing vast amounts of resources to the investment banking community, I think we would have been far better served in terms of having a national employment program, an emergency employment program, as well as giving resources to folks who were about to lose their homes as a consequence of the sub-prime mortgage crisis . . . I don't view Barack Obama's practices as having saved the American economy. 

He's a person of moderation, in a situation that required something much more dramatic.-William Darity Jr.

HM: Has the situation for black Americans changed in any way under Barack Obama?

WD: Not in a significant way and, if anything, for the worse. So, for example, if we were to look at the gap in wealth between blacks and whites in the United States, at the onset of the "Great Recession," blacks had, at the median, 10 cents per dollar of the wealth held by whites. Today, it's about five cents per dollar. 

HM: So why do you think he didn't adopt more revolutionary policies during these eight years?

President Barack Obama adds his touch to a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. at a family shelter in Washington, D.C. on Monday. (Susan Walsh/AP)

WD: I think there's a certain kind of temperament that is characteristic of Barack Obama that is non-confrontational and in some respects is relatively passive. He certainly is not willing to talk about — in a very open and direct way — the nature of racism in American society and how it has continued to affect black America . . . He's a person of moderation, in a situation that required something much more dramatic. I think one of the big consequences of that is to preserve the illusion that racial conditions in the United States have improved, when in fact they really haven't changed in any significant way over the 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

I think the substantive consequence of his presidency will be the rise of the Trump regime.- William Darity Jr.

HM: So, looking over this time, what do you think President Obama's legacy will be?

WD: I think it will be two-fold. I think there will be a symbolic legacy, associated with the importance that many people attach to the breakthrough of having a black man elected as president of the United States. But, unfortunately, I think the substantive consequence of his presidency will be the rise of the Trump regime. The failure of Barack Obama to explicitly and openly confront discrimination and racism in American society left the door wide open for the ascent of a strong and virulent white supremacist movement in the United States that has put somebody in the presidency who is appointing people to cabinet positions who are openly hostile to the prospect of racial equality. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with William Darity Jr.


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