There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America,” declared Barack Obama in the 2004 Democratic Convention keynote speech that made him famous. “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.” Who, listening to the young, graceful African-American senator, whether sharing his politics or not, could not have felt uplifted by the thought that perhaps the half-century struggle for civil rights had finally succeeded? And when the same senator, four years later and still very young, won election as president, even those who despised his politics couldn’t suppress a thrill that Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a republic based on the proposition that all men are created equal had finally become reality with no asterisk, no reservation. Almost a century and a half after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, with 620,000 young Americans dead in the war to make men free, the longed-for post-racial America seemed to have arrived.
Vain hope. Obama drove the races apart, reversing some of the progress that so many earnest civil rights supporters had won, some even at the cost of their lives. Instead of uniting the country, Obama divided it almost to the point of fracture, pitting group against group with a self-righteous certitude that he alone could see the right as God gives us to see the right, and that all who disagreed with him deserved withering scorn. Unlike the Era of Good Feelings that James Madison bequeathed to the country when he left the White House, Obama has already ushered in the Era of Ill Feelings, fanning every low, intolerant, and ignorant impulse in the American heart. Whether history will judge that his reversal of racial progress and the divisiveness he has inflamed make him the worst of our presidents we can’t yet know. But it is worth looking back to ask what made him so overbearing, so contemptuous of the spirit of our Constitution, and so dismissive of the idea of American exceptionalism that he pretended to embrace in 2004.
These questions are easier to answer with him than with most presidents, for, mystified about exactly who he was, he couldn’t stop talking about himself or his beliefs. Two thick books record his musings—an interesting autobiography, Dreams from My Father of 1995, and a 2006 policy tract, The Audacity of Hope, so numbingly dull that critics have doubted that both bestsellers flowed from the same pen. Perhaps more buyers wished to applaud the charismatic, meteorically rising black politician than to read him. Still, both books are deeply revealing, often despite themselves, and the picture you can piece out from them enlightens.
Obama’s life has been a daunting struggle to forge a coherent identity out of his tangled family history. His mother, Kansas-born Ann Dunham, was a plain, 18-year-old freshman at the University of Hawaii in 1960 when she fell in love with a handsome Kenyan student whom she met in Russian class, popular in those days with left-wing students who expected the Soviet Union to eclipse America as a political and cultural power. In her second semester, three months pregnant, she married the 23-year-old Barack Obama, Sr., and gave birth to the future president on August 4, 1961.
Her new husband, who said that he was divorced, in fact had a pregnant wife and a baby son back home, where polygamy was common. The story that Ann later told young Barry was that Harvard had offered his father a scholarship for a Ph.D. after college but no money to support his young family, so “a separation occurred,” Obama says. In fact, however, shortly after her baby’s birth, Ann left her bigamous husband and spent a year at college in Seattle, getting a divorce in 1964, so that young Barry had no memory of his father and didn’t know that he was supposed to have a male parent.
When Ann returned to Hawaii to finish her B.A., she met an Indonesian grad student with a radiant smile, Lolo Soetoro, and married him in 1965. With an M.A. in geography in hand, Lolo got called up into the Indonesian army in 1966, and sent to map the New Guinea jungles. When six-year-old Barry and his mother arrived in Jakarta in 1967, Lolo was still an army lieutenant, surveying roads; but a year in uniform, during General Suharto’s blood-drenched but whisper-quiet purge of up to 1 million suspected Communists and their supposed sympathizers, had made him taciturn, and his plans for helping to develop a brave new country, which had fired Ann with enthusiastic admiration, had evaporated. Lolo impressed upon his stepson the need for strength and power, and slept with a pistol under his pillow. Had he ever seen a man killed? Obama asked him one day. Yes, Lolo replied: “Because he was weak.” In Indonesia, “power was undisguised, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in the memory,” Obama remarks. Either you had it, or it had you.
Lolo’s salary was small, as was his house, without fridge or flush toilet. While Ann taught English at the American embassy, Barry, soon fluent in Indonesian, went to the local Catholic school and played in the streets with his friends. He remembers those as years of adventure and mystery, with shadow puppets and ghost stories. Unlike his friends, though, children of farmers, servants, tailors, and clerks, he always had enough to eat.
After Lolo left the army for a job with Union Oil (now part of Chevron), he bought a big house, got a car and driver, a fridge and a TV. Barry went to a fancy private school for rich Muslim kids. And Lolo (a Muslim, like Barry’s paternal grandfather) began squabbling with Ann, who did not want to go to dinner with visiting Texas or Louisiana oilmen, embodiments of the America she had fled. Years later, when she was visiting Obama, then a Columbia undergrad (after a transfer from Occidental), she cajoled him to take her and Maya, the daughter she had had with Lolo, to see the old movie Black Orpheus. Obama squirmed at the gooey sentimentality of the Brazilian take on the Greek myth, with black and brown people “strumm[ing] guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage.” But glancing at his mother partway through, he saw in her “wistful gaze,” he writes, “a window into . . . the unreflective heart of her youth.” The “depiction of childlike blacks, . . . the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life, warm, sensual, exotic, different.”
Sensing that her marriage to an idealist metamorphosing into an oilman couldn’t last, Ann took Barry back to Hawaii to live with her parents and attend Punahou Academy, Hawaii’s poshest prep school, whose entrance exams he had taken the previous summer. Already fatherless, the ten-year-old was shocked to hear that he also would be motherless for the next year. Ann and Maya would return to Indonesia, leaving him with his grandparents before rejoining him in Hawaii.
Those grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham—Gramps and Toot—were both Kansans, though with very different inflections. Hardworking, respectable Toot embodied the “decency and endurance and the pioneer spirit” that Obama ascribes to the Midwest of their time. By contrast, Gramps’s mother had killed herself when he was eight—distraught over her philandering husband, the neighbors opined—so his grandparents raised him, until his high school expelled him at 15 for punching the principal. For three years, Obama writes, Stanley wandered the country, “dabbling in moonshine, cards, and women.” Toot’s family took an instant dislike to his “black, slicked-back hair” and “perpetual wise-guy grin.”
Obama’s life has been a daunting struggle to forge a coherent identity out of his tangled family history.
“He looks like a wop,” Madelyn’s father sneered. But fired up by Stanley’s bright if vague dreams of big cities and big adventures, Madelyn eloped with him the night of her senior prom, in May 1940. Gramps joined the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor, while Toot went to work assembling B-29s. Ann was born just after Thanksgiving 1942.
Gramps tried Berkeley on the GI Bill after the war, but dropped out. The family drifted, with Gramps “always searching for the new start, always running away from the familiar,” Obama writes, so that “this desire of his to obliterate the past, this confidence in the possibility of remaking the world from whole cloth,” turned out to be “his most lasting patrimony,” in the dreamy utopianism he passed on to his daughter and grandson. The Dunhams landed in Seattle long enough for Ann to finish high school, while Gramps worked as a furniture salesman. When his store opened a branch in the brand-new state of Hawaii in 1959, Gramps persuaded Toot to sell their Seattle house and follow the setting sun to a rosy future.
Not so rosy for Gramps, though. As he moved from selling furniture to peddling insurance, ever more unsuccessfully, Toot became the family’s breadwinner, rising from secretary to become one of the first female vice presidents of the Bank of Hawaii—and the true rock of Obama’s childhood, though it’s only in his second book that he seems fully to grasp that “her dogged practicality kept the family afloat.”
A few months after leaving Barry with his grandparents, his mother unexpectedly returned to Hawaii, less to see him than to meet with his father, who’d been in a car crash and had come to Honolulu to see his son and his former wife, hoping to win her back. To his son, who had no memory of him, he looked frail and bony; the carved African gifts he brought had no interest. Only a few memories of that month his father spent in Honolulu stayed in Barry’s head: the curious power he seemed to have over people, which quickly turned to a sense of oppression, so that Gramps felt his chair had been usurped; Toot muttered that she was nobody’s servant, and Barry was commanded to turn off his favorite Dr. Seuss TV Christmas special and go study, doing assignments far into the future if tomorrow’s homework was done. “I tell you, Barry, you do not work as hard as you should,” his father barked. “Go now, before I get angry at you.” Barry began to count the days before he would leave.
But three redeeming memories remained. Asked to address his son’s class—a prospect that struck dread into the boy’s soul, given the lies he had told about his father’s being a prince of his tribe—his father spoke eloquently of mankind’s origin in Africa, the solemn customs of the various tribes, the struggle of Kenya to cast off colonialism, the wish of all men “to be free and develop themselves through hard work and sacrifice.” So he was a great hit and filled his son with pride. On Christmas, he gave Barry a basketball, the beginning of his love of the game. And as he was packing to leave, he found two records of African music he had forgotten to give his son. Putting them on the stereo, he began to dance and coaxed Barry to follow him—which, tentatively, he did, copying his father, whose shout of pleasure his son treasured forever.
They never saw each other again.
On the promised day, his mother, divorced from Lolo, came back to Hawaii with Maya, and started work on her anthropology M.A. (later earning a Ph.D.). Did Obama find their new apartment cramped and messy, the fridge bare? Too bad, Ann snapped. “She was a single mother going to school again and raising two kids, so that baking cookies wasn’t exactly at the top of her priority list.” When she returned to Indonesia with Maya to do her fieldwork—she spent 20 years there, trying to raise the living standards of Indonesian women, in Gramps’s remake-the-world spirit, rather than Lolo’s realpolitik—Obama chose to stay in Hawaii. “I’d arrived at an unspoken pact with my grandparents: I would live with them and they’d leave me alone so long as I kept my trouble out of sight.”
And he had trouble. What was a family supposed to be? he wondered, given his peculiar experience of no father, a reserved stepfather, a here-today-gone-tomorrow mother, with two divorces before she was 30 and a hippy-dippy, pre-1967 liberalism of “tolerance, equality, standing up for the disadvantaged, . . . the Peace Corps and Freedom Rides, Mahalia Jackson and Joan Baez,” and “liv[ing] happily as a citizen of the world.” And a related question: What race was he, a half-black kid raised by whites? As he acted out his conflicts, provocatively swaggering into class at Punahou, he claims, “drunk or high, knowing that my teachers will smell beer or reefer on my breath, just daring them to say something” (not to mention the cocaine he says he was snorting in those days), “I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America,” he writes, “and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.” Hawaii wasn’t Chicago or Detroit, after all, and its flamboyant racial variety, like Indonesia’s, comprised few blacks.
His father’s basketball had given him his first clue. When he reached junior high, the University of Hawaii’s all-black starting team of mainland ringers was on a winning streak, and when Gramps took him to one of their games, and he saw the players’ cool cockiness and skill on the court, their easy in-group camaraderie, he found his model. He practiced in the playground next to his grandparents’ apartment as soon as he got home from school until after dark, so that by high school he had made the Punahou team. Whenever he could, he worked out on the university court, where black players and hangers-on “would teach me an attitude that didn’t just have to do with the sport,” he recalls. “I was living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood.” But it served him as “armor against uncertainty.”
Up to a point. Several black teenagers had joined his school, including his new best friend, Ray from L.A., “whose confusion and anger would help shape my own.” His new clique would recount racial slights and sigh philosophically, “That’s just how white folks will do you.” But who exactly were white folks? Wasn’t he partly one himself? “I had no idea who my own self was,” he muses. And he began to construct an idea of himself as a black victim, forced to play by rules set by the white man, “because he had power and you didn’t.” And even what you took as “an expression of your black, unfettered self—the humor, the song, the behind-the-back pass”—might be a white-created stereotype. Perhaps “the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, your own defeat.” Obama reflects. “And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.”
So the question increasingly became: What is an authentic black man? Being studious, Obama read the black canon from DuBois to Malcolm X, whom he liked best. His friend Ray scoffed, “I don’t need no books to tell me how to be black.” At Occidental, where he became Barack instead of Barry, he branched out into Fanon, sought out Marxist professors, hung out with the most radical black and Chicano students, and joined them in “resisting bourgeois society’s stifling constraints” by grinding out his cigarettes on the hall carpet and aggressively blasting his stereo. “We were alienated.”
He transferred to Columbia so that he could be in a city with a genuine black community for the first time. Living on then-ungentrified far East 94th Street, he and his roommate would “watch white people from the better neighborhoods nearby walk their dogs down our block to let the animals shit on our curbs”—paranoid nonsense. Oddly, though, that and his viewing of Black Orpheus are about all he has to say about his years in Gotham. That and his decision to become a community organizer. “I’ll organize black people,” he told his friends. “At the grass roots. For change.” His start: three months failing to convince CCNY’s minority students of the critical importance of recycling.
His first real community organizing job was scarcely less quixotic: getting Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens housing-project tenants to work with local churches to stop the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs, a King Canute–like task that would help but few black workers even if the mills didn’t keep going bust. Instead, he found two doable campaigns: to get city hall to open a job-training center (for nonexistent jobs) in Altgeld’s neighborhood; and to force the Chicago Housing Authority to make much-needed repairs in the project. Not the world-shaking change he had envisioned.
A question led Obama back to where he started: if blacks can’t be white, how can they be authentically black?
But his three years in a Chicago ghetto did teach him what the lives of the inner-city black poor were like. He had known about black self-hatred since he was nine and had stumbled on some Life magazine photographs of a man with a terrible disease, he thought—radiation poisoning, perhaps. His hands and heavy-lipped, broad-nosed face had a ghostly pallor, as if he’d been exsanguinated. But what he had suffered, the caption explained, was self-chosen. He had spent his own money for a chemical treatment to change his black complexion to white—with irreversible effects, which he regretted. And thousands more black Americans had undergone the same ordeal, with the same deplorable results, in response to “advertisements that promised happiness as a white person.”
Those pictures came to mind when Obama noticed that a friend’s normally brown eyes suddenly looked like bright blue buttons. What happened? he couldn’t help asking. Contact lenses, she explained. “You like them?” He didn’t, and they troubled him enough to ask another black woman friend what to make of them. “What are you surprised about?” his friend replied. “That black people still hate themselves?”
That answer troubled him still more. He had no patience with the then-current psychobabble about self-esteem, he says, since it yielded only questions, not answers. “Did you dislike yourself because of your color or because you couldn’t read and get a job? Or perhaps it was because you were unloved as a child—only, were you unloved because you were too dark? Or too light? Or because your mother shot heroin into her veins?” On such questions, Obama thought, you couldn’t build an effective politics, for a reason worth pondering. “It demanded too much honest self-reckoning from people.” But this incident shook his certitude that you could keep separate “psychology and politics, the state of our pocketbooks and the state of our souls.”
And that question led Obama back to where he had started—if blacks can’t be white, how can they be authentically black? He found his answer from Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and it was precisely the wrong answer. Like many black churches, Wright’s congregation included a strong contingent of teachers, principals, and other government workers, but it had a disproportionate share of engineers, doctors, and executives, enough for another black pastor to dismiss it as the “buppie” church. Wright had strenuously recruited congregants from the surrounding housing projects as well, for they were central to his message. It was fine for blacks to strive for “middleincomeness,” his church taught, but not for “middleclassness”—the belief that your success makes you better than other blacks, so that you start “to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘Us.’ ” So, while a schoolteacher or physician might think it his Christian duty to help the young sharecropper fresh from the South to adapt to big-city life, at Wright’s church, “the flow of culture ran in reverse as well,” Obama explains. “[T]he former gang-banger, the teenage mother, had their own forms of validation—claims of greater deprivation, and hence authenticity, their presence in the church providing the lawyer or doctor with an education from the streets.”
Greater deprivation, and hence authenticity—the worse, the better, as Lenin would put it. You can’t come up with a more succinct statement of victimology than this. Wright even gave the idea a Fanonesque internationalism, preaching about “a world groaning under strife and deprivation,” ignored by the White House: “a world where cruise ships throw away more food in a day than most residents of Port-au-Prince see in a year, where white folks’ greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another hemisphere.”
But it turned out that Obama didn’t really like the black authenticity he saw in Chicago. Walking with his assistant one night, he heard a pop, like a bursting balloon, and a 15-year-old sprinted past him for dear life. His assistant dropped to the ground, and Obama followed instinctively, when two more 15-year-olds careened round the corner, shooting at the first boy, now out of range. “Stupid motherfucker,” one boy spat, while the shooter stuck his pistol into his waistband, and they both turned back into children again. He didn’t like the four idly malicious boys he watched snapping in half the row of saplings an older couple had just planted in front of their house, as if to demonstrate that any effort to make the world better, even your own little strip of it, is hopeless. And he didn’t much like looking “into the eyes of the young men in wheelchairs . . . boys crippled before their prime, their eyes without a trace of self-pity, eyes so composed, already so hardened, that they served to frighten rather than to inspire.”
Nor did he like the four boys who screeched into his apartment building’s parking lot past midnight, their car stereo blasting. He went out to tell them to shut up, thinking that they resembled so many black kids he knew, and even his younger self, in the days when his “howling assertion of self” led him to misbehave in prep school or blast his music in college. But these boys, he realized, could well have guns. And he further realized that they had “no belief that would stop them from using them.” A long moment passed before they sped off, leaving him feeling stupid—and afraid.
Obama’s assistant, Johnnie, recounts how, when he was a kid, there were limits: “if an adult saw you getting loud or wild, they would say something. And most of us would listen. . . . Now, with the drugs, the guns—all that’s disappeared,” Johnnie laments. “Somebody says something to one of ’em, and—pow!—kid wastes him. Folks hear stories like that, they just stop trying to talk to these young cats out here. . . . After a while, even the good kid starts realizing ain’t nobody out here gonna look out for him. So he figures he’s gonna have to look out for himself. Bottom line, you got twelve-year-olds making their own damn rules.”
So Reverend Wright’s message validates a nightmarish state of affairs. And people in Chicago’s ghettos try to tell this truth to Obama over and over, but he resists their message and even now tries to explain it away.
At a meeting of the church-based community group Obama had set up at the Altgeld project, its copresident, Will Milton, began to talk about his childhood in the project, when it was a real community, with family outings, groups of friends playing outside with soapbox racers, school field trips. “A lot of good memories . . . seemed like I was smiling all the time, laughing—” Now, he said, with a cracking voice and tears in his eyes, “I don’t see kids smiling around here no more. . . . They seem worried all the time, mad about something. They got nothing they trust. Not God. Not their parents.”
His raw feelings set the other members talking about their Southern small-town childhoods, when “adults looked after each other’s children (‘Couldn’t get away with nothing, ’cause your momma had eyes and ears up and down the whole block’), the sense of public decorum that such familiarity helped to sustain. . . . The whole of what they said rang vivid and true,” Obama recalls, “the sound of shared loss.” Even in the segregated South, where racism was real, there reigned a public decorum based on family and community that made life joyous. Its disappearance is what plagues the worst-off in today’s ghettos.
That loss of shared, family-transmitted values—not middle-class but profoundly respectable—is visible in the self-destructive behavior that produces the “greater deprivation” of Reverend Wright’s “authentic” blacks, as Obama’s elders are quick to tell him. One minster scoffs at the notion that their problem is deprivation. “Problem is these young girls out here, engaging in all manner of fornication.” You don’t have to be middle-class to be decent. And when Obama tells the outgoing black head of the local chamber of commerce that a community activist blames the neighborhood’s lack of jobs for blacks on the Koreans, the Jews, and the Arabs, the experienced old shopkeeper sighs wearily. “You won’t hear me complaining about the Koreans,” he replied. “They’re the only ones that pay their dues into the Chamber. They understand what it means to cooperate. They pool their money. Make each other loans. . . . The black merchants around here, we’re all like crabs in a bucket.” But, of course, the Koreans succeed by working their families “sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. As a people, we’re not willing to do that anymore. I guess we worked so long for nothing, we feel like we shouldn’t have to break our backs just to survive.”
Even Johnnie tells Obama that his father brought him and his brother up alone after his wife’s untimely death, silently exemplifying the old, respectable values: hard work, deferral of gratification, self-restraint, care for family, belief that education leads to opportunity. He uncomplainingly went to work moving furniture every day. “Working like a dog,” Johnnie says. “Never seemed like he really enjoyed life, you know what I mean?” Even so, “I realized my old man never laughed when I talked about going to college. I mean, he never said anything one way or the other, but he always made sure me and my brother got up for school, that we didn’t have to work, that we had a little walking around money. The day I graduated, I remember he showed up in a jacket and tie, and he just shook my hand . . . then went back to work.”
“Your father. He was there for you,” Obama replied. “You ever tell him that?”
“Naw,” Johnnie replied. “Maybe I should though, huh.”
“Yeah, John,” Obama advised.
Finally, the one member of his church group who, despite her timidity, had stood up to the authorities on behalf of the Altgeld community—the only member of the group who is married, and to a minister-in-training—tells him she is quitting the group. “Ain’t nothing gonna change, Mr. Obama. We just gonna concentrate on saving our money so we can move outta here as fast as we can.” She and her husband want middleclassness; middleincomeness isn’t nearly enough. Life among the deprived, and therefore supposedly authentic, has nothing to offer.
Why did it take Obama so long to understand the message so clearly given him by all the sensible people around him? The answer lies in his very peculiar history, and I don’t claim the expertise to tease it out precisely, if such a thing be possible. But you don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to know that his mixed-up family made the message about family, inner security, and public decorum painful for him to hear. Unlike Johnnie’s father, who was always there for his son after his mother’s death, Obama’s father abandoned him, and the hurt and longing never healed. And did his mother stand by him? Motherhood was not among her good qualities. She was a latter-day version of Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby, focused on the general problems of those far away rather than the particular problems of her own flesh and blood.
Obama’s mixed-up family made the message about family, inner security, and decorum painful for him to hear.
So yes, he got a powerfully respectable, middle-class, even middle-American, upbringing from his quietly heroic grandmother, which was enough to save him but not enough to fill the void left by an abandoning father and a flibbertigibbet mother. And how was he to define his racial identity, since his absent father, who scarcely thought of him, had given him his outward skin color, but his white family had given him so much of his inner life? And to complicate matters further, he heard his grandmother one day insist that his grandfather had to drive her to work every morning because she had grown fearful of the aggressive bum pestering her at the bus stop lately. Nonsense, said Gramps. But, continued Toot urgently, “he was a black man.” Her ultrasensitive half-black grandson flinched at this—though she certainly didn’t mean him. But who can’t imagine the dizzying hurt he felt at this remark?
When Obama gave up community organizing to go to Harvard Law, shortly after his father’s death, he took a summer off to go to Kenya in search of his “roots,” as we used to say. He learned about his father’s life and discovered that after he had returned from Harvard with only an M.A.—though he styled himself Dr. Obama ever after—Obama Sr.’s early promise of being a Western-educated, modernizing force in newly independent Kenya soon blew up, from his cantankerous quarreling (which Ann would have called uncompromising principle) with his superiors, right up to President Jomo Kenyatta. His jobs and influence shrank, and he grew poor and drunk.
One day, he told one of his daughters to get him some cigarettes. She hadn’t enough money, she said. Nor had he. “Just tell the storekeeper that you are Dr. Obama’s daughter,” he said, “and that I will pay him later.” The storekeeper simply laughed, so the daughter went to a cousin, borrowed the few coins, and brought back the cigarettes. “You see,” her father said to her grandly, as he opened the pack. “Everyone here knows Obama.”
Barack met his vast African family, including many half-siblings, and he learned that even after his father had married yet another white American woman, he would still visit his original wife, who was also seeing another man—so that no one knows who was the father of at least one of her sons. Such an extended family made him think, in italics, “If everyone is family, then no one is family.” The more family he met, the less he felt he had.
In Nairobi, he had a thought-provoking lunch with his half-brother Mark, a physics student at Stanford with a flawless American accent, whose mother was his father’s other white wife and who looked like a foggy image of Obama in a mirror. Like Obama, he had come for a summer visit. Don’t you ever think of settling here? Obama asked.
Mark understood that his half-brother was asking whether he felt somehow incomplete or inauthentic, out of touch with his identity. In fact, Mark replied, he had decided not to think about such things—about what it meant to be half-Kenyan, about who his father was. “I knew that he was a drunk and showed no concern for his wife or children. That was enough.” All the confusions that plagued Obama had made Mark numb, not angry. He had waved them aside, with the California freedom to remake yourself as you wish. “I just don’t ask myself a lot of questions about what it all means. About who I really am,” Mark explained. He could live with the fact that he was a half-Kenyan who loved Shakespeare and Beethoven and didn’t care if they were non-African feelings. Doubtless he could do more self-examination—and Obama could see that of course he had his own inner insecurities—but “I don’t need the stress. Life’s hard enough without all that excess baggage.”
That was one solution, but it wasn’t Obama’s. Nor could he accept the answer that an old friend of his father’s gave him when he asked her why American blacks often left Africa with a sense of disappointment. “Because they come here looking for the authentic,” she said. But even in Africa, pure authenticity no longer exists, since every tribal custom has been stirred into a pot with every other tribal custom, along with habits learned from the English, the Indians, the Indonesians, she explained. And some authentic customs we are better without. Do we really want female circumcision? Collective land ownership? Tribal loyalties instead of the rule of law? What I wish for my own daughter, she said, is not that she be authentically African but authentically herself.
In fact, his father’s old friend could have taken a still wider view and told Obama that, since Rousseau and Diderot, Western thinkers have taken for granted that there’s no such thing as a purely authentic self in any society because we all have to play roles to make a living, please a boss, get a promotion, make a seduction, ingratiate ourselves in a thousand ways, often enough with a sense of inner abasement. And Obama himself confesses that no one knows this truth more intensely than a politician, whose job is to convince voters that he has their best interests at heart and to win over big donors by shading his opinions to correspond to theirs, while “rationaliz[ing] the changes as matters of realism, of compromise, of learning the ropes.” He knows that “whether he believes in his positions matters less than whether he looks like he believes; that straight talk counts less than whether it sounds straight on TV.” If a politician loses, there’s “the cheerful concession speech you have to make to a half-empty ballroom, the brave face you put on as you comfort staff and supporters,” even as you feel “total, complete humiliation . . . as if you have been personally repudiated by the entire community.”
This sounds like his worst nightmare—all his inner turmoil raised to fever pitch. But the point about politics is that it gives a meaning to all the psychic angst and makes it worthwhile. To become a senator, he writes, “requires a certain megalomania, a belief that of all the gifted people in your state, you are somehow uniquely qualified to speak on their behalf.” It takes “an almost fanatical single-mindedness” that is inseparable from “fear of total, complete humiliation.” But if you win, you transcend the fear.
The message he was uniquely qualified to deliver, and those on whose behalf he was elected to speak, in his view, salved his inner wounds even further. If Americans interpreted his 2004 convention speech “to mean that we have arrived at a ‘postracial politics’ or that we already live in a color-blind society,” he weaseled, they misheard him. “To say that we are one people is not to suggest that race no longer matters—that the fight for equality has been won, or that the problems that minorities face in this country are largely self-inflicted.” Sure, things have gotten better, but even he has suffered the petty slights inflicted on even upper-middle-class American blacks: the watchfulness of guards in shops, the cops who stop him for no apparent reason, the women who clutch their purses tightly and hold their breath when he steps into an elevator. “I know what it’s like to have people tell me that I can’t do something because of my color, and I know the bitter swill of swallowed-back anger.” So, for all America’s progress, sorry: “Better isn’t good enough.”
You can’t get much political mileage from the petty slights that upscale blacks like Obama suffer, but Reverend Wright’s authenticity of victimhood is a high-octane political engine. You can get forceful political traction by asserting that pockets of severe deprivation fester with black misery in the nation’s ghettos. Nor is the misery there self-inflicted, Obama insists, despite the arguments of conservative think-tankers (like me) who argue “that cultural pathologies—rather than racism or structural inequalities built into our economy—[are] responsible for black poverty, but also that government programs like welfare [Charles Murray], coupled with liberal judges who coddled criminals, actually made those pathologies worse.” No, he asserts, these neighborhoods are “repositories for all the scars of slavery and violence of Jim Crow, the internalized rage and the forced ignorance, the shame of men who could not protect their women or support their families, the children who grew up there being told they wouldn’t amount to anything and had no one there to undo the damage” that mainstream America is still inflicting on them catastrophically every day.
For Obama himself—and the lawyers and business executives in Reverend Wright’s congregation, many of them doubtless beneficiaries of affirmative action—the assertion of still-intense racism makes their own small humiliations and sense of inauthenticity part of a vast spectrum of injustice that renders every humiliation bitter. Indeed, “the rage of a privileged class,” as author Ellis Cose once called the hypersensitivity of successful blacks to the vestiges of racism they experience, seems, if anything, to have grown even sharper, judging from tantrums over “micro-aggressions” on today’s campuses and the wild success there of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s overwrought and mendacious Between the World and Me. Certainly Wright’s sermon—whose fatuous title, “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama appropriated for one of his books—was enough to bring the future president to tears and ask Wright to baptize him. Even in success, there is no emotion so moving as self-pity; and even flourishing people like to have something else—the government, residual racism—to blame for their occasional flops. So Wright’s contingent of underclass congregants serves as living proof that American racism hasn’t vanished and is always actively trying to “deprive” blacks. That is the ultimate, authentic fear about being black in America: you feel in constant danger of being reduced to zero.
In the end, reality forces Obama to admit that culture “matters,” as he puts it. Of course, there is nothing but destructiveness in the normalization of very early sex and single-mother families, the glorification of male aggression and irresponsible sexuality, the contempt for the authority of teachers and police officers, the devaluation of education, the pervasive drug use, the nonwork and welfare dependency. And blacks know this, he says—as indeed, so many tried to tell him in Chicago. But he hastens to add the Marxist proviso that of course, “culture is shaped by circumstance,” rather than vice versa.
So he has solved the problem of how to be an authentic black for himself, and he did it by constructing a powerful political narrative, which has set race relations back decades. He has set his attorneys general loose to prove that racism infects every cranny of American life, from school discipline, to local zoning in upscale white suburbs, to voter ID laws (though no one charges racism when you must show your ID and more to get on a plane), and even in refusing to prosecute the New Black Panther Party’s intimidation of voters, since Attorney General Eric Holder rationalized that it came nowhere near the intimidation of black would-be voters in Jim Crow days. On racial matters, Holder pronounced, America is “essentially a nation of cowards.” Americans won’t face up to the fact that in too many ways, Jim Crow still rules.
Nowhere, in the worldview of Obama and his underlings, is today’s racism more blatant and destructive to blacks than in law enforcement. The president hammers home this point in all his comments after the occasional, usually justifiable, killings of blacks by police officers and in his unquestioning support of the Black Lives Matter protesters, who never mention that those black lives that matter are 1,000 times more often taken away by black murderers than by cops, white or black.
It was in his identification with troubled black teen Trayvon Martin, shot by a Florida neighborhood-watch volunteer in 2013, that Obama definitively achieved authentic blackness. “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” the president said after the law-enforcement volunteer’s acquittal on murder charges. “And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
Too bad Obama got the volunteer’s race wrong—he was Hispanic—and the president didn’t know the case’s tangled and ambiguous circumstances. But from there on, he seemingly felt whole and at home in his own skin, as if being baptized by Reverend Wright all over again. And just after cops killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in Louisiana and Minnesota this July, he made a speech in Poland that was messianic in its passionate, almost tearful, depiction of an American racism, conscious or unconscious, that sets police to kill blacks remorselessly. Of course, many cops are dutiful and heroic, he acknowledged formulaically, but enough are so brutally racist as to deserve the enraged enmity of ghetto blacks and the suspicion of law-abiding African-Americans, who understandably return violence for violence—so that officers, in effect, bring their murders on themselves. This delusional accusation went beyond even the left-wing account of American police racism of 50 years ago and, as it predictably turned out, incited more black murders of cops.
All “Americans should be troubled by these shootings” of African-Americans by police, Obama said in July, “because these are not isolated incidents. They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.” Even more broadly, it is grossly unjust that blacks and Hispanics, “who make up only 30 percent of the general population, make up more than half of the incarcerated population. Now, these are facts. And when incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same. And that hurts.” What he fails to acknowledge is that so many black Americans are in prison because they commit murder at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined. In New York, African-Americans, 23 percent of the population, commit two-thirds of all the city’s violent crimes.
Culture is shaped by circumstance, the president contends: so these criminals are really society’s victims, depraved on account of being deprived, as West Side Story put it long ago. To be sure, culture and circumstance have a dialectical relationship, reciprocally shaping and transforming each other. But I would argue that culture is the prime mover. If men believe that they are free to improve their lives, and capable and responsible for doing so, they can work wonders.
In a part of himself, the president knew this truth as well as his half-brother Mark. That’s why he married Michelle Robinson, whose well-functioning, intact family could nurture an investment banker like her brother and a rising lawyer like herself. That family, he writes, was a “vision of domestic bliss.” Visiting them “was like dropping in on the set of Leave It to Beaver,” with a “kindly, good-humored father, who never missed a day of work or any of his son’s ball games” and a “pretty, sensible mother, who baked birthday cakes [unlike his own non-cookie-baking mom], kept order in the house, and had volunteered at the school to make sure her children were behaving and that the teachers were doing what they were supposed to be doing”—plus “uncles and aunts and cousins everywhere, stopping by to sit around the kitchen table and eat until they burst and tell wild stories.”
Not only did he marry her family as well as Michelle, but it was at her father’s funeral that he knew he was going to do so. As the casket was lowered into the ground, with Michelle’s head on Obama’s shoulder, the president writes, he silently promised her father “that I would take care of his girl.” In his own mind, he became something like the father he never had even as he became a husband. And he and Michelle produced their own version of an ideal family, with himself as the dutiful father of two girls who would have the world as their oyster.
The tragedy is that the first black U.S. president, with his beautiful, upwardly rocketing family, could have served his black fellow citizens as an example of American opportunity and could have preached the gospel of family, responsibility, and hard work, changing the culture immeasurably for the better. He chose instead to become as divisive as George Wallace.
Top Photo: In an unusual reversal, America’s first black president walked the walk of family values but failed to talk the talk about their importance for success. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)