Leading from Behind the Gap: Post-Racial Politics and the Pedagogy of Black Studies

Article excerpt

Introduction

An Associated Press Poll released on the eve of the 2012 presidential election revealed that more Americans are overtly racist today than four years ago. (2) The implicit conclusion that many pundits made was that a black president caused more racial divisiveness, not less, than a white one. This is a particularly troubling paradox considering the wide-spread editorializing of the Obama presidency as the advent of a prejudice neutral era of post-racialism in America.

This poll is also particularly troubling given the results of a recent study that found a greater number of white Americans feeling that they are victims of racism than blacks. (3) Both of these studies collectively reveal a complex development in the political, historical, and psychological landscape of the United States that would be best analyzed by academically trained experts on race rather than political pundits. These perspectives however, whether legitimate or not, have certainly influenced the political process and leadership agenda of the nation.

For example, in 2009, House Republicans accused President Barack Obama of "leading from behind," in reference to his preference for Congress to be proactive in the process of legislative reform. Obama's background as a professor of constitutional law and his criticisms of the Bush Administration's expansion of executive power have certainly impacted his deference to the legislative branch. Obama is one of the few presidents (alongside Warren Harding and Abraham Lincoln) to be accused of not taking a hands-on role in the leadership of the nation while at the same time being accused by his adversaries as being overbearing. (4) Lincoln, considered one of the greatest American presidents, drew criticism during his day for suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War but he was also criticized by generals for his lack of leadership prior to 1863 on the emancipation question. Harding, considered by many to be one of the worst presidents, was characterized as being a weak leader for allowing his appointees to engulf the government in a series of scandals but was also criticized for his unpopular progressive views on civil rights and his "civic booster" approach to economic matters that put him at odds with the laissez faire mentality of his party. (5)

Obama's presidency is likely to fall somewhere between these two extremes when historians looking back write the chapters of his story. However, we can be certain that race will play a key role in the chronicle of his leadership. It will be a challenging undertaking for chroniclers less adept in the parlance of structural racism to assess whether the difficulties Obama encountered were politics as usual or unique challenges of African American leadership maneuvering the landscape of race in a "post-racial" era. Paradoxically, many blacks today view the Obama presidency as not doing enough for black constituents while simultaneously he has been assiduously criticized by a white conservative segment of the electorate as catering only to the needs of blacks and Latinos. Despite one's perspective on this question, the characterization of "leading from behind" is an appropriate metaphor for another phenomenon--a gap of difference and distance in American politics and black leadership.

Black leaders in the era of post-racialism face higher expectations from increasingly diverse constituencies that put them in power but face these challenges without adequate resources or mechanisms to address them. Well aware of these challenges, growing numbers of Black Studies academics have been very critical of Obama's leadership, citing his disregard for a black policy agenda amidst of a variety of other complaints. (6) Leading the chorus of criticism, public intellectuals like Cornet West, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., and Tavis Smiley have bemoaned the lack of targeted policies to address systematic injustices perpetuated against communities of color in general and black communities in particular. …