Michael Dyson's The Black Presidency

Daily: Daily Times
Date: 14.12.16

During his two presidential tenures from January 2009 to January 2017, Barack Obama, the
first black President of America, has done marvelous things except addressing the race
question. This is the central idea of Michael Eric Dyson’s book, “The Black Presidency:
Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America,” published by Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt, in 2016. Dyson is a Georgetown University professor and a political analyst and
writer. This opinion piece intends to discuss Dyson’s certain ideas expressed in the book.

Though written in a flowery descriptive language, the book gives an interesting insight into
the race competition – even if not the race conflict – rampant in the American society. From
pages 41 to 46, Dyson elucidates the meaning of “bi-racial” in terms of “interracial mixture”
to throw light on Obama’s ancestry – a white mother from Kansas and a black father from
Kenya – but ends up explaining how a bi-racial person stands one step above the black
and one step below the white pedestal. For instance, on page 257, Dyson writes: “Obama
… had often spoken of the benefits of his biracial biography.” That is, the existence of white
genes or white blood is important for a black skinned man to succeed. Unfortunately, this is
how Obama cannot be called the first Afro-American President but the first Afro-White
American President of the US. If Dyson understands this point, he will also understand the
reason why Obama did not co-relate himself much with Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse
Jackson Sr.

On the race question, Dyson is disillusioned with Obama on two counts. First, Obama
cannot fall into the category of the nation’s father for being rejected by the white, as Dyson
writes on page 134: “Obama, too, has many of the better traits of the nation’s former
fathers [such as Roosevelt, Lincoln, and Kennedy]…[However,] Obama has been rejected
as the nation’s father by millions who refuse to recognize his paternity for no other reason
than his race”. That is, while Obama struggled to associate himself more with the white
through his bi-racial claim, he was disowned by them. Second, Obama did not do much to
address the race problem of the black, as Dyson writes on page 167: “Obama’s failure to
grapple forthrightly with race underscores a historical irony: while the first black president
has sought to avoid the subject, nearly all of his predecessors have had to deal with ‘the
Negro question’.” That is, Obama has failed to ameliorate the lot of the black.

The book necessarily dismisses any racial undertones. While appreciating the freedom
struggle of the black, Dyson eulogizes the role of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson
Sr. For instance, on page 57, Dyson writes: “Martin Luther King strode toward freedom in a
history-changing bus boycott,” and on page 59, Dyson writes: “[Jesse] Jackson made the
very idea of a black president reasonable [by his “historical presidential campaigns in ’84
and ’88”] in many quarters where the belief had barely existed at all.” Nevertheless, Dyson
does not forget appreciating the role of the white presidents, as he writes on page 168:
“Neither of these men [i.e. Obama’s predecessors] was black, and yet they triumphed over
the demons of race.” That is, Obama could not do for the black what his white president
predecessors did for them.

Dyson thinks that the rise of Obama was meant for political and moral restoration of
America. For instance, on page 130, Dyson writes: “Few candidates of any race have run
as effective a presidential campaign as Obama did in 2008…When Obama became the
Democratic Party nominee, he stayed on message and outdid Republican Party opponent
John McCain in debates, fund-raising, organizational focus, and mastery of the details. His
stirring triumph over McCain suggests that the nation ignored the unfair characterization of
Obama by his opponents and saw in him the best hope for the political and moral
restoration of America.” However, nowhere in the book does Dyson evaluate if Obama has
met hopes.

One major flaw in the book is that Dyson has tried to see Obama’s presidency isolated from
or independent of the first Afro-American Secretary of State Colin Powell, who served under
US President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005. Powell – a claimant of having a multi-
generational (Afro-European) mixed race – was the first to set an example that an Afro-
American national could serve the US at the national level. In fact, Powell went one step
ahead under the spell of the Powell Doctrine by crafting the case for the desired invasion of
Iraq at the UNSC level in February 2003. However, in the whole book, Dyson dedicates only
one sentence to Powell. On page 40, Dyson writes: “The example of Colin Powell surely
played in his [i.e. Obama’s] mind: you say or do the wrong thing, and the promise that
glimmered on you like fresh dew will quickly evaporate and dull your shine.” That is, it was
the rise and fall of Powell that remained a caveat for Obama.

Ironically, with Powell’s craftiness was appended the crisis of legitimacy of Iraq’s invasion.
With the passage of time, the Iraq case went weaker whereas the crisis of legitimacy went
stronger. Obama struggled with correcting Powell’s mistake by withdrawing US forces from
Iraq in December 2011, but without foreseeing the disorder visiting Iraq and Syria under the
rubric of the Arab Spring which allowed Islamic militants to spawn under various banners. In
April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi not only established Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)
but, in June 2014, he also declared the foundation of a caliphate. This situation created a
panic in the Obama camp which resorted to air strikes on the ISIS militants in Iraq in August
2014 and in Syria in September 2014 without the approval of the UNSC. The crisis of
legitimacy arose again and consequently Russia jumped into the fray in September 2015 to
protect the Syria regime. This situation has engendered a new face of the Middle East.
Hence, whereas the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake made possible by Powell, the
departure of US forces from Iraq in 2011 was a mistake made possible by Obama. In fact, in
order to correct Powell’s mistake, Obama has done more mistakes. Now, the next US
President, Donald Trump, is burdened with the task of correcting these mistakes.

In short, the way both Powell and Obama nudged the US and the Middle East into a
strategic black hole, it can be said that the era of black dominance, whether unalloyed or
alloyed, in the US politics is over.

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