One Year Later: The Social Implication of Barack Obama and the Power of Possibility

As this week marks the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s victory, pundits, journalists and the like are sure to share with the public assessments of the president’s political performance. Certainly, both sides of the isle will have much to say of his actions on health care reform, the war in Afghanistan, and the ever-looming economy and recession. But, putting his presidential prowess aside, there is much to be said, and seen, of the social implications of Barack Obama’s election and its potential affect on the Black America.

From the time he announced his candidacy, black leaders and scholars pondered the obvious: Does his nomination and subsequent election mean the end of racism in America? What will he need to do as president to alleviate some of the conditions that disproportionately affect blacks? Would his election mean the end of the Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton brand of black politics? Some black leaders have taken issue with the president’s handling of race, criticizing him for not addressing the issue as they think he should, an approach they view as a potential hindrance to achieving racial justice. I too have grappled with these questions in discussions with my peers over the past year, debating whether or not the president is doing enough.

CNN’s special entitled Black Men in the Age of Obama offered up insights and some potential answers to that question. The roundtable, moderated by Don Lemon, featured black men from all isles- business, education, church and hip hop. They contemplated the affects of some of the president’s actions, each with differing opinions. Where they seemed to find common ground was in the president’s role as a symbol of possibility, potentially evidenced by a comment made by a young black student who Lemon interviewed for the program. When asked what kinds of change the president’s election has brought to his life, he said:

“My mom sends me text messages that read ‘Hey Mr. President.’ She believes that I will be president one day.”

It’s in statements like this where black leaders may find Barack Obama’s biggest contribution, as a voice, image and reference point of what could be. The power of that statement is immeasurable not because it’s deeply profound. Rather, its value is incalculable because the possibilities it suggests are now backed by reality. In his book, The Politics of Recognition, philosopher Charles Taylor wrote “a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves.” Ken Tsutumabayashi expounds on this in The Fusion of Horizons, explaining that this is especially the case in long suffering, exampled by black history in America.

The reverse of what Taylor described might be true as well, that a people can experience healing, clarity and worthiness when persons belonging to their group mirror back to them a positive image of themselves. If this is true, then the sociological realities begin to change. Black men who have been pierced disproportionately by certain social conditions can internalize the image of Barack Obama as an alternative to their current realities. The deteriorating black marriage and relationship can be rejuvenated through the example of the Obama union. And the black family, which has experienced significant decline since the 1950s, can ingest the image of the First Family as an example of cohesion and togetherness.

Whether it’s right or wrong, the reality is that Obama’s chosen brand of politics may never allow him to overtly dedicate himself to the kind of sweeping reform and legislation that some black leaders are looking for to improve Black America’s current state. But if statements like what Bishop Eddie Long said on CNN are true, that Obama’s election inspired more black men in his congregation to seek a college education, perhaps Obama’s ascendance to the oval office alone will serve as enough to unlock the potential, opening the possibilities. And if President Obama does nothing else, perhaps just being there is enough.