Politics & Policy

The Upside of Obama

Will he end white liberal guilt?

If the election of Barack Obama — a 47-year-old black man with a political resume as ephemeral as a Mets pennant drive and a governing philosophy as dubious as Paris Hilton’s choice of boyfriends — accomplishes nothing else, it should illustrate the peculiar distorting effect on American society of white liberal guilt.

#ad#The final nail in the coffin of John McCain’s presidential candidacy, it now seems clear, was the fact that the American economy tanked in the months before the election. Fairly nor not, voters blame such downturns on the incumbent party. Whatever caused the current fiscal crisis, therefore, must be considered a prime factor in McCain’s defeat. The seeds of the crisis date back the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 — which initiated a concerted, decades-long effort by the federal government to coerce banks into making loans to lower-income borrowers.

The sentiment was noble, albeit rooted in a desperate race consciousness: If more black families owned their homes, the theory went, they’d accumulate wealth as the properties increased in value. They would pass that wealth down to their children, and the financial inequalities stemming from America’s sordid racial past would gradually diminish.

The problem, of course, is that mathematical probabilities don’t bend to noble sentiments. The reason banks weren’t lending to black borrowers as frequently, or on as good of terms, as to white borrowers, had nothing to do with racism. It had to do with risk analysis. Writing loans to lower-income, lower-collateral borrowers means more defaults.

With the rise of subprime lending, lenders were able to make up for the increased risk by charging higher interest rates. To further mitigate the risk, lenders sought to reformulate and repackage the riskier loans, share their exposure, and tap into other sources of revenue. Congress paved the way with various forms of deregulation. The price of real estate soared because of new demand from those who’d otherwise have been unable to buy a house; speculators naturally moved in, because there seemed no way to lose; and then, well, here we are. In a mortgage meltdown, with grotesque foreclosure rates, on the precipice of a deep global recession and credit crunch, because sooner or later mathematical probabilities have their way.

Ironies abound. The most bitter is that a disproportionate number of foreclosures have affected black homeowners, because they were riskier buyers to begin with. But the most profound is that the fiscal crisis precipitated decades ago by the Community Reinvestment Act has contributed decisively to the election of the first black president, Barack Obama.


Many conservatives are licking their psychic wounds at the moment, but an Obama presidency may yet wind up as a healthy development — if it forces us to confront the ways in which white liberal guilt has warped our political landscape for the last four decades, especially since the primary victims have proven, time and again, to be blacks.

Take, for example, the calamitous decision in the 1960s to expand benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. AFDC began during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, intended to assist impoverished widows and their children. But its scope broadened during Lyndon Johnson’s administration to include payments to unmarried mothers with children. Why? Because the out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks in 1963 stood at a record high of 23.6 percent, and thus many black parents were ineligible for help. The government, in effect, began sponsoring illegitimacy.

#ad#By 2005, the out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks had tripled to almost 70 percent. Is there any social pathology known to man not found disproportionately among children born out-of-wedlock? With only good intentions, the Johnson administration did more to undermine the structural integrity of the black family than did decades of Jim Crow laws, eventually spawning a degenerate urban culture in which the phrase “my baby’s daddy” eclipsed “my husband.”

LBJ’s Great Society fiasco inaugurated the era of white-liberal-guilt politics, whose distorting effects have reverberated ever since. The 1970s brought forced busing in an effort to integrate under-performing, predominantly black inner city schools. This ignited white flight to the suburbs, which actually further segregated schools, eroded local tax bases, and thus cut funds for the very school systems busing was intended to help.

Then there was affirmative action, a policy dating back to a Kennedy administration executive order barring federally funded projects from practicing racial discrimination in hiring or employment. Affirmative action soon evolved into the practice of discrimination in favor of blacks in order to redress past grievances. The consequence, when applied to college admission, was to channel black students into higher-tier schools than they were prepared for, thereby ensuring generation after generation of higher black dropout rates. A 2004 study published in the Stanford Law Review, for example, shows that affirmative action in law school admissions has resulted in significantly fewer black lawyers now practicing in the United States.

The fallacy behind the Community Reinvestment Act, AFDC expansion, forced busing, and affirmative action is that government intervention can accelerate the natural progress of blacks in American society. Experience has shown, time and again, that the government can only ensure equal opportunities. It cannot compel equal outcomes. That’s the work of generations — just as the subjugation and exploitation of blacks was the work of generations. The white-liberal-guilt-besotted desire for quick remedies to racial inequities has produced more far more misery than redress.


On election night, at the moment Barack Obama’s electoral vote count surpassed the necessary 270, I was walking down Ninth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, a bar-and-restaurant district. People streamed out onto the street, screaming and cheering; men and women, friends and strangers, black and white, young and old, began hugging. A number were weeping with joy. Amid the commotion, a 30-ish black man came running up the sidewalk and yelled, “There’s a new sheriff in town!” I didn’t realize he’d directed the remark to me until I saw him pass a young black couple with a knowing nod, then yell it again at a group of three white women.

#ad#Two days later, I received the following group e-mail from a white middle-aged woman, a colleague of mine: “Rosa sat, so Martin could walk. Martin walked, so Obama could run. Obama ran, so we could FLY. Hope rose on our wings. November 4, 2008. HOPE has risen to new heights!”

No one has ever assumed the presidency with the unrealistic expectations Obama faces. Judging from an altogether unscientific sample of conversations I’ve overheard over the last two months — a sample weighted towards college faculty and students, Manhattan pedestrians and diners, and, of course, CSPAN callers — Obama’s white supporters seem to think he’ll single-handedly heal our partisan rifts and make America beloved abroad, bring peace to the Middle East and capture Osama bin Laden, balance the budget and save Social Security. Yet even those absurdly lofty expectations pale (pun intended) beside the hopes that black voters, who cast ballots for Obama at a rate of over 95 percent, have invested in him. Blacks seem to view him as an amalgam of Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Miles Davis,  and Julius Erving — except with a better outside shot.

Obama, therefore, is certain to disappoint as soon as he passes from promiser to decider. But he’s also uniquely situated to effect a genuine change in America’s race consciousness. The fact that his march to the White House resembled less a traditional campaign than a cult of personality — a cult that included much of the media — has a potential upside. Obama will set up shop on Pennsylvania Avenue owing less to his party’s leadership and lobbyists than any president in a century. Think about it. How many Democratic bigwigs endorsed Hillary Clinton before drifting to Obama? How many labor unions initially favored John Edwards? President Obama could, if he were so inclined, tell anyone, anytime, to take a hike.


What good could come of that?

The best-case scenario, though the least likely, is that President Obama, in a Nixon-to-China moment, turns to the NAACP, the Congressional Black Congress, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and the entire ethno-grievance chorus and says, “Enough.” There are, he explains in a primetime speech, no governmental quick fixes to the collective inequalities in American society. Indeed, every time the government intervenes, it sets back the cause of justice for generations. Over time, without government interference, through parental sacrifice and individual initiative, inequalities will even out — unless, of course, you believe that black people and white people are innately different in their potentials.

#ad#Again, that’s the least likely scenario. But even without anything so dramatic, Obama can still cause a sea change in racial attitudes. He can do this, first and foremost, by example. He’s a husband and a father. He dresses in suits and ties. He speaks the King’s English. And he’s president of the United States. In other words, he’s no victim. If he’s authentically black — and what black person in America will dare say he isn’t? — black authenticity cannot equate with victimhood.

Obama isn’t being kept down by the Man. He is the Man. How will that fact sit with the subset of blacks, especially black men, who attribute their personal failures to invisible racist conspiracies working against them? The thought has to cross each of their minds: If nothing stopped a black man from becoming president, then maybe the reason my life is screwed up is because I’ve screwed it up.

But even if that’s too much to expect, how about Obama as a thoughtful, articulate, well-mannered, tattoo-free alternate image of black manhood to foul-mouthed rappers and dirtbag athletes? How many young black men will stay in school because Obama did? How many will bury their noses in homework because Obama did? How many won’t be ashamed to be seen with a book under their arms because Obama wasn’t?

In the final analysis, if an Obama presidency accomplishes any of the above — if it brings an end to the politics of white liberal guilt, or provides a role model for struggling blacks — it could serve a cause that outweighs and outlasts whatever wrongheaded policies the president-elect might pursue.

 – Mark Goldblatt writes from New York.

Most Popular


Jussie Smollett Jokes Declared Off-Limits

The Jussie Smollett story has been declared not fit for jokes. "It's a straight-up tragedy," declares the co-creator of a Comedy Central show, South Side, set in Chicago. Bashir Salahuddin, a former Jimmy Fallon writer, says “The whole situation is unfortunate. Particularly for the city, there’s bigger ... Read More

What The 1619 Project Leaves Out

“The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year,” The New York Times Magazine editors declare. “Doing so requires us to place ... Read More
PC Culture

Courage Is the Cure for Political Correctness

This might come as some surprise to observers of our campus culture wars, but there was a time, not long ago, when the situation in American higher education was much worse. There a wave of vicious campus activism aimed at silencing heterodox speakers, and it was typically empowered by a comprehensive regime of ... Read More