In 2004, Senator Barack Obama became what Reynolds describes as the U.S.’s latest “extraordinary Negro,” since he represented the dream of a post-racism society. Then, Hurricane Katrina struck. The government responded too slowly, letting Black neighborhoods flood and Black people drown. All the while, the media told sensational, racist stories about looting and violence.
Like other “extraordinary” Black celebrities throughout history, Barack Obama became a symbol of Black assimilation to many racists. In this view, the post-racial dream is like a new version of the “southern strategy”—by refusing to acknowledge race, powerful people get to pretend that racism is gone (but also continue to benefit from it). But Hurricane Katrina shows how powerful people continue to choose racist policies for political gain.
In 2007, while Obama was pulling ahead in the primary elections, the media was busy criticizing Michelle Obama’s body and scrutinizing Obama’s relationship with antiracist pastor Jeremiah Wright. In his eloquent “A More Perfect Union” speech, Obama responded to these criticisms with a mix of assimilationism and antiracism—and then he won the presidency. It was Angela Davis’s first vote for one of the two major parties. Black Americans were overjoyed by the “antiracist potential of a Black president.” When Obama was elected, he symbolized hope and progress. But ultimately, under the pressure of governing, he became an assimilationist. During his presidency, segregationists attacked him relentlessly.
As always, with Obama, the media used racist ideas to try and discredit Black leaders. While Kendi and Reynolds recognize Obama’s symbolic importance to antiracists, they don’t want to sugarcoat his legacy. He made the same mistake as so many other Black leaders: he used assimilationism to try and change white people’s perceptions of Black people and thereby win them over. This strategy has practically never worked: racism comes from white people’s self-interest, not their racist perceptions of Black people. (Those come later.) Therefore, Kendi and Reynolds argue, Obama ended up ceding ground to racists out of goodwill—and being surprised when the racists didn’t do the same to him.
But antiracists will always keep fighting. In response to police violence, the antiracist Black women Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi started the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Their slogan shows that true antiracism is based on love—which also means that antiracists also have to oppose all other kinds of bias and injustice. With the help of social media, #BlackLivesMatter protests spread around the U.S. Like Angela Davis, who is one of their greatest influences, these antiracist feminists show how people can turn potential into power through activism.
The basic pattern from history continues to hold true: racists and antiracists both constantly evolve. They develop new ideas, policies, and movements that respond to the particular issues in each historical moment. #BlackLivesMatter is the latest in a long legacy of powerful antiracist movements, going back to the Germantown Quaker petition in 1688, that have fought for racial equity based on the moral conviction that no group is superior or inferior to any other. The best antiracists know how to learn from history, just like #BlackLivesMatter has learned from Angela Davis.