When Barack Obama was elected president, millions of Americans believed that the United States finally was entering a postracial period when race no longer mattered in any serious way. But the Obama presidency has, ironically, heightened racial tensions, and we are seeing old divisions return.
One of the most unexpected developments resulting from the Obama presidency has been the resurgence of conflicts and name-calling among blacks themselves. Not since the heyday of the Black Nationalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s has there been such bitterness among blacks about who is "authentically black" and who is not.
The source of this renewed infighting is the dashed hope that Obama, the first black president, would improve life for blacks — "his people." Life has not improved for blacks under Obama. The unemployment rate among blacks is 16.7 percent, nearly double the national average. Forty percent of black children are living in poverty, and the housing crisis has hit blacks harder than other groups.
Many blacks are disappointed and angry, and those who speak out and question Obama's performance are having their loyalties to "the race" and to the first black president challenged. Some are being called, among other insulting names, "Toms," "traitors" and "sellouts."
Media personality Tavis Smiley, Princeton University professor Cornel West, California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, and former pizza CEO Herman Cain, a Republican presidential candidate, are four of the most outspoken critics of Obama's performance.
During the summer, Smiley and West conducted a 15-city "Poverty Tour." On their website, they say the tour was "to highlight the plight of poor people of all races, colors and creeds so they will not be forgotten, ignored, or rendered invisible during this difficult and dangerous time of economic deprivation and political cowardice."
Referring to Obama's debt ceiling deal with the GOP, West said the measure was a "war on the poor" and that Obama "has no backbone." Later, he said of Obama: "He can speak to Jewish voters. … He can speak to gay voters. … Why can't he speak to black voters?"
Waters, while critical of the president, has not been as harsh. "The Congressional Black Caucus loves the president, too," she said. "We're supportive of the president, but we're getting tired. … We want to give the president every opportunity to show what he can do and what he's prepared to lead on. But our people are hurting. The unemployment is unconscionable. We don't know what the strategy is."
But West, Smiley and Waters are being excoriated. During one of his recent syndicated radio segments, comedian Steve Harvey, for example, accused West and Smiley of using personal vendettas to undermine Obama's re-election prospects. He mocked the outspoken duo as being affiliated with UTLO.org, an imaginary website whose initials stand for "Uncle Tom Look Out."
The Rev. Al Sharpton, an Obama loyalist, who has a radio show and a television program, issued a stern warning to the president's black critics. "I'm not telling you to shut up," he said. "I'm telling you: Don't make some of us have to speak up."
And then there is Obama critic Herman Cain who, in addition to claiming that racism in the United States "doesn't hold anybody back in a big way," said that Obama has "never been a part of the black experience in America" and that black voters are "brainwashed" for being loyal to Obama.
On the Joy Behar Show, entertainer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte attacked Cain, along with black Republicans in general.
"The Republican Party, the tea party, all of those forces to the extreme right have consistently tried to come up with representation for what they call black, what they call the real Negroes and try to push these images as the kinds of voices that America should be (looking) to," Belafonte said. "So we've got Condoleezza Rice. We've got Colin Powell. They are heroes for some people, but for a lot of us they are not. And Herman Cain is just the latest incarnation of what is totally false to the needs of our community and the needs of our nation. I think he's a bad apple and people should look at his whole card. He's not what he says he is."
The fear for black leaders is not that the internal squabbles will cause Obama critics to vote Republican. It is that too many will stay home and deny the first black president the votes needed for him to return to the White House.