I remember sitting next to my father's hospital bed. It was November 4, 2008. The television was showing election results. At this point, my father could no longer speak but he watched as Barack Obama was declared the winner. Two nurses – one Black and one white – stood in the doorway of my father's room and clapped. I leaned in and said to my father, "We did it." He nodded. I felt a swell of pride. My father, born in 1928, had cast an absentee ballot for the first Black President of the United States. I felt like it closed a chapter for him. My father passed away four days later.
My father didn't live to see today. He didn't live to see Barack Obama pen an open letter to police officers. In this letter, in the midst of violence at the hands of police that continues to ravage communities of color, he stood in solidarity with police officers in their "tumultuous hour." The letter contains a phrase that speaks volumes; it is a phrase that he has never explicitly uttered to the Black Americans who hoisted him on their shoulders. Instead, he directed these words to officers, to an institution which continually abuses and snatches lives away from his Black constituents.
"We have your backs."
It's been clear whose backs this administration, like every administration before him, has prioritized. It's not the bloodied backs of a thousand slaves or the bullet pierced back of Walter Scott.
Barack Obama's open letter to police is the culmination of years of placating white supremacist systems for the sake of order rather than justice; a Lincolnian move which is less concerned with liberation and more committed to restoring order. The letter could have been an acknowledgment of the loss of life, but it was more than that. The letter coddled and affirmed police officers. It spoke to their "quiet dignity" while Obama has made great efforts to contribute to the narrative that the current actions of people in search of Black liberation are less than dignified. President Obama's pen rang to Stevie Wonder's tune that underscored his campaign. In this act – this eleventh hour act that will be a piece of his legacy – President Obama proclaimed to the policing arms of America, "Signed. Sealed. Delivered. I'm yours."
He's not ours. We thought him to be ours. We imagined that. He projected that. Invoking the name of King and peppering his speech with gospel preacher intonations, he wore our hopes as armor. I was twenty-five years old when he was elected. I wrapped myself in his glory, his possibility, and what his possibility meant for me. I saw myself in power, empowered, and validated by the first brown hand to ever grace the Bible during a presidential inauguration. I reflect on the words I whispered to my dying father. "We did it." But what exactly did we do? What did our mobilization to polls do to improve our condition? Who did we erect as our leader? We saw him as a manifestation of the labor of all Black bodied leaders before him. We had overcome.
The greatest racial injustices occurring under the Obama administration have been at the hands of police. He has neglected to enact any real change on behalf of the victims. Instead, he has aligned himself with the system which creates these victims; blue alert bills and his appearance at funerals of fallen officers but not funerals of civilians the police state cuts down at the knees. With these actions, Obama failed where even Lincoln didn't, for he refuses to push toward the abolition of a system which murders, cages, and exploits and profits from the labor of Black Americans.
For many Black Americans, allegiance to Obama is not merely political. Our allegiance was deeply rooted in a need to see the fulfillment of generations of Black sweat and tears. It was a familial connection. We refer to the first couple by their first names, express ownership and pride in "our president" being Black, and Black grandmothers across America have framed photos of the Obamas in their homes. "Yes we can." That "we" was weighted with every broken shackle and every cross bore by a Black person before us. It was inclusion. It was our piece of the American pie. It was our seat at the welcome table. Obama was a symbol of the heights we could reach.
We taught children to look to Obama to see how far they could go with hard work and grit. However, while pushing the narrative that Blackfolks can now do anything, we also surrender to the idea of Blackness existing within the limits whiteness has created for us. When President Obama is challenged, many of us point to white supremacy and the limits of the office in order to justify his failures. If we are to believe that the most powerful Black man in the nation is limited by the whiteness which surrounds him, we must be able to expand our imaginations and admit to ourselves that these systems cannot and will not serve us.
Blackfolks must find a way to abandon the American dream. Though America was largely built by us, it was not built for us. It has never truly served us. We are not empowered by it. We are consumed. The straightest path to that dream, no matter your background, is proving how white you can be. More specifically, in achieving that dream and becoming what is viewed as truly American, one has to also prove how anti-black you can be. We can never be liberated in or by these systems. Barack Obama, the pinnacle of Black success and possibility, has chosen anti-blackness. On issues ranging from deportation of immigrants to increased weapon sales under his watch, Barack Obama has served these systems better than any recent president. He has not used whiteness as a tool to better his people. He has become a tool for whiteness. He has repeatedly chosen death of blackness – the blackness within himself and of others he fails to stand with.
During Monday's Republican National Convention, in the backyard of the place where Tamir Rice was killed, a running theme of "all lives matter" and "blue lives matter" echoed throughout the hall. Obama’s bipartisanship is not neutrality. In abandoning the cries of Black Americans who seek justice and upholding America's policing systems, Obama has made a choice, blue over Black. He chose, as any president should, to stand with the United States. But the United States has never stood with us.