Succeeding While Black
Michelle Obama’s new book reduces racial inequality to a matter of psychological impairment that can be overcome through grit and grin. This is a dangerous proposition.
Michelle Obama’s popularity is a remarkable political feat. Her ascent into the public spotlight, after all, began as a receptacle of rightwing misogynoir. From the suggestions that she was ill-tempered to the hideous portrayals of her as male or some kind of primatial hybrid, Obama endured scrutiny unprecedented in the history of the role of first lady. This was hardly surprising given that the pageantry and pomp of the office had become synonymous with white and wealthy “ladies.” Her opponents were quick to cast Obama—the dark skinned, Chicago native—as decidedly un-ladylike, characterizing her instead as an anti-American political militant.
Becoming is an exquisite lesson in creating political ideology—one that I find troubling.
Sensitive to these portrayals, Obama acquiesced when her staff asked her to soften her gestures and play down her political contributions to Barack’s first campaign run. In her new book, Becoming, Obama describes how campaign aids encouraged her to “play to my strengths and to remember the things I most enjoyed talking about, which was my love for my husband and kids, my connection with working mothers, and my proud Chicago roots.” Together, the Obamas became disciplined in responding to the racist attacks, in part due the desire not to confirm the stereotypes. As Obama has famously said, “when they go low, we go high.”
The strategy worked. A recent Gallup poll listed Obama as the most “admired” woman in the United States. Becoming sold a breathtaking 1.4 million copies in its first week, and its success is partly due to the perception that this is Obama’s response to the years of silence—her chance to finally break free from adherence to the public rituals of U.S. power. And, indeed, Obama’s book is her story in her own words—authentic and refreshingly un-ladylike. She endears herself to a broad audience as she freely recalls smoking marijuana with a boyfriend in her car, having pre-marital sex, living at home well into her thirties even after she was married, having troubles conceiving both of her children, yelling in arguments with Barack, and feeling bitter as she was expected to carry most of the burdens of her household after marriage. Free of the pretense often effused by those with wealth and power, Obama comes off as ordinary and relatable.
In Becoming, Obama describes the value of telling one’s story this way: “Even when it’s not pretty or perfect. Even when it’s more real than you want it to be. Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.” For Obama, a person’s story is an affirmation of their space in the world, the right to be and belong. “In sharing my story,” she says, “I hope to help create space for other stories and other voices, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why. . . . Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us.” The root of discrimination, Obama implies, including the ugly discrimination she faced as first lady, is misunderstanding. Sharing personal narratives, then, offers a way for people to fully see each other and to overcome our differences.
This message has resonated widely, but especially with black women, for whom Becoming has been a source of pride and celebration. Black women have paid hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to crowd into stadiums on her book tour, which speaks not only to the celebrity of Obama, but the depths of disrespect and invisibility that black women in the United States experience. Indeed, black women in this country are so debased and ignored that it often feels as if the success and public adoration of Obama can lift and make visible all black women—a process Obama herself encourages.
Her story is a celebration of personal fulfillment—the kind of self-involved, “live your truth”-inspired homilies that middle-class and rich women tell each other.
Yet despite all the optimism and goodwill that Obama embraces and inspires, I find Becoming troubling. Sticking to her strategy for success, Obama reassures her reader repeatedly that she is not a “political” person. Instead Obama describes herself as a “child of the mainstream” who “never stopped reading People magazine or let go of my love for a good sitcom. . . . And to this day nothing pleases me more than the tidy triumph delivered by a home-makeover show.” But as someone who has been around politics since she was a child (her father was a precinct captain in the Democratic Party) and is now, domestically and internationally, one of the most well-known ambassadors of the United States, this denial is not modesty, it is misleading. Indeed, far from being apolitical, Obama is politically sophisticated, and any reader of her book should treat her that way.
Becoming, after all, is an exquisite lesson in creating ideology. As a political insider with broad pop culture appeal, Obama wields enormous influence in shaping discourse and opinion on critical issues concerning race, gender, public policy, and how we define progress in general. Lauren Mims, a former assistant director for the White House project “Educational Excellence for African Americans,” has even undertaken an initiative to create a curriculum for Becoming that she says will “disrupt the traditional practice of talking about black girls in pejorative ways and center them and their unique experiences to study how we can support them.”
Obama, then, is not just telling stories; she is shaping our understanding of the world we live in, which is why it is so critical that we, as a public, interrogate her ideology. When we do, we might see that her story is not in search of the collective experience but is a celebration of personal fulfillment—the kind of self-involved, “live your truth”-inspired homilies that middle-class and rich women tell each other. Becoming normalizes power and the status quo while sending the message that the rest of us only need to find our place in the existing social hierarchy to be happy. This is unfortunate because personal narratives—including Obama’s—do have power. When stitched together and told honestly, they can create a map of shared experience that raises the possibility of collective action as a way to transform the individual circumstance. This is certainly true of poor and working-class black women whose personal stories expose the racism, sexism, and general inequality of U.S. society. These stories relentlessly pierce the treacherous idea that the United States is free, democratic, and just, and they prove the axiom of black feminism that the personal is political.
Born in 1964, Obama has no recollection of the political strife—including multiple uprisings in response to police violence and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—that unfolded in Chicago neighborhoods during her childhood. Instead, her memories revolve around her family’s cramped apartment on the Southside of Chicago, and her narration of her working-class family’s history perfectly captures the systematic way that African Americans were excluded from the vast bounty created in the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Indeed, as a child, Obama was palpably aware that her circumstances were vastly different from those of the adults around her. While their potential was truncated by rampant racial discrimination, Obama was able to attend a promising new magnet high school called Whitney Young. She then goes on to Princeton University and eventually Harvard Law School, and by the mid-1980s, Obama was earning a six-figure salary at one of the most highly regarded law firms in downtown Chicago. By any measure, she and her equally successful brother, Craig Robinson, overcame circumstances that many of their peers inevitably succumbed to.
Obama’s book reflects the diminished view of public programs and the power of the state as a vehicle to create meaningful opportunities for African Americans.
Racism does exist for Obama, but these two realities—the history of structural segregation that she and her brother emerged from and their subsequent black success—shape her perception of racism as less an institutional phenomenon and more an unfortunate residue from the past. This does not negate its realness, but she sees its manifestation largely as a “deep weariness . . . a cynicism bred from a thousand small disappointments over time.” She had seen it in both her grandfathers, “spawned by every goal they’d abandoned and every compromise they’d had to make.” It was why the neighbor had stopped mowing the lawn or even keeping track of where her kids went after school. And “it lived in every piece of trash tossed carelessly in the grass at our local park and every ounce of malt liquor drained before dark. It lived in every last thing we deemed unfixable, including ourselves.”
One of Obama’s best friends growing up was Santita Jackson, one of the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s daughters. In Becoming, Obama points to Reverend Jackson’s talking points in his 1984 presidential run as an inspiring message of racial uplift. She writes enthusiastically about how Jackson
toured the country, mesmerizing crowds with thundering calls for black people to shake off the undermining ghetto stereotypes and claim their long-denied political power. He preached a message of relentless, let’s-do-this self-empowerment. . . . He had school kids pledge to turn off the TV and devote two hours to their homework each night. He made parents promise to stay involved. He pushed against the feelings of failure that permeated so many African American communities, urging people to quit with the self-pity and take charge of their own destiny. “Nobody, but nobody,” he’d yell, “is too poor to turn off the TV two hours a night.”
Conversely, Obama saw how other “extraordinary and accomplished people”—including black women such as herself—had managed the skepticism they were surrounded by:
All of them had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium-sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals. . . . I’d never been someone who dwelled on the more demoralizing parts of being African American. I’d been raised to think positively. I’d absorbed my family’s love and parents’ commitment to seeing us succeed. . . . My purpose had always been to see past my neighborhood—to look ahead and overcome. And I had.
In Obama’s telling, then, racism is not the defining feature of black life, and her profound success is a testament to the ways that striving and self-motivation are the difference between those who succeed and those who do not.
The absence of materiality in Obama’s understanding of racism in contemporary life underlies her sharp rebuke of Reverend Jeremiah Wright in Becoming. Known for his fiery sermons condemning the racism, militarism, sexism, and oppression in U.S. society, Reverend Wright became a thorn in the side of the Obamas during the 2008 campaign when it was “discovered” that the Obamas were members of his church. The mainstream media delved into his sermons and described some of Wright’s incisive comments as “hate speech,” which worked to fuel the presumed radicalism or militancy of the Obamas. The most widely circulated of these sermons showed Wright at his incendiary best:
The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America—that’s in the Bible—for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.
In Becoming, Obama dismisses Wright’s experiences and viewpoints as him “careening through callous and inappropriate fits of rage and resentment at white America, as if white people were to blame for every woe.” She accuses him of viewing “race through a lens of cranky mistrust.” Wright and older African Americans, she says, became “cranky” because of legal strictures of segregation that gave rise to a “narrow mindedness” in matters regarding race. Obama goes on to conflate the bitterness of older African Americans with the racism of older white people, such as Barack Obama’s white grandmother who felt afraid of black men on the streets. That fear, she writes, “was a reminder of how our country’s distortions about race could be two-sided—that the suspicion and stereotyping ran both ways.”
It is a diplomatic reading—but ultimately a clumsy effort to reach across the profound racial division in the United States. Consider the political ramifications of such a reading. By treating them as two sides of the same coin, Obama is equating African American anger—which is rooted in material deprivation and human subjugation—with white fear, which is rooted in racial stereotypes. These two worldviews are not the product of the same generational experiences and reducing them to such forecloses the possibility that African Americans could ever find real redress to the inequality produced by centuries of slavery and legal discrimination.
Becoming normalizes power and the status quo while sending the message that the rest of us only need to find our place in the existing social hierarchy to be happy.
Moreover, Obama’s reading reinforces the perception that African Americans’ persistent demands against racism are not much more than “crankiness” or complaining. When combined with Obama’s own emphasis on striving as a way to overcome racial discrimination, this narrative reduces racial inequality to one of psychological impairment that can be overcome through sheer determination and a positive attitude. She fails to see how it was bitter struggle against real institutions that created the new world she was able to thrive in. Indeed, Whitney Young high school was built on an empty lot that had seen multiple uprisings over the course of the 1960s. Those uprisings eventually caused the political establishment to acquiesce and take concrete steps to create a black middle class. Elected officials invested in schools such as Whitney Young while also exerting enormous pressure on the private sector to end the racial enclosure of segregation that had slowly suffocated Obama’s parent’s social mobility. The crucible of the 1960s widely expanded access to homeownership, college education, white collar professions, and formal entry into electoral politics for African Americans.
Obama and a thin layer of others were beneficiaries of these transformations in the U.S. political economy. The short-lived reforms created by the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s lowered the rate of black poverty by expanding the federal bureaucracy and creating new job opportunities for black workers. But as the momentum from the political insurgency of the 1960s waned, political support for these programs evaporated. And as more time passed from the high point of the movement, the hardship experienced by most African Americans grew deeper. In 1964, the year Obama was born, black unemployment was 9.6 percent; by 1975, it had crept up to 15 percent; and while Obama was at Princeton University, in 1983, black unemployment inched up even further to a bewildering 20 percent—the highest ever recorded. Nevertheless, the successes of the few were held up as evidence that it was not the system that was broken; instead, black people simply weren’t taking advantage of all that the United States had to offer.
To make sense of the persistent low wages, housing instability, higher rates of poverty, and deepening social crisis that marred black communities, the political focus shifted violently to personal responsibility or a lack thereof. In doing so, the infrastructure of publicly funded institutions—including public housing and other forms of social welfare—that had been slowly chipping away at inequality and poverty were dismissed as unnecessary and financially gutted. The picture of success for some African Americans—whether they were lawyers or young elected officials—and continued hardship for others created a distorted picture of black America. Like a fun house mirror, it enlarged features such as personal persistence and responsibility while pushing others, such as the role of institutional racial discrimination, further to the margins.
The crises in this country cannot be resolved one person at a time, and recipes for self-fulfillment cannot create the social forces necessary to transform neighborhoods.
Obama’s book reflects this diminished view of public programs and the power of the state as a vehicle to create meaningful opportunities for African Americans. With the public sector out of view, her conception of social progression is freighted with “public-private partnership” ventures and mentorship steered by “gifted” individuals. Social change is thus based on the goodwill and interests of well-endowed funders and well-meaning individuals while inequality is essentially accepted as something to navigate rather than dismantle.
If this reading seems unfair, consider Obama’s 2013 visit to the Chicago high school, William R. Harper, and her recollection of it in Becoming. As an institution, Harper stands at the intersection of racism, poverty, and violence. In 2012, twenty-one of its students were injured and eight killed from persistent gun violence. Obama chose to visit Harper in 2013 as she became increasingly focused on gun violence in Chicago. Just weeks before, a fifteen-year-old black girl who had just performed at Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade was shot and killed in a Southside neighborhood approximately one mile from the Obama family home.
On the day of her visit, Obama met with twenty-two students who had all been psychologically scarred by their constant exposure to gun violence. They relayed with frightening detail walking down the middle of the street to avoid stray gunfire and their routines of clearly identifying escape routes in case they needed to run. In the course of the meeting, one of the Harper students remarked to Obama, “It’s nice that you are here and all . . . but what are you actually going to do about all of this?”
In her telling, Obama did not have much to say to them: “Honestly, I know you’re dealing with a lot here, but no one’s going to save you anytime soon. Most people in Washington aren’t even trying. A lot of them don’t even know you exist.” It was an honest statement—one we are expected to read as refreshingly honest and “real”—but one that betrayed the logical conclusions of seeing racism as a manifestation of psychology, bad intentions, or simple ignorance. When unmoored from the institutions of power and class domination, racism becomes impossible to address, combat, and dismantle.
In Becoming, Obama also recalls that Englewood (the neighborhood Harper is in) had been considered a “tough” area when she was growing up, but seeing the shuttered windows and dilapidated structures in 2013 showed how much more ingrained its problems had become. She blames white flight: “I thought back to my own childhood and my own neighborhood, and how the word ‘ghetto’ got thrown around like a threat. The mere suggestion of it . . . caused stable, middle-class families to bail preemptively for the suburbs, worried their property values would drop. ‘Ghetto’ signaled that a place was both black and hopeless.”
When unmoored from the institutions of power and class domination, racism becomes impossible to address, combat, and dismantle.
But while white flight was certainly part of Englewood’s history of decline, white people abandoned Englewood more than a half century ago. Englewood’s problems of today are both historical andcontemporary. The neighborhood has continued to suffer because successive city administrations have starved it and other poor and working-class black communities of desperately needed resources, opting instead to redirect those funds to whiter and wealthier sections of the city. In 2012, just months before Obama’s visit to Englewood, Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago and Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, shuttered fifty-two public schools in Chicago—the largest simultaneous school closure in U.S. history. Meanwhile, Chicago has dedicated 40 percent of its budget towards policing.
Almost half of black Chicagoans, men and women, between the ages of twenty and twenty-four are both unemployed and out of school. It is an economic situation that produces crime while arrests and imprisonment reinforce the tight circuit of oppression and brutality. There are estimates that 29 percent of black women in Chicago’s Southside suffer from untreated PTSD. These are material manifestations of racism, but Obama’s telling treats them as sad but ultimately disconnected events that are the simple product of partisan politics, pessimism, bullying, even hate—nothing quite tangible enough to put one’s hands on and dismantle.
Obama, who avoids any analysis of the systemic or systematic feature of racial inequality, offered the children at Harper this lesson: “progress is slow . . . they couldn’t afford to simply sit and wait for change to come. Many Americans didn’t want their taxes raised, and Congress couldn’t even pass a budget, let alone rise above petty partisan bickering, so there weren’t going to be billion-dollar investments in education or magical turnarounds for their community.” In the end, she told them to “use school.”
There are estimates that 29 percent of black women in Chicago’s Southside suffer from untreated PTSD. These are material manifestations of racism.
While the first lady of the United States does not hold a legislative position and thus is not able to secure funding for a school in need, Obama’s normalizing gaze at inequality, almost accepting it as a fact of nature, reinforces the status quo for her largely black audience—and that is a dangerous proposition. Obama shows the extent to which she has given up on the idea that demands can be made of the state. These children don’t have the luxury to “simply wait” for change, so their only option is to turn to their underfunded, lightly resourced school and work hard amid stray gunfire to get themselves out.
This lesson—that personal striving is an important remedy to racial inequality—is given a sunny, optimistic sheen when Obama tells us that local “business owners” later donated funds so that those same twenty-two Harper kids could visit the White House, meet Barack Obama, and visit Howard University. Obama tells us that her hope was for the Harper students to see themselves as college students and use that as motivation to change their lives. As she triumphantly declares at the chapter’s end, “I was there to push back against the old and damning narrative about being a black urban kid in America, the one that foretold failure and hastened its arrival.”
It is important to distinguish Obama’s retreat to personal striving as not just the same old “respectability politics”—the belief that if African Americans just presented themselves as competent and upstanding citizens then they would be seen as entitled to the benefits of U.S. society. Even within the distorted framework of respectability politics, there was still an understanding of the materiality of racism, and there was a notion of collective endeavor—a “linked fate” among black Americans. In place of these politics, Obama concocts a kind of hybrid of middle-class feminism—with its focus on self-actualization, empowerment, and personal fulfillment—with wisps of J. D. Vance–style bootstrap uplift, which centers on hard work, education, and personal responsibility. By eschewing all “policy solutions,” she sends a profoundly dangerous political message: that individuals alone can change their circumstance.
The point is not to impose onto or require a more radical viewpoint from Obama when she does not have one, but rather to expose her ultimately conservative message.
Indeed, in Becoming, she details her endeavors to bring poor and working-class children into the White House so that she could personally encourage them. There are multiple examples of Obama using the power of her office to pluck up black and brown students here and there to, in her words, say, “You belong. You matter. I think very highly of you.” This is, without question, meaningful and valuable to the hundreds of young people who encountered Obama in person. Indeed, even the symbolic power of seeing a black president and first lady evokes the optimism that the Obamas often preach as antiseptic to the chaos of poverty. But, in reality, it also trivializes the enormity of the structural crisis and deprivation in communities such as Englewood. The crises in this country cannot be resolved one person at a time, and recipes for self-fulfillment cannot create the social forces necessary to transform neighborhoods.
In the period of struggle that bequeathed Obama the possibility of her improbable rise to the White House, Ella Baker, a radical black feminist and organizer within the civil rights movement, encouraged ordinary people to connect the dots of their oppression to a broader, unjust social order. Making these connections demonstrated the potential for an alliance of similarly aggrieved citizens and residents who don’t benefit from our social order but suffer from its disorder. As she said in 1969:
In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning—getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.
The point is not to impose onto or require a more radical viewpoint from Obama when she does not have one, but rather to expose her ultimately conservative message. Obama served as an inspiring role model—her personal story is extraordinary by any measure. But it is crucial for both her and us to acknowledge that it was made possible by the confluence of institutional changes and her own talents. For the children of Harper High and their parents who live with PTSD and other scars of urban and suburban life in the twenty-first century, we must reaffirm our commitment to the same kinds of institutional interventions—and beyond—that made her ascent possible.
Another world is possible, but it can only be built through a collective struggle that Obama no longer sees as necessary.