Recalling the arduous 2008 path that ultimately led to his first term in the White House, Barack Obama writes in his new presidential memoir, A Promised Land, that his campaign was careful to avoid leaning into any issues that might be construed as “racial grievance.” By this, of course, he means Black concerns about the lethal consequences of institutional white supremacist power.
“[T]oo much focus on civil rights, police misconduct or other issues considered specific to Black people risked triggering suspicion, if not a backlash from the broader electorate,” Obama writes. “You might decide to speak up anyway as a matter of conscience, but you understood there’d be a price.”
White feelings matter, in other words. More specifically, the white majority’s fears of Black equality, even as a mere political proposition, can sink Black electoral aspirations. This was implicitly understood by Black American voters, who forgave the candidate for avoiding full-throated advocacy for racial justice on the campaign trail, considering it a necessary calculation to quell the anti-Black imaginings of those “for whom the image of me in the White House involved a big psychological leap.” Like Obama, many believed “the immediate formula for racial progress” would be getting the first Black president into office, where change could happen.