The reason many of us have been critical of Barack Obama’s outrageous $400,000 speaking fee is that it robs us of a fantasy: that sooner or later, the first black president was going to use his considerable powers, in or out of office, to help the economic ravages of the poor, who are disproportionately black.
That Obama’s project was or ever would be racial and economic justice was always a dream – and the sooner we let go of this and recognize Obama for who he is and what he does, the better we’ll all be.
Some people who disagree with me believe I am racist for not lauding Obama’s right to cash in on the presidency the same way the Clinton and Bush dynasties have. I will never deny the representational and psychological value of having had Obama in the Oval Office and his beautiful black family living in the White House. I always liked the guy immensely, even as I’ve criticized the politician.
But when it comes to the economics of systemic racism, I don’t think anyone should earn $400,000 an hour, and I certainly don’t worry about criticizing black people also earning that obscene sum. I’m much more concerned with factors of economic racism such as why white people have 12 times the wealth of black people; why black families would need to work 228 years to build the wealth of white families; why the median wealth of single black women is $5 and how the economic crash of 2008 was an apocalyptic theft of wealth from black homeowners to Wall Street which was never prosecuted.
Enter President Obama. As Robert Jones Jr, the writer and creator behind Son of Baldwin, noted, it’s significant that Obama’s first big talk was to a Wall Street gathering, considering it’s “the same Wall Street that he used our money to bail out and, in return, instead of lowering our credit interest rates and raising our savings interest rates, that same Wall Street raised our credit interest rates and lowered our saving interest rates for what was the definition of ungrateful”.
Like so many people, when I campaigned for Obama before I was a journalist in 2008, I wanted him to take on the specific and persistent racial inequalities generated by American capitalism. I had read Dreams From My Father and hoped, once in office, this thoughtful writer about race would directly address economic racism. But the 2009 bailout, and Obama’s subsequent failure to pursue any significant prosecutions related to it, should have taught us all that racial economic justice just wasn’t Obama’s main priority.
We hoped, maybe in a second term, he’d come out swinging on systemic racism. But when Mike Brown’s killing in Ferguson ignited a rebellion, Obama looked very uncomfortable when he had to pause his Martha’s Vineyard vacation to address the ugly truths of American policing, as he did again when Brown’s killer was not even indicted. He never visited St Louis after that.
Still, some of us so desired our first black president to lead a Martin Luther King-like charge against the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism” that we hoped maybe, perhaps, after he left office, he’d really speak his mind. It was naive of me, but after I saw Obama speak in person about his My Brother’s Keeper initiative here in New York, I fantasized that he’d spend his days out of office working with young black people in a similar way that Jimmy Carter builds houses for Habitat for Humanity.
Instead, it seems like Obama will spend his post-presidency hauling in money as the Clintons have. I don’t believe even under the guise of philanthropy that speaking to banks helps ameliorate economic racism; it certainly doesn’t help the Democrats electorally.
Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe in his heart, Obama’s project was racial and economic justice, even if the evidence suggests otherwise. However, that was indisputably never the project of the people he hired.