Obama and U.S. exceptionalism: An unresolved paradox

27 Aug 2014


What can the recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri tell us about Obama’s framing of the American nation?
‘I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible’.  (Senator Barack Obama, March 18 2008)

This summation of the U.S. and its exceptional history lay at the core of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Taken to its extreme, it means perceiving the U.S. as a colour-blind utopia; as the sole nation which can revel in liberal triumphalism. In these terms the originality of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign was over-emphasised; it meant re-hashing the now exhausted American dictum that anyone, from anywhere, can experience personal advancement and success. A flaw central to notions of ‘American exceptionalism’ is a repeated inability to define success. Is success merely framed in strictly individualistic and material terms, or a feat which can only be garnered collectively? 


The fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri leaves a similarly framed question unanswered: When will the African-American Civil Rights movement achieve ultimate success? There is an indeterminacy to any given answer to this question; an indeterminacy which is paralleled by answers given to questions such as ‘When is a democracy consolidated?’ This comparison highlights the need for Obama to act pre-emptively, introducing practical measures which both complement and surpass his lofty rhetoric on race. However, the inability of the Obama administration to do just this is underlined by Dina Gavrilos. For Gavrilos, ‘the long history of oppression was perhaps too incongruous with the much-needed national pride that was a necessary feature of Obama’s victory if it was to be palatable to all Americans.’ [1] Indeed, Obama’s success in 2008 rested on uniting the nation, redressing ‘problems that confront us all’. It meant rejuvenating supposedly colour-blind and individualistic notions of ‘American Exceptionalism’ in a post-Bush era. A person of colour’s success, by virtue of being symbolically lower in the racial hierarchy, has paradoxically signified the potency and assumed universality of the American Dream. [2] 

If the American Dream is able to re-invent and renew itself into the twenty-first century and beyond, perceptions must match reality. In spite of Obama’s presidency, as of 2010 there was only one black U.S. senator, the President’s replacement and, in total, there were only three other non-whites and seventeen women out of one hundred senators in 2010. [3] The very affirmative action which brought Obama’s father to the U.S. needs to be matched by quotas in public services. 

The suburban town of Ferguson now acts as a compelling instance of segregation between public services and the very communities they claim to represent. As Steven Thrasher recently commented, it’s not that Ferguson’s police force is 94% white in a town that’s two-thirds black. What matters is the patent incongruity between an African-American in the White House and unemployment rates among young African Americans. In St. Louis, 47% of the metro area’s African-American aged between 16 and 24 are unemployed. Crucially, the added failure of the public sector to invest in African-American communities is even more detrimental. What’s unusual about St. Louis — and goes a long way to explain the tension of the Ferguson protests — ‘is not racism per se but the way the metropolitan area has chopped itself into bits, remaining socially and economically segregated long after racist laws were erased from the books’.

In situating his own candidacy as evidence of American ‘greatness’, Obama implies that electing him reaffirms the greatness of the United States. [4] Nevertheless, Obama’s highly celebrated, highly visible racial identity should, ironically, force us to see just how invisible the power of whiteness is and has been. [5] Eduardo Bonilla Silva echoed this conviction, reminding an otherwise optimistic global audience that Obama’s election does not mean the end of racism. [6] It has not only failed to bring meaningful social and economic change, but has fatally blurred the space to talk about race in the public square. [7] The recent riots and protests in Ferguson could act as springboard for Obama to launch a lasting legacy on the ever-salient issue of race. As of yet, Obama has failed to take advantage of this opportunity, choosing instead to ‘simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality’.

By Michael Tavares

[1] Dina Gavrilos as quoted in The Obama Effect: Multidisciplinary Renderings of the 2008 Campaign (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010) p.10. 

[2] Dina Gavrilos as quoted in The Obama Effect: Multidisciplinary Renderings of the 2008 Campaign (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010) p.6.

[3] Dina Gavrilos as quoted in The Obama Effect: Multidisciplinary Renderings of the 2008 Campaign (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010)p.11. 

[4] James T.Petre as quoted in The Obama Effect: Multidisciplinary Renderings of the 2008 Campaign (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010) p.23. 

[5] Dina Gavrilos as quoted in The Obama Effect: Multidisciplinary Renderings of the 2008 Campaign (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010) p.15

[6] Robert Newby , “The ‘New Majority’ Defeats White Nationalism? Assessing Issues of Race and Class in the Obama Presidency” Critical Sociology, vol.36, no.371 (May 2010), p.382.

[7] Ibid. 

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