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28 November 2018updated 05 Oct 2023 8:34am

Why Michelle Obama’s vapid liberalism is a dead end for the left

To defeat a resurgent right, we need rupture, not syrupy memoirs on a better yesterday. 

By Ash Sarkar

A few years ago, in summer 2016, I was talking to some friends about the Obama administration’s failure to deliver on the lofty rhetoric of “hope and change” for black America. While the architects of the 2008 financial crisis were rehabilitated in the corridors of power, the number of black homeowners “underwater” on their mortgage – where the outstanding loan exceeded their property’s market value – increased 20-fold between 2007 and 2013. The wealth gap between white households and those of colour widened, and the tenure of America’s first black president was marked by a reluctance to engage substantively with the biggest anti-racist mobilisation for a generation, Black Lives Matter. Amid other milestones – the Fair Pay Act, equal marriage – there were no comparable legislative achievements for black Americans.

As my friends and I recalled the litany of disappointments, one person – Jude Wanga, a migrants’ rights activist and writer – interjected: “I don’t know why you’re all acting surprised. Obama wasn’t actually an African-American president.” Over our outraged squawks, she elaborated. Barack Obama’s heritage, a Kenyan father and a white mother, made him the first African and American president. But he doesn’t have a generational connection to American plantation slavery, or to the Jim Crow-segregated South. His ascension to the White House didn’t embody the civil rights dream of unequivocal citizenship for African-Americans. That mantle belongs instead to his wife, Michelle Obama.

The former first lady certainly doesn’t shy away from this herself. Her memoir Becoming opens with the distilled kind of bootstraps Americana that makes ghostwriters punch the air: “I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving.” Michelle’s account of growing up on Chicago’s South Side, in the shadow of Martin Luther King’s assassination, is compelling. Deftly curated narrative resonances invite us to view her soaring legal career as a continuation of her Robinson family tradition of desegregating racially homogeneous institutions.

While recalling the thrill of sharing black cultural coordinates with Barack, barbecues and barbershops aren’t enough to overcome Michelle’s sense of being “unrooted” as an African-American when the young couple visit Nairobi. Don’t expect much in the way of Dead Prez-style transcontinental affinity; the soundtrack to fulfilling the Civil Rights promise is Beyoncé singing Etta James’ At Last”.

So much of Becoming, on code-switching, microaggressions and the like, seems aimed at middle-class women of colour who have spent their lives in academic, work and social settings as lonely dabs of melanin in otherwise overwhelmingly white spaces. More than Barack – whose background and upbringing was distinctly international – Michelle’s story is that particularly American, and deeply elitist, form of anti-racism. Her ruthless perfectionism at both Harvard and Princeton is in the mould of WEB Du Bois’s vision of “the talented tenth”: “an aristocracy of talent and character” in which one in ten African-Americans would drive racial uplift through participation in classical education. Michelle’s famous defence of civility – “when they go low, we go high” – might in this context be read as a Du Boisian call for a vanguard of black excellence to steward an economically immiserated African-American population.

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It should come as little surprise that as the Trump administration takes a machete to much of her husband’s political legacy, Obama is the totem for liberals’ hopes of a better yesterday. An American president’s cultural impact is frequently determined by First Ladies. Ronald Reagan’s bloody and corrupt drugs war would have been nothing without Nancy intoning “Just Say No”; John F. Kennedy was merely the man who accompanied Jackie to Paris in 1961. Michelle, particularly in Barack’s first term, channeled some of Jackie Kennedy’s visual language: an implicit promise to revive the Camelot era’s refined but democratic American idealism (this time without the assassinations, affairs, and alleged amphetamine use). The transfer of political power might be electoral, but in reality liberals love nothing more than a dynasty.

Michelle has, rightly in my view, resisted calls to stand for office. But with copies of Becoming selling at a rate of nine per second on its first day on sale, we should think carefully about why progressives on both sides of the Atlantic are still so drawn to the notion of Obama, Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton retaking the White House

Trump’s presidency is a barbaric horror show, but there’s something grotesque about the rehabilitation of previous administrations by comparison (George W Bush sneaking a sweetie to Michelle at John McCain’s funeral in September was apparently enough to make some people forget about the dead of the Iraq War). Truly, civility is the opiate of the centrists.

The present may be a painful place to live, but it’s worth remembering that the past is an impossible one. The poet Langston Hughes asked in 1951, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The answer isn’t to seek comfort in syrupy accounts of the recent past, and confirm everyone’s suspicions that Republicans and Democrats really were all the same before Trump came along. Rather, it’s necessary to embrace a politics of difference and discontinuity. What we need is rupture, not memoir.

Ash Sarkar is senior editor of Novara Media

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This article appears in the 28 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died