In 2009, Chicago was the United States’ bid to the International Olympic Committee to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. There was a collective sigh of relief on the South Side of Chicago when it was announced that Rio De Janeiro would be the host. Many South Side residents who would have been directly impacted by the center of the Olympics held in Washington Park were black and brown residents of the city. The collective sigh many had stemmed from being able to see the long arc of gentrification that would have been accelerated by the immediate after effects of a massive Olympic stadium in their front yards.
The long arc of gentrification is what many South Side residents see in the Obama Presidential Center. An entity that will be do what the Olympics didn’t get a chance to do and finish up what the University of Chicago is doing: gentrifying the black neighborhoods of the South Side. While I think most will admit that to fight the Presidential Center is futile, it does speak to the deeper and probative issue of waiting for Obama finally show up.
I, like many black Americans who proudly cast their vote for Barack Obama twice, fully expected Obama to shift tone and change direction in his second term. That never came. Instead he faced his lowest approval ratings and became toxic headed into the 2014 midterm elections. And when it came to racial issues, he became mired down following his comments about Trayvon Martin. The fact that an awareness campaign called Black Lives Matters was started under the first black president is not lost on me. Little did we know all of these natal groanings were fomenting the rise of another populist who appealed to the nation’s worser angels in the name of Donald Trump.
Earlier this week, Obama made the pitch for the presidential center scheduled to be located in Jackson Park near 63rd and Stony Island Avenue.
It is not my experience …that the big problem on the South Side has been too much development, too much economic activity, too many people being displaced because all these folks from Lincoln Park are filling in to the South Side. That’s not what’s happening…. We have such a long way to go before you will start seeing the prospect of gentrification. …Malia’s kids might have to worry about that. Right now, we’ve got to worry about broken curbs and trash and boarded-up buildings. That’s what we really need to work on.
Obama paints a picture of a South Side that conjures up the desolate images of Detroit circa 2013 when the city filed for bankruptcy. And like native Detroiters, it seems as though South Siders are now faced with combating a false image of their neighborhoods. While broken curbs, trash and boarded-up buildings are hallmarks of certain neighborhoods, it’s not representative of the whole South Side.
Without intentionally sounding like a puppet for Cornel West, this is the same neo-liberal broad-brush approach that has consistently kept blacks at the bottom of the socio-economic well when it comes to politics. When Obama endorsed Rahm Emanuel for mayor in 2011, there was a contingent of black residents who saw Emanuel as nothing more than a continuation of Richard M. Daley. I suspect, after the LaQuan McDonald shooting released on dash-cam video, one would be hard pressed to find a black resident on the South Side who’d disagree about the Daley similarities. To see Obama and Emanuel as old pals chummy about the presidential center being built lets everyone know exactly who they are: politicians. Politicians beholden to big business and large donors does not make for a democratic republic, but rather for a plutocracy and an oligarchy—a government ruled by the rich and the few.
To package gentrification in the clothing of America’s first black president bearing a shiny new toy for the South Side is a sinister and unique form of political oppression. There isn’t a scenario where the Presidential Center isn’t a trojan horse for the South Side. For Obama to be so dismissive of the effects of gentrification given the current landscape is appalling. The low end—47th street and north, from the lake to the Dan Ryan—is a section of the city that has seen pockets of gentrification due to massive gerrymandering of even aldermanic wards. With political redistricting and gerrymandering as topics Obama has chosen to focus his post-presidential years on, one would think he wouldn’t fall into this particular trap. Yet, the presidential center with his name will be a major contributor to the ill-effects of gentrification that gerrymandering often brings.
Admittedly, Obama and the Democratic Party never planned for a post-presidential landscape that didn’t include Hillary Clinton as the president. Who knows what a post-president Obama would have looked like with a Clinton in the White House again. Sure we would have gotten a lot more photo-ops and feel good celebrity moments about the Clintons and the Obamas, a Democratic dynasty, flooding our timelines and fluff news stories. But instead we got vacation photos of the Obamas living their best lives without us and the Clintons who essentially went into hiding for the first year. Unfortunately, I don’t think a post-presidency Obama with Clinton as the leader of the free world would look much different substantively than right now.
Perhaps whatever glimmer of hope that Obama would have been a veritable black savior were dashed by the time of the beer summit, the fact remains that when it comes policies and grassroots change, Obama did nothing but assert a conventional liberal platform. He ran as a progressive and governed as a center-left politician. It is a political outlook that still serves him well. In all fairness, Obama never said he was going to prioritize change for black Americans. But, many blacks refused to hold his feet to the fire at all in order to assuage white fears that “good Negro government” was going to reverse racist policies and tactics that had been imposed on black Americans since the Civil War. Black and white liberals alike argued that Obama wasn’t “just the president to black Americans, but all Americans.” In that political trade-off, it seems as though blacks handed over their American birthright for a mess of feel-good speeches archived on YouTube and a gaggle of gifs to be used in text messages and tweets.
My current hope is in an American public chooses to work toward the substantive policies that can make citizen’s lives better. This looks like making sure lifelong residents aren’t forced out of their homes because a Starbucks opens up on the corner. It looks like establishing a living minimum wage. It also looks like going to the polls and voting in local elections. While having Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald paint portraits that marvelously disrupt Euro-American standards of art, it and other types of cultural representation don’t have the axiomatic power to transfer into policies that benefit black Americans who don’t live and work on Wall Street or Main Street, but rather the Martin Luther King streets of neighborhoods nationwide.
There’s no need to wait for Obama any longer, he never showed up in the first place.