If Toni Morrison, the Nobel-prize winning African-American novelist, could refer to Bill Clinton, a white man, as America’s first black president, then surely we can take a reverse tack: Is it possible that Barack Obama is not the first real black president after all?
It’s a contentious statement, so let me explain.
Whiteness and blackness are ultimately immaterial concepts that refer to naught but skin pigmentation but were elevated to earth-shattering proportions by racists and those who wished to suppress blacks for their own advantage. But the principal positive consequence of the barbaric oppression of blacks due to the color of their skin is that in modern America “blackness” has come to represent, more than anything else, a people’s capacity to endure suffering and humiliation yet agitate for their freedom and human rights.
That agitation reached its apogee in the person of Martin Luther King, Jr., who restored America to its founding principles. Prior to Dr. King, America was a great but deeply contradictory nation whose brave soldiers liberated Jews from Hitler while back home cowardly lynchings continued, and whose troops bravely fought the Communist menace in Vietnam while black children were denied the right to drink from water fountains on hot summer days in Selma, Alabama.
Dr. King ended all that. His reward was a bullet to the neck. But ever since then his memory and the black marchers who followed him and desegregated America has become synonymous with the willingness of a people to bear immense burdens to promote justice and freedom.
It was because of that extraordinary legacy that many of us looked forward to the elevation of the first black man, or woman, as president of the United States and leader of the free world. Surely that person would usher in a new era, utilizing American influence to promote freedom and the rights of man worldwide. And whoever it would be would have a tough act follow after the actions taken by President Bush to promote democracy and human rights in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.
Indeed, America has an almost shameful record when it comes to stopping genocide, as Samantha Power chronicled so adeptly in her 2002 Pulitzer-prize winning book A Problem from Hell. The United States responded very inadequately to the genocide of the Armenians in World War I and the Cambodians in 1975-1978. President Roosevelt famously refused repeated entreaties to bomb the railroad tracks to Auschwitz during the Holocaust.
Morrison may have felt Clinton was the first black president but Clinton did not so much as even meet with his senior advisers to discuss Rwanda during the three months of the genocide there in 1994 when 800,000 died through the low-tech slaughter of being mangled by machete. Clinton likewise did little to stop the killings in Bosnia and Srebrenica, waking up only, and finally, to intervene in Kosovo.
Fast forward to President Obama, whose actions with regard to dictators and wholesale human slaughter taking place on his watch – the Libyan massacres in particular – have been utterly baffling. I have already written of my grave disappointment in Obama’s warmly greeting dictators like Hugo Chavez or rolling out the red carpet, literally, for President Hu of China while Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace recipient, Lu Xiaobo, rots in jail and his wife is held hostage though she has never even been accused of a crime. There is the further issue of Obama’s gross disrespect of the Dalai Lama – sending him out of the back entrance of the White House last year past huge piles of garbage in order not to offend the bullies in China.
But Obama’s abrogation of leadership and failure to champion human rights in Libya defies all comprehension and shows just how much the president has strayed from the legacy of Dr. King. First there was Obama’s utter silence for days as Khaddafi opened fire on his own people with jets, helicopter gunships, large caliber weapons and RPG’s. Then, almost a week into the killing, Obama issued his famous denunciation of Khaddafi’s mass murder as “outrageous and unacceptable,” words perhaps more relevant to the threat of a baseball strike than mass human slaughter.
The president further threatened Khaddafi with the possibility of economic sanctions, a subject, one would think, not exactly on the mind of a brutal dictator fighting for his very life. Finally, on February 26, Obama, in a telephone call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said Khaddafi had “lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now.”
Come again? Was our president suggesting that a dictator who had slaughtered and tortured his political opponents for four decades, funded international terrorism, and blew up discotheques and airliners somehow had legitimacy in the first place? And what is the meaning of the statement being made in private to the German chancellor? Is Obama too timid to call a press conference and announce in bold, unequivocal terms that Khaddafi is a tyrant who, if he survives, will be tried for crimes against humanity?
And so we continue to wait for America’s first black president – someone who will step into Martin Luther King’s shoes and use the most powerful office on earth to make freedom ring, not just from Stone Mountain, Georgia and Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, but from Tripoli to Riyadh and Damascus to Beirut.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, is the best-selling author of 25 books and has recently published “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.” Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.