As he faces a critical juncture in his presidency, it is perhaps useful for President Obama to reflect upon an obscure but relevant anniversary. On October 17, 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt officially changed the name of the president’s residence to the “White House.” Significantly, this occurred on the day after his controversial White House dinner with black leader Booker T. Washington. Roosevelt had been in office six weeks following the September 6, 1901 shooting and subsequent death of President William McKinley. The dinner, as viewed by some in the black community, was supposed to signal a new receptivity by the white political establishment to engagement with African Americans. In fact, it achieved the opposite. The virulent reaction to breaking the racial mores of the time closed the door not only on Washington, but other black leaders for nearly 30 years. At the same time, a new political era was dawning not only in the black community but in the nation as a whole.
Ironically, these two elements – race and political transition – are haunting the current White House albeit with the historic dimension of an African American president at the helm. From the Henry Louis Gates and Shirley Sherrod incidents to the racialized antics of the Tea Party and right-wing media, bigotry has reared its head time and time again since Obama’s election. Fanatical attacks on Muslims and Latinos—the real targets of the New York City Mosque controversy and Arizona’s anti-immigration law—have been the public face of a far more troubling institutional discrimination that White House after White House have failed to address. In the areas of employment, health care, environmental degradation, education, and criminal justice, depressing and well-known disparities have persisted for decades.
A key measure of the Obama administration’s political audacity will be the degree to which it confronts these unpopular but critical issues amid predictable accusations of “reverse racism” and “his hatred of white people.” The Clinton and Bush formula that the benefits of prosperity are distributed fairly let alone based on unequal need is fundamentally flawed and must be rejected. The singular focus on the suffering middle-class, a true but narrowly-conceived and politically-driven framework, shamefully ignores the continuing crisis facing the urban, suburban, and rural poor, disproportionately African American and Latino.
Despite his close ties to Booker T. Washington, Roosevelt allowed the racist reaction of mostly Southern politicians and journalists—the Tea Party-like leaders of the era—to close the door on black social visitors to the White House for nearly three decades. More critical, Roosevelt’s administration retreated on challenging the barbaric lynchings, injurious segregation, and destructive racism pervasive in the United States during the period. President Roosevelt refused to initiate any policies that would address or provide specific remedies to the marginalized and oppressive situation faced by the nation’s black communities. After the storm of controversy over black Booker T. Washington dining with a white president at the White House, and for decades following, for African Americans, the newly-branded “White House” seemed whiter than ever.
But as noted above this was a period of transition. Soon the NAACP would form and leaders such as scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, journalist William Trotter, anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, Pan Africanist advocate Marcus Garvey and countless others would emerge to challenge the racial status quo. More broadly, the seeds of division between Southern and Northern Democrats also began to grow culminating, in another historic irony, with the election of Republican Theodore’s distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, in 1932. Grassroots activism and a national crisis would eventually push the second Roosevelt to implement progressive radical policies that transformed the nation and national politics.
Today, to confront the issue of rising racial animosity as well as the likely changed political environment that he will face after the November 2010 elections, Obama will need the one thing that Theodore Roosevelt’s White House lacked: courage. Congressional Republicans and the conservative movement will relentlessly pursue an agenda of obstructionism, rollback, and anti-progressivism. The White House can continue to chase a fruitless strategy of bi-partisanship or realize that in the 2-6 years it has left, it is in an ideological and political battle for the future of the nation. Whatever the configuration of Congress turns out to be, President Obama must employ all the powers of his office, both real and symbolic, to push through policies that genuinely advance the nation’s interest and those of the people in it.
It will be critical to mobilize the millions who believe that government should play a responsible and interventionist role in addressing the job, home foreclosure, and climate change crises. Despite their shrillness and obscene visibility, followers of the Tea Party and Glenn Beck do not represent the tens of millions who are in jeopardy but whose voices have been politically silenced. Both the White House and progressive civil society must bring pressure like never before on Congress regardless of who is in charge.
Few remember or care what the final vote was that pushed through Society Security, unemployment insurance, the Voting Rights Act and other pivotal legislation that changed the country. As President Obama himself has noted, it will be better to be a one-term president that wins important policy achievements, even amid controversy and partisanship, than a two-term one who achieves little.
In a symbolic sense, the White House is no longer white; the “whites-only” signs have been removed. Now, it is time for real change and a real commitment to making the White House the People’s House.
CLARENCE LUSANE is a Professor at American University and the former editor of the journal Black Political Agenda. He is author of several books, including Pipe Dream Blues: Racism and the War on Drugs, Hitler’s Black Victims and The Black History of the White House forthcoming this fall in the Open Media Series by City Lights Books.