FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

From the White House to Obama’s House

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.

More articles by:

Clarence Lusane Chairman of the Political Science Department at Howard University and author of The Black History of the White House published by City Lights Books.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
March 27, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Bailouts for the Rich, the Virus for the Rest of Us
Louis Proyect
Life and Death in the Epicenter
Paul Street
“I Will Not Kill My Mother for Your Stock Portfolio”
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The Scum Also Rises
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Stimulus Bill Allows Federal Reserve to Conduct Meetings in Secret; Gives Fed $454 Billion Slush Fund for Wall Street Bailouts
Jefferson Morley
Could the Death of the National Security State be a Silver Lining of COVID-19?
Ruth Hopkins
A Message For America from Brazil’s First Indigenous Congresswoman
Kathleen Wallace
The End of the Parasite Paradigm
Anthony DiMaggio
Misinformation and the Coronavirus: On the Dangers of Depoliticization and Social Media
Andrew Levine
Neither Biden Nor Trump: Imagine Cuomo
David Rosen
God’s Vengeance: the Christian Right and the Coronavirus
David Schultz
The Covid-19 Bailout: Another Failed Opportunity at Structural Change
Evaggelos Vallianatos
In the Grip of Disease
Edward Leer
Somebody Else’s World: An Interview with Kelly Reichardt
Robert Fisk
What Trump is Doing in the Middle East While You are Distracted by COVID-19
Daniel Warner
COVID-19: Health or Wealth?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
Corona in Germany: Hording and Authoritarianism
Ramzy Baroud
BJP and Israel: Hindu Nationalism is Ravaging India’s Democracy
Richard Moser
Russia-gate: the Dead But Undead
Ron Jacobs
Politics, Pandemics and Trumpism
Chris Gilbert
Letter From Catalonia: Alarming Measures
Richard Eskow
Seven Rules for the Boeing Bailout
Jonathan Carp
Coronavirus and the Collapse of Our Imaginations
Andrew Bacevich
The Coronavirus and the Real Threats to American Safety and Freedom
Peter Cohen
COVID-19, the Exponential Function and Human the Survival
César Chelala - Alberto Luis Zuppi
The Pope is Wrong on Argentina
James Preston Allen
Alexander Cockburn Meets Charles Bukowski at a Sushi Bar in San Pedro
Jérôme Duval
The Only Oxygen Cylinder Factory in Europe is Shut down and Macron Refuses to Nationalize It
Neve Gordon
Gaza Has Been Under Siege for Years. Covid-19 Could Be Catastrophic
Alvaro Huerta
To Survive the Coronavirus, Americans Should Learn From Mexicans
Prabir Purkayastha
Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Poses Fundamental Challenges to All Societies
Raouf Halaby
Fireside Chatterer Andrew Cuomo for President
Thomas Drake
The Sobering Realities of the American Dystopia
Negin Owliaei
Wash Your Hands…If You Have Water
Felice Pace
A New Threat to California’s Rivers:  Will the Rush to Develop Our Newest Water Source Destroy More Streams?
Ray Brescia
What 9/11 Can Teach Us About Responding to COVID-19
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
The Covid-19 Opportunity
John Kendall Hawkins
An Age of Intoxication: Pick Your Poison
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Propaganda Virus: Is Anyone Immune?
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 1: Dispatches From a Terrified Heartland
Nolan Higdon – Mickey Huff
Don’t Just Blame Trump for the COVID-19 Crisis: the U.S. Has Been Becoming a Failed State for Some Time
Susan Block
Coronavirus Spring
David Yearsley
Lutz Alone
CounterPunch News Service
Letter from Truthdig’s Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer to the Publisher Zuade Kaufman
CounterPunch News Service
Statement From Striking Truthdig Workers
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail