What Does Obama’s Presidency Mean: Symbolic vs. Structural Change

Barack Obama’s election is a significant symbolic victory, as the first break in the white-man-parade that’s defined the office thus far in American history.

We look better now, don’t we, as a nation? Especially to the rest of world, who were white-manned-out by the uber-Caucasian who’s been in office for the past 8 years. It’s been like watching a bizarre, tragic reality show (“Hee-Haw: The Presidential Years”).

We are all overjoyed that Bush is being replaced by Obama, a man so visibly different from what we’ve had to endure over the past almost-decade.

But symbolic victories do not typically result in structural victories. In fact, symbolic victories often paper over significant problems that remain unsolved, like when the success of Condoleezza Rice in the Bush administration was held forth as proof of Bush’s equanimity, and the end of the need for affirmative action.

Are you already thinking about Nelson Mandela, or is it just me?

Mandela was, in a way, in a much better position to achieve structural change than Obama is today. Apartheid as a system of government had been newly broken, and was ripe to be radically mended. And, unlike Barack Obama, Mandela was actually a progressive leader who sought profound change.

There are limits to what even the most extraordinary people in the most extraordinary circumstances can accomplish, as the example of Mandela, and the tattered remnants of Apartheid that continue to structure South Africa, suggest.

As a nation, we expect too much of Obama. We need to to our part; he can’t do it all.

As intellectuals, we insist on miscasting Obama as a liberal. This miscasting is antithetical to doing our part.

Perhaps this mistaken insistence is still in justification of slapping down Hillary Clinton in the primary, which, as my progressive peers argued, was merely support of a more progressive agenda.

As a former Hillary supporter, it’s absurd that I’m the one saying this, but really: Get over the fucking Clinton thing already. Obama wasn’t a progressive then, and he’s not now. If admitting that gives you pause and makes you consider your screwed up gender and race politics, well, all the better.

But the point, really, is this: We as progressives need to understand that, despite the fact that he’s a powerful symbol of the successes of civil rights, which was a progressive movement, Obama is not one of us.

We need to formulate a progressive agenda for him if we want his candidacy to result in progressive change. So get off your asses at progressive media outlets, stop making excuses for your poor politics during the primary season, and start making some suggestions, RIGHT NOW, for what a progressive agenda might look like.

Let’s use this symbolic victory to create structural change.



1 Comment

Filed under African Americans, race, sexuality, Social Justice, women

One response to “What Does Obama’s Presidency Mean: Symbolic vs. Structural Change

  1. Pingback: Obama and Emotion « Across the Pond: A Feminist Blog

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