If Toni Morrison, the Nobel-prize winning African-American novelist, can refer to Bill Clinton, a white man, as America’s first black president, then surely the process can happen in reverse. Is it possible that Barack Obama is not the first black President but just another white guy who preceded him?
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 this barbaric, generational 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 deserves to be called the greatest American of the twentieth century because he restored America to its founding principles. Prior to 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 denying a black child the right to drink water from a fountain on a hot summer day in Selma. 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 whoever that person would be 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 the Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.
Indeed, American 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 1 and the Cambodians in 1975-1978. President Roosevelt famously refused repeated entreaties to bomb the railroad tracks to Auschwitz during the holocaust. Morrison may call Clinton the first black President. But he did not so much as even meet with his senior advisers to discuss Rwanda during the three months of its genocide in 1994 when 800,000 died through the low-tech slaughter of being mangled by machete. Clinton likewise did little to stop the slaughters in Bosnia and Srebrenica, waking up only, and finally, to intervene in Kosovo.
Fast forward to President Obama whose actions with regards to dictators and wholesale human slaughter taking place on his watch, and the Libyan massacres in particular, have been utterly baffling. I have already written of my grave disappointment in Obama 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 Liu Xia is held hostage although 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 past huge piles of garbage in February, 2010, in order not to offend the bullies in China.
But Obama’s abrogation of leadership and failure to champion human rights on 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 Gaddafi 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 Gaddafi’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 Gaddafi with the possibility of economic sanctions, a subject which, one would think, is not exactly on the mind of a brutal dictator fighting for his very life. Finally, on Saturday, February 26th, the press reported that Obama, in a phone call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said that Gaddafi 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 had legitimacy in the first place? And what is the meaning of this statement being made in private to the German Chancellor? Is Mr. Obama too timid to call a press conference and announce in bold, unequivocal terms that Gaddafi is a tyrant who, if he survives, will be tried for crimes against humanity?
Obama’s inexplicable silence in the face of the public murder of peaceful political protestors – recall that his voice was for days absent even when Ahmadinejad mowed down his own people after stealing the election in June, 2009 - is in sharp contrast to the soaring and fearless oratory of Martin Luther King when he spoke of Bull Connor’s dogs and hoses on the last night of his life, April, 3, 1968, at Mason Temple. “I remember in Birmingham, Alabama… and Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth… but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” … And we went before the fire hoses… That couldn’t stop us… We would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
Just imagine what it would be like, if we had a President who rose to such oratorical heights when he witnessed innocent citizens being picked off by snipers in Tripoli.
Equally puzzling is the neutralization of Samantha Power herself, now serving as a special assistant to President Obama at the National Security Council and participating in the kind of do-nothing-on-human slaughter Presidential administration that she decries in her book.
And so, we continue to wait for America’s first black president, someone who will step into 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 international best-selling author of 25 books and has recently published ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.