Among young voters who share the former president’s skin tone, Obama emerges as an unlikely figure who affirmed that they mattered.
By Brandon Tensley
The Howard University Gospel Choir performs for former President Barack Obama at the Easter Prayer Breakfast at the White House on March 30th, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)
The first time I saw him, he was the rookie senator from Illinois — a mix of cleverness and cool. He was slated to address the 2007 College Democrats of America Convention, which took place in Columbia, South Carolina, where, conveniently, I lived. More convenient still, a friend of mine was one of the event’s organizers, so I also had the luck of joining a small group of people, plucked from the hundreds in attendance who met the senator before he went onstage. It was over in a few seconds. But that was all my 17-year-old self needed. For the next year and a half, the only thing I wanted was for this man who shared my skin to be my next president.
Was I the only person who fell — and fell hard — for Barack Obama? Not by a long shot. But if you’re a black American of a particular age, I bet America’s first black president was also responsible for your first taste of political recognition, of not feeling utterly invisible. That’s not a coincidence. Obama’s campaign hinged on courting black Millennials. According to data from the Pew Research Center for the 2008 election, the Obama campaign was far more likely than the McCain campaign to reach out to young voters, who were more ethnically and racially diverse that year than they had been in the previous presidential election — the voter turnout rate for blacks ages 18 to 29 increased by 8.7 percent, from 49.5 percent in 2004 to 58.2 percent in 2008. Obama, in short, spoke to us. He filled a need that, back then, we didn’t know the full scope of.
That’s why, some black Millennials say, the recent turn to an administration that picks and prods at marginalized communities feels like an especially cruel form of disenfranchisement.
When Obama swooped in, he did more than just change black lives — he affirmed them.
“2008 wasn’t the first time I’d voted in a presidential election, but it really meant something to see someone who actually looks like me run,” says Preston Mitchum, 30, a policy research analyst at the Center for Health and Gender Equity. “I was already openly gay and was therefore so full of hope when I heard the positive messages [about pro-LGBT policies] emanating from the Obama campaign.”
Adrienne Johnson, 28, echoes this assessment. “I remember being in college and skipping class to hear Obama speak when he was on campus one time,” she says. “It was the first instance where I felt energized to campaign for someone, to knock on some doors.” Johnson hasn’t forgotten how precarious those hazy campaign days could be, though. “If it’s possible to be discouraged and hopeful at the same time, that’s how I felt,” she recalls. “My parents grew up during the civil rights movement, and they’d seen black political leaders not be taken seriously, so there was also a nagging feeling that Obama couldn’t win, no matter how great he was.”
Of course, despite everything, Obama did win, and he came along right when many black Millennials hungered for an alternative vision of the White House. Over his eight years in office, he gave us political body and voice.
This isn’t to suggest that Obama was a perfect president, or that black Millennials’ attachment to him was an uncritical or unthinking one. As Charles Badger, 27, a political consultant, put it to me, Obama pulled off “many consequential feats, but he also had some missteps along the way, and black Millennials have become much more aware of the limitations of Washington politics” as a result, especially when it comes to racial justice. At The Atlantic, Tressie McMillan Cottom argues convincingly that Obama’s unyielding faith in white people made him underestimate lingering American bigotry — and how it might one day again be weaponized.
Still, Mitchum remarked, many young black Americans felt an almost visceral loyalty to the new president in those early days. “We knew very quickly that Obama would be working with an obstructionist Congress,” he says, “so we wanted to protect him as our own. That’s why what’s scary about the rise of President Donald Trump is how we’re seeing a 180 — a racist attempt to correct course after Obama’s presidency,” which saw initiatives — including the president’s task force on 21st Century Policing and the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans — aimed at reimagining the prospects for young black Americans.
For Johnson, who went on to become a public defender in Atlanta, Georgia, after seeing that Obama could go from being a community organizer in Chicago to claiming the highest office in the country, the former president cracked her life wide open. “He legitimized pursuing a career in service to others, as opposed to a traditional power career,” Johnson says. “This sounds dramatic, but seeing him flipped my whole professional world.”
Indeed, when Obama swooped in, he did more than just change lives — he affirmed them. For many black Millennials this affirmation was all the fiercer because of our deep affection for the man himself. Probably the only silver lining of Trump’s presidential win — something supremely hard to swallow given that Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by some 2.8 million popular votes — is that he’s picked a fight with people who are coming off the energy of the Obama years and who are retooling it to kick back against policies that threaten the lives of all but the white and wealthy.
As my interviewees told me, a lot of the work they’re doing — such as advocating for policies to support those whose rights are constantly under attack, particularly communities of color, immigrants, and women — has pivoted toward countering the Trump administration’s political machinations. In a sense, they’re doing the same activism and labor as ever, the big difference being that their incentives have radically reversed.
“With Obama, I was proud of what he stood for. I was proud of what the White House meant. And I wanted what I did to be a sort of reflection of those values,” Johnson says. “But this has all changed in the age of Trump. Now, I want to send a message — that I’m not my president.”
Badger echoes this point. “History isn’t on autopilot,” he says. “It’s not heading in an inevitably progressive direction. It requires us to roll up our sleeves and bend the arc of the moral universe ourselves.”
It’s anyone’s guess how history books will remember Obama. Frankly, though, I’m not worried about it. Because I know that I’ll always treasure my first black president and his black family. Whatever happens, Obama, to me, will always be that bold, black senator who defied America’s living legacy of racism to become president, and in doing so, welcomed so many others like him — like us — in.