Born to a father from a small village in Kenya and a mother who hailed from Kansas, the young Obama was raised in Hawaii but later moved to work in Chicago, where he spent several years as a community organiser on the city’s largely Black South Side.
After studying at Harvard Law School and practising constitutional law in Chicago, he started his political career in 1996 in the Illinois State Senate. Then, in 2004, Obama announced his candidacy for a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate.
It was his rousing keynote speech at that year’s Democratic National Convention that attracted national attention, as he called for unity and cooperation, and emphasised the need for hope.
“It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores. The hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta. The hope of a mill worker's son who dares to defy the odds. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him too. Hope! Hope in the face of difficulty! Hope in the face of uncertainty! The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.”
The theme “hope” would become synonymous with his later presidential bids.
In February 2007, just months after he became only the third African American elected to the U.S. Senate since the Reconstruction era, Obama announced his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
After a tight Democratic primary race fought with Hillary Clinton, the New York senator and former First Lady, Obama decisively beat Senator John McCain of Arizona to take the Presidency in November 2008. Large crowds gathered to welcome his public appearances and his message of optimism and change – embodied by the campaign slogan “Yes We Can” – inspired thousands of new voters, many of them young and Black.
Obama received the largest share of the popular vote won by a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and was the first Democrat to win an outright majority of the popular vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Shortly after he was sworn in as President, Eric H. Holder, Jr. was also confirmed as the first African American Attorney General of the United States.
Obama’s victory was heralded by many as evidence of a new “post-racial” America. Had racism, slavery and Jim Crow discrimination finally been put to rest? Certainly the nation appeared to bask in the election’s heady afterglow.
Almost immediately, however, tensions began to surface.
It began as early as 2009 when, in the wake of the financial crash and with many struggling to pay their debts, shouting (and sometimes armed) crowds began to turn up at usually half-empty town hall meetings with local politicians. One demonstrator at a rally in Maryland hanged a member of Congress in effigy. A popular bumper sticker at the time captured the contempt some people were feeling: “Honk if I’m Paying Your Mortgage” it said.
Organisers convened mass gatherings across the country called “tea parties” and they had a specific set of demands: Stop President Obama’s health care law; tame the national deficit; and don’t let the government decide which parts of the economy were worth rescuing.
As the Tea Party fringe accelerated its racially-tinged attacks on the president’s agenda, “Birther” conspiracists spread rumours about Obama’s supposedly non-American, Muslim heritage – something taken up by Donald Trump during his first presidential campaign in 2016 – as the racial climate grew steadily more tense.
On 6 November 2012, Obama won a second term, albeit with a narrower share of the popular vote, beating Mitt Romney by 332 electoral votes to 206.
“Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated,” Obama said in his election-night victory speech, adding that “we are not as divided as our politics suggest. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions.”
Yet, as The Washington Post would later write: “If racial conflict, in the form of birthers, tea partyers and gnawing resentments, implicitly shadowed Obama’s first term, it erupted into open warfare during much of his second.”
Black Lives Matter
Beginning with the 2012 killing of Black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, intense debate reopened on Americas – and particularly its law enforcement’s – highly uneasy relationship with its Black citizens, as high-profile deaths of African American men, women and children garnered national attention.
George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic American, shot and killed the unarmed teenager following a confrontation, as the 17-year-old walked to his father’s fiancee’s house. Zimmerman claimed the right to self-defence under Florida’s “stand your ground” law. There was outrage when he was found not guilty of murder. President Obama said that if he had had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon”.
In 2013, Black Lives Matter (BLM) was brought into being by three radical Black organisers – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi – becoming a popular hashtag on social media that summer.
“It was students … artists, organisers and mommas. We knew that it was part of our sacred duty to step up. And there was an audaciousness that we could transform the world, but we didn't have a plan for it,” said Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan African Studies in Los Angeles and co-founder of one of Black Lives Matters’ first chapters.
But the names most associated with Black Lives Matter today are not its leaders but victims such as Martin – victims whose names and very public deaths have shone a harsh spotlight on the issues of racism bedevilling modern America: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown.
It was the death of Michael Brown a year after Trayvon Martin’s killing that really brought Black Lives Matter to national prominence. The unarmed teenager was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a year after Trayvon Martin’s death and Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets, angrily confronting the police and generating news coverage the world over.
As these events accelerated, Black Lives Matter activists forcefully argued that the U.S. criminal justice system, marked by a drug war that disproportionately targeted young men and women of colour, acted as a gateway to racial oppression.
As BLM co-founder Alicia Garza wrote of the movement’s impact in her new book, The Purpose of Power:
“BLM went from a hashtag to a series of pages on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to a global network with forty registered chapters in four countries, as of last count. The movement has generated the highest number of protests since the last major period of civil rights.”
There were some signs of progress. In 2014, the 114th Congress included 46 Black members in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate.
In 2015, Obama made a series of stirring speeches in Selma and Charleston, where he acknowledged America’s long and continuous history of racial injustice. Despite these efforts, many of his African American supporters felt let down and profoundly disappointed over the lack of more obvious progress on racial and economic justice policies during his time in office.
With Obama’s final term ending, the Black Lives Matter movement gained renewed attention. On 25 September 2016, when San Francisco 49ers players Eric Reid, Eli Harold, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem before the game against the Seattle Seahawks, drawing attention to recent acts of police brutality. Dozens of other players in the NFL and beyond followed suit.
Then, in November 2016, Donald Trump was elected President.
Donald Trump was perhaps America’s most unlikely holder of highest office. The 45th president was a reality TV star, a businessman and property developer (and former bankrupt) who had inherited huge wealth from his father, yet championed himself as a ‘man of the people’, with his slogan “Make America Great Again”.
On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump repeatedly made explicitly racist and bigoted remarks, from calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, to proposing a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S., and suggesting a judge should recuse himself from a case solely because of his Mexican heritage.
Donald Trump’s support in the 2016 campaign was clearly driven by racism, sexism, and xenophobia, too. The Brookings Institution revealed in a 2019 report that he did especially well with white people who expressed sexist views about women and who denied racism existed.
And violence trailed in his wake, too, said Brookings: “Even more alarmingly, there is a clear correlation between Trump campaign events and incidents of prejudiced violence. FBI data show that since Trump’s election there has been an anomalous spike in hate crimes concentrated in counties where Trump won by larger margins. It was the second-largest uptick in hate crimes in the 25 years for which data are available, second only to the spike after September 11, 2001.”
The trend continued into his presidency. Shortly after entering office, Trump brought in his hugely controversial Muslim travel ban, a policy against travellers from Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Nor did he stop there.
In the week after white supremacist ‘Unite the Right’ protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, Trump repeatedly said that “many sides” and “both sides” were to blame for the violence and chaos in which a white supremacist man murdered an anti-racist protester, Heather Heyer. He drew an equivalence between the far-right agitators and anti-racist counter-protesters, claiming that there were “some very fine people” among the white supremacists. The alt-right figurehead, Richard Spencer, praised Trump for “defending the truth”.
Speaking about immigration in a bipartisan meeting in January 2018, Trump reportedly asked, in reference to Haiti and African countries, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” When coronavirus began spreading across the world in 2020, he repeatedly referred to it as the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu”.
None of this was new for Trump. In fact, the very first time he appeared in the pages of the New York Times, back in the 1970s, was when the U.S. Department of Justice sued him for racial discrimination.
In the final year of Trump’s first term (and indeed, his presidency), the killing of George Floyd accelerated the Black Lives Matter movement to international prominence.
On 25 May 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, 46-year-old George Floyd died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd had been accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a local deli in Minneapolis.
Floyd’s killing came on the heels of two other high-profile cases in 2020. On 23 February, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was killed while out on a run after being followed by three white men in a pickup truck. And on 13 March, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was shot eight times and killed after police broke down the door to her apartment while executing a nighttime warrant.
The day after Floyd’s death, protestors in Minneapolis took to the streets. Police cars were set on fire and officers tear gassed crowds. Journalists were assaulted and even arrested by police. After months of quarantine and isolation during a global pandemic, protests mounted, spreading across the country and accompanied by calls to defund increasingly-heavily armed police forces.
2020 came to an end with division and disease ravaging America. A President who seemed not to care about tackling the rampant spread of the coronavirus (even claiming at one stage it could be cured by bleach) gained a huge 74 million votes, but still lost to 78-year-old Joe Biden – Barack Obama’s former Vice-President – while continuing to decry the result and spreading false accusations that he was the true winner who had lost out to “massive” vote fraud.
After losing 60 legal challenges against the result, including in the Supreme Court, and attempting to convince various fellow Republicans to invalidate the results in states such as Georgia, things came to a head when thousands of Trump’s far-right, QAnon-supporting followers attempted to invade the Capitol buildings as lawmakers ratified the electoral results. They’d been repeatedly exhorted by Trump himself.
The images deeply shocked America, and seemed to mark an ignoble end to ‘The Apprentice’ star who’d appealed to a fearful and, it seemed, racist part of America that had never been far from the surface. Many commentators also contrasted the Capitol police’s apparent unpreparedness with the ranks of heavily armed Guardsmen and law enforcement which had greeted peaceful BLM protesters in the same place last year (and a President who ordered similarly peaceful BLM protesters to be tear-gassed to make away for a photo opp in front of a D.C. church in June).
Even after these events and Biden’s inauguration, it’s clear that a significant part of the American public will view the new president as illegitimate and the votes cast by millions of their fellow countrymen and women as invalid.
This seems to reflect a deep polarisation that has existed in American society throughout its history, but which has come to its fore today. The thinly-coded racial messaging from Trump and his allies about “illegal” votes in inner cities is language that has stalked American politics since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.