After our class pulled apart a speech that Obama gave before he was elected president in 2008, I knew that I wanted to pay extra special attention to his first State of the Union speech of the new year. The former speech had been constructed around comments made by Reverend Wright, the former pastor for Obama and his family. Reverend Wright made comments about the state of the country in terms of race, and how frustrated he was at where the country was currently at. This put then president-elect Obama between a rock and a hard place, as he now had to both defend his pastor and soothe the American people (read: White Americans) who were outraged and offended by what he had said. Obama took the politically wise move of appeasing White America with grandiose words that re-instilled their faith in the “American Dream” and other post-racial terminology. While frustrating to hear someone with so much power and leverage uphold the imaginary American Dream ideology, it arguably was a tactful move that preserved the presidency for him.
However, with a lot less on the line in his second term, I was disappointed to hear President Obama speak yet again of this fabled American Dream. The American Dream reassures people that anyone, regardless of their race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, age, body agency, or sexuality, can “make it” in the United States. This goes hand in hand with the “pull yourself up by your boot straps” terminology that accompanies stories of so-and-so’s grandfather who overcame every conceivable obstacle to become financially stable and free of any oppression. A quick search of the transcript from this State of the Union finds that President Obama used the word “dream” 9 separate times. Only once was it in direct conjunction with the actual words, “American Dream”, but regardless of that the word “dream” still holds weight because it is associated with the notion of the American Dream. He spoke beautifully about individuals who have dreams to go to school or succeed in their businesses or own a home, and how they were working so very hard to accomplish those dreams.
I don’t want to use this time to belittle anyone’s dreams. We all have them, and many will go on to fulfill those dreams, and then consequentially, develop new dreams that they will then go on to accomplish. But it would be a disservice to not acknowledge the structural obstacles that many Americans (and non-Americans) come up against in pursuing their dream. And despite what anyone says, even the President of the United States, hard work isn’t the key to making those dreams a reality. Groups that have been historically marginalized or oppressed in any way can work harder than the average Joe, and still not succeed in the ways they wish. And that’s simply due to the foundations that our society was built on–everything from the way our schools are run, to the way our jails and prisons are run. There will always be someone who will pop out of the shadows with a very well-intentioned but overall usually misguided story about someone in their family who was able to succeed despite these systemic roadblocks. This is all well and good, but it does not do well to use individual experiences to explain larger social phenomenons. It just doesn’t work. There will always be some exception to the rule, but that doesn’t change the rule.
I suppose the question that this leaves me with is why President Obama isn’t using this time to draw attention to these systemic inequalities. He’s in his second term as president, so he doesn’t have to be wary of his reelection. It doesn’t look like Democrats are going to win back the House anytime soon, nor does it look like Democrats will lose the Senate, either. Would having a more candid discussion about race in America really set him back that far? In my opinion, Obama is in an unusually safe position…why not use that to his advantage?