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Barack Obama was the first Black man elected President in the United States in 2008. In this episode, Clint Smith will explore the early life, political career, presidential campaign, and legislative milestones of Barack Obama.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed, is available now! https://bookshop.org/books/how-the-word-is-passed-a-reckoning-with-the-history-of-slavery-across-america/9780316492935

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Hi, I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History!

My grandfather was born in Mississippi in 1930. Sometimes, when he tells me the stories of his childhood, I get overwhelmed. 1930s Mississippi—and honestly just 1930s America—was a place where state-sanctioned segregation was the norm, where violence against Black people was widespread, and where the possibility of lynching remained an omnipresent threat.

Racism was everywhere. When he finished middle school, my grandfather even had to move to live in an entirely different county because the county where he was born and raised didn’t have a high school for Black people. Additionally, a man in a tiny 1,000 person town where he lived, was lynched there when he was a boy.

This is the America my grandfather was born and raised in, and this is why, when Barack Obama was elected the president of the United States in 2008, my grandfather was astounded that he lived to see this moment. He told me he simply could not have imagined the prospect of a Black president leading the country—and a Black family living in the White House—as legitimate possibilities in his lifetime. To see a Black man become president in a country so thoroughly steeped in a history of racism, almost seemed more like science fiction than reality.

But it was reality, and Barack Obama’s journey to, and presence in, the White House inspired many, angered many, and impacted American politics in a way that changed it forever. Let's start the show! (Intro Music) We know from some previous episodes that Barack Obama was not the first Black American to run for president. He was preceded by Shirley Chisholm in 1972, the first Black woman to seek the nomination from a major party, and also by Reverend Jesse Jackson who ran in both 1984 and 1988, on a platform of building a multi-class, multiracial “rainbow” coalition.

What was significant about President Obama's candidacy was not only the fact that he was the first Black man to be nominated by a major party, but also the fact….that he won. . Let's learn a little bit more about who he was in the thought bubble. Barack Obama was born in 1961 to a white mother from Kansas and a Black father from Kenya.

He was raised mostly by his mother in Hawaii then when he was six-years-old, they moved to Indonesia after his mother remarried, which he later described as giving him a larger, more global perspective of the world. In fifth grade he returned to Hawaii, where his grandparents still lived, and for high school he received a scholarship to attend an elite school on the island. After high school, Obama spent two years at Occidental College in Los Angeles before he transferred to Columbia University where he graduated with a major in Political Science.

He then spent time as a community organizer in Chicago, working with many local churches to improve housing policy and job training programs. Frustrated with what he felt like were the limitations of grassroots work, Obama decided he wanted the tools to affect change on a larger scale. So in 1988, he attended Harvard Law School and became the first African American president of Harvard Law Review.

A few years later, in 1992, he would marry Michelle Robinson, a lawyer who was also a graduate of Harvard Law who he met while working at a law firm in Chicago. They would go on to have two daughters: Malia and Sasha. In 1996, Barack Obama was elected to the Illinois state senate and in 2004, he was elected to be one of Illinois' US Senators.

Thanks Thought Bubble. Now there is soooo much more that we can say about Barack Obama's early life, and if you want to learn more about him and his journey, there are many documentaries and he has multiple memoirs, including Dreams from my Father released in 2004 and A Promised Land released in 2020. But we are going to fast forward to his election and his presidency.

By the time that Barack Obama was running for president in 2007 and 2008, America had a lot going on. The country was involved in increasingly unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans were facing the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, and as a result Americans were losing their jobs, homes, and retirement savings at extraordinary rates. Black Americans, as has been the case throughout so much of American history, were disproportionately hurt by all of the mortgage foreclosures and job losses.

It is estimated that Black people in the US lost between $71 and $122 billion in housing assets alone. Barack Obama's campaign really focused on these issues. He promised to end the war in Iraq and save the American middle class.

He also promised to put an end to partisan, racial, and economic divides and to unite the country. These promises resonated with folks who felt worn out by the financial disaster and frustrated by a political system that seemed like it could never get anything done. His campaign was particularly energizing to young people, who were drawn to Obama’s theory of change and saw him as someone who represented a new, more diverse, more progressive direction for America.

And so after a hard-fought campaign against Arizona Senator John McCain, Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States in 2009. In the early days of his presidency he got to work attempting to fulfill many of his campaign promises. He supported reforms to the financial system like the Dodd-Frank and Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

He outlawed the torture of prisoners who were detained during the War on Terror, removed some of the restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research, ended the ban on federal grants for international groups providing abortion services and counseling, and named Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court making her the first Supreme Court justice of Hispanic descent. After evaluating the consequences of the Great Recession of 2008, he pushed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through Congress. Hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus was designed to shore up the economy in the midst of the financial crisis.

Tax incentives and benefits designed to help people who were recovering from the financial crisis were an essential part of the bill. It did pass, but it passed with only partisan support. No Republicans supported the legislation in the House and only three moderate Republicans voted for it in the Senate, which was indicative of the growing partisanship that would become a major factor in Obama’s presidency.

But in the midst of all this President Barack Obama's approval rating was 62% in the first Hundred Days of his term. Barack Obama also made huge strides in the area of healthcare. After a long and polarized political battle, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, a two-part law containing one, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and two, the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act.

The ACA was would come to be known by many as Obamacare. Among other things, the legislation sought to improve access to medical coverage for everyone in the United States, keep insurance companies from raising premiums for individuals with pre-existing conditions, and to allow people to stay on their parents’ insurance up to age 26. Obama was trying to accomplish a lot as president, but it’s important to note, that simply being president didn’t mean that he was safe from racism and prejudice.

In many ways, it made him even more of a target. Some members of the Republican party, as well as conservative media outlets, questioned his US citizenship and forced him to show his birth certificate to prove that he was American, something that was a highly unusual request and one that many scholars refer to as being explicitly racist. According to political scientists Ashley Jardina (Jar-DEEN-uh) and Michael Traugott: Trow-got) “among white Americans, birther beliefs are uniquely associated with racial animus." There were even times during his presidency where Congressional leaders publicly disrespected him.

Infamously, Representative Joe Wilson yelled out “You Lie!” in the middle of a speech Obama was making to a joint session of Congress. Sometimes people would even attack President Obama’s family. For example, throughout his campaign and presidency, political cartoons portrayed his wife Michelle Obama using caricatures and stereotypes.

Obama’s presidency also saw the rise of the Tea Party - an extremely conservative offshoot of the Republican Party who as part of their platform ginned up opposition to his presidency through large public rallies, which sometimes included racial slurs. There were multiple instances throughout his presidency, where Barack Obama was criticized for his handling on issues of race. For example, in 2009 Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Professor at Harvard University, was arrested for “disorderly conduct” after he tried to enter his own home and was mistaken for a thief.

Gates argued that this was an incident of racial profiling - when someone uses racist assumptions and stereotypes to make an assessment about a person or group of people, usually as it relates to a crime. Gates called the situation fundamentally unfair. During a press conference where he discussed the incident President Obama said, "I don’t know – not having been there and not seeing all the facts – what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home," And number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.

That's just a fact.” Obama’s press conference and political energy was meant to focus on healthcare, but this comment ended up getting all of the media attention. He received pushback from the Cambridge police, and conservative pundits called Obama “racist” for suggesting that the police officer’s actions may have been motivated by race. Ultimately, Obama invited both Dr.

Gates and the white officer to the White House for a “beer summit” to cool off tensions and get past it. Another big incident during Obama’s presidency was the death of Trayvon Martin. We will talk about this more in the Black Lives Matter episode, but the very short and very sad version of the story is that in 2012 Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black boy, was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman.

The event is considered by many to be the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. President Obama gave a speech addressing the issue and addressing his pain as a Black man over it, saying that “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Because of this comment, he was accused by some conservatives of dividing the country. Obama worked hard to make his political and policy agenda one that Americans saw as universal.

As the first Black president, he wanted to avoid accusations that he was trying to help Black people more than any other group. Still, he and his administration did work to address issues that disproportionately impacted the Black community. For example, in 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder began to focus on reforming federal mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.

This was critical because these policies sent many Black Americans to prison for minor drug offenses. He also created My Brother's Keeper, an initiative started in February of 2014 that sought to support Black boys through mentorship, supplemental education, job training, and other interventions aimed at closing the opportunity gap between Black boys and their peers. Additionally, following pressure from Black Lives Matter activists, the Department of Justice investigated several police departments that were known for engaging in violent policing tactics - including the police department responsible for the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

President Obama also established a task force on policing and rolled back the use of some military equipment by police. Still, many in the Movement for Black Lives criticized Obama and said he didn’t do enough to support young Black activists or policies that would prevent Black people from being the continued target of systemic injustice. For some the presidency of Barack Obama represented the best of America, a place where a Black kid from Hawaii with the middle name Hussein, with a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother, could ascend to the highest office in the land.

For them, it represents how America is a place where anything is possible. For others, Obama’s presidency was a disappointment, and showed that simply having a Black man in the presidential office, wasn’t enough to transform the lives of everyday Black people. Still, his presence as a Black man in the White House did have a major impact on our politics.

After he was first elected many Americans claimed that America was finally becoming a “post-racial” society, but as the Movement For Black Lives which began during his presidency shows, this was far from the case. In fact many scholars posit that it was the presidency of Barack Obama that put in motion a wave of racial resentment that continues to animate our politics today. Regardless of your political affiliation, Obama’s presidency, was and remains a consequential one.

And over the course of his eight years in office—especially in conjunction with the Black Lives Matter Movement— the manner in which this country talked about race changed and evolved in ways that otherwise might not have happened. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next time.

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