Obama's farewell address was a rallying cry to keep the fight for racial justice going


If there has been an overriding theme to Barack Obama's presidency, it's that hope alone can't change a nation. It takes work. 

No matter how ambitious his agenda — whether overhauling the nation's immigration system or transforming the American healthcare system — Obama has approached every major decision in office with the careful deliberation of a constitutional law professor, a job he held throughout the 1980s and 1990s, who knows there are no easy answers. 

Nowhere was that more evident than in his farewell address to the nation Tuesday night. "The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody," the president said, shying away from speaking about Donald Trump directly. "For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some."

The president spoke to the fears of minorities stemming from the upcoming administration, saying that anti-discrimination laws must be upheld. "But laws alone won't be enough," the president said. "Hearts must change. If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'"

The call for empathy is less bold than the "hope" and "change" that first ushered him into office. In his inaugural address on January 21, 2009, Obama expressed hope that seems naive in retrospect as the country readies to anoint Donald Trump to its highest office:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

Obama's hope was rooted in the moment. In the 2008 election, black, Latino and Asian-American voters came out in unprecedented numbers. Voter participation was particularly high among black women and young voters, according to an April 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center. For the first time, the tectonic demographic shifts which were reshaping the American electorate — the steady transformation of the country from a majority-white nation to a majority-minority nation — were being reflected in our politics. 

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But even then, Obama reminded Americans of the long, hard road it takes to form "a more perfect union." In his infamous "Race Speech" from March of 2008, when he responded to criticism over a former pastor's incendiary remarks about race, he spelled out that change takes practical, everyday work. "It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children," Obama said at the time. "But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the 221 years since a band of patriots signed that document right here in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins."

Obama's presidency was historic in part because of his identity: a biracial black man raised by a single mother in Hawaii, schooled in the art of community organizing on Chicago's South Side. He walked a thin line in his first term, often avoiding race altogether. When he did address it, he did it in a conciliatory way that spared Americans criticism. 

He was more direct in his second term, criticizing the police killings of unarmed black men by offering if he had a son, he'd look like Trayvon Martin. Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative, and a similar program aimed at young women, is the most ambitious government commitment to black and Latino youth mentorship ever undertaken. His policies had a measurable effect on the lives of minorities. By 2014, the Affordable Care Act had completely erased the disparity in health coverage between black and white children.

Eight years later, Obama says goodbye to a nation that's arguably more divided than it's been in generations. It was in fact this division that Trump exploited with surprising efficacy. "Donald Trump is the first Republican in modern times to win the party's presidential nomination on anti-minority sentiments," Michael Tesler, a University of California, Irvine, assistant professor who studies race and voting, recently noted in the Washington Post.

Ultimately, even the powers of the presidency could not undo centuries of entrenched, systemic racism. That's precisely what Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic. "To be optimistic about the long-term trends of the United States doesn't mean that everything is going to go in a smooth, direct, straight line," he said. "It goes forward sometimes, sometimes it goes back, sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it zigs and zags."

We now see how true that is. Racism in America is now laid bare for everyone to see — and to fight, if they so choose. There won't be an iconic symbol of racial unity sitting in the White House anymore. Instead, we will have a man who refers to the 13% of African-Americans in the country as "the blacks," has advocated banning Muslims from entering the United States and built a political platform on questioning the legitimacy of Obama's citizenship

The backlash that swept Trump into the White House means that political progress and change — for immigrants, for women, for LGBT communities — are happening; it is the frightened response of white Americans who feel like they're losing their power. The broad coalition that voted Obama into office eight years ago still exists, and is only growing. Trump's presidency is a battle, not the war. 

"[Our democracy] needs you," Obama said Tuesday night. "Not just when there's an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime." 

Once again, there was hope that even today's uncertainty would lead us to a better, more perfect union. "This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it," the president said, speaking of what he learned as a young man in his adopted hometown of Chicago. "After eight years as your president, I still believe that.  And it's not just my belief.  It's the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government."