Date of this Version
Hoerl, Kristen, "How Selective Amnesia Brought Us the First Black Socialist President of the United States," in Robert E. Terrill, ed., Reconsidering Obama: Reflections on Rhetoric, Frontiers in Political Communication, book 34 (New York: Peter Lang, 2017), pp. 137–152.
Post-Racial Amnesia during President Obama’s 2008 Inauguration
My interest in public memory explains why news coverage leading up to President Obama’s inauguration rankled me. The endless news cycle kept repeating trite statements that announced that the civil rights struggle had ended. Reports quoted public officials and former civil rights activists who described Obama’s election as the “fulfillment,” “embodiment,” “culmination,” and “validation” of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. The inauguration took place the day after Martin Luther King Day, and Obama delivered a pre-inauguration address in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the same location where King delivered his 1963 speech. Given the context, reporters’ references to King’s speech were not entirely inappropriate. However, I was alarmed that the association between King and Obama was a prominent news frame during the inauguration celebration. Although his election was unprecedented, many forms of racial injustice that civil rights activists protested during the sixties persisted in 2008 and continue today. Furthermore, the news media’s emphasis on King’s 1963 speech ignored the deeper histories of struggle for racial justice. Just before his assassination, King had turned his attention to ending endemic poverty in the United States, a condition that has been exacerbated in recent decades.
Capitalist Amnesia during the Obama Presidency
Complementing the post-racial amnesia surrounding King’s advocacy, amnesia regarding socialism inhibits broader conversations about the causes of structural inequity in the United States and strategies for reducing it. This amnesia has also constrained liberal policy making. Although most people in the United States do not believe Obama is a socialist, the label has provided justification for the Republican-controlled legislature to consistently block the president’s legislative agenda. Selective amnesia regarding socialism and the use of “radicalism” itself as a dirty word in public discourse impoverishes our resources for public deliberation and dulls our political landscape. A more vibrant public culture demands that we bring richer depth and positive connotations to socialism, recognizing its historic affiliations with movements for civil rights and social justice.
Academic Amnesia and the Political Economy of Scholarship
My brief critical analysis of the political discourse that has articulated Obama’s agenda with socialism illustrates how the post-racial amnesia that characterized Obama as the realization of Martin Luther King’s dream is but one aspect of a deeper rhetoric of amnesia regarding struggles for fundamental economic transformation in the United States. In writing this essay, I now realize that the red-baiting discourses about Barack Obama were already present during the 2008 presidential election campaign. This realization suggests that the concept of selective amnesia might be intimately connected to efforts to repress socialist organizing in the United States. Thus, amnesia regarding radical black dissent during the late sixties is but one example of the longer processes of forgetting movements to fundamentally transform the U.S. economy and politics.