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OpEd: What Gets Lost When Obama Emphasizes That We’re ‘Americans First’

There were moments of gold, and many flashes of light in President Obama's final State of the Union address Monday evening.

Without question, Americans witnessed a president shaping perceptions of his legacy. Obama stuck to the soaring populist messages that solidified his place on the national stage more than a decade ago—all while extending an olive branch to a Republican-controlled Congress, and actively resisting being understood as a "lame duck." Obama had a clear message for the chamber: 'roll up your sleeves. There's still work to do.'

But his pragmatic, if not utilitarian approach to bridging divides came at a hidden cost that may not be so obvious on the surface.

"[I] can promise that a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I'll be right there with you as a citizen—inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far," Obama said. "Voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Latino or Asian … but as Americans first."

Pause.

Unless your name is Raven-Symone, many Black people and other people of color wouldn't describe themselves as just 'American'—or as 'American Africans' or as 'American Natives.'

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For racially marginalized people, their race, ethnicity and cultural heritage is a symbol of pride, a bedrock of hope to achieve the ever-elusive American dream—in spite of enduring decade after decade of white supremacy's chokehold on social settings and institutions, including Congress. That heritage informs the many struggles for which justice is inextricably linked with one's immutable identities.

We have to "see" what makes us different in order to know and understand how that diversity is one of America's greatest strengths. But we also must recognize those differences in order to know and understand the full scope of what we need to accomplish—and to ensure that while making progress, no one is left behind.

President Obama Blasts Politics of Division 2:04

That's not possible with an uncritical approach to populism, one that whitewashes the importance of identity in our politics, especially as it pertains to the issues of economic resilience and foreign policy that took up considerable space in Obama's speech.

Much of Obama's speech focused on economic resilience and inequality, in addition to national security and foreign policy—all of which remain colored by racial disparities.

For example, during the address, Obama's mention of the gender pay gap was met with infographics and tweets that highlight a troubling statistic: women make 79 cents to every dollar a man makes. However, that number doesn't paint the entire picture, because that's not the same experience every woman has—the figure actually applies to the amount white women make to a white man's dollar, which is roughly the average rate for all women. But when bringing race and ethnicity into the picture, it usually gets worse. By comparison, Black women get paid 63 cents, and Latina women receive 53 cents on that same index.

Even on a measure that's indicative of sexism within the labor force, which indeed affects all Americans—race dramatically affects that experience.

Obama of course doesn't have the time to pinpoint the finer details of every policy challenge within an hour-long speech, but by encapsulating it within an uncritical frame of populism, some Americans may be encouraged to approach their politics with a so-called colorblind mentality.

It sounds similar to when otherwise well-intentioned white people say, "I don't see race", to profess a supposedly forward-thinking approach on matters of racial inequality, even when racism happens all around them.

Indeed, either they don't recognize it because it's not their experience, or they choose to remain blissfully ignorant when it's quite obvious, such as the cries of #BlackLivesMatter protesters in streets across America and on social media.

Watch President Obama's Full State of the Union Address 59:17

In fact, there was no explicit mention of the movement, and the major media moments that have defined it this year, at any point in Obama's State of the Union address. No mention of the repeated miscarriages of justice, no mention of the steady stream of new cases where police officers use excessive and lethal force, and no mention of attacks at the hands of white supremacists—which studies have concluded poses more of a domestic security threat than ISIS.

Instead, he lauded the "protester who believes that justice matters" alongside young police officers who work to treat everyone with respect. Justice matters, indeed, but the protester as worded in Obama's speech could've been any protester from any movement, even if this particular reference was made in concert with a mention about police. It was the closest the president came to referencing Black lives, but he instead walked a rhetorical tightrope—likely by necessity given the polarized and racialized nature of Washington politics.

Even so, it's still significant that a very disproportionately Black, and now widely known touch point for prevalent injustice in America wasn't given a direct nod. That uncritical populism in practice, though, functions more like an #AllLivesMatter statement, even if it's intended to inspire solidarity across the struggles of everyday people.

That's why many people of color feel their racial and ethnic identity can indeed coexist with their national identity as Americans, but race becomes a necessary focal point, even when combined with other important elements of identity.

It's why the theory and practice of intersectionality cannot wait, which emphasizes that identities and experiences of injustice are interconnected. Women don't experience the equal pay gap without also experiencing racial privilege or discrimination.

Black women, like Sandra Bland, can travel to work a job where they're likely being paid less than white men, and face an untimely death at the hands of negligent and abusive white police officers.

We can't ignore our Blackness, our ethnic and cultural backgrounds, or any other immutable part of who we are for the sake of a purportedly American goal. Even with clear, lived examples of difference, there are still hopeful possibilities for national unity.

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