The year Barack Obama was born, an American of African descent could not board public transit without the permission of whites, or select the seat he or she preferred.

In 1961, in some parts of this country, a black person could be hanged from a tree simply for looking a white person in the eye.

Fifty years later, the president of the United States of America is a black man named Barack Hussein Obama, and Forbes has (again) named him the most powerful man alive. Against the backdrop of America’s racist history — that is so friggin’ awesomeeven if it isn’t entirely true. Here is Forbes‘ rationale for putting Obama at the top:

“Sure, his jobs bill was gutted, his debt-ceiling negotiating was derided and his popularity has plummeted, endangering his re-election, but Obama regains his position as the most powerful person on the planet this year.

Why? Despite faddish American declinism, the U.S. remains, indisputably, the most powerful nation in the world, with the largest, most innovative economy and the deadliest military.

Plus, Obama’s only legitimate rival for the title, last year’s number one, Chinese President Hu Jintao, is diminishing in influence as he gives up political office.”

Whether Forbes can determine one leader’s “power” relative to another’s is debatable, but one thing that is not in question is that the world is watching Obama as the US economy teeters and black Americans suffer more than any others in terms of joblessness, poverty and civic disenfranchisement.

To anyone who is paying attention, it is clear that the playing field in America remains unequal for most of the descendants of stolen Africans, and the yoke of racial oppression and discrimination continues to weigh heavily in the form of separate and unequal schools, barriers to employment and housing, and disparities in the justice system.

Yes, doors remain open that were kicked open by the courageous actions of civil rights pioneers who suffered so that all might flourish, but many more doors are shut and locked — and will remain so because disinfranchised black people lack the money and influence required to lobby lawmakers on their own behalf.

If President Obama were really the most powerful man in the world, he would have the freedom to specifically address the needs of those suffering most in America’s economic downturn. He would be able to do more than criticize a system of public education in which zip code determines per student spending and teacher quality he could actually legislate to wrench that system out of the hands of state lawmakers who seem happy to provide quality education exclusively for those who can live where it’s available.

If President Obama were that powerful, he would be free to openly speak about and legislatively address racial inequities in employment, housing and policing—thereby honoring the sacrifices of Evers, Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner, Liuzzo, Parks, King, and countless others who suffered that he might have the right to seek the highest office in the land, let alone be elected to it.

In a country where racism remains the issue most likely to be denied or ignored by those who are least affected by it, our president’s hands are tied.

Remember that scene from A Time to Kill when Matt McConaughey’s character asks the jury to picture Samuel L. Jackson white? Yeah. That’s pretty much what Obama’s detractors should be doing right about now if they want a clear understanding of what he’s up against. If the president was not black, he could easily hold a press conference voicing his concern for the staggering economic statistics in urban America (hardest hit on every measure) and propose specific remedies aimed at the communities suffering most. Hillary Clinton surely could do it without reservation — but President Obama is in a “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t” position because of the color of his skin.

Anyone who thinks we live in a post-racial America take note. The Most Powerful Man on Earth cannot give voters any reason to believe he is favoring “his people” if he cares to survive and serve another term.

-by Kathleen Cross for