Iowa City, IA. June 24, 2011 . Published on Black Agenda Report on July 5, 2011. Few aspects of America’s authoritarian, corporate-managed political culture are more pernicious than its narrow fetish of candidate- and office-holder identity. Consider the current state of political and economic opinion in Black America, long the United States’ most skeptical and leftmost ethno-cultural segment by far. That opinion stands in sharp contrast to material and political reality in ways that can only be explained by the fact of a first black presidency.
Black America’s Great Depression
Already terrible under the racist arch-plutocrat George W. Bush, black economic circumstances have worsened in the Age of Obama. As CBS reported last June 19th, official U.S. unemployment has recently risen to 9.1 percent for the general U.S. population but has surged to 16.2 percent for black Americans and 17.5 percent for black males. CBS correspondent Michelle Miller noted that “historically, the unemployment rate for African Americans has always been higher than the national average. However, now it’s at Depression-era levels.” The official black unemployment measure has risen considerably since Obama took office, when it stood at 12.6.3
The black poverty rate today is at least 26 percent, double that of white poverty. According to the eight annual “State of the Dream” report from the progressive, Boston-based nonprofit United for a Fair Economy (UFE), released last January, more than half (59.1 percent) of older blacks rely on Social Security for more than 80 percent of their family income, as compared with 46 percent of older whites. Forty six years after the Civil Rights Movement pinnacled, UFE reported, blacks still earn only 57 cents for each white income dollars and blacks retain just 10 cents of net wealth for every dollar whites hold. Blacks are nearly three times as likely as whites to have zero or negative net worth. In the event of a job loss, 42 percent of black households lack the accumulated wealth worth to live for three months at the poverty level, while just 16.7 white households are in that position.4
The foreclosure crisis has disproportionately damaged black homeowners. Relying on industry and industry data, the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) estimates that between 2007 and 2009 nearly 8 percent of recent black American borrowers lost their homes to foreclosures, compared with 4.5 percent of whites, More than 1 in 5 black homeowners is in “imminent danger of foreclosure.” From 2009 to 2012, the CRL found, households living near foreclosed properties in African American and Latino communities will have seen their combined home values fall by more than $350 billion.. As Washington Post reporters Michael Fletcher and John Cohen observed last February, the foreclosure crisis is “particularly devastating to African American and Latino families, who already lag their white counterparts in terms of income, wealth and educational attainment,”.5
In the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, Fletcher and Cohen noted, black economic prospects have deteriorated markedly . “Wages, homeownership rates and employment levels all grew worse for African-Americans between 2000 and 2007, a time in which the overall economy expanded. Since then, things have gotten worse.” In the wake of an epic economic downturn that more than doubled U.S. unemployment and wiped away nearly a fifth of Americans’ net worth, “African-Americans and Hispanics were more likely to be left broke, jobless and concerned that they lack the skills needed to shape their economic futures.” Elaborating on the Great Recession’s heavier toll on blacks, Fletcher and Cohen report that:
“The downturn obliterated years of African-American economic progress — strides that were on shaky ground even before the recession. The share of black adults who were working slid to 52 percent, nearly seven points behind whites and Hispanics. In 2001, nearly 65 percent of white adults and just over 60 percent of blacks were employed.”
“Homeownership, which remains the primary engine of wealth creation for many Americans, has slipped among African-Americans. The foreclosure crisis pushed the black homeownership rate down to 45 percent, far below the 74 percent rate for whites, and the lowest rate since 1997.”
“At the same time, some of the most reliable paths for blacks to ascend to the middle class are in danger of being narrowed.”
“Federal, state and local governments, which employ a disproportionate share of African-Americans, are shedding jobs, a trend expected to continue in coming years. Meanwhile, the auto industry, long a bastion of high-paying, stable jobs that helped sustain many black middle-class families throughout the industrial Midwest, has been significantly downsized.”
Obama has offered no real help. “The Obama administration’s $814 billion stimulus package is credited by many economists with preventing an even more severe downturn,” Fletcher and Cohen note, “yet black unemployment soared to its highest levels in a generation on Obama’s watch.” 6
Blunt Lessons About Power and Race
Fletcher and Cohen cold have elaborated on the lack of assistance to black America from the first black president. Openly preposterous right-wing propaganda on FOX “News” and talk radio has painted him out as a radical left wealth-redistributing “socialist” and racial reparations activist. But the deeply conservative and “post-racial” Obama is a standard business- and white-friendly military-imperial centrist on the model of Richard Nixon, George (H.W.) Bush 41, or Bill Clinton. His policies have steered consistently in the center-right direction favored by Goldman Sachs, Boeing, and Exelon (to mention just a few of his top corporate sponsors in the last presidential election and “wealth primary” cycle). Under Obama, as under George (W.) Bush 43, “people everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched,” William Greider noted early in the Obama administration, “Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.”8
The “right people” are those predominantly Caucasian few who already enjoy extreme concentrated wealth and the vast political and ideological influence that comes with that wealth like white on rice. Obama has honored their endlessly selfish interests in numerous ways, including an auto bailout deal with rewarded capital flight, raided union worker pension funds and slashed more jobs than the automobile corporations themselves were ready to cut. Obama has agreed to continue George W. Bush’s deficit-driving tax cuts for the very rich while instituting federal worker pay freezes and other forms of public retrenchment in the name of deficit reduction. His actions in office have had little to do with his progressive-sounding campaign rhetoric on behalf of people-friendly “change from the bottom up.”9
They have certainly had nothing to do with an alleged presidential commitment to racial equality. In early December 2009, the nation’s first black president received some criticism from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Accusing the White House of ignoring the distinctively terrible economic plight of minorities, ten members of the caucus boycotted a key House committee vote on financial regulations. “We can no long afford for our public policy to be defined by the world view of Wall Street,” the CBC announced, adding that “policy for the least of these must be integrated into everything we do.” Obama flatly rejected the criticism in a special interview with USA Today and the Detroit Free Press. “It’s a mistake,” Obama told the newspapers, “to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together.”10
While slight reduction in state prison populations have recently begun to emerge in response to fiscal constraints, the savage, viciously circular scourge of racially disparate mass black arrest, incarceration, and felony-marking marches on, branding millions of black Americans with an updated, “color blind” version of Jim Crow status. This grave and underestimated problem, which Obama knows very well from his days in Chicago, receives no attention whatsoever from the Obama administration – this despite an remarkable and historic nonviolent strike conducted by predominantly black prisoners across nine Georgia prisons last December and January 13
Just because he happened to be black, Obama announced early on, black Americans should have no reason to think that he would be any more willing than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton (or Herbert Hoover for that matter) to acknowledge and act against the distinctive oppression and inequality still experienced by many in the nation’s still highly segregated and relatively impoverished black population. The title of the USA Today article reporting Obama’s response to the CBC was on point: “President Says He Shouldn’t Put Focus on Blacks’ Troubles.” Even as he has been willing to help transfer trillions of taxpayer dollars into the opulent coffers of a small minority of predominantly white financial and corporate parasites who already own most of the nation’s wealth and who crashed the national and global economy in 2007 and 2008, the technically black former community organizer and state legislator “from” Chicago’s poor and predominantly black South Side has had little to offer the nation’s truly disadvantaged people of color at the bottom of the nation’s steep, overlapping pyramids of race and class.
“Hope is Still Alive”
Little, that is, other than the apparently hyper-potent symbolic fact of his skin color. Despite the terrible facts of timeworn racial disparity, accelerated black misery, and the “post-racial” president’s refusal to focus on specifically black problems, Obama still holds the approval of 88 percent of black Americans. More remarkable is the extent to which black Americans seem willing to turn a blind eye to worsening black economic circumstances in the Age of Obama. A poll conducted by The Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University last January and February found that 85 percent of blacks felt optimistic about their future, with 65 percent indicating they “feel secure about their financial situation.” Fifty-six percent of blacks, compared with 44 percent of whites, said the current economic situation was “not causing stress in their lives.” Sixty-two percent of blacks said they thought their family’s financial situation will improve over the next year. (Such improvement is highly unlikely given epically slumping global capitalism’s slide into a double-dip recession and the fact that blacks still experience employment and wage discrimination, significant spatial and housing segregation, disproportionate lack of access to affordable health care, racist criminal justice policies and persistent predatory housing and lending practices by unscrupulous people in the financial and real estate industries.) As the black Washington Post staff reporter Michelle Singletary noted, “The confidence level of blacks in the race and recession survey is in stark contrast to the depressing economic data showing that the economic crisis is still plaguing the African American community…. In the black community, despite being battered by the latest recession, hope is still alive.”16
The Kaiser-Post-Harvard findings are consistent with a recent Rasmussen Reports survey showing that 61 percent of black voters think “the country is heading in the right direction.” This majority black optimism is shared by just 27 percent of all U.S. voters. Seventy-two percent of white voters and 60 percent of “other race” voters say “the country is on the wrong track.”Even as the still highly segregated black U.S. community suffers disproportionately from the crisis of highly racialized American and global capitalism, black American voters are more than twice as likely as American voters in general to see the savagely unequal and still deeply racist U.S. as moving in the “right direction.”
In a similar vein, a Pew Research Center report last summer found that Black America, the group damaged most in the Great Recession, was also the most enthusiastic about the state of the economy. Twenty-five percent of blacks told pollsters that the economy was doing good or excellent. This was nearly double the number of whites who thought that, even though Black unemployment was nearly double that of whites. Eighty-one percent of Blacks said America remained “a land of prosperity,” while just 59 percent of whites agreed with that statement – “even though,” as the dissident black left commentator and activist Glen Ford noted last year, “blacks make only 61 cents for every white dollar earned, the same as 30 years ago.”. A 53 percent Black majority felt the economy was starting to recover, compared to just 40 percent of whites who thought that. The ironies were captured by Ford, who pulls no punches on black delusion, noting that
“Fifty-four percent of Blacks took a pay cut, worked reduced hours or were forced to take unpaid leave during the Great Recession. Only 37 percent of whites suffered such employment trauma, yet Blacks are consistently – and insanely – more optimistic about the future, and feel better about the present, than whites do. Nearly a third of Blacks say they are in better economic shape than before the recession began – a figure with little basis real life, and a perception that is at total war with reality. Everything is worse for every major Black demographic since December 2007.” 19
Strangest of all perhaps are the Kaiser-Post-Harvard poll’s findings on black perceptions of Obama’s policies. The January-February 2011 poll found that blacks and Hispanics were nearly half as likely as whites to say that the Obama administration was doing “too much” for Wall Street financial institutions – a curious statement from those most damaged by Wall Street’s actions and the White House’s rush to bail out the financial parasites. Nearly six in 10 blacks surveyed said they thought the president’s actions were “making the economy better” – an opinion shared by a far lower percentage of whites. And when they were asked whether the Obama administration was paying enough attention to the economic interests of African-Americans, nearly two-thirds of black respondents said the government was doing “about the right amount” – this despite the White House’s explicitly stated lack of interest in making any kind of specific focus on blacks’ distinctively dreadful and worsening plight in the current economic crisis. 20
“The Fact That He is the First Black President….is …Hard to Separate from the Facts”
So what’s it all about? These are curious and (for me) disturbing things to learn about political beliefs in Black America, the segment of the U.S. citizenry and electorate that has long been the most skeptical of conventional American capitalist and imperial wisdom. Blacks have long comprised by far and away the leftmost and most reality-based and critical-thinking ethno-cultural segment of American society – a racial group taught by its multiply oppressed experience to be particularly (and properly) unimpressed by the optimistic claims and grandiose promises of economic and political elites.
How explain the recent shift to undue black optimism in the face of stark material evidence that black America’s plight has been worsening in accord with the nation’s continuing refusal to acknowledge the reality of racial oppression? Without offering much in the way of evidence, the establishment black journalist Michelle Singletary of The Washington Post seems to think it’s about a combination of black religious faith and the role that black families have played in supporting each other and setting up independent black business through the recession. In their write-up on the Kaiser-Post-Harvard poll last February, Fletcher and Cohen cited unnamed “analysts who study black prosperity” who claimed that “optimism is rooted in long experience with hard times” and who said. These anonymous experts told Fletcher and Cohen “that now many African-Americans sense attention to their struggles at the highest levels of government, something that was not evident before the recession.” But blacks’ “long experience with hard times” has never created such reality-assaulting mass black counter-factual optimism prior to the Obama presidency. And the notion that the current administration is focused in any special way on black struggles is simply false.
The early and intrepid Obama critic Glen Ford has a different take, “The psychological harm done to Black people by Obama’s presidency,” Ford wrote last July, “may be even greater than the economic and political damage. Barack Obama’s presidency is driving millions of African Americans insane – stone, cold out of their minds…..There is nothing to be upbeat about – except, for Obama supporters, the election of 2008. From that point on, a large segment of Black America became disconnected from reality, numb to their own pain and to the pain of their children.” 23
Ford was exaggerating for effect, perhaps, to make a basic and I think key point. The astonishing (for many) symbolic significance of black family residing in the White House has proved so powerful as to encourage a significant number of black Americans to disregard basic facts of material pain and racial disparity.
Algernon Austin, director of the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy program for the liberal Economic Policy Institute, made Ford’s basic point in more tepid and diplomatic terms last February. “The fact that he [Obama] is the first black president does have a powerful impact on people’s perception of their opportunities and the future,” Austin told the Washington Post. “It is kind of hard to separate that from the other facts.” Regardless of Obama’s service to the white corporate elite that continues to consign the black community to Third World-like poverty inside “the world’s richest nation” – actually the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialized world by far (nonetheless described by candidate Obama as “a magical place” where anything is possible) – and despite his willingness to kowtow to majority white racial fears (and racism-denial), regular and symbolically powerful televised images of the first black president trump material, social, and political reality in the minds of many of contemporary American racism’s victims. Anticipation of this terrible outcome and of a President Obama’s role in rendering that racism yet more invisible (and in giving American capitalism and imperialism a fake-progressive public relations makeover,) Ford and his fellow radical and black colleagues at Black Agenda Report were always horrified at the specter of an Obama presidency and what it would do the prospects for an independent and progressive Black politics. The mind-blowing Obama ascendancy has pacified, blinded, deluded, distracted, and bamboozled the nation’s most historically progressive thinking, voting, and acting bloc to no small degree – a problem not just for the black community but for progressive prospects across the national board.
Still, Ford hastens to add that the news is not all bad. Obama’s black approval has fallen significantly since last year – from the mid 90s to its current 88 percent. The president’s fake-humanitarian military assault on the Muslim and African nation of Libya and his apparent lack of interest in the oppression of black migrant workers there has elicited significant grumbling in sections of the black political class. A resurgence of independent black activism and movement formation will not require Obama to lose majority black support (something that Ford doubts will ever happen). A fall of his black approval into the 60s will be quite significant, Ford feels, indicating new black independence. Much of the high black approval that Obama receives in opinion surveys naturally reflects defensive black horror at the racist threat provided by perceived Republican presidential opponents like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman and the right wing white nationalists associated with “the Tea Party” and the Republican Party more broadly. Many black people never get contacted by pollsters, including the millions stuck in prison and jail, many of whom can have few illusions about “hope” and “change.” What is required most is the resurgence of militant rank and file social movement activity in black America, beneath the personalized spectacle of national politics, and that is something that can very well expand in coming months and years even as Obama continues to receive high black approval ratings. It will have more space to develop when the all-too paralyzing Obama factor is concluded, something that could well happen in the next presidential election. 25
Paul Street’s latest book (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) is Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011). Street can be reached at email@example.com
1 Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
2 CBS News, “African-American unemployment at 16 percent” (June 19, 2011) at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/06/19/eveningnews/main20072425.shtml
3 “Black unemployment soared in January,” Daily Voice (February 6, 2009) at http://thedailyvoice.com/voice/2009/02/black-unemployment-soars-001583.php
4 United for a Fair Economy, State of the Dream: Austerity for Whom? (January 2011), read at http://www.faireconomy.org/files/State_of_the_Dream_2011.pdf
5 Michelle Singletary, “In Rough Economic Times, Black Americans Hold on to Their Optimism,” Washington Post (February 19, 2011) at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/19/AR2011021903265_pf.html
6 Michael A. Fletcher and Jon Cohen, “Poll Finds Minorities More Optimistic About Economy Despite Losses,” Washington Post, February 20, 2011 at http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2011/feb/20/21econ/
7. The United States’ plutocratic, elections system is captive to what Harvard Law graduate John Bonifaz calls “the wealth primary: that exclusionary process, leading up to every party primary and every general election, in which those with money or access to money choose by means of their campaign contributions the candidates who almost invariably go on to govern.” Bonifaz elaborates: “Those candidates who do not raise enough money — that is, those who lose the wealth primary — almost always do not win office….The rest of us, the vast majority of American people, are shut out of this process.” See John Bonifaz, “Losing Our Vote in the Wealth Primary” (1995) at http://archive.fairvote.org/reports/1995/chp6/bonifaz.html
8 William Greider, “Obama Asked Us to Speak but Is He Listening?” Washington Post, March 22, 2009.
9 For my own efforts to track Obama’s top-down service to the rich powerful, in total defiance and betrayal of his declared faith in “change from the bottom up” through early April of 2010, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008); Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010).For the period since, see numerous articles posted on my Z Space page at http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/paulstreet and my Web site at www.paulstreet.org
10 Justin Hyde and Richard Wolf, “President Says He Shouldn’t Put Focus on Blacks’ Troubles,” USA Today, December 4, 2009.
11 See Michelle Alexander’s powerful book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (New York: New Press, 2010).
12 At a heavily attended public gathering on Chicago’s South Side in October of 2002, state senator Obama commented knowledgeably on my exhaustive study The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation (Chicago, IL: Chicago Urban League, October 2002).
13 Vanita Gupta and Chara Fisher Jackson, “Georgia Prison Strike an Outgrowth of Nation’s Addiction to Incarceration,” ACLU Blog of Rights (January 6, 2011) at http://www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights/georgia-prison-strike-outgrowth-nations-addiction-incarceration
14 Candidate Obama claimed again and again to be “from the South Side of Chicago.” He was in fact more significantly from an elite prep school in Honolulu, Columbia University, Harvard Law, the University of Chicago, and an elite network of foundations. His community organizing stint was quite brief and for him unpleasant.
15 Susan Page, “What Comes After HOPE? Obama Seeks Reshaped Image for 2012 Effort,” USA Today, June 6, 2011, 2 (citing Gallup data).
16 Singletary, “In Rough Economic Times.”
17 Rasmussen Reports, “Right Direction or Wrong Track: 27% Say U.S. Heading in Right Direction” (June 15, 2011) at http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/mood_of_america/right_direction_or_wrong_track
18 For useful reflections on the racist dynamics of the current capitalist crisis, see David McNally’s important Marxist analysis Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Black Point, Nova Scotia: PM Press, 2010), 103, 113-43.
19 Pew Social Trends Staff, How the Great Recession Has Changed Life in America (June 30, 2010) at http://pewsocialtrends.org/2010/06/30/how-the-great-recession-has-changed-life-in-america/; Glen Ford, “First Black Presidency Has Driven Many African Americans Insane,” Black Agenda Report (July 26, 2010) at http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/first-black-presidency-has-driven-many-african-americans-insane
20 Fletcher and Cohen, “Poll Finds Minorities More Optimistic.”
21 Singletary, “In Rough Economic Times.”
22 Fletcher and Cohen, “Poll Finds Minorities More Optimistic.”
23 Ford, “First Black Presidency.”
24 Fletcher and Cohen, “Poll Finds Minorities More Optimistic.”
25 Telephone conversation with Glen Ford, June 21, 2011.