Race, Politics, and Late Obamanism

Mr. Street delivered these remarks at Black Agenda Report’s “Black Politics at the Tail End of Obama” session at the Left Forum, in New York City, June 9, 2013. Orginally published at Black Agenda Report.

The wonderful radical commentator John Pilger said something important about the dawning age of Obama in July 2009.  “The clever young man who recently made it to the White House,” Pilger told a group of socialists in San Francisco four years ago, “is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However,” Pilger noted, “this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters…above all,” Pilger observed, “is the class one serves [emphasis added].”

 I want to return to Pilger’s formulation at the end of my comments because I believe the thinking behind it is critical to the re-awakening of independent black and independent radical politics in America today – a re-awakening that must occur, I might add, if the species is going to have any chance of a decent and democratic future.

Lately I’ve been referring to the president as “Under the Bus Obama.” The list of those Obama has thrown under the runaway buses of neoliberal capitalism, military empire, and white supremacy is daunting. His resume of betrayal includes his maternal grandmother, his preacher, the labor movement (betrayed and abandoned on global trade, labor law reform, the Wisconsin rebellion, the wage- and job-slashing terms of the much-ballyhooed auto bailout and more); environmentalists (abandoned and betrayed on offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing, global trade, global carbon emission reduction-efforts, nuclear power, clean coal and more), senior citizens (betrayed by the president’s ongoing effort to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits), immigrants (betrayed by a president who has actually increased the number of deportations) civil libertarians (abandoned and betrayed on Guantanamo, rendition, warrantless wiretaps, secret kills lists, whistleblower protection, domestic drones, the infiltration of protest organizations, and more), the mainstream press (recently betrayed by the president’s arch-authoritarian seizure of Associate Press phone records), nuclear disarmament advocates (recently betrayed by Obama’s $547 million request for the B61 nuclear gravity bomb in Europe), and the antiwar community (betrayed by Obama’s sick global drone war, the undeclared war on Libya, the escalating U.S. invasion of Africa, U.S. saber-rattling in relation to Iran, Syria, and East Asia and much more).  Last but not least and of special interest to this panel, we have Black America, betrayed by a first technically black president who has said and done less about racial inequality than any American chief executive in recent memory.

Last October in the New York Times, the Columbia University political scientist Frederick C. Harris offered some interesting reflections on the last and all too rarely noted betrayal. “Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017,” Harris noted, “the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality…. Mr. Obama,” Harris continued, “has had little to say on concerns specific to blacks. His State of the Union address in 2011 was the first by any president since 1948 to not mention poverty or the poor… [and] Mr. Obama, in his first two years in office, talked about race less than any Democratic president had since 1961. From racial profiling to mass incarceration to affirmative action, his comments have been sparse and halting” (Frederick C. Harris, “The Price of a Black President,” New York Times, October 27, 2012).

Meanwhile, as Obama has less to say about race than any American president since Eisenhower, the crisis of black America deepens. Fully 28 percent of African Americans, and 37 percent of black children, are officially poor, compared to 10 percent of whites and 13 percent of white children.  Thirteen percent of blacks are officially unemployed, compared to 7 percent of whites. More than 900,000 black men are in prison and an astonishing 1 in 3 black adult males is marked for life with the crippling, many-sided stigma of a felony record. Blacks have suffered a far bigger fall in income since 2007 than any other racial group. Their net worth, disproportionately concentrated in housing, has bottomed out at its lowest level in decades.  Blacks today account for more than 4 in every 10 new HIV infections. I could go.  Flying out here, by the way, I saw the following article cited in Henry Giroux’s latest book: Michelle Alexander, “The Age of Obama as a Racial Nightmare” (TomDispatch, March 25, 2012).  

During all of this, the black bourgeois so-called leadership class has been depressingly silent both on the depth and degree of the black crisis and on Obama’s refusal to meaningfully address that crisis. It’s not just that the president is a Democrat. The black political class offered far more criticism of President Bill Clinton’s silence on race than it has of Obama’ silence on race because, despite what Chris Rock had to say, president Clinton was white and because Obama for all his Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner post-racial white-friendliness is technically black. The black political class has accepted the president’s silence on race, Harris noted last October, as “the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House.”

Now, I guess professor Harris has a book out on that price and the racial politics of the Obama era and I ought to read it but I want to make three mostly friendly criticisms of his New York Times piece I quoted from above. My first criticism is that Obama, like Clinton, has been worse then merely silent on the question of racial oppression. As I documented in my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes, the president has been openly hostile to the notion that he or anyone else in government ought to pay special attention to blacks’ needs. This is consistent with candidate Obama’s instantly and widely white-heralded Philadelphia Race Speech, which was dedicated to the proposition that Jeremiah Wright’s anger at American racial oppression was no longer appropriate in the contemporary supposedly post-racist and color-blind United States. It is consistent also with candidate Obama’s ridiculous claim that black America ’s post-Civil Rights “Joshua Generation” had comes 90 percent of the way to full equality.

 Just three weeks ago, Obama gave a commencement address at historically black Morehouse College where he told young black men that “there’s no longer any room for excuses” and that “Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination” and that, quote, “whatever you’ve gone through pales in comparison the hardships previous generations endured…and overcame.” He said all this after citing his own ascendancy to the presidency as an example that “barriers have come tumbling down” and that “new doors of opportunity have swung open.” Now can you imagine the president saying the same thing to the graduates of an all-female college or to the graduates of a Latino/a high school?

 The second criticism really isn’t fair because Harris didn’t purport to write about any other than racial politics.  It is simply that Obama’s racial identity – and I would add his technically Muslim ethno-cultural nomenclature – has been relevant not merely to the silencing of black elite dissent and to dissent regarding racism.  It has been relevant also to the silencing of white and Latino and Asian liberal and progressive and left dissent regarding the whole panoply of interrelated oppression structures that exist today, including class, capitalism, nationality, militarism, empire, eco-cide, patriarchy, and more.

 The third criticism is that I saw no recognition in Harris’s essay of how a good cadre of us on the left raised early and strident alarms about precisely the outcome that he describes. We predicted it and warned against it and much more regarding the Obama phenomenon and presidency in the pages of Black Agenda Report and elsewhere.  My own warnings – which had as much to do with class and empire as race – started two days after Obama’s Keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. They were developed in great detail in my 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, most of which was written in 2007, and which includes a chapter titled “How Black is Obama? Color, Class, Generation and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era.”  I even spoke briefly to a CNN reporter about how Obama would betray black Americans and be a negative for the struggle against racism in the summer of 2008. And it wasn’t just me.  A slew of left writers and activists including Glen, Bruce, Michael Hureaux, Pilger, Juan Santos, Alexander Cockburn, Pam Martens, Marc Lamont Hill, and others had similar and related things to say in genuinely radical venues like BAR and ZNet and CounterPunch.  

 What did we know – those of who warned early on from the actual Left about the racially and more broadly reactionary and conservative nature of a likely Obama presidency?  We understood very well what Pilger said in the quote I gave at the beginning.  We knew what W.E.B. DuBois in his Marxist phase and what the old American Communist Party, including Obama’s adolescent mentor Frank Davis, knew about race, which is that while it has an oppressive life of its own, it cannot be fully or properly understood outside the critical contexts of class and empire.  We knew that the predominantly white governing class and the imperial establishment play clever Machiavellian games with race and gender and ethnicity and religion and sexual orientation, using these and other aspects of social identity as seductive propaganda tools to bamboozle millions into seeing democratic transformation when the underlying reality is the deepening grip of the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.

We knew what Martin Luther King knew when he rejected efforts to enlist for a presidential run in 1968. “The black revolution,” Dr. King wrote that critical year, is “exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society.  It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that the radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” The changes we needed to avert catastrophe and build a human civilization, King felt, could not be limited to the periodic re-shuffling of the names and faces and parties in nominal power. It had to go deeper than replacing one brand or shape or color of corporate- and military-captive office-holders with another such brand once every two, four or eight years. 

We knew that, as Howard Zinn said, “the really critical thing isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories.  Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.” It’s not about running for president.

If we’re going to get a radical politics, including a radical black politics, back in this country, we have to drop out of major party electoral-ism and bourgeois identity politics once and for all. We have to get back to supposedly old-fashioned Marxist and black-nationalist understandings of how race, racial identity and sham electoral democracy function together within the overall and interrelated frameworks of capitalism and imperialism.

So, you know, liberals ask me, “gee whiz golly shucks Mr. Street , but isn’t there anything good about the Obama experience and presidency from a racial justice perspective?” And I will report that I simply cannot listen to all the “black role model” talk any more after everything this man has done in office.  At this point, I’m not sure I would rather have Black American youth dreaming of being a Jordan or a JayZee or a Beyonce than of being an Obama or a Colin Powell or a Condi Rice or a Susan Rice or a Cory Booker T. If there’s anything good about the Obama experience and era, I think it is that professor Obama has given billions of ordinary people at home and abroad an advanced seminar on who really runs this vicious capitalist nation state beneath and beyond its quadrennial major party big money candidate-centered electoral extravaganzas.  He has given us an extreme tutorial on the idiotic futility of seeking progressive change through the bourgeois ballot box and bourgeois identity politics. He has been a perfect embodiment of how the ruling class can flip the old racial divide-and-rule over in a devious way to put false rebels’ clothes on the persistent, predominantly white plutocracy and its bloody empire. The lesson of Obama…it’s the lessons that Occupy acted upon before it got shut down to make way for the year long election spectacle – the lesson once again that its not about who’s sitting in the White House, it’s about who’s sitting in the streets, who’s occupying the shop-floors, who’s occupying the public square, who’s occupying the schools and the media and the legislative halls from the bottom up.

So, you know, let the president dream his dreams of Mount Rushmore. Let him have his global ex-president foundation and his untold millions in corporate speaking fees and his Secrete Service detachments. Let him send Sasha and Malia to the Deerfield Academy and Harvard or Oxford and let him drone on about how that proves that equal opportunity has come to America for all who refuse to “make excuses.” I know Obama still has business to finish up for the ruling class, like cutting back Social Security and Medicare, final Keystone Pipeline approval, sneaking through the Trans Pacific Partnership and positioning the Pentagon to more effectively confront China. Yes, we have to resist him and the ruling class he supports right now, everyday, Still, we can already feel the president starting to slip under the bus of history. That’s a good thing.  I don’t think either Hillary Clinton or Marc Rubio can give this vicious sociopathic racist empire a deadly re-branding to anything like the same degree as what Obama did.

 In the meantime, those of us on the real left have got bigger and better things to worry about than the life and times of Booker T. Obama.  We have a bigger timeline than the two-and four-year election cycles of American politics, not to mention the quarterly earnings statements of capital, the real executive authority beneath and beyond the comings and goings of politicians. We are in pursuit of what Dr, King rightly called the real issue to be faced beyond superficial matters – the radical reconstruction of society itself. Thank you very much.

Paul Street’s books include Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post Civil Rights Era (2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010), and They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014).

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By | 2013-06-14T14:00:43+00:00 June 14th, 2013|Articles|