The Obama Project and the Politics of Race

First published on Black Agenda Report (July 24, 2013). The first section of this article appeared in ZNet on July 18. The second and third sections were added in the wake of President Obama’s remarks to the press on July 19. 

We are a Nation of Laws” (July 18, 2013) 

“Oh,” the angry white woman said to her brand new ex-friend, “and I suppose you voted for Obama too!”

 The remark came after the two friends, now ex-friends – both white working class woman with mixed-race (half-black) children – found out they were on different sides of the botched Florida prosecution and the 80 percent white jury verdict that exonerated the lethal racist white Neighborhood Watch stalker George Zimmerman for murdering the unarmed black high school student Trayvon Martin in February of 2012. As U.S. Green Party co-chair Darryll LC Mooch noted:

“There are uncertainties about what happened that night, but we know that George Zimmerman stalked Trayvon Martin and provoked a confrontation, ignoring a dispatcher’s warning to stay in his car. We know that Zimmerman was an armed adult with a long history of assaults and menacing behavior. We know that Martin was an unarmed 17-year-old who stepped outside to buy snacks. We know that police declined to hold Zimmerman and investigate the case for several weeks, which surely damaged the collection of evidence. Somehow, this scenario got turned around in the courtroom so that it was made to look like Zimmerman who was acting in self-defense.” [1]

The woman who made the remark is a FOX News-watching Republican. She applauded the verdict and expressed deep distaste for “the NAACP and all the rest of those liberal Civil Rights idiots who won’t shut up about Trayvon.” 

The woman at whom the remark was directed is vaguely liberal, progressive, and Democratic – and yes, she voted for Obama twice. She was disturbed and frightened by the Zimmerman verdict. She worries that it bodes poorly for the safety of her daughter and her friends. 

She seemed surprised when I told her that I found the first woman’s comment on Obama to be richly ironic. Obama, I remarked, has across his presidency done essentially nothing on behalf of black Civil Rights. Worse, I added, he has been actively hostile to the notion that the government ought to do anything to correct or even acknowledge racial oppression and inequality in the U.S. – consistent with numerous “post-racial” and post-Civil Rights comments he made as a presidential candidate in 2007 and 2008 – and has actually spent more time chiding blacks for their own supposed personal and cultural failures to take advantage of America’s supposedly great opportunities than he has on addressing any of the many ways in which racism still deeply permeates American life and institutions.

I didn’t attempt to offer any evidence for this statement, which I have empirically supported on numerous previous occasions both in hard print and online. It wasn’t that kind of a discussion. 

The second, liberal woman looked at me with an expression combining surprise, hurt, and disbelief when I said what I did about the first technically black President of theUnited States. So did her daughter. 

Obama doesn’t really support black Civil Rights and the broader struggle for black equality? No, not really. The record on this is quite substantial. I’ve delved into it many times before [2] and won’t rehearse it here. 

Many Americans find this easily documentable and harsh reality odd and counter-intuitive for two reasons. The first reason is simply that Obama is African-American. There is in the United States’ heavily identity-obsessed political culture a frankly childish but deeply ingrained assumption that a technically black politician and policymakers must inherently identify with and advance the interests of those who share his official race classification.

In reality, Obama’s technically black identity has tended in his case to work in precisely the opposite direction. It has helped make him even less inclined to confront the nation’s deep racial injustices than he already is thanks to his deeply conservative, bourgeois-neoliberal world view, which preposterously sees the United States as a great land of opportunity and freedom for all of those who are willing to shed bad habits and culture to work hard and honestly. Obama has always known that his technical blackness already, in and of itself, triggers the racial fears and resentments of the nation’s majority Caucasian electorate. As a result, he has felt compelled to be far more careful than a white candidate or politician would ever have to be about questioning the deeply false national conventional wisdom that racism is largely over as a serious barrier to black advancement and equality – a pervasive fallacious white belief that was richly reinforced by Obama’s ascendency to the presidency.

The second reason that people have a hard time processing Obama’s racial conservatism is that the nation’s powerful neo-McCarthyite FOX News hard right talk radio Teapublican noise machine keeps up a steady multi-channel drumbeat of propaganda claiming that the president is some kind of racial reparations-demanding Black Nationalist radical Marxist enemy of virtuous white America. Along with the silly “left-leaning Obama” dreams and projections of many liberals and progressives, the preposterous claims of the neo-John Bircher right have long helped Obama appear to be far more progressive on all issues (race obviously included) than he really is. This is of course nothing new in American politics. The Liberty League smeared as a communist Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who boasted with some justice that was the savior of the profits system. 

For what it’s worth, let’s have a look at Obama’s thoroughly predictable conservative statement to the whitewashed Zimmerman verdict:

“The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.”[3]

This is pretty much what candidate Obama said when in April 2008 a jury acquittedNew York Citydetectives of manslaughter and reckless endangerment for killing the unarmed black American SeanBellwith a 50-bullet assault on the morning of his wedding in November of 2006: 

“Well, look, obviously there was a tragedy in New York. I said at the time,.. that it looked like a possible case of excessive force. The judge has made his ruling, and we’re a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down…The most important thing for people who are concerned about that shooting is to figure out how do we come together and assure those kinds of tragedies don’t happen again…Resorting to violence to express displeasure over a verdict is something that is completely unacceptable and counterproductive.”[4] 

Two years later, the Obama Justice Department announced that Bell’s racist executioners would face no federal Civil Rights charges. As Black Agenda Report’s Executive Editor Glen Ford noted at the time: “The Obama Justice Department, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York all concluded that unleashing a 50-bullet fusillade against unarmed men, resulting in death, was not a violation of anyone’s civil rights.” [5] 

Notice the common conservative themes across Obama’s Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin statements: 

* Understand the case primarily as a private matter, a family tragedy that should not be seen in a pubic and political context.

 * Do NOT understand the case in the broader context of racism, including the deep institutional and cultural racism of the nation’s massive and globally unmatched criminal [in]justice system, which places 2.3 million Americans – nearly half of them black and two thirds of them nonwhite – in prison and saddles 1 in 3 back adult males with the crippling lifelong mark of a felony record. 

* Use the example of racist lawlessness as an occasion to assert supine obedience to the twisted legalism of a white majority bourgeois society, where it is widely understood that justice is enjoyed and meted out in accord with savagely unequal economic resources sothat “money talks and bullshit walks.” 

* Put the onus of avoiding further violence on black people and communities, not the predominantly white agents of coercion who attack those people and communities. 

* Accept black responsibility for the unmentionably racistAmericasystem’s violence, turning attention away from the master’s to “our own [black] communities,” whose savage segregation and deprivation is unmentionable in the American “land of opportunity.” 

American laws’ content, implementation and interpretation are captive to reigning hierarchies of class, race, gender, and nationality. The United States is a nation of money and power, one where a small, very predominantly Caucasian and super-wealthy elite (the 400 richest Americans possess as much wealth as the bottom half of the nation’s population) rules in part through racial divide-and-rule and in part through the inculcation of excessive mass respect for legal niceties and decrees. 

Our job as citizens is not to submit meekly to this authoritarian reality like the good little mice-heroes portrayed in the subtly despotic corporate-neoliberal “self-help” fable Who Moved My Choose? As protestors have repeatedly chanted during and after many of the numerous cases where the “forces of [unmentionably white-supremacist] order” have gotten away with unjust killings and other abuses of poor and nonwhite Americans in recent years [6], “No Justice, No Peace.” That’s a far better counsel than the advice/warning to “respect the verdict that came down.” 

Form Over Substance, Process Over Program: The July 19th Comments  

Does Obama, a president who has “talked about race less than any Democratic president since 1961” [7], deserve praise for addressing that sensitive topic during his “impromptu” 15 minute comment before the daily White House press briefing last Friday – the one in which he said that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago”? I think not. The president had no choice but to say something about the nation’s racial problems in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. As the New York Times noted: 

“[Obama’s comments] punctuated a turbulent week marked by dozens of phone calls to the White House from black leaders, angry protests that lit up the Internet and streets from Baltimoreto Los Angeles…Aides say the president closely monitored the public reaction and talked repeatedly about the case with friends and family. …black leaders…had beseeched the president to speak out — inundating White House officials with phone calls …The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Mr. Obama had no choice but to confront mounting concern among African-Americans about the Martin case and recent Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action and voting rights. ‘At some point, the volcano erupts,’ Mr. Jackson said. …From the moment the verdict was announced on Saturday night, black activists had called on Mr. Obama to express the anger and frustration of their community. The pressure only increased after he issued a carefully worded statement urging respect for the jury’s decision.” [8]

The Times reported the day after that Obama’s comments werethe most expansive remarks he has made about race since becoming president.” But that’s not saying much given how remarkably reluctant the ostensibly Black president had been to go near the topic. And how much did Obama somewhat sheepishly, reluctantly, and belatedly (“leading from behind,” as Tavis Smiley put it) say about the United States’ persistent problem of white supremacism – a problem that all-too-commonly takes on a violent and even murderous form at home and abroad? Not much, really. The gist of his Friday remarks was that many black Americans felt pain and anger about the verdict because their historical experience leads them to see something like the Trayvon-Zimmerman story through the lens of racial bias and to situate that story within a racial context that most of the majority white culture denies. As an example of that context, he cited his own experience (before he became a U.S. Senator) of being followed in a department store and hearing whites car doors click when he crossed the street.

Obama merits some elementary credit, I suppose, for acknowledging some basic underlying racial differences that undermine his famous white-pleasing claim at the outset of his national celebrity (in his instantly lauded 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address) that “there is not a Black America and a White America and a Latino America and an Asian America – there’s a United States of America.” He was right to note “a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” [9] But the anti-racist educational and policy potential of the president’s “historic” Friday morning press-room comments was squandered by: 

* Their over-personalized brevity and under-statement (a serious discussion of the nation’s shockingly stark racial disparities and their origin in the nation’s many-sided forces of institutional and cultural racism would require a full address [10]). 

* Repetition of the mandatory statement that “they rendered a verdict” and “once a jury has spoken, that’s how our system works” (so don’t expect the federal government to make a civil rights case against Zimmerman – this, after a trial in which jurors were denied access to evidence indicating racist sentiments on the part of the shooter). 

* The implication that Black America’s perception of racial bias is about “history,” understood more in terms of the past than present American experience. 

* Obama’s muddled assertions of black self-sabotage. “This isn’t,” the president said, “to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence….Statistically,” he added for good measure, “somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer [that is, by another young Black male – P.S.] than he was by somebody else.” In reality, Trayvon was shot by a racist white man and black young are “disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system” largely thanks to the widely documented racist surveillance, arrest, and sentencing practices of police, prosecutors, and judges across the nation. 

* The dubious claim that “things are getting better” when it comes to race, buttressed (Obama seemed to think) by his observation that his daughters are interacting nicely with their affluent white friends at the elite private school they attend. In fact, blackAmerica’s epic incarceration and criminal marking rates (so extreme that 1 in 3 adult black males carry the crippling lifelong stigma of a felony record) have continued to rise. Blacks have suffered a far bigger fall in income since 2007 than any other racial group and their net worth (disproportionately concentrated in housing) has fallen to its lowest level in decades. 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.

 * The absence of any serious proposal to correct the nation’s gaping racial disparities. Such a proposal was rejected in advance by Obama’s following statement: “I’m not naïve about the prospects of some grand, new federal program.  I’m not sure that that’s what we’re talking about here.” Instead of any serious commitment to jobs and education and a reorientation of national priorities towards solving the ongoing and deepening black crisis (a reorientation that could be jump-started with the diversion to human needs of just a small portion of the massive taxpayer largesse Washington grants to corporate subsidies including the giant Pentagon war machine), Obama could call only for “all of us to do some soul-searching [not in the political arena but] in families and churches and workplaces.” 

* A call for the nation “to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys” that was not combined with any call for thinking about how to disabuse white Americans of the racist “Zimmerman mindset” (Michelle Alexander) that leads so many Caucasian power agents to stalk, stop, frisk, monitor, arrest, incarcerate, over-sentence, criminally mark, beat, and even kill those boys.

Reading the president’s comments over again recently, I was instantly reminded of Dr. Adolph Reed Jr,’s 1996 assessment of Obama, shortly after the latter won his first Illinois state senate race: “In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway.” [11] 

A Personal Story: “The White Man in Blackface in Our Community”

Trayvon “could have been [Barack Obama] 35 years ago”? Not likely. Obama attended an elite, private, and mostly white and Asian high school in relatively integrated and racially liberal Honolulu, with nothing like the racial tensions or the large poor and working class black population that are found in the southern Florida community where Martin was stalked and killed. He lived there with his relatively affluent white grandparents prior to the take off of the racially disparate War on Drugs.

Since the president opened the door to personal stories about crossing streets in his July 19th comments, I will tell another one relating to his political career and the question of race from my time as Research Director of the Chicago Urban League at 45th St. and Michigan Ave., in the historical heart of Black Chicago. One day in early 2004, a veteran black writer, activist and CUL colleague told me an interesting story about then state senator and U.S. senatorial candidate Obama. Recently, this co-worker told me, he had joined his daughter for breakfast at the Valois Cafeteria on East 53rd Street in the racially mixed South Side Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, home to the notoriously elite and conservative University of Chicago (UC). The Valois is a Greek-run eating establishment that has long served a large and primarily black customer base that is visible most mornings and afternoons through its large glass windows looking out across 53rd. The restaurant’s clientele runs the age spectrum, including young families, senior citizens, and everything in-between. The food is delivered fast, hot, and cheap by a hard-working cadre of Greek, black, and Latino staff, all dressed in white.Valois is a classic urban institution that resonates with the city’s multi-cultural and migratory roots.

On the day my co-worker dined with his daughter, he reported, two white Chicagopolice officers were subduing a homeless and mentally unbalanced black male on the sidewalk just outside the cafeteria. Their methods were harsh and culminated in the police pinning the “offender” down with one officer’s right knee pressed into the back of the “offender,” whose face was pressed into the ground. A crowd began to form at the restaurant’s window and a number of diners moved outside to challenge the police on the necessity of their actions. As my co-worker (a 55-year old veteran of the Civil Rights Movement) joined the challenge he noticed UC law professor and then state senator Obama walking briskly westward on 53rd speaking on a cell phone. Obama was initially on the same side of the street as the altercation. Looking up from his phone to realize the scene before him, “Obama quickly crossed the street and walked very quickly in the other direction. It was very abrupt.” The “liberal” constitutional law professor and former community activist apparently lacked any desire to know why a crowd of African-Americans was forming around two white cops entangled in an obviously unequal struggle with a black male. What’s more, he distanced himself from the incident as rapidly as possible. 

I do not pretend to know beyond all reasonable doubt that this story is completely accurate. Assuming that it is (my strong guess is affirmative), I have no idea what was running through Obama’s mind when he escaped the scene outside Valois. I can testify that the source of this anecdote was reliable and that his telling of it reflected the ambivalence many Black Chicagoans felt about whether the bourgeois, UC-affiliated, and Harvard-certified Obama was really of and for black America. U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush, [D-IL] exploited that doubt quite well when he destroyed Obama’s challenge to unseat him in 2000. “Barack,” one of Obama’s black state senate colleagues told the Chicago Reader at the time, “is viewed in part to be the white man in blackface in our community. You just have to look at his supporters. Who pushed him to get where he is so fast? It’s these individuals in Hyde Park – who don’t always have the best interests of the [black] community in mind.” According to the Reader, during Obama’s disastrous challenge of Rush in 2000: “There are whispers….that there’s an ‘Obama Project’ masterminded by whites who want to push him up the political ladder.”[12]

Rush may have later embraced the Obama phenomenon, claiming that it was a divinely ordained, but there should be little doubt about the existence of an “Obama project masterminded [largely] by whites who want[ed] to push him up the political ladder” (all the way to the White House, it turned out) with consequences that have been not-so “paradoxically” negative for most of Black America. The terrible Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman episode is only the latest and most high-profile example. 

Paul Street ( is the author of many books, including Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005) and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007). He can be reached at 

Selected Notes 

1. [13]

2. Among many cites, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), 73-131; Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power, 129-152; Paul Street, “Race, Politics, and Late Obamanism,” Black Agenda Report (June 11, 2013), [14]; Paul Street “Barack Obama’s White Appeal and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post Civil Rights Era,” in Hettie Williams and G. Reginald Daniels, eds.., Race, Gender, and the Obama Phenomenon: Toward a More Perfect Union? (University Press of Mississippi, forthcoming in 2014).

3. [14]

4. [15]

5. [16]

6. Malcolm X Grassroots Group, No More Trayvons: Report on the Extrajudicial Killings of 120 Black People from January 1 to June 30, 2012, [17]; Paul Street, “Killer Cops and the War on Black America,” Black Agenda Report (August 15, 2012); [18]; Paul Street, “True Crime: White Privilege and a Police Killing in an Obama-Mad College Town,” Black Agenda Report (October 19, 2009); Paul Street, “ ‘No Justice, No Peace’: A Police Killing and a Riot in Benton Harbor,” ZNet (June 30, 2003), [19]

7. Frederick Harris, “The Price of a Black President,” New York Times (October 27, 2012), [20]

8. Mark Lander and Michael Shear, “President Offers a Personal Take on Race in U.S.,” New York Times, July 20, 2013, A1,

9. “Remarks by the President on Trayvon Martin.” James Brady Press Briefing Room, White House, Washington D.C., July 19, 2013, [21]

10. My own efforts in this regard just in relation to Obama’s own supposed “hometown” Chicago during the time he was a state senator on that city’s black South Side include The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation (Chicago: Chicago Urban League, October 2002); Paul Street, Still Separate Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago: Chicago Urban League, 2005). At the semi-historic release of the first study cited above, state senator Barack Obama was the officially designated Keynote Speaker.

11. Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice, January 16, 1996—reprinted in Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New Press, 2000).

12. David Mendell, OBAMA: From Promise to Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 130-131.

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By | 2013-07-29T15:37:57+00:00 July 29th, 2013|Articles|