Revolution#141, August 24, 2008
Obama’s “Yes We Can” Illusion
...and the Killing Reality for Black People
This presidential election season something different is happening. Three years ago, tens of thousands of Black people were left to die as Katrina’s flood waters surged in New Orleans. Last year, lynching nooses were being hung all across the country, from Jena, Louisiana, to New York City. But now, one of the two major parties is about to nominate an African-American, Barack Obama, to be the president of the U.S. This is major.
This country has pushed the lie that Black people were inferior from the day the first Africans were dragged to these shores in slave chains. This was part of the justification for enslaving Black people and for imposing a century of lynching and Jim Crow segregation on them after slavery was ended. Even down to today Black people are told that they’re not good enough, and that their supposed lack of qualifications—and not apple-pie American racism—is why they face vicious discrimination and degrading conditions in the U.S.
If you would have asked people four years ago, or even one year ago, was it possible that the U.S. would elect a Black president, most would’ve told you no, or at least not any time soon. But in a few months, a Black person might be in the White House. It’s no wonder that so many Black people get their hopes up when they think about the prospect of a President Obama. Or that so many people of all nationalities are thinking this could mean the U.S., while still not perfect, is maybe turning the corner on its legacy of racism.
I have arguments all the time with people about this. I point out to them that the essence of Obama’s campaign is that he’s the best man to be commander-in-chief of the U.S.’s global empire and steer it thru the challenges it faces around the world and at home. And that at the heart of the whole thing is that Obama is auditioning to be the head of a capitalist system that has had white supremacy as a key pillar—a pillar which it will not, and cannot, get rid of soon. Some people agree with some or even much of what I say but still get swept up in the Obama mania.
What a lot of them come back with is this: If Obama’s mantra, “Yes we can,” will change the way even one Black child thinks, give them a sense that they can overcome the obstacles and make something of themselves, then we have to bust ass to get him into the White House.
Let’s look at this one Black child, at the many Black youth, whose mindsets will be impacted if Obama gets elected. Many of them will go out there thinking, “Maybe America is becoming a different place. Obama could, and maybe I can too.”
But they will go out to an America where Black youth are given unequal, substandard education. In his 2005 book Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol said: “The average differential [in annual spending per child between school districts with the highest percentages of minority students and those with the lowest percentages] is $1,100. In some states—New York, Texas, Illinois and Kansas, for example—the differential is considerably larger.” He also shows how lawsuits aimed at achieving equal funding for minority school districts were denied by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s. On top of that, in 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that effectively overturned the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. The 2007 ruling made it unconstitutional to use race in the assignment of students to schools, even if the intent in doing that was to desegregate the schools!
They will confront an America where Black youth face sky-high unemployment rates. The factories that were moved decades ago to far out suburbs or to other parts of the world by capitalists in search of higher profit margins aren’t going to come back to the inner cities. Studies have documented that employers are more likely to hire white applicants with criminal records than Blacks with clean records. And job applicants with African-American sounding first names like Jamal are 50% less likely to get called in for an interview than those named George or Joseph. This discrimination isn’t going to stop.
In the first three months of this year, police in NYC stopped and frisked more than 150,000 people. Over 85% of them were Black or Latino, and more than 90% of them weren’t doing anything wrong! This racial profiling isn’t going to stop. 1 in 9 Black men in their 20’s is in jail. During three weeks this summer in Chicago, cops shot 12 Black and Latino people, killing 6 of them. Do you think Obama will do anything about this? The Obama who told everyone to respect the verdict when the cops who murdered Sean Bell got off?
The deal is that all the inspiration Obama’s election could give to Black youth will crash into the continuing reality of America. America may be ready to put a Black man in the White House, but it isn’t about to stop gunning down Black men in the streets of cities across the U.S. or warehousing Black people in prisons across the country. And it won’t stop discriminating against Black people in education and employment. They might be thinking, “Yes we can,” but the system will keep telling them: “No you can’t.” And it will keep throwing up roadblocks to keep them mired in conditions of poverty and degradation.
Some will successfully make it through the obstacle course capitalism lays out before them. But a few more Black people making it, or even a substantial number of Black people making it, won’t solve the actual problem Black people face in this country, which is that they are oppressed as a people. Look at some history on this. Between 1960 and 1984, the number of Black elected officials in the U.S. leaped from almost none to more than 6000. In that same period, the Black middle class grew at a rapid rate. But having many more successful Black people didn’t do anything to break Black people out of the overall oppression they faced.
This oppression is why even successful Black people can face the sting of racial discrimination—being followed around in department stores or not being able to hail a cab in New York City—and the life-threatening situation of Driving While Black. Life-threatening because cops harass, brutalize and even murder Black people for any reason or for no reason at all. Having a good job or driving a nice car is no guarantee this won’t happen to you.
The story of 17-year-old Jonathan Pinkerton is a case in point. Jonathan was planning to tour colleges this summer, between his junior and senior years in high school. He had no police record and had done everything people were supposed to do to put themselves in position to make it. On June 11, while Jonathan was relaxing with friends in a housing project in Chicago, police chased him and shot him in the back. Witnesses say police kneeled on his back and kicked him in the head while he lay wounded and handcuffed on the ground. Now Jonathan is in a hospital bed, paralyzed.
At the same time, the system will use those Black people who do make it to confuse people about the real reason Black people are in the conditions they’re in. They’ll pump out their lies that: “These people made it. So if you don’t make it, don’t blame us or the system. It’s your own damn fault.”
Constantly hammering away at people that the problems Black people are mired in are their own fault is very harmful. It’s harmful because the rulers’ line that Black people who don’t make it now have no more excuses and only themselves to blame for their miserable conditions blinds them and others to the real source of their problems and what needs to be done to deal with them. People who buy into this line can end up blaming the people and blaming themselves for the things the system is doing to them. And this line gives the authorities a freer hand to continue to intensify the repression they bring down on Black people. Once you buy their blame-the-people logic it’s easy to sell you on the need to unleash repression on people the system has criminalized; to buy into the lie that youth gunned down by the cops or being swept into the prisons in ever escalating numbers are bringing this on themselves because of the shit they’re involved in.
The logic of promoting Obama’s candidacy because it’ll inspire more Black youth to succeed carries with it an underlying and wrong view of what is the problem and what is the solution. Black people who buy into this are on the way to giving up on fighting the system that’s responsible for their oppression. Whites and people of other nationalities who buy into this can end up seeing no need to join the struggle against this oppression. And it hands the U.S. ruling class further justification for the vicious repression it is unleashing on the masses.
The real way to deal with the oppression of Black people is first to lay the blame for it squarely at the feet of the capitalist system—and to rally people to build resistance to that oppression. We need to: Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution. This points people in the direction of ending the oppression of Black people, and everything else foul this system brings down on people all over the world. Promoting Obama’s campaign can only lead people back into the killing embrace of this rotten system.
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