Revolution#123, March 16, 2008
Obama: A New Day for Black People... Or a New Face on the Same Set-up?
There’s a lot of people right now excited about the fact that Barack Obama could be the first Black president. People hope that if he becomes president, there could be someone in the White House who will bring about real change—including ending the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and doing something about the destruction of the environment, the horrific oppression of Black people and other minority nationalities, the Gestapo round-ups of immigrants, and the attacks on fundamental rights.
But those getting behind Obama have to really examine what his candidacy actually represents and what Obama would, could (and couldn’t) do if he becomes president. And then they have to ask themselves if this is the kind of “change” that is really needed to address all the things they are concerned about. And what will it mean to put all your hopes and energies into getting him elected?
Obama’s Position on National Oppression
In his book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama acknowledges there is racial inequality in the United States. But he argues that racism and national oppression are decreasing—which is NOT true. He says that maybe some measures that target racism and white supremacy are necessary, like affirmative action. But he argues that measures that fundamentally challenge and target national oppression are counter-productive. In the course of chastising a Black legislator who, according to Obama, focuses too much on the oppression of Black people, he writes: “Rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America; even the most fair minded of whites, those who would genuinely like to see racial inequality ended and poverty relieved, tend to push back against the suggestions of racial victimization—or race-specific claims based on the history of racial discrimination in this country.” (Audacity, p. 247) Obama argues that "a rising tide lifting minority boats has certainly held true in the past" (p. 246) and offers what commentators have called a post-racial politics—which means he does all he can to avoid even talking about race in his campaign.
Let’s break down how this is actually at play in the Obama campaign and what this means.
Obama acknowledges that “The basic enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, the injustice that still exists within our criminal justice system, the disparity in terms of how people are treated in this country continues.” But, he says, “It has gotten better. And we should never deny that it’s gotten better.” (Selma speech, 3/5/07)
But things haven’t gotten better for Black people in this country. They have gotten worse. The net worth of an average white family is more than ten times the net worth of an average Black family. $67,000 compared to $6,166 (National Urban League Report: The State of Black America 2005). This is the same as the ratio in 1990. The rate of incarceration for Black men has risen to the point where today one in nine Black men aged 25 to 29 is in jail or prison. In 2003 Black infant mortality (the number of babies who die before their first birthday) was 13.6 per 1,000 births—almost 2.5 times higher than the rate of 5.7 for whites (childstats.gov). Public schools are becoming more racially segregated (Civil Rights Project UCLA) and this is likely to accelerate with the 2007 Supreme Court decision that reversed Brown v. Board of Education.
And it is a big lie to say, as Obama writes, that “This pattern—of a rising tide lifting minority boats—has certainly held true in the past.” Bullshit. What about New Orleans after Katrina? $116 million from FEMA was spent on restoring the New Orleans Superdome and $60 million on restoring the Morial Convention Center, and $37 million was spent on building a new parking garage for luxury cruise boats leaving the port of New Orleans. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands live in toxic trailers with little hope of returning to the city, hospitals and schools are unopened years later, while the city bulldozes public housing to make sure that poor Black people cannot return.
Hurricane Katrina (and all that has happened since) has revealed two basic facts. First, that there is a large section of Black people still bitterly oppressed and impoverished by the very workings of the system. Second, that these basic workings of the system are reinforced and intensified by conscious government policy with genocidal implications.
Obama sharply criticized the Bush administration for abandoning tens of thousands in New Orleans. But he made clear that, in his view, what happened with Katrina had nothing to do with the oppression of Black people as a people: “I appeared on the Sunday morning news shows rejecting the notion that the administration had acted slowly because Katrina’s victims were black—‘the incompetence was color-blind,’ I said...” (Audacity, p. 229-230).
There were people of all different nationalities in New Orleans who were abandoned by the government after Katrina. But when Obama denies the Bush regime was racist in its response to Katrina, he is not “transcending divisions.” He is covering up the fact that what has happened in New Orleans is a concentration of the oppression of Black people that is built into the very foundation of this country.
We are not, as the Obama campaign makes it seem, “all in this together.” Black people are not the beneficiaries of some kind of trickle-down prosperity in which what’s good for America is good for everyone, rich and poor, Black and white. It is a vicious lie to say, as Obama does, that “There is no white America, there is no black America...” This basically denies that Black people still face systemic discrimination.
The problem is not polarization, but the current polarization. What we need is repolarization—for revolution. And unity among the people of all nationalities—unity on the basis that Obama is describing is and can only be unity on a reactionary basis and serve reactionary/ imperialist aims and interests. What’s good for America is not good for the masses of people. We don’t need to unite behind America; we need to unite and fight for the interests of the people of the world and against the interests of the U.S. rulers. This is a class society where one class profits off of another. Inside the U.S. and around the world, the superexploitation and oppression of the Black and other oppressed nationality masses is crucial to the continued operation of capitalism-imperialism.
This country was founded on slavery and genocide, and these played a decisive role in building up the wealth of this country. Even after slavery was formally ended, the oppression of Black people played a crucial economic role both in the North and the South. Today, Black people are locked in a caste-like system which is built into the operation of capitalism in this county. Political and social relations of white supremacy are built into the system at every level and are reinforced by and reinforce the economic relations.
You can’t go up against racism and national oppression in this country without challenging white supremacy. And challenging white supremacy means upsetting white people who think racism and national oppression is in their interest. People of European descent in the U.S., even those who are poor, powerless, and exploited—still share the status of being “white” in America, with everything that means. But it actually is in the most fundamental interests of the vast majority of people, including the majority of white people, to live in a society free of white supremacy, inequality, and all other oppression. But this kind of unity cannot be built without challenging white people to take a stand against the oppression of Black people. This is something Barack Obama does not do as a presidential candidate. And this is something he will not and cannot do if he gets to the White House—because this would mean tearing apart the foundations of the very system the presidency serves.
The Logic and the Workings of Obama’s “Post-racial” Politics
A recent article in the New York Times (“Seeking Unity, Obama Feels the Pull of Racial Divide” 2/12/2008) reveals the logic of Obama’s “post-racial” politics—and where this will lead.
The article discusses the tension in the Obama campaign as it has attempted to appeal to white voters while drawing in and maintaining the Black vote. The article shows how it is part of Obama’s strategy to speak as little as possible about racial issues (in order to appeal to whites), while, when it comes to Black people, “appealing to the pride they feel in his candidacy,” as Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod put it. In other words Obama is consciously NOT making racism and the oppression of Black people (let alone calling for an end to this) an issue in his campaign.
The article reveals how Obama has tried to steer clear of speaking to primarily Black audiences. It tells how Obama asked his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, not to appear with him when he announced his candidacy. Rolling Stone quotes Wright including in his list of essential facts about the United States: “Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run!” and “We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns and the training of professional KILLERS...” THIS TRUTH is what Obama wants to distance himself from.
Obama did speak out against the outrageous charges being brought against the Jena 6 (the Black youth in Jena, Louisiana who are being prosecuted for standing up against the hanging of nooses and white supremacy). But he did this quietly, and covered over the real issue—that racism and national oppression is alive and well—by saying that this “isn’t a matter of black and white. It’s a matter of right and wrong.”
Some people, particularly among the Black middle class, but also more broadly, argue that Obama’s strategy is necessary. They say Obama can’t take a strong stand in calling out the history and present-day reality of white supremacy in the U.S. because that would alienate white people he needs to vote for him in order to win the election.
But wait a minute! Where does this whole logic lead? If this is what’s determining what he says and does now, why would it be any different if he became president?
“Well,” the argument goes, “he just needs to do this to get elected, then after he’s elected he’ll be able to take a stand.” But this is delusion and self-delusion. And why should people think that a candidate who has accommodated himself to the interests of the system all during the campaign would all of a sudden do something different? Whoever runs for the Democrats is going to be “moved” to the right again and again in the course of fighting against McCain to win the presidency. After Obama (or Hillary) has accommodated, conciliated, and trimmed their sails to get elected, wouldn’t they be obligated to act upon this “mandate”? And if a new president took any actions which went up against the interests of the ruling class, then the powers that be would have him or her removed, through political scandal or through other means.
Obama has already shown, many times, that he puts the stability of the current political system ABOVE the rights of Black people. Obama’s first official act after being elected to the Senate was to refuse to stand with the Congressional Black Caucus in opposition to Ohio’s nullification of hundreds of thousands of Black votes. In doing so, Obama puts the interests of the ruling class and the stability of the system ahead of the rights of hundreds of thousands of Black voters because challenging the votes in Ohio would have destabilized the system and that is something that Obama, as a representative of that class, is unwilling to do.
Worse Than Nothing
“Maybe he won’t be able to do that much,” the argument continues, “but certainly he won’t be any worse than any of the others and the mere fact that he is Black will inspire people with hope and break down some barriers for Black people. And he’s drawing so many people into politics…”
But Obama as president would be a new face on the same imperialist empire. And this would be like the story of Little Red Riding Hood where the wolf disguises himself as Grandmother: “All the better to eat you with, my dear.”
After the mass upsurges in the 1960s and early 1970s when Black people rebelled against their oppression, there was a concerted effort to calm things down, quell people’s anger, and restore faith in the system. One way the system tried to do this was by allowing some “Black faces in high places.” But what good did this do for the people? Look at the history of the Black mayors in America presiding over deepening poverty, deteriorating conditions, and cutbacks in social services. What about people like Wilson Goode, the Black mayor of Philadelphia, who signed off on the bombing of a Black neighborhood there in 1985 which took the lives of 11 people, five of them children, and destroyed 61 homes? What about Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and Clarence Thomas? And has having Black cops really made a difference in terms of the epidemic of police murders?
Some argue: “But, won’t Obama, or some other Democrat, be better than a Republican? Isn’t it our responsibility to vote and support the candidate that will kill a few thousand less people in Iraq?” NO! Channeling one’s energy into electing a Democrat will, despite one’s intentions, result in political paralysis or worse than paralysis. It will only strengthen the so-called “mandate” that any president will have in carrying out the crimes of this system. The framework of politics of the “possible” means accommodating ourselves to the politics of horrors.
Obama is training people to think in terms of patriotism and “the greatness of America” when this is being used as a rallying cry for war. But what people need to do is to start from the interests of the people of the world—which are in fundamental antagonism to the interests of U.S. imperialism.
Obama wants people to accommodate to racism and national oppression. But what is needed is uncompromising struggle against white supremacy and the systematic oppression of Black people.
And let’s go back to the basic question of why Obama is even being considered a legitimate candidate. Some people think it’s a “sign of progress” that a Black man can even get so close to becoming president. But Obama’s candidacy is a reflection of the fact that there is an even more urgent need for the ruling class in this country to confine and channel people’s anger, desire, political activity, and hopes into the process of acceptable mainstream electoral politics. Under the Bush regime, millions have increasingly felt disaffected from the system and are losing their “faith” in the government. There has been tremendous outrage at the outright assault on Constitutional rights and norms. In such times, people can “lose their allegiance” and look for more radical ways to bring about change. And this presents the ruling class with even more necessity to bring people back “into the fold,” under control and corralled into the acceptable confines of politics that doesn’t really challenge—and in fact strengthens—this whole setup. And Obama is the man who is playing that role right now.
This is what’s behind the argumentfrom a ruling class perspective by the conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan in a recent issue of The Atlantic on why people should support Obama for president. Sullivan says: “If you believe that America’s current crisis is not a deep one, if you think that pragmatism alone will be enough to navigate a world on the verge of even more religious warfare, if you believe that today’s ideological polarization is not dangerous, and that what appears dark today is an illusion fostered by the lingering trauma of the Bush presidency, then the argument for Obama is not that strong.” Sullivan continues: “But if you sense, as I do, that greater danger lies ahead, and that our divisions and recent history have combined to make the American polity and constitutional order increasingly vulnerable, then the calculus of risk changes.” (“Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters,” December 2007)
Obama pulls people into working within the system when what is needed is for the people to see that the real problems they are concerned about—like unjust war, poverty, racism, all kinds of inequality, etc.—stem from the very nature of this system. This whole system of U.S. capitalism—which Obama wants to be president and commander-in-chief of—is based on private property, exploitation, and the oppression of people. Humanity needs revolution and communism. And right now people do not need deadly illusions and demoralizing false hopes. They do not need to have their energy channeled into the dead end of the whole election process. Instead, people need a real understanding of the problem and the solution, and a revolutionary movement.
For those who have been swept up in “Obama-mania,” really confronting what he represents and what it will (and won’t) mean if he becomes president may be like awakening from a pleasant dream to an unpleasant reality. But hopes and dreams, if we really have a chance to bring them into being, have to be based on reality.
People should dream about change and how the world could be different. But the “change” that Obama promises is really just sugar coating on a system that is a nightmare for the overwhelming majority of people in the world. And what good is a “growing grassroots movement” where people are energized, active, and feeling hopeful, if that grassroots movement ends up giving a mandate to a new face (that has the chance of being more effective) for the same oppressive empire?
People always were and always will be the foolish victims of deceit and self-deceit in politics until they learn to discover the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. The supporters of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realize that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is maintained by the forces of some ruling classes.
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