Revolution #130, May 25, 2008

Response to Obama’s “Speech on Race” Part 3:

The Sixties, the System, and the Real Solution

The emergence of Barack Obama as the likely Democratic candidate for the presidency is an unprecedented event, and attracting—on different levels—many people who see it as a vehicle of positive change. But the Obama campaign is, by his own repeated acknowledgements, thoroughly rooted in promoting and preserving this system. As such, we have argued that it cannot bring about any substantial change for the better. For those who do want such change, supporting and buying into the logic of the Barack Obama candidacy is harmful.

To get to the bottom of what the Obama phenomenon is all about, we are examining his March 18th “Speech on Race.” This was an extremely significant speech, a defining speech from Obama on one of the foundational questions of U.S. society—the history and present-day situation of Black people. In this third and final installment of our response to that speech, we’ll examine Obama’s core theme of “getting beyond” the “divisions” of the 1960s. But first, let us briefly review the underlying theme of Obama’s speech—the invocation of the U.S. Constitution, and its promise of “a more perfect union” for “we the people” as the path to equality.

The U.S. Constitution—
A Flexible Framework for Exploitation and Inequality

Obama framed his “Speech on Race,” literally and figuratively, in the American flag and the U.S. Constitution. He spoke in Philadelphia, across from the hall where the U.S. Constitution was written. He opened his speech with the famous words, “We the People…” and repeatedly invoked the U.S. Constitution as “a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.”

In Part I of our response, we focused on Obama’s claim that “the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.” As we went into in some depth in Part I of our response, in fact the U.S. Constitution upheld and institutionalized slavery. It represented a compromise between the capitalist wage-slave exploiters in the North, and the slave-owning class in the South; a compromise that only fractured decades later when the conflicts between the two systems led to a Civil War. Only after the Civil War was the U.S. Constitution rewritten to outlaw slavery and supposedly mandate “equality” for Black people.

In Part II of our response to Obama, we focused on a foundational period of U.S. history almost completely ignored in Obama’s “Speech on Race,” the era of sharecropping, Jim Crow (that is, the system of legally segregating Black people into inferior schools and housing, and stigmatizing them as a people), and lynching. Even with the amended U.S. Constitution, a pivotal Supreme Court ruling (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) enshrined the law of “separate but [so-called] equal,” stamping the approval of the U.S. Constitution on all this.

In short, from the foundation of this country up through and beyond the Second World War, the Constitution of the United States—to which Obama adheres his whole project—served as a flexible framework for exploiters to rule over the majority of the people. And central to that, to enforce inequality and the all-round oppression of Black people.

Obama and The Sixties

As people were pulled into protest and rebellion in the Sixties, they were also coming into contact with revolutionary politics, both globally and within the U.S.  In that context, unprecedented unity was built among the people. Counterintuitive as this might seem to those who were not part of it all (or who might have forgotten what they knew back then), and completely in contradiction to Obama’s branding of this era and its legacy as “divisive,” the reality was that the more radical and revolutionary the struggle, the more it was aimed at the system, the greater the “division” in society between the ruling class and the people—the greater the unity that was built among the people.

In his “Speech on Race,” Obama radically distorts the role of the Constitution in upholding slavery. He “skips” a whole era of U.S. history where the Constitution upheld overt segregation in the name of “separate but equal.” But he “tunes back in” to the status of African-Americans in this country with the period of the 1960s:

In the context of media attacks on his (now completely disowned) relationship with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Obama used Wright as a vehicle to make his case for this system as a source of “hope”: “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know—what we have seen —is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

And Obama’s “punchline,” so to speak, is that now everyone needs to rally around this system, get beyond the legacy of the Sixties, that is—to quote from this same speech, “divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems....”

As with his characterization of earlier periods in U.S. history, Obama’s version of the Sixties is profoundly distorted. Yes, America did change in the 1960s. But here we will make the case that:

  1. Openings for those changes came about in the context of economic changes in U.S. society and international pressures facing U.S. imperialism.
  2. The concessions that were made were mainly the product of heroic struggles of the masses of people that were in the main viciously and violently opposed by the system.
  3. Even as the rulers of this country made concessions to the struggle against the oppression of Black people during this period, they did so in ways that were part of maneuvering to smother the struggle against the subjugation of African-Americans.
  4. Today, as a result of the “natural” workings of capitalism and conscious government policies, the situation is, for many Black people, in many ways worse than it was at the beginning of the 1960s.

And finally, that rather than being a vehicle through which the struggle against exploitation and oppression can be advanced, the real “true genius” of the U.S. Constitution, and the electoral process, and Obama’s role in particular today, is to cover over, while facilitating exploitation and, in that context, the subjugation of Black people and others.

Concessions Wrenched Through Struggle

Up to, through, and then in the aftermath of World War 2, momentous and unprecedented changes took place in U.S. society. The country underwent massive industrialization, and as a result, between 1910 and 1970, between five and six million Black people were driven from the poverty and vicious repression in the South into the factories and cities of the North and West.

This migration of Black people to the cities created new conditions for Black people’s struggle, and strengthened a mood of rebellion. After World War 2, a million African-Americans returned from segregated units of the U.S military with new experiences, new expectations, and new demands. In factories, in the streets, in the schools, in culture, sports and other realms, different forms of struggle erupted.

At this same time, the condition of Black people was an international embarrassment to U.S. imperialism, an impediment to the U.S. grabbing up spheres of exploitation from earlier colonial powers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In doing so, the U.S. was trying to pose as the “champion of democracy” as it contended with old-style colonial powers Britain and France.

Under these conditions the rulers of this country made some initial concessions to the struggle of Black people against discrimination and segregation. In a series of court rulings and official policies that pivoted on the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case (where the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the “separate but equal standard” that had been in effect for over fifty years), official segregation was outlawed.

The struggle of Black people had been developing through the 1930s (including the sharecroppers union movement in the South and the battle to free the Scottsboro Boys), and this picked up in intensity after World War 2. While the overturning of legal segregation barely scratched the surface of U.S. society, it did open cracks through which an era of tremendous struggle erupted. Black students courageously fought to integrate schools in the face of racist mobs and governors who blocked their path. Black people in the South fought poll taxes, “literacy tests,” death threats, and murder to register to vote. Freedom Riders—groups of courageous Black and white activists—integrated public transportation facilities, refusing to back down in spite of vicious beatings by local police and KKK thugs—beatings that were often orchestrated by the FBI. Marches in the North and South demanded that Black people have the right to live in what were segregated neighborhoods, and these marches too had to go up against vicious attacks.

As this civil rights movement spread, it also came up against the fact that the system was unwilling to grant the kind of changes that would really transform the situation of Black people in the U.S. As this happened, people began to see that discrimination and oppression of Black people was systemic. In part inspired and influenced by socialist China and Mao, along with revolutionary upsurges in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, sections of the movement took up more radical and revolutionary politics, especially students and youth. By the mid- and late Sixties, a Black Liberation struggle emerged with a revolutionary edge.

This Black Liberation struggle was met with vicious repression. Malcolm X was assassinated under circumstances that bore the fingerprints of a government operation. Hundreds of members of the Black Panther Party were arrested, including top leaders like Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. Many of their members and leaders, including Fred Hampton, were killed by police or government operatives.

It was through great sacrifice and struggle that significant concessions to the fight for equality were won in this period. In the mid- and late Sixties rebellions swept the major cities of the U.S. In Detroit, where the largest and most sustained and determined rebellion broke out in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in National Guard and U.S. Army troops, and 43 people gave their lives in that uprising.

In this atmosphere, jobs, including union factory jobs and jobs in government, opened up to Black people. Welfare programs provided some relief from poverty. Head Start programs allowed kids to get breakfast and have a place to go after school. Community organizing programs were funded. And significant numbers of Black people were admitted to colleges and universities. Some positions in the middle class that had been denied to Black people opened up, and even in high places in government, Black faces appeared.

Affirmative action programs were important. They broke down some barriers in society that had prevented all but a few African Americans from admission to law school and medical school, for example. And in the face of societal upheaval, with millions of people of all nationalities feeling strongly that white supremacy was systemic, affirmative action programs represented—for a time—something of an official acknowledgement that inequality was a social problem, not simply a matter of declaring equality for individuals out of the context of the whole history of the oppression of Black people. In 1965, for example, the same President Lyndon Johnson who sent the army into Detroit to kill people was compelled to say that “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and say ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

These concessions were not some kind of product of “the path of a more perfect union” charted in the U.S. Constitution, as Obama claims, but were wrenched from this system in this period.

In this period of U.S. history, people were being pulled into political life. In the inner cities and the suburbs, in barber shops and on college campuses, they watched TV coverage of dogs and firehoses being unleashed on civil rights protesters in Birmingham, “shoot to kill” orders against those participating in urban uprisings, and napalm being dropped onto the Vietnamese people. And as people were pulled into protest and rebellion, they were also coming into contact with revolutionary politics, both globally and within the U.S.

In that context, unprecedented unity was built among the people. Counter-intuitive as this might seem to those who were not part of it all (or who might have forgotten what they knew back then), and completely in contradiction to Obama’s branding of this era and its legacy as “divisive,” the reality was that the more radical and revolutionary the struggle, the more it was aimed at the system, the greater the “division” in society between the ruling class and the people—the greater the unity that was built among the people. The Black Panther Party, for example, was admired and supported by millions of white people, from high school youth to prominent literary and cultural figures, and many people of all nationalities rallied to its defense when it was under assault from the government, including prominent people in the arts like Leonard Bernstein and Marlon Brando.

Concessions, Maneuvers, and Betrayal

In the Sixties, it appeared that there was a possibility of real equality for Black people under this system. But that did not happen and could not have happened. It could not have happened because the superexploitation of Black people was (and is) critical to the functioning of U.S. capitalism and its place in the world; and because the social glue of white supremacy is essential to the stability of U.S. society in the form of imbuing white people who are not part of the ruling class with a sense of entitlement, superiority, and identification of their interests with those of the system.

Concessions made in the face of fierce struggle did not come close to bringing full equality for Black people. And those concessions that were made, were made in ways that set the stage for reversing some of them. Plus, the “normal” workings of capitalism—like the deindustrialization of the cities (with jobs moving to sweatshops around the world)—also undercut advances made by African-Americans.

Part of what emerged from the Sixties was much greater polarization among African-Americans. Today, the existence of a more substantial Black middle class, and the presence of Black people in the ruling class—on the Supreme Court, in the military, in the cabinet—contribute to obscuring the nature of this system. Obama himself serves as centerpiece of this, invoking the fact that he can “run for the highest office in the land.”

The fact that some space has been opened in the middle class for Black people has a certain conservatizing impact. But the position of the Black middle class was always tenuous. Many of the economic sectors they have been admitted to (like civil service jobs in local, state, and federal governments, for example) have been hit hardest by economic changes in the U.S. over the past several decades. And African-Americans have also been among those hardest hit by the current credit crisis. Each week it seems a different Black athlete or performer is pilloried in the media and hit with criminal charges for activities that, if not completely fabricated, are often business-as-usual for wealthy white people. Affirmative action programs, and the rationale behind them, are under vicious attack. Even the historic Supreme Court ruling that officially outlawed school segregation has been severely gutted by recent court rulings (see “U.S. Supreme Court Fortifies the Savage Inequalities,” Revolution, 7/15/07, available at

Most Black people have remained chained to the lowest rungs in the economy. In the factories, they were last hired, first fired, and stuck in the worst paying, most dangerous jobs. Even concessions like welfare and Head Start programs operated to keep Black people in segregated neighborhoods, or to prepare them—in most cases—for minimum-wage jobs. And the masses of Black people continued to be subject to segregation in housing and education; systematically ridiculed or demonized by white supremacist culture; and subject to ever-present police brutality and murder to keep them “in their place.” The explosion of the prison population, which began with the “war on drugs” in the early 1970s, consciously designed by President Nixon as a war on Black people, was carried forward by all his successors including Carter and Clinton, and is not opposed by Obama.

For large sections of Black people, conditions are desperate and extreme. As early as the 1950s, the inner-city factories began moving to Asia and Latin America in search of fresh blood to exploit under even more brutal and repressive conditions. In other cases, immigrants have been brought in to work on the killing floors and construction sites for less money and under more dangerous conditions (and through this process, Blacks and Latinos have been pitted against each other by the workings of the system, and by conscious efforts to whip up antagonisms between them—even while the masses of Black and Latino people face a common enemy).

Between 1980, when the inner cities were being systematically emptied of jobs and social services, and 1997, Black people in the millions were criminalized by the system. Under conditions where for many, the drug trade was the only option for survival, the number of people imprisoned in the U.S. for drug offenses increased elevenfold, and this was concentrated in the extreme for Black people, who are eight times as likely to be in jail as whites. “A black male resident of the state of California is more likely to go to a state prison than a state college.” (“Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? Race and the Transformation of Criminal Justice,” Boston Review, July/August 2007.)

What is demonstrated by all this is that capitalism cannot end inequality and the subjugation of Black people and other oppressed peoples. But revolution, and communism, can and will. Communist revolution is aimed at bringing to an end all forms of oppression and exploitation, and uprooting, through a process, all ideas and relations between people that serve or reinforce exploitation and oppression. Instead of feeding on inequality—as capitalism does—a lifeblood of socialism, as a transition to communism, will be the unleashing of struggle against all oppressive social relations.

What Kind of Unity Do We Need?

In his “Speech on Race,” Obama proclaims—in the course of attacking the “divisive” legacy of the Sixties—that, “I have asserted a firm conviction—a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people—that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

First, it must be said that faith in “god” and faith in the people are two fundamentally different things. There is no god, and the “god” of the Bible is a god who, including through his supposed “son,” takes slavery for granted, from Genesis to Revelation.

Further, there are no common interests of the “American people.” Central to Obama’s role and mission is confounding—mixing together as if they were the same thing—two fundamentally different kinds of contradictions: contradictions among the people (like between ordinary white people on the one hand, and Blacks and Latinos on the other; or between Blacks and Latinos), with contradictions between the people and the system. With his calls to “move beyond our old wounds,” Obama appeals to the desire of many people of all races to overcome racism and divisions among the people. But in doing so, he perverts that desire into channeling people to support the system that is the cause of racism and the oppression of Black people, Latinos, and others who are oppressed as peoples in this country; and to ignoring the real scars and open, running wounds of racism today—which will only get worse until they are confronted and uprooted.

Obama’s message is being delivered, and he is being brought forward, at a time when this system faces tremendous stresses and strains. Obama himself situates his mission in a context of a need for unity (with the unspoken but central point that this is unity behind the ruling class) “at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems — two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy” and other challenges to this system (which he mixes in with a list of challenges to the ability of people to survive).

This is a time of great challenges for this system and this ruling class. But the unity the people need, to bring about fundamental change through revolution, and even short of that to resist the whole direction of society, is not unity with the class of global oppressors and exploiters who rule this society.

Throughout this series, we have shown how the subjugation of Black people is embedded in the economic, political, and ideological operation of this system. Black people have historically been viciously superexploited, in the fields and in the sweatshops of America. And their subjugation as a people has been justified by a whole racist culture. The whole “genius” of “we the people” is the illusion of a society that can serve the interests of “everyone,” built on the appearance of including whites in the system, contrasted with the exclusion of Black people, Latinos, and Native Americans. In short, the subjugation of Black people is a product of this capitalist system, serves this capitalist system, and this system could not go on without it.

That is why the Constitution of the United States that Obama wraps himself in is, and has always been, a framework for exploitation, and an enforcer of profound inequality. The U.S. Constitution may promise formal, surface equality (a promise rarely kept), but it can never be a vehicle for ending exploitation and the real inequality that produces.  

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