A Response to Obama's Speech at Selma

No, "Mr. President," We Don't Need Your Airbrushed "Narrative," We Need the Real History of America to Make Real Change

March 16, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


From a reader:

President Obama recently gave a major speech marking the 50th anniversary of Selma, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for voting rights, denied to the vast majority of Black people in the South till the 1960s. This anniversary celebration, attended by tens of thousands, occurred in the context of “the Ferguson moment”—the nationwide response and attention to the epidemic of police murder of unarmed Black and Latino youth.

In this speech, Obama crafted a narrative of American history, of who “we” are, that weaves together a richly multicultural fabric. He does this in a poetic and polemical fashion in a section that begins with “that’s what it means to love America, that’s what it means to believe in America, that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional.” With a few illustrative examples of what he does—and does not—say, let’s look at how this narrative stacks up against the actual history of this country (the text below in italics are quotes from Obama's speech):

* We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit. That’s who we are.

First, the inclusion of Sacajawea may be a multicultural flourish but, really, does anyone think she was some kind of equal partner in this enterprise?

But more to the point, what did they—the farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters—stampede over? Over millions and millions of Native peoples and their land, slaughtering them and stealing their land with the full backing and protection of the U.S. Army. Nowhere in Obama’s recounting of the history of this country is there mention of the genocide of Native peoples that forms one of the foundational pillars of this country, along with the destruction of whole cultures and their ways of life.

* We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life.

First, Obama has real gall in invoking this at a time when the border with Mexico, marked by the Rio Grande River, is one of the most militarized borders in history, with thousands of immigrants forced to risk their lives in crossing the border, and many losing their lives as they are forced into ever more dangerous circumstances by the U.S. Border Patrol. There is real gall in invoking this when Obama himself is responsible for deporting millions of the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande, including kids from Central American countries, many of whom have been killed upon return.

But more to the point, why are the “hopeful strivers” compelled to make this life-threatening journey, for the possibility that their kids may have a better life? Because, as Bob Avakian says, the U.S. has fucked up their countries even more than it has done here. In a world dominated by capitalism-imperialism, with America as top dog, the workings of the system keep these countries in subordinate positions, poor and with little employment, even as millions are thrown off their land and means of subsistence every year. Along with this, the U.S. put in place, backed up, and sponsored brutal regimes in the countries of Central America—El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—in order to continue maintaining their imperialist domination. This involved death squads to assassinate opponents of U.S. domination, and to make their economies completely subservient to U.S. interests. Particularly infamous among this gallery of rogues was the U.S.-backed Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who unleashed horrific and genocidal policies against the native Indian peoples. Where that was not possible, the U.S. sponsored murderous and reactionary insurgencies like the Contras in Nicaragua.

Obama’s narrative consciously and conveniently avoids a crucial aspect of U.S. history and a defining aspect of its current reality—as the dominant imperialist power in the world today, with its brutal wars for empire and support of tyrannical dictatorships to maintain domination in vast sections of what we know as the Third World. Starting in the late 1800s and the conquest of Puerto Rico, which still remains a subjugated colony, and the colonization of Cuba and the Philippines, this has marched forward and escalated ever since. In this quest for imperial domination, it is worth noting that the only country to have used nuclear weapons is the U.S., at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in World War 2, with the U.S. emerging as top dog in the capitalist-imperialist realm. In fact, this top-dog status, in essence, is what it means when chauvinists state that “America is exceptional,” defined and characterized by its dominant position to the rest of the world.

The U.S. has a “glorious” history of installing or supporting brutal dictatorships that serve its interests throughout the Third World. Pick a letter of the alphabet, and there you have it: A for Argentina, with its military junta rule in the1970s, to Z for Zaire, where Mobutu Sese Seko reigned for decades upon being installed as the ruler with the CIA-sponsored murder of Patrice Lumumba, a nationalist freedom fighter in the 1960s. Spin the globe, and you have the blood-stained hands of the U.S... El Salvador, Indonesia, East Timor, Iran, Haiti, Guatemala, Argentina, Brazil, Honduras, Mozambique, Egypt, Angola, the South African Apartheid regime, the genocidal policies of Israel against the Palestinians, the carpet-bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia, and now wars in Iraq, Afghanistan... and the list goes on and on and on.

None—absolutely none—of this found mention in Obama’s narrative. Of course, one can expect nothing less from a commander in chief of empire whose routine Tuesday morning “To-Do” task list includes approving “kill lists”—giving the order to assassinate by U.S. drones around the world (bombs which kill not only suspected “terrorists,” but scores and hundreds of ordinary people with the misfortune to be around those “suspects”—as documented here).

* We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

In what has to be one of the most astounding and remarkable figures of speech, Obama has taken the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South and seamlessly woven them into regular workers, on a continuum with those organizing for workers’ rights, with the transition being, of all things, ranch hands and cowboys.

What is coming to light through recent scholarship is that the entire economy of the U.S. was built on slavery—not just that of the South, but of the U.S. as a whole. This includes the textile and machinery factories, and the ship-building, trading, insurance and finance sectors of the North, and what eventually became Wall Street. This is particularly brought to light in Edward Baptist’s new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, where the author documents the unprecedented rise in cotton productivity that powered the growth of the American economy, but truly brings to life how this was brought about through the tremendous and unthinkable brutality inflicted on the slaves on a daily basis, some of which can be glimpsed as well in the film, Twelve Years a Slave, based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free Black man kidnapped into slavery.

The world-historic crimes of slavery are “whitewashed” in this continuum: the millions kidnapped from Africa, brought through the Middle Passage, if they survived it, and enslaved in brutal conditions. Daily lives of being whipped, lashed, and raped at master’s bidding, in the fields from sun-up to sun-down, and constantly living with the threat of separation from your family and closest kin. To equate the reality of chattel slavery with the American imagination of cowboys as having built this country is a cruel joke.

* We give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

First, Obama has real gall in invoking this when he has prosecuted more whistle-blowers, “truth-tellers,” than all previous U.S. presidents combined. Witness Edward Snowden, who is forced into asylum and exile because he exposed Obama’s massive surveillance program.

But more to the point, these are the very voices in American history that have been brutally silenced by the system, either murdered, spending the rest of their lives in prison, or in exile. Fred Hampton and Little Bobby Hutton, among scores of Black Panthers killed and jailed by the system for “giving voice to the voiceless, telling truths that need to be told.” Malcolm X assassinated for the same, followed by MLK himself. In more recent times, Mumia Abu-Jamal, an ex-Black Panther and widely known as the voice of the voiceless, put on death row.

* We’re the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sounds with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

Bob Avakian has described this very phenomenon as skinning the ox twice—taking the music that emerges out of the pain and suffering of oppressed peoples and marshaling that in the service of the system that caused this oppression in the first place. Blues and jazz arose from the suffering of Black people, from slavery and its legacy in America—and Obama then turns it around to use this as demonstrating how great America is? Sorry, Mr. President, you don’t get to skin this ox twice!

Obama is attempting to distinguish from the fascistic right of the ruling class, which, in a white supremacist reading of America’s history, simply erases Black people, immigrants, and women in what he calls the “airbrushing of history.” But the irony in all of the above is that his telling of America’s history is no less an airbrushed narrative of empire, and in the process, a rationalization and defense, and not its real history—the ugly, genocidal, and brutally oppressive history of this country.

Mr. President, “we” don’t need either narrative, “we” need and want the reality.


No, Mr. President.
We Don’t Need “Faith in America” or a “More Perfect Union”
We Need a Revolution!

In his speech at Selma, Obama makes two core and intersecting arguments.

First, that “racial division” is not “inherent to America,” and while there remains much to be done, things are getting better, with the challenge “If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s.” With a pointed recognition and awareness of the context in which he speaks, Obama states, “What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it's no longer endemic. It’s no longer sanctioned by law or custom. And before the Civil Rights Movement, it surely was.” At the same time, he puts forth the “belief that America is not yet finished,” this was “one leg in our long journey toward freedom,” and we are—and need to be—on the road toward “a more perfect union.”

Second, that the mechanisms and structures of democracy are the means to do this, giving a central role to “we, the people” in this, and invoking the march in Selma, “what could be more American than ... coming together to shape their country’s course.” Including, in this, the “occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo” a seemingly bold call by the president, followed by his folding this into the framework of “This is America.” The whole speech invokes and is interwoven with the history of struggle in this country for social change and inclusion, from Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights struggle to Susan B. Anthony and women’s suffrage.

My immediate comment is that while contemporary writers often aspire to craft and author "The Great American Novel," there is no fiction greater than "The Great American Narrative" that Obama weaves as "The Story Teller in Chief," one oft-trumpeted and propagated, and in this case lent a multicultural flourish with references to James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, perhaps a first in American presidency. But to see why this is the case, it is important to assess these arguments against reality, to see whether they correspond to the workings of society in its underlying dynamics, to the actual history of this country, America—and in this context, to really scientifically probe what is the real problem, and what is the solution, that is, what is really needed for the emancipation not only of Black people but all of humanity. Without this being the definitive last word, four brief points in this context:

* First, Mr. President, Racial Division IS Inherent to America—In Its History and Under This System.

“There would be no United States as we now know it today without slavery. That is a simple and basic truth.”—BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian

The history of this country really begins with and is deeply interwoven with slavery and its continuing legacy—in all aspects of society, from the economy to politics to social relations—all now within the framework of and driven by the dynamics of an overall system, the capitalist-imperialist system.

Slavery and the continuing super-exploitation of Black people have been foundational to the entire economy of America. But what came with this in terms of political structures was equally if not more damning for Black people. Starting with the Constitution itself and the much-revered Founding Fathers, what was instituted is a notion of democracy and equality for a master class of whites, with others being relegated to the status of pariahs, sub-humans—the Blacks, mulattoes, and Indians. That is how the Constitution, with its Founding Fathers, slave-owners mainly from Virginia, can proclaim equality for all while keeping Black people enslaved.

This continues to be a defining trait of America—under this system. America was born as a democracy for those who owned and traded in slaves, and those who financed all that—and that’s not irrelevant. Indeed, it conditions it down to today. The expansion of this democracy cannot escape its birth. We cannot go into this at length here, but Avakian in his work Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy, explores this at some length, including Thomas Jefferson leading the expansion of slavery to Louisiana and other states, and its implications for the political structures that have grown and evolved on this foundation. This was then further reinforced and given a mass expansion by Andrew Jackson wherein a populist white equality was asserted and counter-posed to the brutal slaughter of Native peoples and the further expansion and intensification of slavery.

The trappings of what is now called Jacksonian democracy, in which the franchise (right to vote) was widely extended to white men of all classes, was a very explicit bargain that these white men would be free to take new territory from Indians with the protection of the U.S. Army and that they would have the chance to own slaves or at least to rise in the slave system. It was not so very different from the birth of democracy in England, where the extension of the franchise went along with the entrenchment and expansion of empire. That is, the model that was developed was one where you gave people who were not the most directly exploited a status, a hope and a stake: the status was that of a “white man” who had the right to “pursue his fortune” through both political and economic self-seeking; the hope was that you too could rise to be a slave-holder or otherwise “prosperous” individual (often based on the hope for taking over land stolen from dispossessed indigenous people, and this was explicitly so with Jackson); and the stake was in the continued existence, with some modifications to accommodate parvenus, or “upstarts,” of the status quo. This so-called “American dream” has been based throughout history on the existence of an oppressed pariah status for Black people, Native Americans, Mexicans, and immigrants from areas of the world dominated and oppressed by imperialism (Asia, Africa, and Latin America).

Let’s look at a couple of examples since then. Fast forward a couple of decades and you have Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves during the Civil War. This was, contrary to the Great American Narrative, something he was primarily compelled to do to preserve the Union and win the war, not mainly out of the moral abhorrence of slavery as is often attributed to him. But what came right after? Reconstruction, and the promise of 40 acres and a mule for the formerly enslaved—representing the promise of America. But federal troops were soon withdrawn from the South, unleashing the wanton domination of the KKK, the institution of lynching as a form of social control and mass terror—all within the framework of Jim Crow.

Fast forward decades and you have the New Deal of FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt). This was passed in cooperation and compromise with Southern Democrats, at the very height of lynching, significantly strengthening white supremacy and Jim Crow, even while extending social welfare to the white populace at large. The year 1934, during the New Deal, witnessed the lynching of Claude Neal, who, accused of rape and murder, was stabbed, burned and castrated, forced to eat his own genitals with a crowd of 4,000 witnessing his lynching. Yet the anti-lynching bill was stymied by the Southern Democrats, in cooperation with Northerners, and what some scholars have described as FDR’s strategy of “pragmatic forgetfulness with regard to racial matters.”

Throughout America’s history under this system, Black people have been the victims of both conscious policy and the workings of the system itself that further integrate white supremacy into every facet of society, and marshal them into its service.

Let’s take police brutality and mass incarceration, what some have called the New Jim Crow, one of the sharpest and bluntest instruments of violence and forms of social control against the oppressed, especially against Black and Latino youth today.

President Obama said that what happened in Ferguson, with the murder of Michael Brown, is “no longer endemic, no longer sanctioned by law or custom.” No longer sanctioned by law? What about the non-indictments of virtually every single cop who has killed a Black or Latino youth, most recently Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Danny Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York—how is this not being “sanctioned by law”? Obama has said things are getting better—and in the two-week time period surrounding his speech, unarmed Black men have been shot in Madison, Wisconsin; Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Aurora, Colorado, along with the coming to light of a killing in Pasco, Washington, of an unarmed Latino immigrant. The Department of Justice itself says that the institutionalization of raising revenues through ticketing for low-level offenses and then jailing people for non-payment is pervasive not only in Ferguson but in virtually every other suburb of St. Louis—and yes, is “sanctioned by law.” How does one baldly assert that things are better when it is now estimated that one in three Black males born now is slated to be swallowed up in the criminal injustice system? How is this “better”?

And responding to President Obama directly, how many more of our youth are to be killed, or lives destroyed in prison, as we continue on this “long journey towards freedom.” Sorry, 250 years is enough to conclude that time’s up for this system.

Let’s look at the larger reality: Look at any social indicator and Black people are at the very bottom—whether it be education, health, HIV/AIDS epidemic rates, housing, social welfare, poverty, or homelessness. In the realm of culture it was unmistakable that the bridge that Obama marched over in commemorating Selma is still named after the one-time Confederate general and Grand Dragon of the KKK, Edmund Pettus.

It is not just, as Obama stated, “this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us,” but that this nation’s racial history is interwoven into this fabric, integral to this system, to the point that they could not get rid of white supremacy even if they wanted to. This is not just some quantitative thing where every struggle within the framework of this system is going to gradually erode. What is needed is a radically new fabric, a new system through revolution, with a new economy and political system so we can go to work on erasing this legacy of slavery and getting beyond it towards emancipation.

* Second, Mr. President, It Is Not About Individuals Making It Out of This Meat-Grinder of a System; It Is About the Masses of People Crushed in It

Obama in his speech said “political and social barriers came down” and what we have is the “presence of African Americans who run boardrooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small towns to big cities; from the Congressional Black Caucus all the way to the Oval Office.”

First, it has to be said that while the formal legalistic barriers of segregation and legal exclusion characteristic of Jim Crow may have changed with the civil rights struggle, underlying this formal equality is the living reality of inequality and immense “political and social barriers” of poverty and under-funded schools, run-down neighborhoods and the draw of the “street,” horizons of minimum-wage jobs, police harassment, murder and terror, a justice system stacked against Black youth, and the straightjacket of the school-to-prison pipeline. This is, as BA has put it, a meat-grinder of a system that spits people out, crushing lives and destroying spirits in the millions, but people are led, as Obama is leading people to do here, to focus on the precious few individuals who make it “out”—including all the way to the Oval Office and the highest offices of the land—to assert that things are getting better. While some individuals overcome these barriers, fundamental structural ones built into the fabric of this system and society continue to exist, and assert themselves for the population en masse, for the vast majority.

Determination decides who makes it out of the ghetto—now there is a tired old cliché, at its worst, on every level. This is like looking at millions of people being put through a meatgrinder and instead of focusing on the fact that the great majority are chewed to pieces, concentrating instead on the few who slip through in one piece and then on top of it all, using this to say that “the meatgrinder works”! (BAsics 1:11)

The basic point to note here is that some may make it “out,” but it is impossible for Black people as a whole to overcome these conditions en masse without destroying them, conditions which may appear natural but are historically evolved, in the economy, in social relations, and in the political and governing institutions. As Bob Avakian has put it,

Not only are different individuals “situated” within a larger system of production and social—and, in class society, class—relations, which are historically evolved and fundamentally independent of the wills of individuals, as individuals, but even though some individuals may be able to change their social-class status within capitalist society, the masses of people—and in particular the exploited masses in the lower sections of the proletariat, and others in oppressed social groups whose oppressed status is integral and indispensable to the prevailing capitalist society—cannot do so within the existing conditions and relations. As Marx very correctly, and profoundly, insists, they can do so, en masse, only by destroying these conditions and relations—only by overthrowing the system which embodies, and enforces, these conditions and relations.
(RUMINATIONS AND WRANGLINGS: On the Importance of Marxist Materialism, Communism as a Science, Meaningful Revolutionary Work, and a Life with Meaning (Part 3))

That is why a revolution is necessary, for the individuals en masse to get free of these relations of oppression and exploitation in which they are trapped—and to radically transform society with new relations that aim to do away with all exploitation and oppression.

* Third, Mr. President, Who Is the “We” That Has Come Together to Shape the Country’s Course?

President Obama, in describing the original events at Selma within a larger theme of calling for “faith in America,” states, “What could be more American than ... plain and humble people ... coming together to shape their country’s course.”... and continuing, it is “the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents: We the People... in order to form a more perfect union.”

This is a remarkable inversion of reality. First of all, every attempt by masses of people to fight oppression has been met by the armed force of the state--the various police agencies and, when the rulers deem it necessary, the army itself. This is particularly true of the civil rights movement, which Obama was supposedly commemorating--it was not just the Ku Klux Klan (which itself was backed by and could only function with the approval of the state) but the various local agencies and the FBI itself, which spied on and plotted against the civil rights movement. It is a fact that where there is oppression, there will be resistance. And people rise up and protest and rebel. And in response to this, the system at times, due to various considerations, and even as it is simultaneously hammering down on people with its state, makes concessions—all in order to contain threats to its legitimacy, and in an attempt to further strengthen its rule—not to relieve oppression and exploitation. To then take this and fold it into “faith in America” or this framework of American democracy is to take the sighs and the struggle of the oppressed and marshal them to strengthen the hands of the oppressor itself, the capitalist-imperialist system.

On this question of concessions, even the civil rights struggle played out against the backdrop of an inter-imperialist rivalry with the Soviet Union, wherein the U.S. was going around proclaiming the defense of democratic rights and trying to expand its influence in Africa and Asia, right when Black people were denied the right to vote in the South and were being lynched in extraordinary numbers. This became hard to maintain as a credibility gap mounted between U.S. rhetoric versus reality. This was a compelling factor in concessions made to the civil rights struggle, including MLK’s march across the bridge in Selma, in the 1960s.

Obama’s statement blatantly glosses over the fact that we live in a class society where there is a capitalist ruling class that controls the economy and the political structures that dominate and rule. Right from the founding—where did slaves “come together to shape the country’s course” or Black people after Reconstruction and during Jim Crow? Until we make revolution, the capitalist ruling class has state power. They, in various blocs and permutations, control the elections and who is considered a legitimate candidate, and more, what issues are considered legitimate for discussion. Is it ever up for vote on whether America should be imperialist or whether there should be an end to mass incarceration, or whether there should be a right to eat, and not be homeless or hungry in this wealthiest of countries? No. And why is this the case? Because until there is a revolution, “we the people” don’t fundamentally shape the country’s course, even while it is righteous to rebel against injustice and fight for rights and social justice with every fiber of our being. What “we” need to be doing—as we fight the power—is, fundamentally, to prepare to make revolution, to seize state power as soon as possible so that, yes, we do shape the country’s course to get rid of exploitation and oppression—here and around the world.

* Fourth, We Need a Revolution

Look, many people, progressive people who “know better.” are afraid to look at the essence of America, to look the problem squarely in the eye, because they are afraid they will look into an abyss—the lack of any alternative to America, the “best of all possible worlds.” To this, I say, NOT TRUE! The fabric of America under this system is blood-stained and soaked with the sufferings and deaths of billions across the planet—and this fabric can be radically re-forged through revolution to become not the America as we now know it, but a truly emancipatory one, without these relations of exploitation and oppression. This requires a strategy for revolution and a vision of what this alternative society can and should look like. Because of the work Bob Avakian has done, over many decades, and with a thoroughly scientific and fearlessly critical approach, we have both—concentrated in the RCP’s “On the Strategy for Revolution” and the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal). Bob Avakian’s work is precious, and at this moment in humanity’s history, represents the only real alternative to this world of horrors. One of the most important things you can do is to check this out, to go where your convictions and search for truth takes you, and if necessary, beyond your comfort zone. For it matters.

If you are one of these people, sick of what America does to people here and around the world, questioning your “faith in America,” I urge and invite you to watch REVOLUTION AND RELIGION: The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion; A Dialogue Between CORNEL WEST & BOB AVAKIAN. This historic Dialogue was held at Riverside Church in New York City in November of last year, attended by nearly 2,000 people from all sections of society; you can watch the simulcast at revcom.us, and the high-quality film starting March 28. This will give you a living sense of the revolution that we are talking about, and what a different society would feel like, with a different ethos and morality.

Let me leave you with a last word. President Obama states in his speech, Americans “don’t believe in equality of outcomes” but “expect equal opportunity.” This defines the horizons of his vision. Sounds reasonable as an abstract principle. But think about what this means in reality. That, if you are left behind in this system, in school, or laid off at work and cannot make rent or mortgage payments and end up homeless, it is YOUR FAULT! For you had the “equal” opportunity, and now it’s your personal responsibility in this dog-eat-dog world of “unequal outcomes.” If this morality, the best this system can do, sickens you to death, then you need to be part of this revolution, for this is what is needed—nothing less!

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