Obama, Trayvon, and American Racism
“If I had a son,” the President of the United States said last week, “he’d look like Trayvon.” It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Barack Obama’s comment on the “stand-your-ground” chase and gun-murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a white neighborhood watch captain in the central Florida town of Sanford. We can be sure, however, that Obama has no intention of putting his administration behind a serious investigation of the many ways in which anti-black racism remains deeply entrenched in the American System he nominally heads.
Let us recall the supposedly great race speech Obama gave four years and 12 days weeks ago in Philadelphia to save his political career by distancing himself once and for all from his former preacher Jeremiah Wright. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Obama’s instantly heralded Philadelphia oration was its portrayal of the racism that created black anger in America as a function of the past. As Black Commentator’s Bill Fletcher noted, Obama “attributed much of the anger of Rev. Wright to the past, as if Rev. Wright is stuck in a time warp, rather than the fact that Rev. Wright's anger about the domestic and foreign policies of the USA are well rooted – and documented – in the current reality of the USA.” The racial oppression that angered Wright and other black Americans as the “post-racial” Obama clinched the nomination was more than an overhang from the bad old days. The humiliation and hopelessness felt by millions of those Americans was being reinforced, generated, and expanded by numerous objectively racist policies and practices in the present, including the following:
- Endemic racial discrimination in home rental, selling, and financing/lending and the persistent hyper-segregation of housing markets.
- Endemic racial discrimination in hiring and job training.
- Endemic racial (and related neighborhood) profiling in police pedestrian and automotive stop, frisk, and search activities.
- The persistent hyper-segregation and related savage under-funding and under-equipping of black students and the hyper-concentration of black children in high-poverty schools.
- The excessive use of mind-numbing and authoritarian school curriculums pegged to “high stakes” standardized testing and of related zero-tolerance disciplinary practices in predominantly black schools.
- Systematic under-investment of private and public investment and development funds in and around black communities.
- The endemic and excessive disproportionate use of force – including lethal force – against black criminal suspects (think Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, Terrence Shurn [killed by Benton Harbor, Michigan police in the summer of 2003], John Deng [gunned down by a white county deputy in Iowa City, Iowa in the summer of 2009], and…the list is endless] and prisoners by police, prison guards, prosecutors, and executioners.
- The wildly disproportionate surveillance, arrest, sentencing, mass imprisonment, and felony-marking of blacks in the name of “the war on drugs.”
- The refusal of many employers to hire people with felony records and prison histories – and one of many different and related obstacles to opportunity faced by the very disproportionately black millions of Americans stigmatized by the nation’s “new Jim Crow” system of racially disparate criminal marking.
Another alarming aspect of Obama’s immediately enshrined Philadelphia speech was the candidate’s pronounced understatement of the nation’s racial disparities. “Race,” then Senator (D-IL) Obama said, was “a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.” Yet to perfect was more than a bit mild in a nation where: an astonishing 1-to-15 black-to-white wealth gap afflicted black American families; 1 in 3 three adult black males had been strained with the deadly felony branding; black poverty and unemployment rates were double those of whites; blacks made up 12 percent of the nation’s population but 40 percent of its globally unmatched 2 million prisoners and 42 percent of its death row inmates.
In Obama’s “home city” of Chicago, the racially moderate Chicago Urban League (CUL) reported in the fall of 2005, more than a quarter of the children lived at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level in 15 of the city’s 77 officially designated community areas. Fourteen of those community areas were located in predominantly black stretches of the city’s South and West sides and 12 were at least 94 percent black. Combining statistics from the twenty-two 90-percent-or-more black neighborhoods that together housed three-fourths of the city’s black population, the CUL’s research department found that the predominantly black city within a city had poverty rates three times greater than that of the overall metropolitan area. The CUL also discovered that there were nearly 20,000 more blacks in the Illinois prison state system than enrolled in the state’s pubic universities and that the number of black males with a felony record was equivalent in number to 42 percent of the black male workforce in Chicago (CUL, Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago, 2005).
Blacks’ situation has worsened both in absolute terms and relative to whites since the onset of the Great Recession, itself triggered in part by the financial sector’s racist home lending practices. The foreclosure crisis was particularly devastating to blacks, whose tiny share of the nation’s inherited wealth is disproportionately tied up in home ownership. “Wages, homeownership rates and employment levels all grew worse for African-Americans between 2000 and 2007” even as the overall economy expanded, Washington Post reporters Michael Fletcher and John Cohen observed last year. Since then, things have gotten much worse. With the crash, Fletcher and Cohen noted, “African-Americans and Hispanics were more likely to be left broke, jobless and concerned that they lack the skills needed to shape their economic futures.” Elaborating on the downturn’s disproportionate toll on blacks, Fletcher and Cohen reported that:
“The downturn obliterated years of African-American economic progress…The share of black adults who were working slid to 52 percent,…the crisis pushed the black homeownership rate down to 45 percent, far below the 74 percent rate for whites…Federal, state and local governments, which employ a disproportionate share of African-Americans, are shedding jobs, a trend expected to continue in coming years. ….black unemployment soared to its highest levels in a generation on Obama’s watch.” (M. Fletcher and J. Cohen, Washington Post, February 20, 2011 at 2011 at http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2011/feb/20/21econ/)
By mid-2010, official black unemployment hit 16 percent. (Real black unemployment was closer to 25 percent.) In 35 large U.S. cities the official joblessness count for blacks rose to between 30 and 35 percent – levels like those suffered at the depths of the Great Depression.
True to his color-blind campaign and to his claim (in the 2004 speech that made his career) that “there is not a Black America and a White America….there’s the United States of America,” Obama as president has refused to offer any special help to address the particularly oppressed plight of black America. In early December 2009, he received some criticism from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Accusing the White House of ignoring the distinctively terrible economic plight of minorities, 10 members of the caucus boycotted a key House committee vote on financial regulations. “We can no longer afford for our public policy to be defined by the world view of Wall Street,” the CBC announced, adding that “policy for the least of these must be integrated into everything we do.” Obama flatly rejected the criticism in a special interview with USA Today and the Detroit Free Press. “It’s a mistake,” Obama told journalists, “to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together [emphasis added] and we are all going to get out of this together.” Just because he happened to be black, Obama announced early on, black Americans should not think he would be any more willing than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton (or Herbert Hoover for that matter) to acknowledge and act against the distinctive oppression and poverty experienced by the nation’s black population.
Even as he has been willing to transfer trillions of taxpayer dollars into the opulent coffers of a small minority of white financial and corporate parasites who already own most of the nation’s wealth and who crashed the national and global economy in 2007 and 2008, the technically black former community organizer and state legislator “from” Chicago’s poor and predominantly black South Side has had little to offer the cause of racial justice – little is beyond the simple fact of his own technical blackness, a “beer summit” for the black-bourgeois Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates (and Gates’ alleged white police abuser), and a statement that the late Trayvon Martin bears a certain resemblance to the president. Little, that is, beyond a fuzzy and symbolic sort of identity politics that is woefully short on substance when it comes to the real facts of racial inequality in not-so color blind America.
At a recent significant black-led demonstration for Trayvon and against racial profiling I attended in predominantly white and liberal Iowa City, Iowa, 4 nights ago, a parade of black and anti-racist white speakers did not mention Obama once. They did quote the great black democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and referred repeatedly to the continuing problem of racism understood as an institutional and cultural system of oppression and inequality. Their presence and language was (like those of the Occupy Movement that arose in Iowa City and more than 1000 other locations across the country last fall) a testament to the wisdom of the late radical American historian Howard Zinn (onetime advisor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) on the limits of the nation’s candidate-centered major party politics as an avenue for progressive change. “The really critical thing,” Zinn once wrote, “isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.”
More and more black Americans are questioning what they have gotten from Obama beyond the fading psychological wage of helping elect a first black U.S. president in the land of slavery. The material dividend has been less than impressive, to say the least. I am reminded of Marxist commentator Doug Henwood’s sardonic title for a brilliant essay he wrote in early 2008 on the false hope represented by the fake-progressive Wall Street tool Obama: “Would You Like Change With That?” I am reminded also of something that the anti-colonial psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote 60 years ago (at the age of 27) in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks: “What matters is not so much the colour of your skin as the power you serve and the millions you betray.”
But, of course, Obama’s skin color does matter and not necessarily in progressive ways. It helps make everyday racial oppression yet more officially invisible in the neoliberal era and it is taken by many whites as final evidence that racism is over as a significant barrier to black advancement and racial equality in the U.S. It has been used by the nation’s concentrated power and propaganda centers to create an illusion of progressive transformation that cloaks the reality of deepening corporate and financial power. It is taken by the ever-conciliatory Obama and his political advisors to mean that the president must always be exceedingly careful about doing anything that might threaten white America’s convenient faith in racism’s demise.
For what it’s worth, Obama’s comment on what a son of his would look like was not the oddest thing he said when asked about the Trayvon Martin killing. His strangest remark was that he was “glad that the Justice Department was looking into it [the killing].” Hello? One hopes that the former constitutional law professor in the oval office knows that he directs the Department of Justice from the White House.
Meanwhile, the local news in Chicago reports that an off-duty detective shot and killed a 22-year-old black woman named Rekia Boyd on the city’s West Side. Ms. Boyd appears to have been an innocent bystander in a dispute over noise in a public park – a dispute in which the officer just had to stand his ground. The struggle continues.
Paul Street, an Iowa City resident, is the author of numerous books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010) and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Bill Fletcher, “Obama Race Speech Analysis,” Black Commentator (March 20, 2008), read at http://www.blackcommentator.com/269/269_cover_obama_race_speech_analysis_ed_bd.html. See also
 John Pilger put it very well at a socialist conference in 2009, commenting on the imperial corporatist Obama’s remarkable ability to bamboozle progressives into thinking that he was on their side: “The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda [emphasis added]. For what is so often overlooked and what matters, I believe, above all, is the class one serves . George W. Bush’s inner circle from the State Department to the Supreme Court was perhaps the most multiracial in presidential history. It was PC par excellence. Think Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell. It was also the most reactionary.”