Racial Politics and Barack “Under the Bus” Obama
Street delivered a shortened version of the following remarks at Black Agenda Report’s panel on “Black Politics at the Tail End of Obama – and Beyond” at the Left Forum, New York City, June 9, 2013. The original address is available at http://blackagendareport.com/content/race-politics-and-late-obamanism
The wonderful radical commentator John Pilger said something very important about the dawning age of Obama in July 2009. “The clever young man who recently made it to the White House,” Pilger told a group of socialists in San Francisco four years ago, “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,” Pilger noted, “this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters…above all,” Pilger observed, “is the class one serves [emphasis added].”
I want to return to Pilger’s formulation at the end of my comments because I believe the thinking behind it is critical to the re-awakening of independent black and radical politics in America today – a re-awakening that must occur, I might add, if the species is going to have any chance of a decent and democratic future. Thanks to the looming and ever-deepening capitalist eco-cide that is quite properly the major theme of this year’s Left Forum, the great Hungarian Marxist Istvan Meszaros was right in 2001 to update Rosa Luxembourg by saying that “it’s socialism or barbarism if ‘we’re lucky….The uncomfortable truth,” Meszaros adds, “is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.”
At some point in the summer of 2008 a black reporter with CNN called me because he wanted to do a story he was having a hard time getting past his managers. The reporter had read something I had written for Black Agenda Report along the lines that an Obama presidency would be a bad thing for black America and for the historical struggle against American racism. The reporter seemed genuinely curious about the (for him counter-intuitive) notion that Obama might be a negative for racial equality. He seemed amused to be hearing this from a white guy. He asked me to elaborate. I told him how an Obama presidency would be the last nail in the coffin of white America’s long-fading willingness to admit that racism still poses a serious barrier to black advancement and equality in America. I told him how much of white America fastened upon so-called good, that is bourgeois, unthreatening, white-pleasing elites like Obama and Oprah and Colin Powell and Condi Rice in order to deepen their contempt for the millions of poor and officially bad and dangerous blacks stuck and warehoused in the nation’s vast archipelago of de-industrialized ghettoes and prisons. I told the CNN reporter about how the “black but not like Jesse” Obama himself had spent considerable mean-spirited rhetorical energy blaming officially bad and unworthy blacks for their own poverty and oppression. I told him how Barack “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” Obama’s widely heralded Philadelphia Race Speech was dedicated to the proposition that Jeremiah Wright’s anger at American racial oppression was no longer appropriate in the contemporary supposedly post-racist and color-blind United States. I told the reporter about Obama’s ridiculous claim that black America’s post-Civil Rights “Joshua Generation” had come 90 percent of the way to full equality. I told him about the difference between symbolic color shifts in executive offices and real challenges to societal and institutional racism deeply understood in relation to the structure and functioning of job and housing markets, educational systems, the criminal justice system and the media. I told him how deeply conservative Obama’s record and writings and speeches had already shown the future president to be – deeply conservative not just on race but also on class and health care and labor rights and poverty and empire and more. I told him about how a President Obama and his handlers would respond to white America’s fear of a technically black president by making sure that his presidency would actually say and do less about racial inequality than any white presidency in recent memory. And I told him how Obama’s technical blackness would combine with his deceptive branding as antiwar and as pro-ecology and as a civil libertarian and so forth to inhibit liberals and progressives of all races from forthrightly criticizing his service to empire, inequality, and the corporate and financial masters.
I really don’t know what became of the CNN reporter and his story beyond a vague recollection that he got to run a brief, watered-down version of it. What I do know is that all of my apprehensions – all of our apprehensions – have been richly borne out by the presidency of Barack “the Empire’s New Clothes” Obama.
Lately I’ve been referring to the president as “Under the Bus Obama.” I do this in honor of the cold blooded, damn near socio-pathological way in which he has been willing to throw those he claims to care about under the bus when it comes to enacting the policy agenda of the predominantly white 1% ruling class. I’m sure folks here recall how Barack Obama threw his white maternal grandmother under the bus while throwing his former preacher Rev. Wright more completely under that bus in the spring of 2007?
That was cold, but it’s nothing compared to the president’s current assault on millions of other American grandmothers, including a disproportionate number of poor and black grandmothers who would be significantly hurt by his proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
If you want to throw your own relatively well-off white grandma under the bus in service to your political ambitions, you know, that’s pretty bad, but it’s a lot worse to push down tens of millions of disproportionately poor, nonwhite grandmas in service to the super-wealthy whites who put you in office and who you’ve been protecting since the beginning of your presidency.
The list of those Obama has thrown under the runaway buses of neoliberal capitalism, military empire, and white supremacy is daunting. His resume of betrayal includes the labor movement (betrayed and abandoned on global trade, labor law reform, the Wisconsin rebellion, and the wage- and job-slashing terms of the much-ballyhooed auto bailout); environmentalists (abandoned and betrayed on offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing, global trade, global carbon emission reduction-efforts and, soon, Keystone); immigrants (betrayed by a president who has actually increased the number of deportations) civil libertarians (abandoned and betrayed on Guantanamo, rendition, warrantless wiretaps, secret kills lists, whistleblower protection, domestic drones, the infiltration of protest organizations, “metadata” collection, and more), the mainstream press (most recently thrown under the bus by the president’s horrifying seizure of Associate Press phone records), nuclear disarmament advocates (most recently betrayed on the B61 nuclear gravity bomb in Europe), the antiwar community (betrayed by Obama’s undeclared war on Libya, the escalating U.S. invasion of Africa, U.S. saber-rattling in relation to Iran, Syria, and East Asia and much more), and of course black America, which voted in record numbers for Obama. The betrayed and abused liberal and progressives have demonstrated an astonishing unwillingness to call out the nation’s first black president on his duplicity, something that has subjected us to the horror of Richard Trumka and Bill McKibben and Jonathan Alter and the heads of the NUL and the NAACP singing the praises of a chief executive who views and treats their movements and institutions and constituents with cold authoritarian disrespect.
Regarding the last and all-too-rarely noted betrayal – that of American blacks – the Columbia University political scientist Frederick C. Harris offered some interesting reflections in the New York Times last October. “For those who had seen in President Obama’s election the culmination of four centuries of black hopes and aspirations and the realization of Dr. King’s vision of a ‘beloved community,’” Harris wrote, “the last four years must be reckoned a disappointment. Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017,” Harris noted, “the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality…… Mr. Obama,” Harris continued, “has had little to say on concerns specific to blacks. His State of the Union address in 2011 was the first by any president since 1948 to not mention poverty or the poor… Mr. Obama, in his first two years in office, talked about race less than any Democratic president had since 1961. From racial profiling to mass incarceration to affirmative action, his comments have been sparse and halting” (Frederick C. Harris, “The Price of a Black President,” New York Times, October 27, 2012).
Meanwhile, Harris notes, the crisis of black America deepens. Fully 28 percent of black Americans, and 37 percent of black children, are officially poor, compared to 10 percent of whites and 13 percent of white children. Thirteen percent of blacks are unemployed, compared to 7 percent of whites. More than 900,000 black men are in prison and an astonishing 1 in 3 black adult males is marked for life with the crippling, many-sided stigma of a felony record, what Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.” Blacks have suffered a significantly steeper fall in income since 2007 than any other racial group. Their net worth, disproportionately concentrated in housing, has hit its lowest level in decades. Blacks today account for more than 4 in every 10 new HIV infections. I could go on…. Flying out here, by the way, I saw the following citation in Henry Giroux’s latest book: “Michelle Alexander, ‘The Age of Obama as a Racial Nightmare,’ TomDispatch, March 25, 2012.”
And during all of this the black bourgeois so-called leadership class has been depressingly silent both on the depth and degree of the black crisis and on the first black president’s refusal to meaningfully address that crisis. It’s not just that the president is a Democrat. It’s also and above that he happens to be black. The black political class has accepted the president’s silence on race, Harris writes, as “the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House.” It offered far more criticism of President Bill Clinton’s silence on race than it has of Obama’ silence on race because of its particularly childish and narrow brand of identity politics…because, despite what Chris Rock had to say, president Clinton was white and because Obama for all his guess who’s coming to dinner post-racial white-friendliness is technically black.
“What matters,” anti-colonial psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote 61 years ago in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, “is not so much the colour of your skin as the power you serve and the millions you betray.” Not so much the color of your skin as the millions you betray. Fanon was reflecting on black African leaders who failed to serve the interests of the black masses whose national aspirations they rode to power in the post-World War II era. His formulation holds with haunting relevance to the performance of the in-power African National Congress in post-apartheid neoliberal South Africa and in its own way to the presidency of Barack “Under-the-Bus” Obama. But looking at the present American situation in the Age of Obama I have to say that Fanon’s formulation loses some of its usefulness because it contains something of a false dichotomy between the head of state’s color and the real power that head of state serves. Along to be sure with some his other attributes including his technically Muslim name, it has been to no small extent precisely because he is technically black that Obama has been able to function as a more effective fake-progressive protest-silencing evil in service to the masters of U.S. empire and inequality. Which is of course exactly precisely what Glen Ford and Bruce Dixon and Margaret Kimberly and Michael Hureaux and Juan Santos and Adolph Reed Jr, and a handful of others including myself warned about from very early on in the Obama phenomenon.
Now, I guess professor Harris has a book out on the racial politics of the Obama era and I ought to read it but I want to conclude with three mostly friendly criticisms of the New York Times piece that I quoted from above. My first criticism is that Obama has been worse then merely silent on the question of racial oppression. As I documented in my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes.
The president has been openly hostile to the notion that racial justice matters anymore for black American, Just three weeks ago, Obama gave a commencement address at historically black Morehouse College where he told young black men that, quote, “there’s no longer any room for excuses” and that, quote, “Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination” and that, quote, “whatever you’ve gone through pales in comparison the hardships previous generations endured…and overcame..” This was after citing his position as president as an example that, quote, “barriers have come tumbling down” and that, quote, “new doors of opportunity have swung open.” Can you imagine the president saying the same thing to the graduates of an all-female college or to the graduates of a Latino/a high school?
My second criticism really isn’t fair because Harris didn’t purport to write about any other than racial politics. It is simply that Obama’s race has been relevant to the silencing of protest and dissent regarding not only also racism. It has been relevant also to the silencing of protest and dissent regarding class oppression, capitalism, militarism, empire, eco-cide, and patriarchy.
My third criticism is that I saw no recognition in Harris’s essay of how a good cadre of us on the left raised early and strident alarms about precisely the outcome that he describes. We predicted it and warned against it and much more regarding the Obama phenomenon in the pages of Black Agenda Report and elsewhere. My own warnings started two days after Obama’s Keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. (If you think I’m lying just Google up my name and “Keynote Reflections”). For that and other reasons, I would like to suggest that progressive academicians and intellectuals spend less time with soft and squishy venues like The Nation and American Prospect and more time with serious radical sites BAR and ZNet and Z Magazine and CounterPunch and Socialist Worker and Monthly Review..
What did we who warned from the start on the officially marginalized outposts of the actual radical left about what in fact came to pass know? What did we know so early on about the Obama phenomenon and about what many of us felt to be the likelihood of an Obama presidency? We understood very well what Pilger said in the quote I gave at the beginning. We knew what W.E.B. DuBois in his Marxist phase and what the old American Communist Party, including Obama’s adolescent mentor Frank Davis, knew about race, which is that while it has an oppressive life of its own, it cannot be fully or properly understood outside the critical contexts of class and empire. We knew that the predominantly white governing class and the imperial establishment play clever Machiavellian games with race and gender and ethnicity and religion and sexual orientation, using these and other aspects of social identity as seductive tools of propaganda to bamboozle millions into seeing democratic transformation when the underlying reality is the deepening grip of the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.
We knew what Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. knew when he rejected efforts to get him to run for the presidency in 1968. “The black revolution,” Dr. King noted in a 1968 essay titled “A Testament of Hope,” is “exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that the radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” The changes we needed to avert catastrophe and build a human civilization, King felt, could not be limited to the periodic re-shuffling of the names and faces and parties in nominal power. It had to go deeper than replacing one brand or shape or color of corporate- and military-captive office-holders with another such brand once every two, four or eight years.
We knew that, as Howard Zinn once argued, “the really critical thing 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.” It’s not about running for president.
If we’re going to get a radical politics, including a radical black politics, back in this country, we have to drop out of major party electoral-ism and identity politics once and for all. We have to get back to supposedly old-fashioned Marxist and black-nationalist understandings of how race, racial identity and sham electoral democracy function together within the overall and interrelated frameworks of capitalism and imperialism.
Liberals ask me, “geez Street, isn’t there anything good about the Obama experience and presidency from a racial justice perspective?” Well, I don’t know but I will say this: I cannot listen to all the “black role model” talk any more after everything this president has done in office in service to the rich, powerful, and white. I would rather have Black American youth dreaming of being a Jordan or a JayZee or a Beyonce than of being an Obama or a Colin Powell or a Condi Rice or a Susan Rice or a Cory Booker T.
If there’s anything good about the Obama experience and era, I think it is that professor Obama has given billions of ordinary people at home and abroad an advanced seminar on who really runs this vicious capitalist nation state beneath and beyond its quadrennial major party big money candidate-centered electoral extravaganzas. He has given us an extreme tutorial on the idiotic futility of seeking progressive change through the bourgeois ballot box and bourgeois identity politics. He has been a perfect embodiment of how the ruling class can flip the old racial divide and rule over in a devious way to put false rebels’ clothes on the persistent, predominantly white plutocracy and its bloody empire. The lesson of Obama – it’s the lessons that Occupy acted upon before it got shut down to make way for the year long election spectacle – the lesson is once again that its not about who’s sitting in the White House, it’s about who’s sitting in the streets, who’s occupying the shop-floors, who’s occupying the public square, who’s occupying the schools and the media and the legislative halls from the bottom up.
So, you know, let the president dream his dreams of Mount Rushmore. Let him have his global ex-president foundation and his untold millions in corporate speaking fees and his Secrete Service detachments. Let him send Sasha and Malia to the Deerfield Academy and Harvard or Oxford and let him drone on (he does like to drone) about how that proves that equal opportunity has come to America for all who refuse to “make excuses.” I know Obama still has business to finish up for the ruling class, like cutting back Social Security and Medicare, final Keystone Pipeline approval, sneaking through the Trans Pacific Partnership, intervening in Syria and/or Iran, and positioning the Pentagon to more effectively confront China. Yes, we have to resist him and the ruling class he supports right now, everyday, Still, we can already feel the president starting to slip under the bus of history. That’s a very good thing. I don’t think Hillary Clinton or Marc Rubio could ever give this racist empire a deadly re-branding to anything like the same degree as what Obama did.
In the meantime, those of us on the real left have got bigger and better things to worry about than the life and times of Booker T. Obama. We have a bigger timeline than the two-and four-year election cycles of American politics, not to mention the quarterly earnings statements of capital, the real executive authority beneath and beyond the coming. and goings of politicians. We are in pursuit of what Dr, King rightly called the real issue to be faced beyond superficial matters – the radical reconstruction of society itself. Thank you very much.
Paul Street’s books include Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post Civil Rights Era (2005); 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 They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014).