Because He’s Black: Race, the Ruling Class, the Left, and Obama

Recently I had a conversation with a Left friend who agrees with me that the Democratic Party’s ever-more right-leaning presidential nominee Barack Obama is a corporate-sponsored militarist who can be expected to betray his best peaceful- and populist-sounding campaign promises when he becomes president.


My friend acknowledges all this and more but still thinks I should be excited about the fact that Obama might be president.


The reason he gives is quite simply that Obama is black. The fact that the nation is ready to elect a black guy, my comrade believes, is a sign of real progress in the United States. 


At one level, I have to agree. In and of itself, it is of course an outwardly positive development that droves of whites are willing to embrace a black presidential candidate. Forty one years ago, as the United States entered the racially turbulent summer of 1967 and the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” disturbed conventional racial norms by portraying an elegant black doctor (played by Sidney Poitier) dating an upper-middle-class white woman (Joanna Drayton), it would have been impossible for a black politician to become a viable major party presidential contender.  Nothing a black candidate could have done or said would have prevented him from being excluded from serious consideration on the basis of the color of his or her skin.


The fact that this is no longer true is a sign of real racial improvement more than fifty years after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.


I think it is a potentially good thing that the U.S. may soon have a president who has experienced a significant measure of life on the black side of predominantly white America. Since Obama is in fact black no matter how many people accuse him of “acting white” (whatever that really means), he will bring experiences that no president has ever carried into the White House. 


Sadly, however, much of the positive potential inherent in Obama’s blackness is countered and I fear overwhelmed by the following ten  interrelated reasons NOT to get too terribly excited – from a Left perspective, including (as any decent Left perspective would) a racial justice perspective – about the fact that Barack Obama happens to be black.


1. “Not All That Black.” A significant part of Obama’s appeal to white America has to do with the widespread Caucasian sense that Obama “isn’t all that black.”  Many whites who roll their eyes at the mention of the names of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton – former presidential candidates who behave in ways that many whites find too black – are calmed and impressed by the cool, underplayed blackness and often ponderous tone of the half-white, Harvard-educated Obama. Obama doesn’t shout, chant, holler or drawl.  He doesn’t rail against injustice, bring the parishioners to their feet and threaten delicate white suburban and middle-class sensibilities. He stays away from emotive “truth”-speaking confrontations with power.


To use Joe Biden’s unfortunate terminology, Obama strikes many whites as “clean” and “articulate” – something different from their unfortunately persistent image of many blacks as dirty, irrational and unintelligible. “Among the factors contributing to Obama’s rise,” Washington Post writer Liza Mundy noted in the summer of 2007, was the interesting fact that “his appearance, his voice, and his life story are particularly well suited to attract white votes.”


 “We’d probably like it better if he talked like Jesse Jackson,” the black political commentator Debra Dickerson told Mundy, “but ya’ll wouldn’t” [1].


Obama has no moral or political obligation to shed his biracial identity, “multicultural” background and elite, private-school education to “act [more classically and stereotypically] black.”   But whites’ racial attitudes are less progressive than might be assumed when their willingness to embrace a black candidate is conditioned by their requirement that his or her perceived “blackness” be qualified. 


When ingrained gender sensibilities lead you (all other things equal) to prefer your “straight-acting” gay uncle over your outwardly “effeminate” gay nephew, your tolerance for non-traditional sexual orientations might be less enlightened than you think.


The perceptive mixed-race journalist Don Terry was understandably perturbed when a middle-aged white filmmaker said the following to him in early 2004: “I love Barack.  He’s smart. He’s handsome. He’s charismatic…I don’t think of him as black.”


I have had numerous conversations with white voters who have voiced their approval of Obama in this disturbing sort of way, indicating that they are okay with him because he doesn’t seem “all that black” and/or because he’s “black but not like Jesse.”


Colin Powell once qualified the anti-racist relevance of the approval he received from whites by telling an interviewer that “I ain’t that black” [2].


As a black professional I know recently remarked when I mentioned “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in connection with Obama: “it’s like that movie in the sense that a black man has to be almost ‘perfect,’ like Sidney Poitier, to be accepted by whites.” The translation of “perfect” is racialized, of course, and includes a sense of being suitable to white sensibilities and safe for white privilege.



2. “Race Neutral” Obama. Thanks in part to the fact that his technical blackness triggers white racial fears, Obama has gone to remarkable lengths to distance himself from the struggle against racism.  During the primary campaign Obama was if anything more conservative on racial justice than Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, not to mention Dennis Kucinich. Eagerly accommodating mainstream white attitudes, the “deeply conservative” [3] Obama has run a “race neutral” campaign falsely proclaiming the essentially “past” nature of racial oppression and pointing strongly to poor blacks’ personal and cultural responsibility for their disproportionate presence at the bottom of the nation’s hierarchies. The fact that he is black has helped make such racism-denial and victim-blaming especially imperative for the Obama campaign. The predictable eruption of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright fiasco has pushed Obama yet further over into what the left black commentator Glen Ford calls “white space” on questions of American empire and inequality, past and present [4].    


3. “No More Excuses”: Obama as a Way to Shame Lower Class Blacks and Bury Institutional Racism Deeper. Obama’s ascendancy reinforces the widespread majority white post-Civil Rights sentiment that racism no longer poses serious barriers to black advancement and equality.  Five weeks ago on the Conan O’Brien Show, the white-pleasing black comedienne Wanda Sykes received uproarious laughter and applause from a predominantly white studio audience when she said that Obama being in the White House would mean that black people have “no more excuses” for their inferior status and would now have to take personal responsibility for being disproportionately locked up in the nation’s prisons [5]. “Conservative” commentators like George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and William Bennett have long been applauding the Obama phenomenon for putting an end to “obsolete” complaints about the “over” problem of racism [6].


Last March, the “liberal” white Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter voiced an interesting racist opinion on what he called “the Obama Dividend.” While “Obama’s unique assets” [a reference to the Senator’s blackness and multiculturalism, P.S.] have been viewed in international terms,” Alter argued, the presidential candidate’s “most exciting potential for moral leadership could be in the African-American community.”  Alter praised Obama for being a potentially “important president” simply on the grounds that the Senator would tell and inspire “black adults and children” to behave better and thereby to stop sabotaging themselves and alienating culturally superior whites.  Obama could mishandle U.S. foreign or economic policy, and fail in his tepid efforts to address social problems at home, but he would leave a powerful and important legacy, Alter argued, if he could just get “black adults and children” – a category that technically includes every single African-American human being – to think and act in a more positive and productive fashion [7].


The problem with such incidents and commentaries – widely emblematic of mainstream white sentiment in the post-Civil Rights Era (PCRE) – is that institutional racism remains alive and well in every area of American society, providing the essential explanation (the supposed “excuse”) for a savage racial wealth gap that grants the median black household seven cents on the white median household dollar. The appointment of a few select blacks to upper-echelon positions – the Supreme Court, Secretary of State, and even the presidency – does not change this deeply rooted societal reality. It can actually make that reality worse. The deeper structures and practices of institutional white supremacy are cloaked by regular rituals of Caucasian self-congratulation over white America’s increased willingness to embrace “good” – bourgeois, power-elite-approved and “not all that” – “blacks” like the corporate mass-marketing icon Oprah Winfrey and mendacious imperialists like Powell, Condi Rice, and (now) Obama [8].


Sadly, Obama has shown a pronounced willingness to play the role of victim-blamer when it comes to lower-class African-Americans.  He does not shirk from his aristocratic duty to lecture “cousin Pookie” and millions of “irresponsible” black fathers on their personal and cultural inadequacy and their failure to seize the supposedly great opportunities that exist for them in “magical” America, home to what Obama calls “a prosperity that’s unmatched in history” – a “prosperity” he attributes to America’s glorious “business culture” and faith in “the logic of the marketplace” (a “logic” that once dictated the enslavement of tens of million of African-Americans).  Obama has no inhibitions about shaming the black “underclass” in accord with the timeworn strictures of ruling-class and master-race ideology [9]


4. Race, Progressive Illusion, and the Inhibition of Left Resistance. The fact that the conservative, compromising, cautious and corporate Obama is black has helped deepen his appeal to certain “progressive” voters by making him seem more left than he really is.  According to researchers studying the political psychology of race, voters asked to compare a black and a white candidate with similar political positions will tend to see the black candidate as “more liberal.”


During the recently concluded primary race, Obama did much better than his fellow centrist Hillary Clinton with Democratic primary voters who identified themselves as “very liberal.” Clinton, by contrast, did better with the large number and percentage of Democrats who called themselves “moderates.” Since Obama’s actual policy agenda was generally no more liberal than Clinton’s – his health care and housing plans were actually more conservative – it seems likely that many voters were identifying Obama as more liberal at least in part because of his race [10]. There were other factors besides race in that identification (especially their allegedly different positions on the occupation of Iraq), but the simple fact of his skin color has given Obama no small measure of deceptive rebel’s clothing he has not deserved given his tendency (documented at some length in my forthcoming book “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics”) to come down on the wrong, power-friendly side of each of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the triple evils that are interrelated:” racism (deeply understood); economic exploitation (capitalism), and militarism/ imperialism.


The fact that the (not-so) “progressive” Obama is black may inhibit certain left-leaning Americans from engaging in the sorts of action that will be required to pressure the White House to behave decently if he wins the election. As John Pilger notes, “By offering a ‘new,’ young and apparently progressive face of the Democratic Party – with the bonus of being a member of the black elite – he can blunt and divert real opposition,.  That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults.  If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent” [11]. 


5. Emperor’s Clothes Change: the Identity Politics of Re-Legitimizing Superpower.   Obama’s race and ethno-cultural nomenclature – his full name is Barack Hussein Obama – will help make him useful to the architects of an American Empire that Obama strongly and openly supports. These attributes have enhanced his attractiveness to a considerable section of Superpower’s foreign policy elite, who sense a need for the U.S. to seem to be dramatically changing the face of power in the wake of George W. Bush’s provocative, clumsy, criminal, and (by the way) racist imperialism. As Meg Hirshberg, an influential New Hampshire political donor, told Washington Post writer Liza Mundy last year, “His election would do more to restore peoples’ faith and belief in the U.S. around the world. Can you imagine [Barack and Michelle Obama] being president and first lady?  It knocks me out as far as what we would be saying to ourselves and the world.  He’s not a descendant of slaves, but Michelle is.  I think it would be a remarkable moment in history.”


Obama’s technically Muslim name and his three years living as a young boy in Indonesia hold special promise, many U.S. foreign policy elites hope, in the oil-rich Middle East and across the Muslim world – areas of special concern and danger for U.S. globalists. By Mundy’s account, “in the wake of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo…part of Obama’s appeal is the opportunity to send the world a different message about racial tolerance at a moment when this seems more important than ever” [12]. Never mind the clear signals Obama has sent suggesting that will not acknowledge the criminal, immoral, and imperial nature of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, his clear and repeatedly stated enthusiasm for the bloody first U.S. War on Iraq (1991) and the continuing vicious U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, his pronounced embrace of Israel’s anti-Arab militarism and his repeated statements of support for the legitimacy of potential U.S. first strikes on Iran. And never mind his repeated chest-pounding statements of aggressive military globalism (to such bodies as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and The Council on Foreign Relations), which have won him accolades from the neoconservative foreign policy adviser Robert Kagan [13].


John Kerry, who ran for the presidency four years earlier largely on the claim that he would be a more effective manager of Empire (and the Iraq War) than Bush II, was certainly thinking of Obama’s racially specific  “soft power” assets when he recently praised Obama as someone who could “reinvent America’s image abroad” [14].  So was Obama himself when he said the following to reporters abroad his campaign plane in the fall of 2007:


“If I am the face of American foreign policy and American power, as long as we are making prudent strategic decisions, handling emergences, crises, and opportunities in the world in an intelligent and sober way…I think that if you can tell people,  ‘We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,’ then they’re going to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in our lives and country.  And they’d be right” [15].


Obama’s distinctive ethno-cultural and geographic biography is one of his great attractions to the foreign policy elite in a majority non-white world that has been deeply alienated by U.S. behavior since (and truthfully before) 9/11.


Call it “the identity politics of Empire.” Superpower needs new clothes and Obama is just the man to model them


The black Seattle-based Left poet and activist Michael Hureax is on solid ground when he says that an Obama presidency would be about “restor[ing] faith in the imperial project” by putting an eloquent black leader at its nominal head, to function as a “JFK in sepia.”  As Hureaux observed in the comments section attached to a haunting Dissident Voice essay by Juan Santos, titled “Barack Obama and the End of Racism: 


“I’m watching all kinds of people who I’d previously thought had some critical thinking skills cave under this Obamania business. I had a hunch this was coming when I watched his speech at the convention four years ago, my wife and I both sat and took it in and looked at each other and said, almost word for word, ‘He’s good, he’s very good.’ The rakish JFK style jabs, the clearly studied rhetorical grace. What better gift to the empire than JFK in sepia? All last year, numerous discussions with people from the old new left who told us, ‘He’ll never get a shot at it because of racist US etc.,’ to which we maintained, ‘But what better figure to have out there than one to restore faith in the imperial project, but someone with a black face? They managed to live with Powell and Rice, why not Obama?’”[16].


6. Undeserved Opportunity for the Proto-Fascist GOP.  The fact that Obama is black may contribute to the extremist and dangerously messianic-militaristic and arch-plutocratic, proto-fascistic Republican Party keeping the White House. Obama’s claim to reporters last April that “if I lose, it would not be because of race but because of mistakes I made on the campaign trail,” was largely incorrect. If he fails to defeat Republican John McCain despite critical trends favoring a Democratic candidate (economic recession, rising prices, and a failed foreign policy in Iraq, above all) in November, 2008, it will be largely and perhaps mainly because of race. As John Judis noted in The New Republic at the end of May 2008, racial voting trends are a real cause for Democratic Party concern:


“Clearly Obama gained some votes in the early primaries from college-educated [white] Democrats who liked the idea of an African American transcending the historic conflict over race. And, if he had not been running against a popular female candidate, he might have won more support among white women. But Obama also lost voters to racial prejudice.”


“The percentage of voters who backed Hillary Clinton (or, earlier, John Edwards) while saying that the "race of the candidates" was "important" in deciding their vote is a fair proxy for the percentage of primary voters who were disinclined to support Obama because he is black [emphasis added]. That number topped 9 percent in New Jersey; in Ohio and Pennsylvania, two crucial swing states, it was more than 11 percent. And that’s among Democratic primary voters, who are, on average, more liberal than the Democrats who vote in general elections.”


I think Obama will win.  But if Judis (a sharp observer of U.S. political life and elections) is right, the simple fact of being African American could cost Obama the general election votes of 15 to 20 percent of the nation’s Democrats and Democrat-leaning Independents [17].


It’s terrible that prejudice-fueled racial bloc voting – widely evident in the last two months of the primary season – is likely to be a factor in the general election, but it’s also a strategic fact of American political life.  Maybe Obama can overcome it.  Maybe he can’t. Either way, the United States has not “transcended race” – something that should be obvious from the exit polls in the last two months of the Democratic primary.  


If the Republicans win (I am cautiously optimistic that they cannot) because of racial bloc voting, it will be a negative for federal civil rights policy, to say the least.  This will make some racial justice supporters wonder if it would not been better for John Edwards (who ran to Obama’s left on race as well as class and out-performed Obama against McCain in the last match-up polls before the Iowa Caucus) to have assumed the mantle of the anti-Bush/not Hillary “change” candidate.


7. The “Angry Black Man” Check. Obama is a dedicated and longtime centrist, not a populist, something that close and careful observers of his career have understood since long before his supposed recent “shift to the center” from “the left” [18].  This has to do with his private prep school and Harvard background, his “deeply conservative” temperament, his well-known personal narcissism, and his less well-known corporate sponsorship. 


Yet even were he less disposed towards neoliberal class accommodation, the chance that a president Obama will take a more confrontational and progressive and populist path would be diminished by toxic white racial fears and stereotypes of  the “angry black man” (e.g. Jesse Jackson or Reverend Wright).  Sadly, white dread of black anger may make it harder for a black male politician – even a president (who wants to serve a second term, after all) – to fight the privileged Few for social and economic justice on behalf of the working class Many.


One of the things I’ve noticed about Barack Obama in the course of writing a (soon to be released) book about the Obama phenomenon [19] is that he goes to truly astonishing lengths to craft and deliver elaborate defenses of business class rule and U.S. imperial hegemony [20]. Some of his propensity for producing outlandish and troubling (from a Left standpoint) statements on behalf of capital and empire certainly comes from his “elite” private school education (indoctrination), which includes a celebrated career at the ultimate ruling-class finishing school Harvard Law.  Some may come from his high intellectual ambition and his related taste for the elegantly crafted written and spoken word, both of which were sharpened during his long stay at the noxious neoconservative and neoliberal hotbed the University of Chicago. Another part reflects his desire to go an extra mile or three to prove his safety to existing domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines…because he’s black. And he has certainly known all along about the risks to his longstanding presidential ambitions [21] posed by his once useful but subsequently dangerous connection to the “angry” Afro-centric and anti-imperial Reverend Jeremiah Wright.



8. The Need to Look “Tough” Abroad. The first black president may feel distinctively compelled to look tough on the global stage.  The fact that Obama is black (and endowed with a technically Muslim name and an image of being “antiwar”) may help some of the more dangerous segments of the U.S. power elite exert effective pressure on him to attack defenseless non-white Others overseas.  We would have had a similar

Leave a comment