Clintons-Obama and the “Over” Struggle for Black Equality

Recently the United States ‘ idiocy-inducing narrow-spectrum political culture scraped the moral and intellectual bottom on race. It started when Hillary Clinton made a curious remark in criticizing the effectiveness of Barack Obama‘s "soaring rhetoric."


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Hillary argued, made great speeches, but it required Lyndon Baines Johnson to actually enact the policies King sought on behalf of what Obama likes to call "change."  


"Dr. King’s dream began to be realized," Hillary said, "when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act. It took a president to get it done."


There ensued a bitter war of press memos and campaign digs (many behind the scenes) about whether or not Hillary comment was "racist."


The editors of the New York Times weighed in early on Obama’s side the day after Mrs. Clinton won the New Hampshire Democratic primary (with the help of white working and lower-class voters).   Reflecting on Clinton ‘s comment, the editors claimed that "it was hard to escape the distasteful implication that a black man needed the help of a white man to effect change" (Editors, "Unite, Not Divide, Really This Time," New York Times, 9 January 2007, p. A20).


This was a childish judgment. Mrs. Clinton’s comment was disturbing but there wasn’t anything particularly racist about it. Hillary wasn’t disrespecting black people as much as the notion of popular struggle.   She was expressing an elitist "great man theory of history" that couldn’t comprehend historical progress being forced from the bottom up.


The Times’ editors and Hillary left two things out. First, they failed to understand that the legislative Civil Rights victories of 1964 and 1965 were won from below by a remarkable popular struggle for black equality and not just by King.   It took a great social movement to "get it done."  The (in fact white) "president" responded to the context created by a great peoples’ struggle at home and also – as numerous studies find – anti-colonial rebellions and "Communist" (Soviet and Chinese) competition abroad.  As King used to say himself, it wasn’t all about him (the Times’ solitary "black man")or Johnson (the "white man") at all. It was about a great wave of popular struggle that shook the society to its foundations and made it clear to the U.S. power elite that the costs of reform would be slighter than the costs of not bending with the winds of, well, change (1).




The second thing Mrs. Clinton and the Times failed to grasp was how remarkably unimpressed Dr. King was by the Civil rights legislative victories of 1964 and 1965. More than is generally recognized, King saw his movement’s mid-1960s triumphs over southern racism as partial and potentially problematic gains. He saw the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts as relatively mild and merely bourgeois accomplishments that dangerously encouraged mainstream white America to think that the nation’s "race problems were automatically solved."  


He thought these early victories fell far short of his deeper objective: advancing social, economic, political, and racial justice across the entire nation, including its northern, ghetto-scarred cities.


It was one thing, King told his colleagues, for blacks to win the right to sit at a lunch counter. It was another thing for black and other poor people to get the money to buy a lunch.


It was one thing. King felt, to defeat the anachronistic caste structure of the South. It was another thing to attain substantive social and economic equality for black and other economically disadvantaged people across the entire nation.  


"Even though we gained legalistic and judicial victories," King told his colleagues during a specially called Southern Christian Leadership Conference gathering in the fall of 1966, recent experience (primarily in Chicago) had showed that these accomplishments "did very little to improve the lot of millions of Negroes in the teeming ghettoes of the North." The "changes that came about were at best surface changes," King said, "not really substantive."  


"Many whites who concede that Negroes should have equal access to public facilities and the untrammeled right to vote," King noted near the end of his life, "cannot understand that we do not intend to remain in the basement of the economic structure…This incomprehension is a heavy burden in our efforts to win white allies for the long struggle" (66).


In a remarkable passage in his posthumously published essay "A Testament of Hope," King argued that the attainment of racial equality would require a major societal investment, reflecting the steep price imposed by historically deep and cumulative racial oppression.   The cost of introducing the "radical change" he advocated would be far greater than the comparatively slight and easy price paid by white privilege for the comparatively easy victories achieved by the black freedom struggle to date:


"Stephen Vincent Benet had a message for both white and black Americans in the title of a story, ‘Freedom is a Hard Bought Thing.’ When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process.   Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate health care – each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our heritage.  Each will require billions of dollars to correct.   Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost for this society will be substantial as well as human terms. The fact has not been fully grasped, because most of the gains of the past decade were obtained at bargain prices.   The desegregation of public facilities cost nothing; neither did the election and appointment of a few black officials."




During their Las Vegas debate last Tuesday night, Obama and Clinton (accompanied by the officially marginal John Edwards) made it clear that they had decided to bury the hatchet on race.  Days before the debate, both campaigns had agreed to declare "truce" on the historical struggle for black equality.    


It was a good decision for both sides in more ways than one. For how much does either candidate really want to highlight the important though officially (in the neoliberal "post-Civil Rights era") "over" matter of racial disparity and oppression?  


"The Clinton era began," Elaine Brown has noted, "with the breach of [Bill and Hillary's] pre-election promises to institute a national health care program slated to serve the underserved, particularly poor blacks."


Things only got worse as time went on. "For eight years," Brown observes, Clinton "vacillated on addressing the failure of school desegregation efforts and the dismantling of affirmative action programs.   He hoped that racial discrimination might, in time, resolve itself.  For eight years, he repelled requests, even by his black friends, to deliver a presidential apology for slavery, ultimately proclaiming that ‘the question of race is, in the end, still an affair of the heart.’ …He repudiated even the legitimacy of making any official gesture of atonement to blacks for the crime of slavery and its unrelenting ramifications, arguing that a White house apology would encourage demands for reparations and that time had rendered the question of reparations for blacks for slavery moot: ‘it’s been so long, and we’re so many generations removed.’"


The Clinton camp’s accomplishments for black Americans during the 1990s include a significant federal contribution to the escalation of racially disparate mass incarceration, a vicious assault on the disproportionately black recipients of public family cash assistance, and the passage of a "trade" (investors’ rights) bill (the North American Free Trade Agreement) that exacerbated the disappearance of manufacturing jobs for the disproportionately deindustrialized black working class. The Clinton White House deepened the ongoing assault on black America with its "Three Strikes" crime (prison and drug war) bill and the enactment of a vicious welfare "reform" that "cut off [black and other poor children's] lifelines to food and medical care" while it kept the "the era of big government" subsidy alive for "rich corporations and their executives."


By Brown’s account, " Clinton did nothing to elevate the economic status of blacks and other poor people in America . In fact," Brown says, "the Clinton era was in many ways more detrimental to blacks than the Reagan and Bush years had been" (Elaine Brown, The Condemnation of Little B [ Boston: Beacon, 2002], pp. 173-206). 





Adding insult to deep injury, Clinton led the way in the articulation of a post-Civil Rights "New Age Racist doctrine" that "audaciously admonished blacks" – not the persistent underlying structure and cumulative legacy of historical racism – "for creating the deplorable state of black America ."   During an historic speech delivered in the same Memphis church where Martin Luther king Jr gave his last sermon, Clinton blamed blacks for dishonoring the legacy of King and wasting the "freedom" King had died to give them. 


"There in Memphis ," Brown bitterly observes, " Clinton condemned blacks for being unable to overcome the thousand blows dealt during centuries of slavery. In Memphis, Clinton reprimanded blacks for being unable to overcome a post-emancipation America that spawned and nurtured the scourge of the Black Codes, the atrocities of the Ku Klux Klan, the strangulation of Jim Crow, and a long train of racist abuses that sent blacks running from South to North and back again, outnumbered and outgunned in a thousand bloody struggles, including that in which Dr. King himself had been brutally assassinated" (Brown, The Condemnation, p.178).   


After the Clintons did nothing substantive to counter George W. Bush‘s blatantly racist theft of the presidential vote in Florida in November and December of 2000, the freshly minted U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton helped lead the charge for a racist oil war that has helped further undermine the social welfare state upon which blacks so disproportionately rely because of cumulative and ongoing racial oppression in the United States.





But things don’t get better on race with Obama, a truly pale reflection of Dr. King when it comes to the historical struggle for racial justice. Were he alive to witness the Obama campaign today, Dr. King would cringe at the junior Illinois Senator’s willingness to accommodate white supremacy.


In his ponderous, power-worshipping and badly titled campaign book The Audacity of Hope ( New York : Henry Crown, 2006), Obama ignored elementary U.S. social reality and soothed the master race by claiming that "what ails working- and middle-class blacks is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts." Equally calming to the white majority was the slavery reparations opponent Obama’s argument that "white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America" as "even the most fair-minded of whites…tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimization and race-based claims based on the history of racial discrimination in this country" (Obama 2006, p. 247).


White fears that Obama will reawaken the tragically unfinished revolutions of Reconstruction and Civil Rights were further soothed by his claim that most black Americans had been "pulled into the economic mainstream" (Obama, 2006, pp. 248-49). During a speech marking the anniversary of the Selma, Alabama Voting Rights march, Obama even claimed that 1950s and 1960s civil rights activists – who he referred to as "the Moses Generation" – had brought black America "90 percent of the way" to racial equality. It’s up to Obama and his fellow "Joshua Generation" members, he said, to get past "that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side."


And then there’s Obama’s audacious claim (in The Audacity of Hope) that "conservatives and Bill Clinton were right about welfare." The abolished Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, Obama claims, "sapped" inner-city blacks of their "initiative" and detached them from the great material and spiritual gains that flow to those who attach themselves to the noble capitalist labor market: "independence," "income," "order, structure, dignity and opportunity for growth in peoples’ lives."


Obama further channeled Reagan by claiming that encouraging black girls to finish high school and stop having babies out of wedlock was "the single biggest thing that we could do to reduce inner-city poverty."


Never mind that blacks are afflicted with a shocking racial wealth gap that keeps their average net worth at one eleventh that of whites and an income structure starkly and persistently tilted towards poverty. Never mind that lower-, working-, and middle-class blacks continue to face numerous steep and interrelated white-supremacist barriers to equality. Or that multidimensional racial discrimination is still rife in "post-Civil Rights America," deeply woven into the fabric of the nation’s social institutions and drawing heavily on the living and unresolved legacy of centuries of not-so "past" racism.


Never mind that the long centuries of slavery and Jim Crow are still quite historically recent and would continue to exercise a crippling influence on black experience even if the dominant white claim that black "racial victimization" is a "thing of the past" was remotely accurate. Never mind the existence of numerous left Caucasians ( e.g. Joe Feagin, Tim Wise, Michael Albert, Stephen Steinberg, yours truly and many more), not to mention a large number of black Americans, who support not simply the "race-based" claims of affirmative action but the demand for reparations to address the living and powerful legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.


Never mind the absence of social-scientific evidence for the "conservative" claim that AFDC destroyed inner-city work ethics or generated "intergenerational poverty." Forget the existence of numerous studies showing that the absence of decent, minimally well-paid, and dignified work has always been the single leading cause of black inner-city poverty and "welfare dependency" (Handler 1995, 32-55; Jencks 1992, 204-235; Stier and Tienda 2001). Disregard research showing that high black teenage pregnancy rates reflect the absence of meaningful long-term life and economic opportunities in the nation’s hyper-segregated inner-city and suburban ring ghettos. And forget that the single biggest thing that could be done to reduce inner-city poverty would be to make the simple and elementary moral decision to abolish it through the provision of a decent guaranteed income – something once advocated by King and that other dangerous left "moral absolutist" (Obama’s description of 1960s New Left peace and justice activists) Richard Nixon.




How appropriate it is that Obama has been winning accolades from reactionary white commentators (e.g, George Will, William Bennett, and Dick Morris) who applaud him for abandoning the supposed obsolete notion that racism still provides a relevant barrier to black advancement (EN). To such observers, Gary Younge notes, Obama’s   "success signals both the failure of ‘black’ politics and removal of "black" issues from the political arena.  As such, his victory does not reshape our analysis of how race understood in America; it marks a repudiation of the existence of American racism itself" (Gary Younge, "An Obama Victory Would Symbolise A Great Deal and Change Very Little," The Guardian, 7 January 2008).


To be sure, racial hierarchy isn’t the only oppression structure Senator Obama is willing to eagerly accommodate. As I’ve been arguing for some time now, he plays the same essential opportunistic and power-worshipping game in relation to related inequality systems of class and empire. Beneath peaceful and populist-sounding claims to the contrary, he’s largely on the dark and "conservative" side of power when it comes to each of what the democratic socialist and anti-imperialist Martin Luther King, Jr. called "the triple evils that are interrelated:" racism, economic exploitation/inequality (capitalism), and militarism.


It’s not for nothing that Obama was accurately described last May as "deeply conservative" in a supposedly flattering New Yorker write-up titled "The Conciliator" (Lisa MacFarquar, "The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?" The New Yorker, May 7, 2007).





Anyone who doubts the accuracy of this description might want to take in the following precious quotation from Obama’s recent interview with the Reno Gazettee:


"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.  He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.  I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating.  I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been."


As liberal blogger Mat Stoller notes, Obama "agrees with Reagan’s basic frame that the 1960s and 1970s were full of ‘excesses’ and that government had grown large and unaccountable. Those excesses, of course, were feminism, the consumer rights movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the antiwar movement.  The libertarian anti-government ideology of an unaccountable large liberal government was designed by ideological conservatives to take advantage of the backlash against these ‘excesses.’"


"It is extremely disturbing to hear," Stoller adds, "not that Obama admires Reagan, but why he does so.  Reagan was not a sunny optimist pushing dynamic entrepreneurship, but a savvy politician using a civil rights backlash to catapult conservatives to power" (Matt Stoller, ""Obama’s Admiration of Reagan" Open Left, January 16, 2008, read at http://www.openleft.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=3263)





As the so-called "black primary" approaches in South Carolina , black voters might want to critically examine the notion that Hillary, Inc. & Obama, Inc. are their only two relevant choices in the presidential race. As the left black writer Bruce Dixon noted in December of 2006, "there is plenty of cause for African American voters to take a long look at Dennis Kucinich."  Kucinich’s position against the illegal occupation of Iraq , against poverty, and for a single payer, nonprofit health care system put him much closer to actual black political sentiments "than a whole host of corporate black Democrats, trained to evoke the sizzle of black aspirations without calling for the steak of real change."


By Dixon ‘s careful account, "Kucinich was where most black voters have been all along" and is "the blackest candidate in the ring."  By contrast, Dixon acidly observes, "the only credentials Barack Obama can show black America are the color of his skin, his inside status, and the love corporate media have for him."


"Like Cynthia McKinney, and unlike most Democrats in the Congress," Dixon added, "Kucinich has acted the part of an opposition legislator.   And like McKinney , he often seems to stand alone because Democrats have long ceased to be an opposition party."


Also like McKinney , Kucinich has gone on record in support of black reparations for slavery (see www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/07/23/debate.transcript/index.html).


Since Dixon wrote his perceptive lines, the African American former U.S. Congressperson McKinney has declared her candidacy for the presidency under the banner of the Power to the People electoral coalition. She may by the presidential nominee of the Green Party.


In a recent interview, McKinney noted that the "Obama, Clinton, and Edwards teams" are all "equally loaded with the Washington insiders who in one way or another have contributed to our current national predicament.  Former Clinton presidential advisor and columnist Dick Morris wrote that with Obama’s victory in Iowa , ‘race is no longer a factor in American politics.’  Tell that to the Black folks living in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, or who are facing ‘Hurricane America ‘ in cities and communities all across the country."


Ms. McKinney knowledgably cites a vast array of statistics demonstrating the absurdity of Obama’s notion that blacks have come 90 percent of the way to equality in the U.S.  


She speaks with welcome disdain about the presence in Obama’s inner circle of numerous key advisors who have played central roles in such alarming aspects of U.S, foreign policy as the invasion and starvation of Haiti , the oppression of the Palestinians, and the crafting of U.S. "counterinsurgency" efforts in criminally occupied Iraq .


If Jesse Jackson Sr. is to be believed, even Edwards (currently supported by just 2 percent of black Democrats in South Carolina ) is better than Obama on race. According to Jackson in the Chicago Sun Times last November, "the Democratic candidates – with the exception of John Edwards, who opened his campaign in New Orleans and has made addressing poverty central to his campaign – have virtually ignored the plight of African Americans in this country"( Jesse Jackson, Sr., "Most Democratic Candidates Are Ignoring African Americans," Chicago Sun Times , 27 November,  2007). 


When asked about the big Hillary-Obama race dust up during the Las Vegas debate last Tuesday, only Edwards had the elementary decency to observe that "we’re not finished with" the "progress" sought by "Dr. King and many others" who "gave blood, sweat, tears, and in some cases, their lives to move America toward equality."


Hillary and Obama were right to move off race.  Neither of the two corporate Democrats has a good record in the issue from a black equality perspective.   Voters who are concerned with racial justice would be wise to move off Obama and Hillary and consider other options within and beyond the dominant party system.


Veteran Left historian Paul Street ([email protected]) is a writer, speaker and activist based in Iowa City , IA and Chicago , IL .  He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 ( Boulder , CO : Paradigm); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis ( New York : Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America ( New York : Routledge, 2005).





1. For some useful primers on this, Hillary’s campaign and the Times editors should consult Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1992 ( New York: Hill & Wang, 1993). Other places to look are Howard Zinn‘s remarkable and forgotten book Postwar America, 1945-1971 ( Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merril, 1973) and Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s classic study Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed and How They Fail ( New York: Vintage, 1979).  


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