Jonathan Alter: Liberal Racist, Obama Fan

Newsweek’s celebrated “liberal” columnist Jonathan Alter is a victim-blaming racist of the worst kind – the sort who cloaks his racially offensive comments in outwardly sensitive prose claiming to express concern for racial justice and black America. 


In January of 2006, Alter epitomized the dominant culture’s tendency to downplay racism in the post-Civil Rights era in his review of Taylor Branch’s latest volume on the history of the civil rights movement (Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years).  Identifying himself as the child of affluent white North Side Chicago liberals who helped fund Martin Luther King Jr,’s efforts in that city in 1966, Alter said that he was moved by Branch’s book “to think anew about how much life has changed for African-Americans living in places like Chicago, and how little.” 


Claiming that Chicago had become “a much healthier city thanks in part to Richard M. Daley,” his treatment of contemporary black experience in the city said nothing about numerous examples – readily accessible to any serious journalist – of ongoing racism functioning as a continuing barrier to black advancement and equality within and beyond the Chicago area.  Alter made sure to cite the negative “consequences,” but not the unmentionable systemic causes, “of [black] family disintegration,” “self-destructive [black] behavior and the ‘gangsta’ culture.” 


The “big missing piece,” Alter quoted a local black middle-class community leader commenting on the plight of inner-city people, “is about financial education” – the failure “of ghetto residents to put their money [what little they posses, P.S.] in bank accounts and safe investments” (Jonathan Alter, “King’s Final Days,” Newsweek, January 9, 2006).


Six months before this fascinating judgment fouled magazine shelves across America, I published an exhaustive study showing that a deep and many-sided institutional racism was alive and well in and around Chicago, fed and reflected by (among many other things) the racially disparate policies of the Daley administration and the corporate financial industry.  Societal racism, I demonstrated, was the really big “missing piece” in such tepid post-Civil Rights accounts of persistent black inequality as are given to us by nominally progressive liberals at places like the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, Newsweek, and the New York Times [1].


I let Alter’s comment go, save for a passing reference in my book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman &Littlefield, 2007), where I quoted him as a telling “liberal” example of the broad “post-Civil rights” consensus that blames black Americans – not objectively racist structural forces and policies – for their disproportionate presence at the bottom of U.S. inequality structures.


Now I have run across another and worse Alter comment in the process of researching a book on the Barack Obama phenomenon. In a March 31st column titled “The Obama Dividend,” Alter goes beyond the standard reactionary praise (voiced by such “conservative” right wing pundits as George Will and William Bennett) of Obama for putting an end to supposedly obsolete and dysfunctional complaints about racism. Alter voices his passionate belief that while “Obama’s unique assets” [a reference to the Senator’s blackness and multiculturalism, P.S.] have been viewed in international terms,” the presidential candidate’s “most exciting potential for moral leadership could be in the African-American community.”  Alter praises Obama for having lectured a black audience in Texas on how African Americans are producing endemic black childhood obesity by making poor diet decisions and letting their kids watch too much television.  Alter also applauds Obama for telling blacks in Atlanta “that they need to stop being homophobic and anti-Semitic.” Jonathan Alter, “The Obama Dividend,” Newsweek, March 31, 2008, p. 37.


“Obviously,” Alter pontificates, “not all black adults and children would suddenly start doing exactly what President Obama tells then.”  Still, he opined, “this is powerful stuff and would make him an important president even if his legislation stalled…Barack Obama knows hot to think big, elevate the debate and transport the public to a new place.”


There was nothing in Alter’s commentary about the way that the owners and managers of full-service grocery stores fail to invest in concentrated black communities, leaving their residents’ dependence on small corner grocery-liquor stores stocked with overpriced foods loaded with salt, starch, and sugar.


The great “liberal” Alter has nothing to say about the legendary difficulty of finding fresh vegetables and fruits or healthy sit-down restaurants in ghetto neighborhoods or about the relative absence in those communities of safe natural and recreational spaces and facilities.


He does not comment on the relationship between the savage, racially oppressive absence of economic opportunity and related high crime and violent childhood injury rates in poor and highly segregated black communities – something that makes many black parents understandably reluctant to let their children out of doors.


Alter naturally says nothing about Obama’s failure and reluctance to speak forcefully against the persistent reality of institutional racism. 


Alter does, however, praise Obama for being a potentially “important president” simply on the grounds that the Senator would tell “black adults and children” to clean up their act.



The stark and disturbing implication is clear as day: the United States is haunted by the terrible specter of Dysfunctional Black Culture.  Yes, Obama could mishandle U.S. foreign or economic policy, fail in his tepid efforts to address social problems at home, but…he would be a great success and leave a powerful and important legacy if he could just get those “black adults and children” – a category that technically includes every single African-American human being – to think and act differently. Forget about the terrible, dangerous, and structurally super-empowered culture and behavior of those who stand atop America’s simultaneously classist/capitalist, racist/white supremacist, and imperialist/militarist institutional complexes.


The main problem with the “deeply conservative” [2] Obama phenomenon isn’t Obama.  It’s his out of control middle and upper-class white supporters, and Jonathan Alter is a particularly egregious and cynical example.


Alter should be ashamed of himself. He needs to alter his culture and behavior.  This will take time.  In the short term, he should find out how much money his parents gave to Dr. King and write a check in its inflation-adjusted amount to an organization working against the deep institutional racism that lives on so powerfully beneath the national white self-congratulation over being ready to vote for a technically black presidential candidate. Alter can consider it a reparations down payment.


Paul Street ([email protected]) is a writer and activist in Iowa City, IA.  Street was research director at The Chicago Urban League between 2000 and 2005. 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. Street is currently writing a book on U.S. political culture and the Barack Obama phenomenon.





1. See Paul Street, Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago: Chicago Urban League,[2005]) – a comprehensive study that is institutionally suppressed at the laughably corporate-captive and racially accommodationist agency that received a considerable foundation grant to produce it.


2. Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).

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