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No Favor to Black America


The reluctance of many white liberals and progressives to engage in serious criticism of U.S. President Barack Obama no matter how coldly corporate-neoliberal [1] and imperial [2] he shows himself to be, has been quite pronounced.  Among the factors that explain that reluctance, one that deserves mention is certainly the fact that many of those whites think they are doing Black Americans some kind of benevolent favor by supporting the nation’s first technically Black (or first half-white) president. 

White progressives and liberals should drop that presumption. The business-friendly and militaristic record of the Obama administration stands well to the right of progressive policy views that have long held strong majority support from Black Americans, the leftmost ethno-cultural segment of the U.S. electorate. At the same time, the president’s center-right policy record has inflicted disproportionate pain on the Black community, which has seen its wealth and income levels decline both absolutely and relative to white America across the Age of Obama. Along the way, finally, the Obama administration has proven to be a disaster for Black politics and consciousness and for the cause of racial equality.

 

Off the Table

For useful reflections on this last point, a good place to start is the Black Columbia University political scientist Frederick C. Harris’s important and engaging book The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014 [2012]), recently re-issued in paperback. Harris’ academic turf is modern U.S. Black politics.  He covers key parts of that terrain with keen historical understanding, situating the Obama phenomenon and presidency in the context of the longstanding intra-Black debate about “whether Black voters should organize into a cohesive, independent bloc to promote both targeted and universal policies, or pursue a more race-neutral approach, working together with other racial minorities as well as like-minded whites.”

As Harris shows, Obama’s ascendancy represents the triumph of the “race-neutral” argument in the post-Civil Rights era. Obama has been careful to distance himself from the considerably more race-conscious Black activists and politicians whose past struggles paved the way for his success. In doing so, he has embraced a “de-racialized” white-pleasing political and policy rhetoric that “surrenders to the false notion of a color-blind society where race no longer matters” and to the related “idea that policies that help everyone – what is described by policymakers as universalism – will trickle down to meet the systematic needs of Black communities and that targeted policies toward minorities – which lack the political will of the majority – should be taken off the table” (Harris, Price of the Ticket, p. x).[3]

Ironically yet fittingly enough given these surrenders, the nation’s first technically Black president has “spoke[n] less on issues of race than any other Democratic president since 1961” (Harris, xii).  By Harris’s account, “Obama’s ascendancy to the White House actually signals a decline of a politics aimed at challenging racial equality head-on”(Harris, xviii) – this even as Obama has taken risks to support minority constituencies on issues like LGBT and immigrant rights.

Obama’s race-neutral presidency has been consistent with his first and historic presidential campaign. As Jesse Jackson, Sr., observed at the height of the 2007-08 primary season, none of the Democratic Party contenders other than John Edwards raised issues of importance to minorities and the poor – a criticism that brought Jackson a public rebuke from his son, a post-Civil Rights Congressman in the race-neutral mode (Harris, 33). As Harris notes, “The housing foreclosure crisis that disproportionately hit communities of color, growing levels of Black unemployment, the persistence of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the Black population, and the War on Drugs that sends large numbers of Blacks to prison for nonviolent offenses.  These issues would not be substantially engaged by Obama or any of the other Democratic candidates, except John Edwards, whose campaign focused on economic inequality and racial justice” (Harris, 140).

 

“Personal Failure, Not Societal Barriers”

Along the way, Obama has shown himself more than willing to reinforce the notion that poor Blacks are the victims less of societal oppression than of their own supposed bad values, behavior and culture.  He has shamed many Blacks for their failure to take advantage of the great opportunities supposedly afforded them in “this magical place called America,” where Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s racial anger is supposedly now inappropriate and ungrateful. Harris gives an example (one of many that could be cited) from a speech Obama gave before a predominantly Black audience in Beaumont, Texas in February of 2008 – a speech in which the future president from Hawaii and Harvard Law went into mock southern-Black dialect to blame parents for making their children fat and lethargic with poor nutrition choices (“Popeye’s [fried chicken] for breakfast”).  As Harris notes:

 

“During Obama’s jousting with the audience, the candidate neglected to mention social and economic barriers that may account for parents’ allegedly poor decisions – limited food choices in Black poor and working-class neighborhoods and the high price of fresh food compared with the cheap cost of fast food.  Nor [did] Obama mention the difficulties of single parents working full time and short on time to prepare meals or the oversaturation and marketing of fast foods in minority neighborhoods.  To Obama, bad eating habits….are a reflection of personal failings, not societal barriers” (Harris, 100-101)

 

“The Real Audience is White”

Harris could have mentioned numerous other moments before and since the future president’s Popeye’s Speech when Obama felt compelled to scold Black people on their own supposed personal responsibility for their own poverty. “It’s obvious by now,” Ishmael Reed noted in 2008, “that Barack Obama is treating Black Americans like one treats a demented uncle, brought out from his room to be ridiculed and scolded before company from time to time.” [4]

Last Spring, Obama spoke to the graduates of historically Black Morehouse College, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As the left Black writer Margaret Kimberly noted at the indispensable Black radical zine Black Agenda Report: “The poor graduates were not only forced to sit in a driving rain but were also insulted by …president [who] felt compelled to point out that there are Black people who make excuses, and don’t take care of their kids, and make bad choices…As in 2008, the Black people in the audience were part of the stage setting for the real audience, which was totally white.”

When Obama talks down to Black people [5], Kimberly notes, “the audience in his presence [may be]…Black,” but “the real audience [is] white. The political slang is ‘dog whistling.’ Just as there are sounds which can be heard only by the canine ear, there are messages tailor made for specific constituencies, though they appear to be made for others.” [6]

 

“A Price Not Worth its Sacrifice”

Harris is critical of race-neutral “universalism’s” claim to benefit Black communities. “Policies that help everyone – what can be described as a trickle-down approach to eradicating poverty and social inequality – are not,” Harris argues (correctly by my estimation), “enough to correct the deep-rooted persistence of racial inequality” (Harris, x, xviii, xx).

Harris is unimpressed also with the Black political class, which has accepted the president’s silence on race as a price worth paying in return for the symbolic gratification granted by a Black family’s presence in the White House. Harris disagrees. “One day,” his book concludes, “the question will be asked – years if not decades from now – whether the sacrifices of previous generations were worth the rise of a ‘race-neutral’ Black president, whose ascendancy was made possible by their efforts.  As it stands now, the price has not yet proved worth its sacrifice, to the memory of those lost in battle, nor for those who still sit at the very bottom of society, still believing and hoping in the possibilities of change.” (Harris, 192)

Those who remain most woefully uncompensated are precisely those Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. refused to leave behind in his dedication to “a continuous struggle to pursue equality” (Harris, 192) that challenged “the ‘triple evils’ of racism, poverty, and militarism” (191).  Harris therefore finds that “the monument to Martin Luther King, Jr., on the National Mall – and the many comparisons of President Obama to the civil rights leader – disturbs memory [even as it]…makes great history” (190).

 

An Absent Ruling Class

Harris’s book is not without serious flaws. He is far too quick to accept the term “universalism” in the context of the Obama phenomenon, missing the fact that the militantly neoliberal Obama’s policies have been crafted above all to serve the (very predominantly white) wealthy Few. His narrative on Obama’s ascendency makes no reference to the Caucasian corporate, financial, and imperial establishment elements that seized on Obama as a perfect vehicle for carrying out their selfish and authoritarian agenda under the guise of progressive change and democratic hope in the wake of the long national Cheney-Bush nightmare.  Ruling class members and operatives provided the money, connections, celebrity, and media attention and approval without which Obama’s rise was unimaginable. They did so only after subjecting Obama to a thorough vetting in which they found him highly amenable to the task of serving their narrow, undemocratic interests. [7]  Assured of his deeply conservative, privilege-friendly, and “market”- (really corporate-) friendly essence, they found Obama’s technical Blackness, his brief stint as a “community organizer,” and his technically Muslim ethnic nomenclature nicely suited to the project of giving the American System a fake-democratic “brand makeover” at home and abroad.  The re-branding was urgently required following George Dubya Bush’s all too transparently plutocratic, racist, and imperialist performance, scarred by the club-footed invasion of Iraq and the Katrina atrocity among other clumsy blunders.[8]

Along the way, the U.S. power elite has derived no small degree of “divide-and-rule” satisfaction as a first technically Black presidency has fed identity-based fissures in majority working class America and fueled racial and related partisan deadlock. The “deep state” financial and corporate elite continues to pillage society and the commons behind the scenes of the big business-financed and highly racial identity-politicized major party “marionette theater” that passes for democratic politics in Washington and across the nation’s fifty state capitols.[9]

None of this essential top-down history is remotely present in Price of the Ticket. Also conspicuous in its absence from Harris’s volume is any serious discussion is the neoliberal corporate ideology that Obama soaked up from his Big Business,  academic, and foundation world  sponsors over years of immersion in elite, corporate-funded, corporation-serving, and predominantly white institutions like Columbia University, Harvard Law, the University of Chicago, the Hamilton Project, the Joyce Foundation, and a Democratic Party that has been moving far and ever further to the “market”- (corporate- and Wall Street-) friendly right since the 1970s.

 

Two Additional Ticket Prices

Another big piece missing in Harris’s useful book is a different but related cost of the Obama presidency for the cause of racial equality. I am referring to the significant extent to which Obama’s ascendancy has reinforced the false majority white sentiment holding that racism no longer poses any serious barriers to Black advancement and equality in the U.S. today – and that the only remaining obstacles to Black progress are internal to Black communities, Black culture, and Black individuals. What greater symbol could our political culture grant to the white-pleasing myths of post-racialism and post-racism than the election (twice) of a “first Black president?” Obama’s presidency has all too predictably been a last nail in the coffin of many white Americans’ already well-withered willingness to acknowledge their country’s continuing, cumulative crimes of savage racial oppression.

That ugly nail also deserves mention as a “price of the [Obama] ticket.” So, sadly enough, does the terrible role that the identity-politicized Obama delirium has played in moving Black Americans’ historically leftward opinions to the right on key issues including militarism and government surveillance[10] (we can except that rightward drift to disappear when “the first Black president” departs) – an unpleasant topic that receives no direct attention in The Price of the Ticket.

Still, Harris’s book should be essential reading for any Caucasian who clings to the notion that they are doing some kind of favor for Black Americans and the cause of racial equality by supporting that deeply conservative scolder of working class Black people  Barack Obama. They are doing no such thing.

Paul Street was Research Director of the Chicago Urban League between 2000 and 2005. He is the author of numerous books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); and They Rule: the 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

Selected Endnotes

1. Useful sources include Charles Ferguson, Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America (New York: Crown Business, 2012); Ron Suskind, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (New York: Harper Collins, 2011); Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010, Chapter 1: “Business Rule as Usual”); Rodger Hodge, The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism (New York: Harper, 2010); Mark Weisbrot, “The Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty is the Complete Opposite of ‘Free Trade,” The Guardian, November 19, 2013,  http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/19/trans-pacific-partnership-corporate-usurp-congress

2. For an especially nauseating recent example, see Paul Street, “Disgust Yes, Disappointment No,” ZNet (April 2, 2014), http://zcomm.org/znetarticle/disgust-yes-disappointment-no/.  For deeper context, see “‘Obama Has Kept the Machine Set on Kill’ –Journalist and Activist Allan Nairn Reviews Obama’s First Year in Office,” Democracy Now! (January 6, 2010), http://www.democracynow.org/2010/1/6/obama_has_kept_the_machine_set; Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (New York: Nation Books, 2013); Street, Empire’s New Clothes (Chapter 2: “Empire’s New Clothes: Deeds and Words in Obama’s Foreign Policy”).

3. For many details on Obama’s race-neutral presidency during his first year in the White House, see Street, Empire’s New Clothes, 131-144.

4.Ishmael Reed, “Obama Scolds Black Fathers, Gets Bounce in Polls,” Counterpunch (June 24, 2008), http://www.counterpunch.org/2008/06/24/obama-scolds-Black-fathers-gets-bounce-in-polls/

5. Reverend Jackson has opined that Obama deserves castration for this nasty habit.  See Harris, Price of the Ticket, 33.

6. Margaret Kimberly, “The Obama ‘Dog Whistle,’” Black Agenda Report (May 22, 2013), http://Blackagendareport.com/content/freedom-rider-obama-%E2%80%9Cdog-whistle%E2%80%9D

7. See Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006); David Mendell, Obama: The Promise of Power (New York: HarperCollin, 2007), 247-48; Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), xix-xxiv.

8.Street, Barack Obama and the Future, xxiv-xxxi; Liza Mundy, “A Series of Fortunate Events: Barack Obama Needed More Than Talent and Ambition to Rocket From Obscure State Senator to Presidential Contender in Three Years,” Washington Post Magazine, August 12, 2007.

9. Mike Lofgren, “Anatomy of the Deep State,” Moyers & Company, February 21, 2014, http://billmoyers.com/2014/02/21/anatomy-of-the-deep-state/; Paul Street, “The Deep State and Beyond,” ZNet, March 1, 2014, http://zcomm.org/znetarticle/the-deep-state-and-beyond/

10. The Black left writer Glen Ford last January: “In yet another example of African American moral and political deterioration in the Age of Obama, a new Pew Research poll shows Blacks are more in favor of NSA spying on Americans than are whites or Hispanics. Moreover, the data indicate that Blacks are probably more likely to favor prosecution of Edward Snowden for his NSA spying revelations, than are other ethnic groups…Back in September, polling history was made when Black Americans were more in favor of air strikes against Syria than whites and Hispanics – the first time, ever, that African Americans were ranked as the most bellicose of any  major ethnicity in the United States…Something ugly has happened to Black America since 2008, eroding – if not reversing – the progressive Black historical consensus on issues of peace, civil liberties and social justice that has prevailed since pollsters began soliciting Black opinion. One must conclude that, either Black progressivism was a much shallower political current than previously believed, or that the presence of a Black president has been such a shock to Black consciousness, so profoundly disorienting, that it has grievously distorted collective Black perceptions of reality. The African American worldview has been mangled beyond imagining.” Glen Ford, “Black Madness Under Obama: African-Americans More Pro-NSA, Anti-Snowden Than Whites and Hispanics,” Black Agenda Report (January 22, 2014), http://www.Blackagendareport.com/content/Black-madness-under-obama-african-americans-more-pro-nsa-anti-snowden-whites-and-hispanics

3 Comments

  1. mike sheck April 6, 2014 11:20 am 

    President Obama has been the catalyst for an unusual phenomena in Tennessee, which is the expanding dialogue between races and cultures. The topic of this dialogue is the disturbing expansion of federal government intrusion into our lives. Despite the incessant and erroneous assertion of intellectuals that the south is nothing but a smoldering cauldron of racial hatred, people are waking up and realizing that the real enemy is not your neighbor, but rather, the police state policies of the current administration.

  2. avatar
    Chris Green April 6, 2014 12:22 am 

    That’s an interesting point you made about black people becoming more militaristic and supportive of establishment policies. People have wondered about the optimism for the future, feeling that things are going good etc. registered among polls of black people when in fact things are getting worse for them. I think maybe it has something to do with a feeling among some ordinary blacks that, with Obama’s election, they are more part of the mainstream and feel more comfortable supporting mainstream institutions.

  3. avatar
    Chris Green April 6, 2014 12:18 am 

    In May 2010 Ismael Reed said the following in an interview posted on counterpunch where he also suggested that progressive critics of Obama were racist.

    “I have some problems with some of Obama’s policies, but as long as these people are threatening to kill him and his family, calling them monkeys and his children whores and his mother, a distinguished Irish American anthropologist, ‘white trash’ and even worse and assassination threats increase, I’m on his side. ”

    (http://www.counterpunch.org/2010/05/18/the-return-of-the-nigger-breakers-a-ghetto-reading-and-writing-rat-responds-to-his-critics/)::

    I think it is easy to give oneself a sense of fulfilling one’s political duties as a decent human being.when you can place yourself on Team Obama against whatever racist stuff is coming from Republican circles across the country. It is a lot harder to condemn the systemic horrors that Obama has overseen and which have been horrible for people of color especially. Obama’s administration has blocked a court ordering the release of thousands of prisoners sentenced under the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparities. In a symbolic gesture, he commuted the sentences of 8 people last December who had served more than 15 years for non-violent crack offenses. Three years ago Obama signed a law from reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100 to one 18 to
    one.

    Obama is complicity in the tyranny of Wall Street, the military industrial-prison complex and other elite centers but I’m not surprised that some people prefer to focus their energies on Tea Party racism and ‘defending the president.”

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