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….
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.
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.”
We knew what Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. knew when he rejected efforts to get him to run for the presidency in 1968. It’s not about running for president.