Race and Booker T. Obama: “Things Are Getting Better”
The vacuous, repressive, deeply conservative, and neoliberal nothingness of Barack Obama – and the utter disgrace of liberals who still claim to see a progressive lining in his presidency – is becoming harder to deny. One week ago today (I am writing on Friday, July 26, 2013), the first technically black president responded to widespread black pressure and tried to head off further racial disturbances by breaking his long studied silence on race in America with some sheepish attempts to identify himself with Trayvon Martin (who “could have been me 35 tears ago”) and channel black Americans’ pain about the verdict exonerating the unarmed Trayvon’s gun-toting stalker and killer George Zimmerman (who “got away with murder” according to one of the jurors yesterday). The anti-racist potential of Obama’s “historic” Friday morning press-room comments was squandered by:
- Their over-personalized brevity and under-statement (a serious discussion of the nation’s shockingly stark racial disparities and their origin in the nation’s many-sided forces of institutional and cultural racism would require a full address ).
- Repetition of the mandatory statement that “they rendered a verdict” and “once a jury has spoken, that’s how our system works” (so don’t expect the federal government to make a civil rights case against Zimmerman – this after a trial in which jurors were denied access to evidence indicating racist sentiments on the part of the shooter).
- The implication that Black America’s perception of racial bias is about “history,” understood more in terms of the past than present American experience.
- Obama’s muddled assertions of black self-sabotage. “This isn’t,” the president said, “to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence….Statistically,” he added for good measure, “somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer [that is, by another young lack male – P.S.] than he was by somebody else.” In reality, Trayvon was shot by a racist white man and black young are “disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system” thanks mainly to the widely documented racist surveillance, arrest, and sentencing practices of police, prosecutors, and judges across the nation.
- The absence of any serious proposal to correct the nation’s gaping racial disparities. Such a proposal was rejected in advance by Obama’s following statement: “I'm not naïve about the prospects of some grand, new federal program. I'm not sure that that’s what we're talking about here.” Instead of any serious commitment to jobs and education and a reorientation of national priorities towards solving the ongoing and deepening black crisis (a reorientation that could be jump-started with the diversion to human needs of just a small portion of the massive taxpayer largesse Washington grants to corporate subsidies including the giant Pentagon war machine), Obama could call only for “all of us to do some soul-searching [not in the political arena but] in families and churches and workplaces.”
- A call for the nation “to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys” that was not combined with any call for serious thinking about how to disabuse white Americans of the racist “Zimmerman mindset” (Michelle Alexander’s excellent phrase) that leads so many Caucasian power agents to stalk, stop, frisk, monitor, arrest, incarcerate, over-sentence, criminally mark, beat, and even kill those boys.
- The dubious claim that “things are getting better” when it comes to race in the U.S., buttressed (Obama seemed to think) by his observation that his daughters are interacting nicely with their affluent white friends at the elite private school they attend. In fact, black America’s epic incarceration and criminal marking rates (so extreme that 1 in 3 adult black males carry the crippling stigma of a felony record) have continued to rise. Blacks have suffered a far bigger fall in income since 2007 than any other racial group and their net worth (disproportionately concentrated in housing) has fallen to its lowest level in decades. Fully 28 percent of African 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 officially unemployed, compared to 7 percent of whites.
Trayvon could have been Obama a generation ago? Not likely. Teenage Obama attended an elite, private, and mostly white and Asian high school in relatively integrated and racially liberal Honolulu, with nothing like the racial tensions or the large poor and working class black population that are found in the southern Florida community where Martin was stalked and killed. He lived there with his relatively affluent white grandparents prior to the take off of the racially disparate War on Drugs.
Reading the president’s comments over again recently, I was instantly reminded of Dr. Adolph Reed Jr,’s 1996 assessment of Obama, shortly after the latter won his first Illinois state senate race:
“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway.”
Consistent with Reed’s reflection, Obama’s speech won accolades from the noxious, vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal Republican New York Times columnist and Presidential Broadcasting System (PBS) commentator David Brooks, who called the president’s comments “deeply unifying” and “Obama at his best.” Similar effusive praise flowed from the lips of like-minded commentators at the militantly vapid and centrist outlet National Prozac Radio (NPR). 
The notion that the nation’s race relations are improving is further belied by survey data in the wake of Zimmerman’s exoneration. Fully 87 percent of black Americans questioned in an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that Zimmerman’s murder was “unjustified.” This opinion is shared by just one third of white Americans. A third of the whites polled said the killing was “justified” and another third were unsure – this despite the fact that the armed Zimmerman rejected a police dispatcher’s order that he stop following Trayvon and leave the matter ( young Martin walking around with candy, that is) to public authorities. ABC reports further that:
“By a vast 86-9 percent, African-Americans…disapprove of the verdict acquitting George Zimmerman,…while whites approve by 51-31 percent. Blacks, by 81-13 percent, favor federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman; whites are opposed, 59-27 percent….More broadly, 86 percent of African-Americans say blacks and other minorities do not receive equal treatment as whites in the criminal justice system. Again, far fewer whites, 41 percent, share that view – a division that has prevailed, to varying degrees, in ABC/Post polls dating back 20 years.” 
These and numerous other findings from survey data in the not-so-color blind Age of Obama – including a Tufts-Harvard survey showing that a majority of whites preposterously believe that “whites have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America”  – do not bode well for Obama’s notion of ever-improving race relations. They are deeply inconsistent with his famous white-pleasing claim at the outset of his national celebrity (in his instantly lauded 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address) that “there is not a Black America and a White America and a Latino America and an Asian America – there’s a United States of America.”
For what its worth, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that just y 52 percent of whites and 38 percent of blacks have a favorable opinion of race relations in the country. That’s a sharp drop from the beginning of Obama’s first term, when 79 percent of whites and 63 percent of blacks held a favorable view of American race relations. According to the poll, 45 percent of whites and 58 percent African-Americans now believe race relations are very or fairly bad, compared with 2009, when just 20 percent of whites and 30 percent of blacks held an unfavorable view.
Empire and Drone-Killer Obama: “If Trayvon Were Pakistani”
It is instructive to compare Obama's personalized, outwardly thoughtful reflections on the death of Trayvon Martin with the cowardly military tactic with which his presidency will forever be identified: stalking and killing people with drones. The day before Obama spoke about Martin and the Zimmerman verdict, Nasser al-Awlaki – a former Fulbright scholar and Yemeni minister – published an eloquent New York Times op-ed titled "The Drone That Killed My Grandson." His teenage grandson, a U.S. citizen named Abdulrahman, was killed, along with six other individuals, by a U.S. drone strike in October 2011. A State Department spokesperson initially denied any U.S. responsibility but U.S. officials have since admitted – always anonymously — that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki had been inadvertently targeted or was “collateral damage.” Yemen expert Gregory Johnson finds that he was killed by a missile intended for Egyptian member of al Qaeda. It seems clear that a 16-year-old U.S. citizen was the unintended casualty of a “signature strike” based on an imperial version of the racial profiling that Obama claims to abhor in the homeland. Nasser al-Awlaki closed his Times op-ed by asking: "The government has killed a 16-year-old American boy. Shouldn't it at least have to explain why?” As Micah Zenko notes in a recent Foreign Policy essay titled “If Trayvon Were Pakistani: Why Isn’t Obama Outraged by a Drone War Based on Profiling?”
‘The president posits that it is wrong to profile individuals based upon their appearance, associations, or statistical propensity to violence. By extension, he believes that, just because those characteristics may seem threatening to some, the use of lethal force cannot be justified as self-defense unless there are reasonable grounds to fear imminent bodily harm. But that very kind of profiling and a broad interpretation of what constitutes a threat are the foundational principles of U.S. "" — the targeted killings of unidentified military-age males….The use of signature strikes began in early , when "instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking," the New York Times reported, drones were permitted to "strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run." By the summer of 2008, as a Bush administration official , "We got down to a sort of ‘reasonable man' standard. If it seemed reasonable, you could hit it." Early in his first-term, Obama actually authorized signature strikes before he knew what they were, as author Daniel Klaidman . When Steve Kappes, then the CIA's deputy director, explained to the president, "We can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there, men associated with terrorist activity, but we don't necessarily know who they are," Obama declared, "That's not good enough for me." ‘
‘Apparently, it was good enough for him, though, since Obama vastly increased the scope and intensity of targeted killings in Pakistan and, in April 2012, the practice into Yemen against unknown men, allowing the CIA to henceforth "hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior." As Jo Becker and Scott Shane last year, "Counterterrorism officials insist this approach [of signature strikes] is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good."…But, if you apply Obama's logic concerning the Trayvon Martin tragedy, hanging around in the wrong neighborhood or with bad people should not make a person guilty….the still-classified CIA assessments of drone strikes conducted in Pakistan over 14 months in 2010 and 2011 found that roughly one-quarter of the 600 people killed were what the CIA termed "other militants," meaning that they were collateral damage or that they were targeted only because of their behavioral profile…’
The Surveillance State and Big Brother Obama: “a Masterpiece of Orwellian Deceit”
Next we have the former “liberal” Constitutional lawyer Obama’s openly Orwellian response this week to a House measure that would have de-funded the National Security Agency’s program that undertakes the bulk collection of the telephone records of all American citizens, in blatant violation of those citizens’ Fourth Amendment privacy rights. Sponsored by Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI) and John Conyers (D-MI), the measure was a response to the heroic whistleblower Edgar Snowden’s revelations on NSA spying. Supported by a coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, the measure was narrowly defeated by a vote of 217 to 208. Opposition was led by the House’s Republican (House Speaker John Boehner, R- OH) and Democratic (Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D–CA) leadership in alliance with the supposedly “liberal” White House. As the New York Times noted, “The Obama administration made common cause with the House Republicans to try [successfully] to block it.” In fact, the administration joined with far right Muslim-hating Republican Congresspersons like Michelle Bachman (R-MN) in fervently opposing the bill as a measure that would Hurt our Noble Nation by Helping the Terrorists.
The administration’s language in his statement of opposition to the anti-spying legislation was almost like something out of Nineteen Eighty Four. “In light of the recent unauthorized disclosures,” the White House claimed, “the President has said that he welcomes a debate about how to best safeguard both our national security and the privacy of our citizens…[but] This blunt approach [the Amash-Conyers bill] is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process.”
After noting the absurdity of Obama’s claim to welcome a debate they’ve been trying to avoid for years, the intrepid Guardian columnist and civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald explains why the second sentence in that statement is a “masterpiece of Orwellian political deceit”:
‘The highly surgical Amash/Conyers amendment — which would eliminate a single, specific NSA program of indiscriminate domestic spying — is a "blunt approach", but the Obama NSA's bulk, indiscriminate collection of all Americans' telephone records is not a "blunt approach". Even worse: Amash/Conyers — a House bill debated in public and then voted on in public —- is not an "open or deliberative process", as opposed to the Obama administration's secret spying activities and the secret court that blesses its secret interpretations of law, which is "open and deliberative". That anyone can write a statement like the one that came from the Obama White House without dying of shame, or giggles, is impressive.’
As Greenwald notes, Obama’s alliance with far-right Republicans in support of domestic bulk phone spying is another of many examples of why we should not take seriously “one of the worst myths Democratic partisans love to tell themselves — and everyone else: that the GOP refuses to support President Obama no matter what he does. Like its close cousin —the massively deceitful inside-DC grievance that the two parties refuse to cooperate on anything — it's hard to overstate how false this Democratic myth is,” Greenwald adds. “When it comes to foreign policy, war, assassinations, drones, surveillance, secrecy, and civil liberties, President Obama's most stalwart, enthusiastic defenders are often found among the most radical precincts of the Republican Party.” And in the Democratic Party establishment, which voted in bulk against the de-funding of the “homeland” spying, defying the party’s “liberal base,” not to mention majority public opinion in the U.S.
Corporate Rule and Wall Street Obama: “Nothing New”
Let us turn finally, to Obama’s recent fake-populist speech supposedly against the nation’s extreme economic inequality delivered two days ago in Galesburg, Illinois. On one hand, the White House preceded the address with an unusual amount of hype, telling Americans “It’s gonna be pretty good” (Obama’s famous line prior to the 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address that launched his national political career) and that “you’ll really want to watch this speech.” On the other hand, the White House admitted there would be “nothing new” in what he had to say.
The second promise was richly fulfilled. Beyond some standard chest-pounding in which he claimed to be upset about how the super rich are getting at the expense of “the middle class” (the terms “working class” and “lower class” are beyond the parameters of acceptable discourse in the U.S.), Obama offered nothing to suggest that he will make any serious effort to diverge from his longstanding service to the deep pockets masters of corporate and high finance America. He made: no call for a major public works program to end the scourge of mass unemployment, rebuild the nation’s rutting infrastructure, and save livable ecology; no call to break up or nationalize the nation’s leading “too-big-too fail” and expanding banks and financial institutions; no call to restore the disastrously repealed Glass-Steagal separation between commercial and investment banking; no call for raising the minimum wage to a reasonably adequate $15 an hour; no call for the restoration of union organization rights (as included in the forgotten Employee Free Choice Act); no call for the federal rescue of endangered public worker pensions in Detroit and other U.S. cities; no call for serious progressive taxation of the nation’s super rich, who sit atop the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialize world (its level of disparity more comparable to Latin America and Africa than to Western Europe and Japan); no call for a financial transactions tax to provide funding for the expansion of poor people’s nutrition or schooling or medical care; no call to re-negotiate NAFTA and other investor rights “free trade” bills to include meaningful labor and environmental protections; no call for expansion of the food stamps program (SNAP); no call for the public financing of elections to temper plutocracy; no call to remember the populist and egalitarian yearnings of the Occupy Movement, which he helped destroy with a coordinated federal campaign of repression even as he opportunistically stole its rhetoric for electoral deployment against “Mr. 1%” Mitt Romney; no call for the equalization of school funding.
There was NO call, really, for anything that would contribute significantly to rolling back the savage inequalities of the current Second Gilded Age in America. The president did, however, make sure to indicate he will resume his Wall Street-approved campaign to downwardly adjust Social Security and Medicare in the name of “deficit reduction” – and in defiance of technically irrelevant majority public opinion.
Obama’s speech was an effort to soften up the public for the next nasty round of unpopular state-capitalist austerity, due to be imposed this late summer fall As the radical economist Jack Rasmus notes, “The hiatus in deficit cutting—aka ‘Austerity American Style’—that has characterized recent month is now coming to an end. A new round of austerity negotiations between the administration and radical conservatives in the US House of Representatives is about to begin.
It’s the velvet glove approach, where you send out the head of state to sound like he cares and feels your pain. Meanwhile the iron fist of repression lurks beneath the deceptive and manipulative blather. As Chris Hedges recently observed:
‘What's happening now is that we are being rapidly reconfigured into a kind of neo-feudal society, an oligarchic society where increasingly the bottom two-thirds of Americans are hanging on by their fingertips. You have a shrinking, diminishing middle class and an elite that is just making obscene amounts of money at our expense… you can't sustain a democracy in an oligarchy….They will push and push and push until there is a backlash….what we're seeing with the security and surveillance state is a preparation for that backlash— the destruction of civil liberties, which has been brutal, the wholesale surveillance and monitoring of virtually every American citizen, which I think many of us suspected and Edward Snowden, through his disclosures to Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, made, you know, palpably real….they know what's coming. The NSA has run all sorts of scenarios on economic collapse, and especially climate change. And they're preparing.”
Get ready. The worst is yet to come as the disgrace turns ever more deadly. We will have to fight back with every resource in our possession.
Paul Street ([email protected] and www.paultreet.or) is the author of many books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010). His next, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm) will be released next January.
1. My own efforts in this regard just in relation to Obama’s own supposed “hometown” Chicago during the time he was a state senator on that city’s black South Side include The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation (Chicago: Chicago Urban League, October 2002); Paul Street, Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago: Chicago Urban League, 2005). At the semi-historic release of the first study cited above, state senator Barack Obama was the officially designated Keynote Speaker.
2. Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice, January 16, 1996—reprinted in Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New Press, 2000).
3. The reactionary “newsbusters” blog provides (despite its own paranoid right biases) a useful compendium of “liberal” praise for Obama July 19th Trayvon comments on NPR at http://newsbusters.org/blogs/john-williams/2013/07/22/npr-it-s-settled-obama-s-trayvon-race-speech-was-apolitical-spontaneo#ixzz2aAGR7IjV:
* “powerful”; “stunning” (“Here and Now” NPR / WBUR host Robin Young)
* "quite extraordinary" (“All Things Considered “NPR host Melissa Block)
* "remarkable" (All Things Considered NPR host Audie Cornish)
* "dramatic" (“Weekend Edition” Saturday fill-in NPR host Linda Wertheimer gave a commentary that at first appeared to be surprisingly positive, based upon its title
* Obama "pointedly addressed" the nation’s racial divide (“Weekend All Things Considered” fill-in NPR host Jacki Lyden)
*Obama "spoke frankly" (“Weekend Edition” Sunday NPR host Rachel Martin)
"quite startling" (weekend NPR commentator / The Atlantic writer / Democrat James Fallows)
* "the most refreshing, startling and amazing comment I've ever heard him make in the 25 years I've known him on the issue of race”; “very poignant," ( law professor and former Obama campaign adviser Charles Ogletree)
* "Wow. We've been cheering" (Detroit public radio host Angelo Henderson)
4. Gary Langer, “Vast Racial Gap on Trayvon Martin Case Marks a Challenging Conversation,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2013/07/vast-racial-gap-on-trayvon-martin-case-marks-a-challenging-conversation/
5. “Whites Believe They Are Victims of Racism More Often Than Blacks: In Zero Sum Game, ‘Reverse Racism’ Seen as Bigger Problem than Anti-Black Racism,” Tuft’s University Web site (May 23, 2011), http://now.tufts.edu/news-releases/whites-believe-they-are-victims-racism-more-often-than-blacks
7. Nasser al-Awlaki, “The Drone That Killed My Grandson,” New York Times, July 18, 2013.
8. Micah Zenko, “If Trayvon Were Pakistani: Why Isn’t Obama Outraged by a Drone War Based on Profiling?” Foreign Policy (July 22, 2013), http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/07/22/if_trayvon_were_pakistani_signature_strikes_profiling?page=full
9. Glenn Greenwald, “Democratic Establishment Unmasked,” The Guardian (July 25, 2013), www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/25/democratic-establishment-nsa
10. Jack Rasmus, “Obama’s Speaking Tour: More ‘Talk the Talk’ Again,” JackRasmus.com (July 23, 2013), http://jackrasmus.com/
11. Chris Hedges, “America is a Tinderbox” Real News Network, July 24, 2013, http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=10461