“You Can’t Be President”: Race, Class, and Memories of Obama





As we hurtle towards the first anniversary of the new corporate war president Barack Obama’s inauguration, journalists and commentators will advance recollections of – and retrospective reflections on – the ascendancy and early days of the United States’ first black president.  One of my earlier memories of the Obama administration was provided by Eric Patton, who worked as substitute teacher in a segregated public school in Cincinnati last February.  "Today," Patton wrote me, "I asked a class for which I was subbing (high-school English students, about a dozen, all-black) what they thought of Obama.  Their initial reaction was one of, for lack of a better way to say it, pride and joy. But upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a rather shallow sentiment. For when I asked them if they expected any real changes under Obama, they all said no. So while they are (currently) happy he is in the White House, they know full well that he will be no different from any other president — and it’s not something they only know ‘deep down.’  They know it pretty close to the surface."




"President Says He Shouldn’t Put Focus on Blacks’ Troubles"


I was reminded of Eric Patton’s observation in early December of 2009, when the nation’s first black president received some interesting criticism from the Congressional Black Caucus.  Accusing the White House of ignoring the economic plight of nonwhites, ten members of the caucus boycotted a key House committee vote on financial regulations.  The group expressed frustration at the White House and Congress’ failure to tackle minority-specific economic problems, including a black unemployment rate of 16 percent, higher than the (understated official) national rate of 10 percent. "We can no longer afford for our public policy to be defined by the world view of Wall Street," the black caucus announced, adding that "policy for the least of these must be integrated into everything we do."


Reflecting the dominant "post-racial" sentiments he rode into office, Obama flatly rejected the criticism in a special interview with USA TODAY and the Detroit Free Press prior to a White House "jobs summit" in early December. "It’s a mistake," Obama told the newspapers, "to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together." Just because he happened to be black, Obama was announcing, black Americans should have no reason to think that he would any more willing than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton to acknowledge and act upon the distinctive oppression and inequality still experienced by many in the nation’s still highly segregated and relatively impoverished population. The title of the USA TODAY article reporting Obama’s response to the Congressional Black Caucus’ criticism was on point: "President Says He Shouldn’t Put Focus on Blacks’ Troubles."[1]


"Precisely the Programs That Are Missing"


Last February, in a speech to his new employees at the Justice Department, the United States’ first black Attorney General Eric Holder caused a momentary media stir by saying that the U.S. "is a nation of cowards on race."  Most Americans, Holder argued, avoid honest and serious discussion of the nation’s continuing racial problems.


The administration in which Holder has served has done little indeed to move itself or the nation past racial cowardice beyond the simple fact of being headed by an African American. There is no "betrayal" on this score, however.  Obama’s political team has always taken an official position of cowardice on race.  With rare, unavoidable, and highly qualified exceptions (Obama’s conservative speech on race and Reverend Wright in Philadelphia in March of 2009), it has refused to honestly engage the question of racism beyond the symbolically powerful advance of a black ("but not like Jesse") candidate for the presidency. And, as the left-liberal Canadian commentator and author Naomi Klein noted in a September 2009 interview with Amy Goodman on "Democracy Now," the actual behavior of the Obama White House has had nothing to do with the preposterous charge of right wing talk radio hosts and other Republican commentators and activists that Obama is a reparations activist fanatically preoccupied with making white people pay for past and current institutional racism.  The truth is quite the opposite


"[The right accuses] Obama of being obsessed with race and [claims] that he has this covert agenda of taking white wealth and giving it to black people. And what’s so ironic about this, actually, is that, in fact, Obama has completely turned his back on the entire reparations discussion, which is what was happening in 2001."


"John Conyers, as we know, has tried to get HR 40, the resolution that would open up a discussion on what kind of reparations are due to African Americans. You know, often people think that people are talking about a check in the mail. And, in fact, what most reparations activists are talking about, overwhelmingly, are group solutions, investments in communities, in education, in healthcare, precisely the programs that are missing from the Obama administration in its response to the current economic crisis, which, let’s remember, began because of the enormous wealth gap, the net worth gap, between minority communities and the dominant sectors of society, because people did not have access to traditional credit." [1A]





"As We Celebrate What We Have

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