Barack Obama and Black America

by Joe Auciello

“It was the emphasis on mass action in the sixties that made the victim-focused black identity a necessity. But in the eighties and beyond, when racial advancement will come only through a multitude of individual advancements, this form of identity inadvertently adds itself to the forces that hold us back. Hard work, education, individual initiative, stable family life, property ownership—these have always been the means by which ethnic groups have moved ahead in America. Regardless of past or present victimization, these ‘laws’ of advancement apply absolutely to black Americans also. There is no getting around this. What we need is a form of racial identity that energizes the individual by putting him in touch with both his possibilities and his responsibilities.” (Black conservative author Shelby Steele, in his oft-cited January 1988 essay, “On Being Black and Middle Class.”)

Should Senator Barack Obama become president of the United States, as seems likely, what will his victory signify for Black America? In the conditions of relative poverty and discrimination faced by the majority of African Americans, especially those trapped in urban ghettoes, what is likely to change for the better? How might their conditions be improved by the election of the first Black president of the USA?

One possible answer is suggested by the T-shirts worn by Obama supporters that showed Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama, with words like “Alpha/Omega” or just “The Dream.” The reference, of course, is to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” address, now four and a half decades old, in which he envisioned an America that would ultimately achieve racial equality.

The link with Dr. King is not lost on the candidate himself, who delivered his acceptance speech to the Democratic Party convention forty-five years to the day of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

When Dr. King spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington, most eligible Black voters in the South were prevented from exercising their democratic right to vote by extra-legal means of intimidation by the Klan and White Citizens Councils or by the legal means of poll taxes and rigged literacy exams.

Not until 1968 were a majority of Black voters actually able to vote. That right was exercised in overwhelming numbers for the candidate of the Democratic Party, as it has been in every presidential election since the Great Depression of the 1930s and the “New Deal.”

Now, for the first time in United States history, Black people can choose a Black man, not just as a nominee in a party primary, but as president of the United States. Some untold number of elderly Black people will go to the polls in a day they never expected to see, while their young grandchildren will vote for the first time and see this as their day.

The financial crisis will be a strong factor in this election, and as the stock market tumbles, economic security becomes the main concern of voters, but an Obama victory will also be seen as a triumph against racism in the United States. A vote for Obama is, of course, still a vote for a Black man.

Whether openly admitted or not, every bigot in America will oppose Obama in the instinctive realization that even a symbolic victory is a victory and may serve as an inspiration, a catalyst for further progress in the liberation of Black people.

Yet will the victory of Obama mean the realization of Dr. King’s dream? Will it mean that the United States has truly lived up to its ideals and created a society in which all men—and women—are “created equal”?

The answer cannot be a simple “yes” or “no,” but a more complex “yes and no.” The ambiguity resides in objective reality itself.

In many respects Barack Obama falls far short of Martin Luther King, Jr. It must be pointed out, at least in passing, that Senator Obama does not emulate the Dr. King who was the initiator of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Barack Obama has never spoken in the Senate as Dr. King did in a 1966 Senate hearing: “With the resources accruing from termination of the war, arms race, and excessive space races, the elimination of all poverty could become an immediate national reality…At present the war on poverty is not even a battle, it is scarcely a skirmish…the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now rather widely discussed measure—the guaranteed annual income…”

Dr. King argued for an antipoverty program whose goal would be “assuring jobs and income for all” and “equitable income distribution” (quoted in David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 539).

Today, the war draining national resources is fought in Afghanistan and Iraq instead of in Vietnam, but Dr. King’s argument is all too relevant. Senator Obama acknowledges this reality in passing: “We can’t keep spending $10 billion a month in Iraq at a time when we’ve got enormous pressing needs here in the United States of America—including, by the way, taking care of veterans…” (Boston Globe, July 28, 2008).

Yet, at the same time, the senator calls for 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan in addition to the 36,000 U.S. forces already stationed in that country. Obama says those additional troops will be redeployed from Iraq in 2010, while leaving behind an unspecified number of soldiers in Iraq in some ongoing capacity.

The result is that a President Obama will continue to spend billions a month for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan that will continue to churn out wounded and disabled veterans who will need care at home. As for the “enormous pressing needs here in the United States of America,” they will persist and remain underfunded.

The Dr. King who wanted to “turn swords into ploughshares” would likely have been dissatisfied by a President Obama who only wanted to utilize swords more efficiently by rotating them out of Iraq and deploying them in Afghanistan. As Senator Obama wrote, “We need more troops, more helicopters, better intelligence-gathering and more nonmilitary assistance to accomplish the mission there” (op-ed article in the New York Times, July 14, 2008).

In fact, in the area of foreign policy, it is likely that an Obama administration will resurrect the strategy of the Clinton presidency with a greater emphasis on cooperation among imperialist allies. As was pointed out in a recent issue of Socialist Action, “Most of Obama’s advisers are holdovers from the Bill Clinton years.” (See Marty Goodman, “Change We Can Believe In?” September 2008.)

Obama has directly acknowledged President Clinton’s influence on his campaign strategy and policies. Despite Republican accusations of “liberalism,” Obama makes it clear that his orientation is to the center-right of his party.

In a recent interview Obama said, “Oh, I’ve already learned a lot from him. Bill Clinton, I think, understood earlier than most Democrats the need to correct for some of the excesses of the late Sixties and early Seventies, both in terms of our fiscal policies and our cultural posture toward Middle America…Bill Clinton did a lot to make Democrats seem like they were in touch with the ordinary aspirations of a great number of Americans. That, I think, stopped the hemorrhaging of independent voters and Reagan Democrats into the Republican Party…So I’m still in debt to Bill Clinton for what he accomplished” (Rolling Stone, Oct. 30, 2008).

Obama’s electoral strategy resembles Bill Clinton’s in other crucial respects, not only in his proposal to restore the tax rate to what it was under the Clinton presidency, but especially in Obama’s relation to Black people. Clinton could present a powerful sense of empathy with the Black poor and could speak movingly against racism. Yet, he also kept that constituency at arm’s length, the better to woo the white vote.

Clinton made several public, symbolic acts to assure whites. There was the controversy over “Sister Souljah,” the 1992 execution in Arkansas of mentally disabled Ricky Ray Rector, and the dismissal of civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had successfully enlarged Black support for the Democratic Party, especially among the working class and poor.

Obama’s “Sister Souljah moment” moment came when he threw the Rev. Wright under the bus. “Only a few years ago,” the New York Times reported on May 1, 2008, “the tightness of the bond between Mr. Obama and Mr. Wright was difficult to overstate. Mr. Obama titled his second book, ‘The Audacity of Hope,’ after one of Mr. Wright’s sermons, and his pastor was the first one he thanked when he gained election as a United States senator in 2004.” A younger Obama took recordings of Mr. Wright’s sermons with him to law school. When Mr. Wright spoke too forcefully and too honestly and too publicly, Obama sacrificed his mentor to placate the white-corporate-owned media.

When Bill Clinton distanced himself from the Black working class and poor, he did not ignore Black people entirely. No Democrat can afford to do that. Clinton, instead, turned his attention to the Black middle class, which has grown several hundredfold since Dr. King’s assassination. Clinton’s overall domestic agenda, including his cuts in social welfare programs, and his economic proposals that shifted favor from the super-rich to small businesses, all found a favorable response from the Black middle class, as it did from middle class whites.

The key point, as Clinton and Obama understand it, is to advance those Black interests, and only those, which are compatible with Middle-American white interests.

Barack Obama, too, has been careful to avoid reference to the working class or the poor. He speaks, instead, of the “middle class” or “middle-income families.” References to those less well off sound either too radical or too favorable to Blacks, who, in the minds of many white Americans, are typically poor. “Middle class” is safer and largely, though not entirely, whiter.

Of course, John McCain, who denounces Obama’s tax plan as “welfare” and “socialism,” tries desperately to instill fear into the minds of voters, especially white voters, with the false claim that Obama is promoting “class warfare.”

But the smears are not working. The fact is that millions of whites see their hopes for a better future in the hands of a Black Democrat as president. This is a tidal shift in only a few short decades. Twenty-one years ago, Jesse Jackson remarked, “If we came out of the Democratic convention as the party’s nominee for President, we won’t have to have any more debates on the question of a third party—the majority of the white Democrats would hurry up and start a new party!” (The Guardian [New York], May 20, 1987.)

Rev. Jackson was not far wrong. According to polls in 1988, some 50% of liberal Democrats opposed the only liberal candidate in their party, a strong indication either of the racism of Democratic voters or the extent to which they felt compelled to surrender to the racist sentiment so widespread in the USA.

Current estimates suggest that 20-25% of the white electorate would oppose Obama primarily because of the candidate’s race. These data may be flawed and skewed too heavily toward older white voters. Since polling does not question cell phone users—primarily a younger voter base—a certain portion of the youth vote is automatically excluded from polling data.

Still, despite some flaws, those numbers are, of course, significant, and they explain a great deal about Obama’s overall electoral strategy. Obama has done all he can to court that older white vote, downplaying or even denying the specific needs of the Black community for fear of “widening the racial divide”—that is, alienating white voters.

So, Obama often speaks to Black supporters in ways that are carefully crafted to find favor with whites.

In Obama’s much-praised speech on race last May, he stressed repeatedly the identity of Black and white interests. Obama spoke specifically to Black America and said, “For the African American community, that path [of a more perfect union] means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances—for better health care and better schools and better jobs—to the larger aspirations of all Americans…” And, he added, “Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.”

This is the theme that Obama has advanced all through his campaign—that Black interests can best be served by linking them to the needs of whites.

In practice, this approach means minimizing the issues that are especially significant to Black Americans and faulting Blacks for their victimization in American society.

So it is no surprise that Obama speaks in the vocabulary of the neoconservative Shelby Steele and emphasizes “hard work, education, individual initiative” etc., as the means for Black advancement in contemporary America.

In his speech on race, Obama not only made no mention of quotas to achieve racial equality—which he opposes—he also made no direct reference to affirmative action, which he supports. Affirmative action remains a useful and necessary way for the individual virtues of hard work, education, initiative, etc., to succeed, but Obama tries to say little about it.

Instead, as he told the NAACP convention last July, government programs, financial investment into the Black community, and so forth, do not really matter. Obama said “none of it will make any difference if we don’t seize more responsibility in our own lives.”

By “responsibility” Obama means “turning off the TV and putting away the video games; attending those parent-teacher conferences, helping our children with their homework and setting a good example.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong in any of these activities, and it is difficult for children to do well without the help of parents. But Black parents need help, too, and individual efforts alone are insufficient.

Census data released in August 2008 show the Black poverty rate is still three times that of whites. The median income for Black families was $33, 916 in 2007 compared to $54, 920 for whites. Blacks are six times more likely than whites to be incarcerated and receive longer jail sentences for the same crimes.

The Black AIDS Institute reports that if Black America were a country, it would rank 16th in the world for the number of people infected by the AIDS virus. Partly for this reason, but for other medical causes as well, a hypothetical Black American nation would fall below 104 other countries in life expectancy.

According to the National Urban League’s The State of Black America 2007 (SOBA 2007), “African American men are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white males and make only 75 percent as much a year.”

Problems of this magnitude will not be solved by taking away video games, having fathers take on more responsibility, etc. Families cannot do it all by themselves.

The National Urban League calls for government action to help bring greater equality between white and Black America. Their SOBA 2007 report, which does include a positive role for parents, nonetheless emphasizes a series of proposals that can only be carried out on the federal and state levels.

Barack Obama is well aware of the SOBA 2007 report—he is the author of its foreword. Yet, he tries to frame the Urban League’s quite modest proposals in the lesser limits which whites might allow.

No wonder the Rev. Jesse Jackson said last July that Obama was “talking down” to Black people. No wonder Black students at a St. Petersburg, Florida, rally for Obama last August raised a sign asking, “What about the Black community, Obama?”  

An Obama victory will be largely surface and symbolic. It is not likely that his election will bring specific practical gains for Black America.

No independent movement or mobilization of the African American community has lifted Obama to prominence. His political ascendancy has occurred within the Democratic Party, though, admittedly, his candidacy has enlarged party ranks, especially among minority youth.

Yet Obama is not accountable to the Black community to whom he owes no special favor. Even if he receives 90% of the Black vote, he is really gaining little more than what occurs in most presidential elections. For many years Black people in overwhelming numbers have traditionally voted for the Democratic Party nominee: according to CNN exit polls in 2004, John Kerry won 88% of the Black vote.

An Obama presidency will, of course, be unprecedented in U.S. history, but there are parallels in state and local government which offer some potential clue to the future. Consider, for instance, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, a friend of the Obamas.

Deval Patrick is the first African American governor of Massachusetts and only the second elected Black governor in the country, after Douglas Wilder of Virginia, who won office in 1990. Patrick’s inaugural last year was a scene of jubilation and joy. His triumph was celebrated as more than the victory of a party; to the Black community in Massachusetts, Gov. Patrick’s election signaled that they had finally arrived. Their time had come. Finally, the Black population in the state would get fair treatment and receive their fair share of state resources. Such, at least, was the hope, and no one was willing to believe otherwise.

What is there to show for a year in office? Very little. The Democratic governor argued—not for any urgent need of the Black community but for— gambling casinos, and he lost to the Democratic Speaker of the House, who opposed casinos. Campaign promises of safe streets and expanded educational opportunities have not and will not be realized. The gains of the expanded health care system have not reached the most needy, and the program itself is in jeopardy. Facing a $1.4 billion budget gap, the order of the day is painful cutbacks in state jobs and services.

Despite the vital support the governor received from the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), in August 2008 he vetoed a $10 per month cost of living raise for retired teachers. It would have been the first raise for retirees in eleven years. Although MTA president Anne Wass was “disappointed, frustrated, and angered,” she apparently was none the wiser from the experience and steered the union to put its resources behind Sen. Obama.

In another clear sign of business-as-usual, Governor Patrick pulled an end run around the state’s fund-raising law, which sets a $500 limit on campaign contributions. Last summer prominent Democrats and corporate executives of businesses whose profits depend on the goodwill of the administration contributed $5,500 each to the governor’s Seventy-First Fund. Most of the money went to pay off Governor Patrick’s campaign expenses.

Sleazy maneuvers to sidestep campaign reform laws are not news in any state in the country. But this was a governor who promised to usher in a new day for the people of his state and who was believed—particularly by the Black community. That belief is turning, reluctantly, to disappointment.   

Perhaps even more importantly, the governor’s election has generated no political or social mobilization of the Black community on any level, either from within or without the Democratic Party. And there has been no trend toward the election of more Blacks to represent their community.

What then is the net result, so far, of Governor Patrick’s election? A Black Democratic governor has pretty much behaved like his white Democratic predecessors.

How will a Black Democratic president be any different?

If, on inaugural day, January 2009, Barack Obama swears to uphold the Constitution, his primary purpose as president will be to protect and serve the capitalist ruling class. During his term in office, he will show—in, admittedly, a triumph of racial progress—that a Black Democrat can serve corporate interests as effectively as any white Democrat.

But that is not the change we need, and Barack Obama will not be the catalyst of that needed change.   

As one journalist noted, “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.” (Ryan Lizza, New Yorker, July 21, 2008, p. 65.)

The real collective interests of white workers, Black workers, of white and Black youth, lie elsewhere. Those interests might best be served precisely by challenging “existing institutions”—and doing that through the kind of “mass action in the sixties” that conservative Shelby Steele dislikes.

After all, as the recent $800 billion-plus bailout of the bankers has clearly shown, the “existing institutions” are designed to protect and promote the profit-making system, the source of the growing “wealth gap” between rich and poor, with most African Americans and other people of color on the bottom of the poor side.

What would be so awful about tearing down such institutions? Who needs a U.S. Congress like this? As Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich suggested, it has been acting like a Board of Directors of the capital investment firm Goldman Sachs, rather than a representative body of the majority of the people.

The “existing institutions” badly need some fundamental changes, and if that means replacing them, so be it—even if it means “class warfare” and “socialism,” the bugaboos McCain has raised to try and scare people.

Let’s not forget that there was a “peculiar institution”—the enslavement of Africans—that existed in North America since the 1500s, but it was largely “torn down” by the Civil War of 1861-1865. The Civil War was not “socialism,” but it certainly was “class warfare.” It put an end to the slave-owning class, by abolishing the institution of chattel slavery.

It is equally possible to put an end to the system of wage-slavery. Why should this country continued to be ruled by the tiny minority class of the super-rich, the owners of big capital?

How about replacing inadequate “existing institutions” with ones that would  spread the wealth” and truly promote equality for all, regardless of color or social status?

A workers’ government, a socialist government committed to real “liberty and justice for all,” would do that.

It would take effective measures to finally end discrimination of any kind.

It would institute a massive affirmative-action program for people of oppressed nationalities, including reparations to the descendants of African slaves for centuries of unpaid labor by their ancestors, human beings kidnapped and brought from Africa to build up the wealth of what is now the United States of America, the most powerful and rapacious empire known to history thus far (although its dominance in the world may be drawing to a close).

[Note: A version of this article is also to appear in a coming issue of Socialist Action newspaper.]