The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 81 (Spring 2008).
Few Black Americans have any illusions that Barack Obama’s meteoric rise means the days of racism are over. But what does it say about the state of racism in this country? Sure, Obama doesn’t talk much about racism, but his election can’t be bad for Black people – can it?
History teaches that it is a lie and a deadly illusion to think that racism is not a basic fact of life in capitalist America. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, a wave of patriotic fervor swept the country, and even many Black people imagined that the country might have finally united across racial lines. But four years later, those illusions were replaced by horror as the world watched the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Thousands of working-class Black people were left for dead – by both Bush and the Democratic governor and mayor. Katrina dramatically revealed the conditions of de facto segregation and poverty that consign Blacks, Latinos and immigrants to misery and slow deaths in every city in this country.
In the one-sided class war the capitalists have been waging against the working class for decades, people of color have been hit hardest. The sub-prime mortgage crisis is only the latest example: the last hired and first fired, people of color are disproportionately hit by the current wave of home repossessions. One study calculated that it amounts to the single largest transfer of wealth from people of color to whites since slavery! As economic crisis deepens, this trend will only get worse.
And Obama? In response to the devastation of New Orleans after Katrina, perhaps the greatest act of racist mass murder ever to take place in this country, he declared: “I do not subscribe to the notion that the painfully slow response of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security was racially based. The ineptitude was color-blind.” If Obama can deny the obvious racism of Katrina’s aftermath, what possible defense could he offer Black people against the less obvious but equally murderous racist workings of capitalism?
It will no doubt be accepted as obvious by most people that the election of Barack Obama as this country’s first Black president would mark an historic victory against racism. In one sense, it would. Choosing a Black man to lead a country that once legally declared Black people less than human, property to be bought and sold, would be an extraordinary shift.
At the same time, Obama’s willingness to cover up the system’s racist crimes means his presidency would be seriously threatening to the Black masses. Obama has already signaled his support for harsh measures. For example, in his book The Audacity of Hope, he went out of his way to declare that “conservatives – and Bill Clinton – were right about welfare.” Obama knows full well that Republican denunciations of welfare were part of the “Southern Strategy” of rallying racist support for cutting government aid to the poor. He also knows that Clinton borrowed that strategy, promising to “end welfare as we know it.” In office, Clinton kept his promise, cutting off 60 percent of welfare recipients; his attack hit the poorest sections of the working class and was particularly devastating to people of color.
The pretense of color-blindness in this racist society can only mean a capitulation to racism. Indeed, as his campaign has progressed, Obama has increasingly sounded like he is running to become this country’s first blind president. In his victory speech after the South Carolina primary, he said about his time campaigning in the state: “I didn’t see a Black South Carolina or a white South Carolina. I just saw South Carolina.” He has denied that racism is still a factor in public policy issues, and rejects “the assumption that the wealthy care nothing for the poor.” And he is supposed to stand for “change we can believe in”!
More and more, Obama’s political approach sounds like his description of how he used to calm his white mother’s fears that he was becoming a delinquent. In his first book, Dreams of My Father, he tells how she burst into his room one day demanding answers. He flashed her “a reassuring smile and patted her hand and told her not to worry.” This, he says, was “usually an effective tactic,” because people “were satisfied as long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved – such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.”
It is tragic that some Black people feel they have to act meek to avoid the punishments of racism. It is even worse to feel the need to perform that way for one’s own mother. But while the racism of individual whites can sometimes be avoided, that of the whole society cannot. The Bible is wrong: the meek will not inherit the earth; the meek get crushed. Only standing up to racism in bold mass struggle can win progress for people of color. When they have stood up and fought, Blacks have also shown white workers and poor how to fight against the capitalist rulers. They will surely do so again.
Every Black person can relate to the need to placate white people with power to get by in this society. But to translate that approach into a political program threatens to further unravel the gains won by the rebellions and struggles of the 1960’s. These gains were not just material concessions and reforms from the ruling class, but gains in Black people’s pride and sense of power too.
Obama is smarter and more capable than almost any mainstream white politician. But his rise to prominence has been based on his ability to serve the interests of powerful white capitalist politicians and corporate interests against those of the Black working class and poor. In his first run for Congress, Obama attempted to unseat Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther and now mildly reformist Democrat. Rush had tried to unseat Chicago’s white Mayor Daley in 1999 and been soundly beaten. Obama sought to ingratiate himself with the Daley machine by running to unseat Rush the next year. His campaign, in a district with the highest percentage of Black people in the country, labeled itself as a move “from protest to progress.” These were clearly code words that meant abandoning concern for the Black working class and poor in favor of a focus on individual advancement, particularly for upwardly mobile Blacks. Obama was soundly defeated then, but his campaign won him the respect of the Democratic establishment.
After Obama was elected to the Senate in his next campaign, the Democratic leadership saw an opportunity to advance their own move “from protest to progress.” In 2004, eager to have a Democratic National Convention free of speeches by Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton or any association with the idea of mass struggle, they invited Obama to give the oration that catapulted him to national attention. Thus Obama has already served as a willing tool of white capitalist politicians against popular Black interests. That is what he threatens to do with the power of the presidency.