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When Everything Old is New Again

Obama and the End of Racism?

by CARLOS FIERRO

I’ve made no secret about my less than enthusiastic response to Obama’s candidacy and subsequent election.  That being said, it wasn’t Obama in particular that I was unenthusiastic about.  Obama showed himself, within the context of the US presidency, or one vying for the US presidency, to be little better or little worse than past presidents or presidential candidates.  My qualms weren’t directed at Obama as a special case, aside from the fact that he, more so than in recent memory, was able to garner within people a wide range of believes in his ideas and policies that were in fact contrary to his ideas and policies.  Last month I called the phenomenon temporary insanity and amnesia; those terms still seem to apply.  

The liberal minded among us who told us that first and foremost we had to make sure that Obama got elected, but that after the election the real work would begin, have remained oddly silent as the Obama administration begins to take shape.  First it was the announcement that Rahm Emanuel would become Obama’s Chief of Staff.  Emanuel, who is one of the most ardent supporters of apartheid Zionism practiced in Israel on Palestinians, also voted for the trillion dollar give away to banks, voted to authorize the war in 2002, and worked to defeat an anti-war candidate in Illinois (see Tammy Duckworth v. Christine Cegelis).  Then there was the announcement that Lawrence Summers would head the National Economic Council and act as Assistant to the President for Economic Policy.  Mr. Summers found fame when, as president of Harvard, he publically suggested that women are inferior to men in math and science, which accounted for Harvard’s disproportionately low numbers of women in math and sciences.  Mr. Summers lost his gig as president shortly after.  And lastly we learn that Hillary Clinton will be named Secretary of State, as hawkish a hawk there has ever been. 

Even with this, it is hard to deny that the symbolic significance of Obama’s election to president is indeed staggering.  It certainly wasn’t lost upon me.  I was teaching as the election results began to come in, and we had a TV on in the background.  My disinterest in the results didn’t mean that I couldn’t appreciate the historic nature of the event; historic it certainly was.  The significance can be overblown, however. 

THE END OF RACISM, AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM,  & EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

A few years back, Brit Hume (on Fox’s Sunday morning show) made the claim that racism in the US was no longer an issue.  The argument Hume gave went unchallenged by the other panelist.  Hume suggested that racism couldn’t be a problem in US because large numbers of white kids listen to and immolate black entertainers.  Of course, this makes as much sense as saying that racism wasn’t a problem during slavery because white slave masters partook in raping their black slaves.  Or that racism wasn’t a problem in the 20s, 30s, and 40s because white kids swayed to the music of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington. 

So it came as no surprise that the election of Obama brought about all number and variety of questions concerning the end of racism in the US.  Very few of those questioned, aside from perhaps Brit Hume (though I must admit I have not heard Mr. Hume comment on the subject), suggested that Obama’s election marked the end of racism.  The Reuters article, “Obama’s win does not end U.S. racism, activists say,” demonstrated this quite well.  In the article, Earl Ofari Hutchinson is quoted as saying, “There is an acceptance among wide segments of the population that a qualified African American (Obama) can be accepted in the highest office, but that does not magically make the problems go away for the average person of color. Nothing has changed and for many the negative stereotypes are still very much there.” 

The article also quotes Chuck D, of Public Enemy. “People will say: ‘You guys have got a black president so it’s cool. It’s straight.’ But it does not erase the discussion (about race) that you need to have.”

On the other hand, many in the news media point to Obama’s win as evidence that there has been a drastic change in the racial landscape.  To a degree this is true, especially when one considers the history of the US.  For a country founded on genocide, slavery, and theft to elect a black man president is an astounding moment.  Considering that the US was one of the last nations to have in place an institutionalized system of apartheid the symbolic significance of the election of Obama cannot be overplayed.

Unfortunately, the election of Obama can be little more than symbolic.  Imagine that Obama, rather then winning the US presidency, was named the CEO of Walmart.  No one would deny that this would be a symbolically significant event; likewise, no one would imagine that Obama would disband Walmart or make it something other then Walmart.  The US presidency is an institutional position that requires presidential action.  US presidents act like US presidents.  They are tasked with maintaining the US’s primacy in the world: economically, militarily, with regard to consumption, pollution, and access to resources.  With the job come certain responsibilities that are inescapable.  Obama has already shown himself up to the task.  He has made no secrete that he will act as US presidents act, and that he thinks like US presidents think.  It is within the mental framework of the presidency that he should think it perfectly acceptable that he has the right to even discuss plans for a partial pullout, scaling down, or maintaining residual forces in Iraq.  IRAQ DOES NOT BELONG TO US! VENUSULA, BOLIVA, AFGHANISTAN, PAKISTAN, PALESTINE DO NOT BELONG TO US!

Only the Hubris of a US president would allow one to discuss such things as drawing down but maintaining forces in Iraq so that we can ratchet up our presence in Afghanistan.  To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  To a man with the hammer the size of the US military, the whole world looks like a nail. 

When the missiles continue to fall on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan after Obama is sworn in, ask them if those missiles hurt any less?  Ask them if they kill and dismember their family members any less?  Ask the people of Central and South America if US imperialism is any less destructive being that Obama is at the helm?   Militarism and imperialism are still militarism and imperialism regardless the occupant of the White House, Republican, Democrat, white, black, man or women. 

Racism does not die with a black man in the oval office, but that doesn’t mean that notions of US exceptionalism aren’t progressed.  A simple google search of the terms “Obama,” “end,” and “racism” reveals a disproportionate number of returns concerning a story that made the rounds through mainstream media shortly after the elections concerning France’s push to end racism, of course the implication being that the US has shown the rest of the world, or at least France, that racism is not the way to go. 

We heard other proclamations that usually begin “Only in America.” Such as Tom Holbrook’s Examiner.com article titled “Obama…Only in America.”  Holbrook writes, “As I said at the top… only in America!!!  An amazing, meteoric rise for any man in the political world but even more amazing is the fact that, Barack Hussein Obama, the son of an Arabic black father of Kenya, and a white American mother from Kansas, is the first black person in the history of the United States to ascend to the highest and most powerful political office in our country.”  Russell Redenbaugh in his article “Barack Obama: Only In America” wrote, “Obama’s climb to the Presidency is the definition of the American dream”.  A The San Diego Union Tribune editorial stated that “[Obama’s] election is an affirmation of American ideals to a world that has grown increasingly skeptical of our actions and intentions”. Of course Obama himself has said that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

Obama’s election has also allowed some among us to feel better about ourselves.  Black friends have told me stories about white acquaintances, or even strangers pointing to “Obama 08” bumper stickers on their cars, as if signs of…what(?)…solidarity…liberal credentials…a sign that they are not racist?

Chuck D goes on to say in the Reuters article that, the election of Obama may become “a weapon of mass distraction.”  Obama’s election is certainly historic, but racism, & let’s not forget classism, will still be interwoven in the fabric of the US so long as the war on drugs is used as an excuse to lock up black and brown people at disproportionally higher numbers and for longer terms.  So long as we continue to build walls around our borders to keep those undesirables out, so long as we turn our hateful eyes toward the weakest among us, the poor, the immigrants, the homeless, the infirmed racisms/classism remain an integral part of our society.  So long as our foreign policies privileges US lives & economic interests over Iraqi, Afghani, Pakistani, Palestinian, Cuban, Haitian, Mexican, and Sudanese lives then Obama’s election doesn’t mark the end of racism, but more of the same.

CARLOS FIERRO lives in Fresno, CA, where he teaches Journalism & Mass Communication at a local college.  He is the founding editor of The Undercurrent, an independent monthly newspaper, where this article originally appeared.  He can be reached at editor@FresnoUndercurrent.net.