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This is a touchy topic. Liberals and progressives of current fashion had best stay away from it or hide under the bed sheets, too those enthralled by political correctness (often the same crowd), for, as I wrote in a New York Times Comment (July 29) in response to Bill Keller’s Op-Ed article (same date), “Profiling Obama,” and actually, not the Comment, but the reply to a hostile reply, and hence, perhaps an overstatement (although on reflection, I don’t think so):
“Defend your man, by all means. I was at Mississippi Freedom Summer, at Selma before the grand march, at a lot of demonstrations—and so, feel I’ve earned my right to criticize Obama as a traitor to the black race, based on having worked with many courageous blacks who understood, better than he, the meaning of DEMOCRACY .“ (Italics, mine)
This is not a matter of, Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is blackest of us all, as though a popularity contest were underway, but rather a political-ideological-structural question concerning Obama’s own record, and the reasonable historical expectations one has about a first-time-ever black president of the United States. Let’s address the second first. Is it historical-racial profiling to think that, given blacks’ unique position of an underclass in America, enslaved for centuries, discriminated against (still to this day), for many, even in the first-half of the 20th century placed in Georgia chain-gangs, living in squalid urban slums, unable to claim the most basic rights to citizenship, and to the present day itself living under the cloud of an almost formalized system of apartheid, given the realities of income, wealth, power, class stratification, and still greater realities of white-America’s ethnocentrism, authoritarianism, and racial fear, thus creating a cultural framework in which the menace of terror (not al Qaeda, but apple-pie rosy-cheeked Americanism) is etched into the black consciousness—not Obama’s superficial examples recently given, entering elevators, white women clutching their purses, etc., but racial crimes, police brutality, raw indignities, well beyond produce clerks looking askance at the purchase of arugula—to have the expectation therefore that the first black president, both to honor that suffering and rectify the conditions of discrimination and exploitation, to stand proudly for SOCIAL JUSTICE as the cornerstone of his administration?
Is it asking too much that a first black president recognize, based on the historical experience of his own people (i.e., if he admits to himself that blacks are his own people, and not a political springboard for jumping into politics), that oppression, subjugation, inequality, are bad per se, whomever has to bear their brunt, that racism, applied to blacks, is the generic formula of domination which could be applied to any and all races, not on grounds of color, but class-grounds of who holds power, where is it located, what forms it takes, and how transferred or translated through the social system? And with that recognition, as the most elemental test of human decency, regard for humankind, political integrity, do something, if worthy as a leader, then with every fiber of one’s body work against, rather than joining with, the existing ruling class to advance the interests of all the people! Is that asking too much? Obama is a traitor to the black race. Period. I reach for my handy Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate, in which the primary definition for traitor is, “one who betrays another’s trust or is false to an obligation or duty.”
We’re not talking about ordinary, average, run-of-the-mill leadership. This is the president. This is the first black president. Betrayal follows him at every step, not simply on race, but on promises made or implied, programs, likewise, which had the potential for freeing and improving the lot of all working people—at least that was the tone of the ’08 campaign and the near-feverish reception to Obama’s Inaugural Address (I like many radicals and civil rights activists, enraptured, near tears, welcoming his and now America’s triumph over bigotry, privilege, militarism). A letdown? Far worse. Our hero’s despisement of all that we foolishly projected onto him, largely—it must be frankly stated—because of the color of his skin. It’s time to remove the protective coloration. A man must be judged by what he does, in this case, not hide behind his racial identity, which by consciously soft-pedaling, deliberately accentuates it more, while neutralizing its effect on potentially mistrustful whites (not to say, outright bigots, of which there are plenty). Obama walks a fine tightrope, stage-managed to perfection. (We will sincerely miss Axelrod, if in fact he is gone, for his finely-crafted strategems and political genius.) Race is, like capitalism and militarism, one of the elephants in the room, so large as to be invisible, as Obama– given a free pass by Bill Keller, where we started this morning, reflecting the bulk of liberal and centrist opinion-makers–presses forward, always stepping warily (as befitting the man on tightrope) yet in a single direction: away from race altogether, to the facilitation of America’s most retrograde features, from the standpoint of a democratic society—its hegemonic ambitions, contemptuous of the rest of the world; its placation of every segment of US ruling groups (a ruling class in all but name, and with some marginal friction among its members), starting with banking and finance in general, but extending over a wide swath of corporate-monopolistic America, e.g., oil, defense, nuclear power, chemicals (Monsanto presently eating a lot of news print), pharmaceuticals, an assortment of wealth-concentration soaring to the heavens; its fascistic (no other word is appropriate in the circumstances) and insatiable demand for the social control of the entire society, founded on an ingrained disposition among political-economic-military elites (shared by POTUS) toward authoritarianism on the suspicion the sky was falling down, that working people, the poor, the disadvantaged would somehow, some day, strike out against them.
Obama at the ready, national-security advisers in tow, the intelligence community literally panting at the new-found opportunities offered by its Friend in the White House to become fully operational, and not just concerned with intelligence, a scene and cast of characters in which he becomes indistinguishable from Bush 2, except only more sophisticated, and for that reason, more destructive on the big-ticket items, China, surveillance, cyberwarfare, and, of course, targeted assassination, all of which he greatly extends, quantitatively and qualitatively, the dangerous policies of his predecessor. Have we forgotten here about race? Why not, for Obama has; he is too busy expanding America’s military power abroad, unprecedented surveillance at home. Which leads me to the first concern, not historical expectations of the first-ever black president, but his record as it bears on those expectations, and thereby affects blacks in America. Aside from the coterie of blacks surrounding him–Holder, Rice, Jarrett—all having stellar corporate credentials and/or being highly upwardly mobile, Obama, notwithstanding his curriculum-vita entry phase as community organizer, has had little experience, or knowledge, of, still less, empathy for, predominant black existential problems of living and survival. In public policy he has kept his race apart, not for, what I believe the radical reasoning, the need to transcend race in order to alter social structure as itself a means of elevating all races and ending racial divisiveness. No, he has kept race at arms-length for expediential reasons, as a nonconsequential factor in the solidification of the foundations of monopoly capitalism, militarily buttressed, in America.
What’s in that for blacks, except via a spurious trickle-down theory and framework of wealth percolating to the bottom strata of the economic order? Taking his policies one-by-one, I find that blacks suffer further degradation because the essential structure of domination, racial and otherwise, is left perfectly intact. Obama’s transformative ballyhoo is merely the tightening of class structure, and the ideological burden of invidiousness in all its forms that derives from the establishment and sanctity of privilege and disproportionately affects blacks as low-man on the psychological totem pole as well as source of cheap labor in society. Regulation? Hardly, as every agency of government, all under Obama’s stewardship and therefore watch, through Executive organization, appointments, policy making, has turned its back on the public interest in favor of fending off effective supervision on its behalf, a shield of armor which provides government’s protection and bountiful support for the interests presumed to be regulated—not a situation, as in banking, boding well for the lower classes, black and white, as the recent mortgage crisis attests. In every realm of the system, there is more of the same, FDA, SEC, EPA, an alphabet soup, unlike in the New Deal, where the wealthy sup, the poor washing the bowls. Through their assistance, the regulators pound nails into the coffin of the poor, again, disproportionately represented by blacks, who, I believe, here illustrate the proposition that the political economy itself must be fundamentally altered if blacks, or others, obviously the white poor included, who compose society’s bottom groups, are to achieve decent living and working conditions and a secure place in the legal and political systems.
Precisely because of his arraying the institutions, structure, and policies of America against the poor as such, or through studied inaction, allowing problems, many created by the failure to regulate, cumulate, such as those involving climate change, gun control, environmental degradation, I stand by the assertion that Obama is a traitor to the black race—a policy maker of negativity, leaving an unjust system exactly in place, in spite of potentialities for the widespread sharing of abundance and the social enrichment of a multiracial culture in which all prosper, and none is neglected. Instead, by leaving an unjust system intact, he reproduces the very structural, economic, ideological, and political forces responsible for the victimization of blacks, and everyone not “privileged” to be part of America’s upper crust, including, as mentioned, a clear minority of blacks themselves who have donned the garb and pledged allegiance to a militaristic/monopolistic capitalism committed by a logic of exploitation to keeping blacks as a race in a subordinate condition. Treason proves color-blind when elevation to a higher plane of oppression and repression is possible—and, for Obama, actively sought and the mission prosecuted.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University. His new book, Eichmann on the Potomac, will be published by CounterPunch/AK Press in the fall of 2013.