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The Economics of Contempt


If it’s spring, it must be time for Barack Obama’s annual drive-by of black America, where he piously lectures African-Americans on the state of their lives. Though the tinsel adorning his rhetorical flourishes is getting somewhat frayed, the president didn’t disappoint this year. Indeed, he treated the nation to two speeches on civil rights in a single week–a rare double-header for the commander of drones.

On April 10, Obama could be found in Texas, delivering an arid speech at the LBJ Presidential Library, studded with pompous non-sequiturs (“history not only travels forwards, it travels backwards”) and awkward allusions to civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King, for whom Obama has little natural affinity.

The main takeaway from the Austin speech was that the legislative landmarks of the mid-1960s were about as good as it’s ever going to get. “Half a century later, the laws LBJ passed are now as fundamental to our conception of ourselves and our democracy as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” Obama said. There was no mention of new legislation or programs to address unemployment, job discrimination, malnutrition, decaying public schools or poverty. At best Obama made a rather timid call for the defense of the old Johnson era laws, which, in his tendentious narrative, are being gnawed away by the reactionary right.

As usual, Obama confessed no regrets, offered no apologies, copped to no transgressions against any of the battered ideals of the Great Society, even as that very week his administration quietly surpassed the mark of deporting two million undocumented immigrants. (Predictably, Michelle tweeted a few days later that she and Barack just loved the new Cesar Chavez movie.) What Obama doesn’t say outright, but surely believes, is that the brawny liberalism of LBJ is passé, a relic of a bygone political tradition, the legislative ruins of a former age. The president is, of course, the grinning face of neo-liberalism, an ideology that rejects legislative cures for the magical elixir of financial incentives and market-driven remedies. How’s that working out for you, Detroit?

Obama is a master of casual condescension. His true gift as an orator is in making you feel as if your misfortunes in life–losing your job, being evicted from your house, going bankrupt–are the products of your own lack of initiative or some moral failing. And then, remarkably, he entices the victims into applauding their own humiliation. That’s a kind of political prestidigitation even Reagan, with his strange power of seduction, couldn’t quite pull off.

This bag of ineluctable parlor tricks was on full-display a few days later in New York, when Obama spoke at the National Action Network conference. NAN is run by Rev. Al Sharpton, who had, only days earlier, been outed as a former FBI snitch, having deployed a bugged briefcase in attempts to gather damaging information on both mobsters and, more pungently, black radicals. No wonder Sharpton has a running gig on MSNBC.

Obama gave a jauntier talk at the NAN convention, tuning his banal homilies to the rhythms of a Jay-Z rap. You know: Uptown and sanctimonious. His mission that day was to skewer Republicans (easy enough) and offer up some rationale for Sharpton’s troops to remain loyal retainers of the Democratic Party (a more vexing challenge). In the end, he chose to present himself as a vigorous champion of the Voting Rights Act and proclaimed the election of Democrats in the midterms as the last line of defense for the franchise. The audience lapped it up, naturally. After all, he’d made a special visit just to see them.

But in the context of his presidency (or any president since LBJ, for that matter), what does the right to vote mean, if there’s no one to vote for? No one who represents your interests? No one who will speak for you? If each pull of the ballot lever simply rings up the same merciless policies?

The returns are in on the Obama economy. He saved Wall Street, bailed out the banks, declined to prosecute felonious executives and redistributed billions upward into the off-shore accounts of the mega-rich. Pretty much everyone else got the shaft. But no community has fared worse under Obama, than urban blacks. The plight of black Americans is more extreme today than when Obama assumed command. Fresh evidence of this travesty rolls in every day. On April 1, a report by the Ann Casey Foundation described the conditions of black children as being “dire,” significantly worse, in terms of health, nutrition, education and housing, than even Native American children. This bleak assessment received scant attention in the national press.

The new Jim Crow extends far beyond the savage politics of mass incarceration, documented in such striking detail by Michelle Alexander. The American economy is more and more segregated and hostile to the aspirations of minorities. The black unemployment rate remains twice that of whites, a disparity that has not narrowed over the course of Obama’s term. In fact, it’s almost certainly widened since blacks are much more likely to be part of the long-term unemployed and thus uncounted. Even during the so-called recovery, black unemployment rates remained far above recession levels.

The income gap between blacks and whites is widening, with white workers earning nearly $20,000 more a year on average than blacks. The wealth disparity is even more extreme. A recent report by the Urban Institute reveals that family wealth for whites is more than six-times that of blacks, a gap of more than $450,000 per family. Meanwhile, public schools are more segregated than at anytime since 1970.

The insidious economic violence of everyday life in America grinds on, all but unnoticed except by those on the receiving end. Welcome to the economics of contempt.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray) will be published in June by CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at:


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at:

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