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The Racial Politics of Symbols

In politics, symbols matter. And in a nation with a history of racialized chattel slavery, state sanctioned discrimination, and an anti-black racialist and racist culture, political symbols of racial progress matter tremendously.

It is in this context where the effusive praise of the ascendancy of Senator Barack Obama to the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency of the United States must be understood. By capturing a major party nomination, Senator Obama stands as a potent symbol of progress for the American experiment with democracy that continues to be plagued by its racial past that is still very much a part of its present.

But to equate the symbolic dimension of Senator Obama’s campaign for the presidency with the substantive standing and status of American democracy is to commit a serious error.

When one begins to critically examine the contemporary moment in American democratic development, we should pause in light of several deep and disturbing trends that have become prominent since the decline of the Black Freedom struggles of the 1960s. And, since Senator Obama is not running for president of a union local but for the highest political position in the United States, it is at the intersection of symbol and substance where we should critically confront the crisis of democracy in America.

The last eight years of the Bush-Cheney regime is often seen as an anomaly in contemporary American political development. Perpetual geopolitical and class warfare has been a hallmark of this regime’s politics along with a severe contraction of institutional accountability and democratic responsibility.

Although the current political regime was able to effectively exploit the opening presented by the tragic events of 11 September 2001 for the advancement of their id[th]eological worldview, the option to do so did not appear only at that moment. The Bush-Cheney regime was able to commence their rogue politics due to, among other things, the fact that they assumed political power at a moment in American political life that was deeply structure by the institutionalization of a conservative political philosophy, the intensification of neoliberal ideology, the globalization of a vicious speculative finance capitalism, the massive reorganization of the American military-industrial complex, and the legitimation of the American police-incarceral state.

It is this political apparatus and its theoretical infrastructure that we must critically confront and engage when we assess the potential and substance of Senator Obama’s presidential campaign.

What this means is that we must comprehend how and in what ways the structural limitations of the political in the United States enforces a severe discipline on the actions, ideologies, and strategies of politicians and of politics. Thus, although Senator Obama’s nomination represents yet another first in American political life, it is far from being a fundamental transformative event of the very institutional and theoretical structure of democracy in America.

The forces and interests that have molded American political institutions and culture in the last half of the twentieth century have created a style of democratic politics that thrives on a low level of support and involvement by the public while maximizing the power and presence of capital along with a new class of political intellectuals, technicians, and elites. Such a low intensity politics thrives on the mobilization of symbols while marginalizing the life chances of the majority of citizens. It is the confluence of the (racial) politics of symbols and an ideology of progress that causes and supports the theoretical and political confusions that inhibit any formulation of a critique of the crisis of democracy in America.

To be sure, Senator Obama’s political philosophy and policy proposals represent the very centrist positions that have captured the Democratic Party as a response to the fundamental reorganization of American political life by the conservatism of capital and culture. For instance, Senator Obama’s economic team is heavily tilted in favor of neoliberal economists and free marketers who, despite being a bit chastened by the “excesses” of global capitalism over the past decade, fundamentally believe in the inherent good of free markets, free flow of capital, and free exercise of business with little or no government regulation.

Despite the smooth veneer offered by the rhetoric of dialogue and diplomacy, Senator Obama’s foreign policy vision is still one wedded to the expansion and deepening of American Empire. Thus, we should not be surprised when we do not hear new and progressive pronouncements on Middle East policy – particularly when such pronouncements lack any deep probing and new ideas regarding the Isreali-Palestinian conflict – Latin American policy – particularly when such pronouncements offer only the continuation of the US imperial stance against Cuba and the desire to thwart the socialist alternative offered by Venezuela – and US security policy – particularly when such pronouncements are in favor of increased US troop strength, offer (qualified) support for the option for US unilateral action, and support for the newest arm of US imperialism in Africa, Africa Command (AFRICOM).

While the presidential campaign of Senator Obama has elicited responses ranging from unqualified support by his most fervent supporters to a critical support offered by some on the left, it has indeed been the symbol of Senator Obama as a major party presidential candidate that has garnered the most attention and political commentary in the current presidential election cycle.

“Imperialism,” John Bellamy Fosters advises, “is not simply a policy but a systematic reality.” Indeed, symbols matter. But in politics, symbols are not the only things that matter.

COREY D. B. WALKER is an assistant professor of Africana studies at Brown University and the author of A Noble Fight:  African American Freemasons and the Struggle for Democracy in America, which will be published in October.

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