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The Politics of Race in America

When I got on the bus last April after Barack Obama’s primary victory in North Carolina, the conversation was naturally enough about that victory.  Despite its southern location, the town I live in–Asheville, NC–is known for its liberal politics and social tolerance.  Consequently, the overriding tone was one of exuberance.  Young black men and older veterans of the desegregation struggles of the 1960s smiled knowingly at each other.  Indeed. one fellow said to every black person who got on the bus–“Black President.”  Occasionally, he gave the new passenger what the right wing called a “terrorist fist pump.”  If there was somebody on the bus who objected to this display, they kept their mouth shut.

As any person who follows the US news knows, this silence is disappearing.  Indeed, since Sarah Palin hit the campaign trail, the rallies of her supporters and those of her fellow ticket member have become focal points for some of the most racist and small minded elements of the US body politic.  The cries of “kill him” and “terrorist” heard at recent GOP campaign rallies are stoked by the slate of commercials appearing on television that insinuate some kind of evil comradeship between Barack Obama and and education professor Bill Ayers.  Right wing talk shows and television programs broadcast outright lies that suggest Obama is somehow in league with Osama Bin Laden and hates the United States.  They imply that his multiracial background is somehow Unamerican and a threat to national security.  The GOP candidates meanwhile, send mixed messages regarding their agreement with these sentiments.

Given the recent rise in racist sentiment against Obama and the attempts to label his background as different from the America most Americans know, the question arises.  Is a vote for Barack Obama a vote against racism?  Despite his consistent support for a system dependent on racially tinged wars and economic policies that tend to hurt non-white people and nations the most, does the fact that he is an African-American strike a blow against the racist forces still at play in the United States?  Will a black man in the White House put a symbolic end to the overriding assumption in US politics that only white men deserve to rule this capitalist preserve?

I believe it will.  It will strike a blow against the retrograde racism that still resides in the US subconscious–a racism that surfaces when the racial order is seriously threatened as it was in the 1950s and 1960s during the struggles against racial apartheid in the US South and the more insidious racism of its northern states.  It is this same racism that echoes in the attacks on Obama on FoxNews and right wing blogs.  An Obama victory would symbolically undo the last vestige of white power in the Washington political world, while at the same time further entrenching the very system that white power birthed and white privilege has maintained.

It will also prove that skin tone, much like Maggie Thatcher’s rule in Great Britain proved about gender, that a person’s skin color does not decide their preference for any particular political or economic system.  In other words, being black does not mean that one is a revolutionary.  For those of us who have followed the political histories of various third world nations, it is no surprise that the temptation of money and power negates the racial and ethnic allegiances of most men and women.  This isn’t to say that Obama has sold himself down a river of avarice and power without principle.  It is merely noted to point out that Barack Obama has made it clear that he believes in the US system as much as almost any person who has run for the office.  Consequently, he sees his primary role to be ensuring that that system perseveres.

Despite the servitude to this system built on the sweat and blood of African slaves, immigrant and native workingmen and women, and the blood of too many young men and women in uniform, Barack Obama’s run for president has become a historically important event.  If he makes it to the White House, his presence there has the potential to become an event on par with the presidency of Abraham Lincoln during a bitter and bloody war that ended slavery in the United States.  Like Lincoln, Obama is a servant of the capitalist system.  Also like Lincoln, he is no radical, not even in his own party.  Yet, like Lincoln, his presence in the White House could very well begin another reimagination of the neverending story of race in America.  No matter what, his candidacy has highlighted the ever-present contradictions of a nation that founded itself by proclaiming the freedom and equality of all men while enslaving a considerable portion of its dark-skinned population.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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