I have argued from the beginning that the “first black presidency” of the deeply conservative Barack Obama is a detriment for black America and the cause of racial justice. The case for this officially counter-intuitive position has rested on the observation of four problematic developments predicted by a few of us on the seriously anti-racist left.
First, Obama’s ascendancy provides millions of white Americans with what they take to be final proof for their flatly false belief that racism no longer poses relevant barriers to black advancement and racial equality in the United States. The existence of a black president is the last nail in the coffin for many whites when it comes to “proving” that blacks owe their position at the bottom of the American System to their own individual and cultural inadequacies and failures.
Second, the Obama White House has been incredibly reluctant to do anything positive specifically on behalf of black Americans and racial justice at least partly because of his race. Obama’s advisors feel that he has already pushed enough white racial panic buttons simply by being technically black. For him to advance policy specifically on behalf of the black American people who voted for him at a rate of 90 percent would – assuming (against much evidence) that the “post-racial” Obama wanted to make such policy – push Caucasians voters over the edge.
Third, Obama’s technical blackness has helped give his presidency fake-progressive clothing. It has helped lend false rebels’ disguise to his reactionary allegiance to reigning corporate and imperial elites, whose continuing dominance wreaks disproportionate harm on people of color. Obama’s race helps liberals and others think they are doing something progressive by supporting him even as his administration has: advanced the monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords; refused to cut down the parasitic financial institutions that crashed the economy; pushed through health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love; cut an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight and raided union pension funds; undermined desperately needed carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen (2009) and Durban (2011); refused to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise); green-lighted offshore drilling, domestic fracking, and numerous other environmentally disastrous practices; rolled over George W. Bush’s regressive tax cuts for the rich; frozen federal wages and salaries; cut a debt-ceiling deal (in the summer of 2011) that was all about cutting social programs instead of tax increases on the rich,); failed to embrace and defend the public worker uprising in Wisconsin; helped coordinate the armed force dismantlement of Occupy Wall Street encampments across the country; escalated Superpower violence in South Asia; passed record-setting “defense” (Empire) budgets; extended the U.S.- imperial terror war to Yemen and Somalia; disguised the escalated U.S. occupation of Haiti as humanitarian relief; expanded the U.S. Navy’s imperial presence in east Asia; aided and abetted a vicious right wing coup in Honduras; and expanded the Pentagon’s reach in Latin America.[i]
Fourth, the identity-politicized psychological wage that the “first black presidency” has offered to black America has come with a steep price. It assaulted many black Americans’ historically strong capacity for independent and progressive political thought and action. It has dulled many black Americans’ sense of how terribly they and their communities are faring in still deeply racist America. The latest capitalist crisis has (as usual) wreaked disproportionate havoc on the black community, creating Great Depression-like levels of poverty and unemployment in black neighborhoods. It has sent the black-white median household wealth gap down to seven black cents on the white dollar. Despite this and more (the racist mass incarceration state marches long, disfiguring more than 1 in 3 black males with the lifelong caste-mark of a felony record), black Americans in the Age of Obama express what is for them historically unprecedented levels of agreement with the proposition that the country is moving “in the right direction” – a reversal of position experts can explain only by the potent illusory power of the existence of a first technically black president.
I am reminded here of something the brilliant left author, filmmaker, and commentator John Pilger said at a socialist conference in San Francisco in the summer of 2009:
“The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters, I believe, above all, is the class one serves. George W. Bush’s inner circle from the State Department to the Supreme Court was perhaps the most multiracial in presidential history. It was PC par excellence. Think Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell. It was also the most reactionary.” [ii]
The Role Model Argument
I’ve had modest success in making this four-pronged argument to progressive and liberal Democrats of different races over the last two years. The initial statement of my thesis raises eyebrows and sparks defensiveness among many Democrats, but the harsh reality behind the analysis above is hard to deny when difficult facts are presented in a logical and respectful way. Nevertheless, the notion that the Obama presidency might actually be bad for black America receives a durable last-ditch defense commonly invoked (in my experience) by those determined to find a deeply positive racial meaning in the Obama presidency. I am referring to the role model argument. “Okay fine,” the argument goes, “you make some good points, but you’ve got to admit that Obama has done blacks a great service by providing a role model of success – ultimate success in his case – achieved through intellectual, professional, and political pursuits, NOT by dunking a basketball or running back kickoffs or busting rap or running with gangs and dealing drugs. Obama got where did by hitting the books, going to school, applying himself, and learning how to present himself to a broad audience in a thoughtful, respectable, and eloquent fashion. Plus, he’s a great family man, without sexual or other personal scandal.”
I have made some of this counter-argument myself. I have heard aspects of this defense spill from my own lips in settings where my take on Obama has been so harsh (well, so real) that I found it politically wise to say at least one good thing about the racial meaning of the Obama phenomenon/presidency beyond the obvious observation that Caucasian racial animosities softened enough (and that the nonwhite percentage of the electorate had grown enough) for a certain, outwardly impressive and unthreatening (for whites) kind of black candidate (“black not like Jesse” Obama) to defeat a senile oaf from a discredited white nationalist party (John McCain) in a particular presidential election. There is a role model problem in black America, after all, thanks not to some inherent flaw in black culture but to the various ways in which white-supremacist U.S. capitalism has devastated black families’ economic prospects while selling commodified images of black athletic and entertainment success.
A Gang-Banger With a Twist
Still, bearing in mind that the young Obama would have loved to be an NBA star (an impossible dream given the fact that he has less than a tenth the basketball talent enjoyed by his pasty white Education Secretary Arne Duncan – a former professional Euro-baller), how far do we really want to go in holding up Barack Obama as a role model for young blacks or indeed for anyone else? This is a slick politician whose entire career (from Harvard Law to the present) has been about making deals with dominant white, capitalist, and imperial power elites. He has thrown his fellow minority Harvard Law students, a progressive black Illinois state senator (Alice Palmer), his (allegedly beloved) white grandmother, his former (supposedly beloved) preacher (Jeremiah Wright), the single payer health insurance movement, the labor movement, the peace movement, the civil rights movement (and the broader struggle against racial inequality), the environmental movement, the Wall Street reform movement, the campaign finance reform movement, the civil liberties community, the Palestinians, and many others under the bus in the pursuit of two terms in the White House and (he dreams) a space on Mount Rushmore.
Along the way, Obama has unwittingly given the world a rich tutorial on who really rules America behind the charade of “democracy” – the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money.” He has worked to discourage and downplay public consciousness of the continuing problem of racism and the need for programs and policies specifically addressing the distinctive barriers and difficulties faced by black Americans. And he sent a large number of innocent people (including many women and children) to premature deaths with criminally deployed drones, missiles, bombs, bullets, and shells in the oil-rich Middle East and Southwest Asia.
Obama has deposited a shameful hat-trick on the bust of Dr. Martin Luther King that sits in his oval office. He has put a technically black presidential face on each of what the democratic socialist King called “the triple evils that are interrelated”[iii] – economic exploitation (capitalism), racism (deeply understood as a many-sided institutional system with unequal racial outcomes beyond the relatively trivial question of whether some whites are ready to vote for a certain type of black candidate for mayor or president) and militarism – and on related evils as well, including eco-cide and the Big Brother police state.
As Obama rushes from one opulent, police-protected 1% campaign fundraiser to another and it emerges that fully half the U.S. population has fallen into poverty (50 million Americans) or near-poverty low-income status (150 million), [iv] it strikes me that Barack Obama, is a gang-banger in own right. He’s a special kind of technically black gangster with a twist. Black American though he may officially be, he is the latest and re-branded out-front Don Corleone for the biggest mob outfit of all time – the white-owned and white-run American State-Capitalist Empire.
It remains to be seen whether the white overlords consider him fit for a second term. Perhaps they have determined that they’ve gotten all they need from the “first black president” and have decided to throw him out the back of their limousine (in front of Bill Clinton’s office in Harlem, perhaps). Either way, Obama’s service to vile and murderous power structures ought to disqualify him as a worthy role model for black kids or anyone else. What kind of message does his supine faithfulness to entrenched domestic and imperial hierarchies send to the youth of America and the world? That the best way to advance and reach your potential is by hitching your star to the wealth and influence of undemocratic elites and say the Hell with the rest of those less privileged and powerful folks amid “the 99%” ? It’s a narcissistic message of betrayal and treason, of selling out and peddling your soul to the masters of Empire & Inequality, Inc.
History provides black America and the world with far better black American role models, from Denmark Vesey through Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robeson, Rosa Parks, Malcom X, and Dr. King, who wrote before his death that that the “real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial questions” was “the radical reconstruction of society itself”[v] and who (like Malcom X) died before his time because he knew that the real change required would have to go far deeper than an occasional deceptive and Janus-faced color change in elected office, no matter how high.
Paul Street, an Iowa City resident, is the author or numerous books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010) and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party
(Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at email@example.com.
[i] For an account of Obama’s first year in office along these lines, see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010). For Obama’s performance since his first year, please consult (among other sources) my 2010, 2011, and 2012 essays linked at www.paulstreet.org
[ii] John Pilger, “Obama and Empire” (speech to International Socialist Organization, San Francisco, California, July 4, 2009). View and hear the segment at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/08/18/john-pilger-obama-is-a-corporate-marketing-creation/
[iii] Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (New York: Maryknoll, 1996), 101.
[iv] CBS, “Census Data: Half of U.S. Poor or Low Income,” (December 15, 2011) at
http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57343397/census-data-half-of-u.s-poor-or-low-income/; RT, “Half of America is Officially Poor” (December 15, 2011) at http://rt.com/usa/news/half-poor-america-poverty-909/
[v] See Martin Luther King Jr, “A Testament of Hope” (1968), reproduced in in Martin Luther King, Jr.., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. By James M. Washington (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1991), 315..