How Not To Talk About Obama

Photograph Source: Martin Alonso – CC BY 2.0

Sound materialist analysis (not always satisfying) often adds a little treat at the end. For example, let’s take the Barack Obama rules. Instead of saying Barack Obama was a neoliberal President who largely complied with the general trend of the last half-century of consolidating wealth, privatizing industry, and using imperialism and capitalism together to continue the expansion of a an earth wrecking growth model, period, we hear something more like Barack Obama was a neoliberal and he was black just to fool everyone.

Now of course Barack Obama is black. There is no political ideology that would change that or make a white ally become black. And I don’t exactly get why the critique of his race is relevant at all to the everyday struggle of the working and non-working poor under capitalism.

The left likes to say that identity politics is a distraction, but then why get distracted by it? To view Barack Obama’s skin color as a replacement for racial justice initiatives seems completely arbitrary. No matter who the people in power are, the change will come from the bottom.

By describing Obama’s race as such a replacement we find agreement with the right who finds conversations about race to be superficial. They’d rather talk about genes as the wimpy President did at a recent rally. Who are we competing with when we say Obama’s race was a diversion? Do we really think poor people thought that there was a revolution when Obama got elected?

When people say identity politics is a distraction, they usually just mean they would rather see a different identity. People who actually see it as a distraction don’t mind which color the President is, they care about what his (and hopefully one day soon her or their) policies are.

Much is made of Black Lives Matter coming to power under Obama, who further militarized the police. One could read it both ways though. Just as Obama continued the neoliberal agenda that destabilizes society and creates racial tension, so too do identity groups find a way to organize in rebellion as a unit. I’m not so sure that Black Lives Matter really formed as some leftists say because Obama really failed to be black.

What is an identity to these speculators if it must also come with a built-in ideology? If white allies really want racial justice so bad, why are we counting on a corporate neoliberal to do it for us, just because of his race?

The postmodern irony was used to perfection by Trump in the latest debate. These days to be interesting people like to mash up all sorts of disparate and contradictory concepts in order to stand out in an overloaded Information Age. However, it just doesn’t make sense to say Obama’s grand trick was to fool people with his race. In America you win in spite of your black race, not because of it.

Could Obama have won as a Malcolm X style radical, as the left still hopes for from every black person? Nope. But you can’t even win as a Bernie style radical under neoliberalism. Why Obama is compared to Malcolm X for any other reason besides their skin color is a tough nut to crack.

The same logic is evident in a lot of what presents itself as left criticism. Usually, what is true and important needs to be piled onto with unnecessary stimuli. Such as Israel-Palestine. What on earth does the atrocity in Palestine have to do with a Jewish State? If anything, the struggles of Muslims and Jewish people are linked. But there’s nothing fun about that.

Now we’re being told by the same people who peddle anti-Obama hysteria that a Biden vote is absolutely necessary to counter fascism. How reactionary. Whatever criticism of Obama one has can also be carried over to Biden. Trump said he was a fascist. Even in 2016 against who the left sees as the scary woman Hillary. It’s all a little predictable. Of course, we respect and stand in solidarity with all left strategies no matter if it’s lesser evil or greater good. As long as there is heart in the fight who really cares?

Seeing that there is only 24 hours in a day, the left likes to make the sexy argument that wasting time on “identity politics”’erases real racial programs, whatever they are. Sorry, but there is going to be some upward mobility when we apply these projects. It’s not an either/or approach. Fascism is closing in and there is only 24 hours in a day. Why waste time spinning a tale about how identity politics silenced the left, when the only thing this reveals is an unnecessary obsession with upward mobility by marginalized groups.

We’re all in for the communist revolution. Why alienate people by shitting on the ways they’ve been marginalized in their own lives? Sure, Obama is black, but does that really make him a greater danger to society? Is the corporate neoliberal really on the verge of going socialist if not for their racial blind spot? Nonsense. It’s all related.

Let’s not get too cute. Power is as power does. It’s a losing argument to attempt to mystify or marginalIze a material condition dismissed as “identity”. No matter what eugenics gymnastics we play, we can’t turn material identity into an ideology. If a black neoliberal is scarier than a white neoliberal to you than you clearly need to re-evaluate the dangers of neoliberalism. It’s much scarier to be sold out to the highest bidder than to concede to more equality. Solidarity can be the unifying factor, where we recognize the real difference is not in the color of skin but the content of character. Let’s not lose a clear winner of an argument: neoliberalism is a road to universal precariousness.

The left likes to couple difficult material arguments with a little bit of bait. I worry that the fish could bite off the bait without getting hooked on communism. Why wouldn’t the main lesson of an anti-identity lesson be that certain groups shouldn’t be too uppity? A clear argument centered in policy would be more useful. We don’t need to criticize a politician for failing to achieve his identity, but rather we should level criticism against his failure to achieve his ideals.

The first step in humanizing people is to treat them as humans, not as mere algorithms of affirmative action or some other SJW plot. The sooner we can stop asking the identity question will be the sooner we can get away from the right and their division by subtraction—divide the populist only to subtract from them without a peep.

Let’s face it. A neoliberal is a neoliberal. If somebody really thinks Obama gained an edge over a Joe Biden or Bill Clinton because of some liberal anti-racist consensus then I hate to think what they would think of a black person who works for a living. Would this person be questioned as worthy? Would they be viewed as a token meant to distract from the grand liberal plot?

This comes back to the misleading nature of the term neoliberal. The market may be liberalized but when we let the market run amok we lose any liberalism we once had. Sure we can blame Obama for failing to make life good enough for us to reject Trump. But this sort of expectation of the Democrats is its own source of ballot fetish. The world and the Democratic Party is only what we make of it.

The work of building a coalition lacks the proper gossip of anti-identity leftists who want to dismiss Obama because of his race rather than his policy. I don’t doubt that this hostile attitude towards race and neglect of policy yields votes but at what cost? African Americans make up 40% of the homeless population but only 2% of the Presidents. Why resent when you could resist?

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at