Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 28, 2013

Obama’s doublespeak on race

Filed under: Obama,racism — louisproyect @ 6:59 pm

On July 19th Barack Obama spoke to reporters about the Trayvon Martin killing. This time he said that he could have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago, a follow-up to his March 23, 2012 observation that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. Although I generally have little use for Melissa Harris-Perry, there was little to disagree with in her remarks during an MSNBC round-table discussion of Obama’s remarks later that day: “But part of what the president did today in that sort of groping authentic conversation where you saw him saying, I don`t have all the answers here, I`m not quite sure — heck, have you noticed racism in America, big problem, you know, multiple generations, I don`t have all the answers.” Yes, big problem, I know.

But things are definitely getting better, according to the Chief Executive:

And let me just leave you with — with a final thought, that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

Despite denying that we are in a postracial society, others perceive Obama as moving “past race”. In a perceptive August 10, 2008 NY Times article titled “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?”, Matt Bai—a DLC-minded inside-the-beltway pundit—clearly saw what was in store and liked it very much. An Obama aide was very much in the post-racial mode:

‘I’m the new black politics,” says Cornell Belcher, a 38-year-old pollster who is working for Obama. ”The people I work with are the new black politics. We don’t carry around that history. We see the world through post-civil-rights eyes. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but that’s just the way it is.

”I don’t want in any way to seem critical of the generation of leadership who fought so I could be sitting here,” Belcher told me when we met for breakfast at the Four Seasons in Georgetown one morning. He wears his hair in irreverent spikes and often favors tennis shoes with suit jackets. ”Barack Obama is the sum of their struggle. He’s the sum of their tears, their fights, their marching, their pain. This opportunity is the sum of that.

After speaking to Corey Booker, Newark’s mayor who is cut from the same cloth as Obama, Bai learned that such politicians are not renouncing Black identity only the responsibility to defend Black people:

Even so, Booker told me that his goal wasn’t really to ”transcend race.” Rather, he says that for his generation of black politicians it’s all right to show the part of themselves that is culturally black — to play basketball with friends and belong to a black church, the way Obama has. There is a universality now to the middle-class black experience, he told me, that should be instantly recognizable to Jews or Italians or any other white ethnic bloc that has struggled to assimilate. And that means, at least theoretically, that a black politician shouldn’t have to obscure his racial identity.

This pretty much sums up what the Bill Cosby Show meant to most white Americans, a look at a family you would not mind living next door to even if they preferred shooting hoops to playing tennis, or listening to Mary J. Blige rather than Barbra Streisand.

Speaking of belonging to a Black church, Obama took advantage of the controversy surrounding Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s militant comments about racism in America to evoke postracial themes:

Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.

Of course, this begs the question of how you are going to get that Confederate Flag off the South Carolina state capitol unless you have some of Reverend Wright’s spine and big mouth.

In contrast to the Clintons, who built ties with the old guard civil rights leaders particularly those who became elected officials, Obama sought out fresh faces unburdened by the past. Bai reported:

For some black operatives in the Clinton orbit — people who have functioned, going back to Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in the 1980s, as Democratic Washington’s liaisons to black America — the fallout from an Obama victory would likely be profound. ”Some of them will have to walk the plank,” an Obama adviser told me bluntly. In their place, an Obama administration would empower a cadre of younger black advisers who would instantly become people to see in Washington’s transactional culture. Chief among them is Valerie Jarrett, a Chicago real estate developer who is one of Barack and Michelle Obama’s closest friends. ”She’s poised to be one of the most influential people in politics, and particularly among African-Americans in politics,” Belcher told me. ”She may be the next Vernon Jordan.” In fact, the last time I saw Clyburn, he told me he had just spent two and a half hours at breakfast with Jarrett.

As Obama’s Senior Adviser, Valerie Jarrett amounts to his Karl Rove. She was key to Obama’s early fundraising success, putting him in touch with powerful and wealthy figures on Wall Street and Chicago’s big bourgeoisie.

Robert Fitch, a NYC adjunct professor and long time Marxist author who died much too young at the age of 72 in 2011, gave a speech titled “The Change they Believe In” in November 2008 that was characteristically laser-sharp.

For almost a hundred years in Chicago blacks have lived on the South Side close to Chicago’s factories and slaughter houses. And Cellular Field, home of the White Sox. The area where they lived was called the Black Belt or Bronzeville—and it’s the largest concentration of African American people in the U.S.—nearly 600,000 people—about twice the size of Harlem.

In the 1950s, big swaths of urban renewal were ripped through the black belt, demolishing private housing on the south east side. The argument then was that the old low rise private housing was old and unsuitable. Black people needed to be housed in new, high-rise public housing which the city built just east of the Dan Ryan Expressway. The Administration of the Chicago Housing Authority was widely acclaimed as the most corrupt, racist and incompetent in America. Gradually only the poorest of the poor lived there. And in the 1980s, the argument began to be made that the public housing needed to be demolished and the people moved back into private housing.

But what does this all have to do with Obama? Just this: the area demolished included the communities that Obama represented as a state senator; and the top black administrators, developers and planners were people like Valerie Jarrett—who served as a member of the Chicago Planning Commission. And Martin Nesbitt who became head of the CHA. Nesbitt serves as Obama campaign finance treasurer; Jarrett as co-chair of the Transition Team. The other co-chair is William Daley, the Mayor’s brother and the Midwest chair of JP Morgan Chase—an institution deeply involved in the transformation of inner-city neighborhoods through its support for—what financial institutions call “neighborhood revitalization” and neighborhood activists call gentrification.

This is the real meaning of Blacks and whites coming together around an Obama presidency. On one side you have Obama, Jarrett, and Nesbitt—all African-American—and on the other side William Daley. The only color that matters to them is green, not the ecology green but the dollar bill green.

Given the deepening of racial injustice in the USA during Obama’s administration, he has to walk a tightrope. On one hand, he calls on people to serve under him who are inimical to Black interests such as Lawrence Summers, who is in line to become the head of the Federal Reserve. This is the same character that dressed down Cornel West for making a hip-hop record and argued for exporting toxic waste to African nations using the following logic: “The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City.”

Even more troubling is the possibility that Obama will follow through and install Raymond Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security. In an interview with Univision, a Spanish-language TV station (), Obama praised Kelly to the skies:

Well, Ray Kelly has obviously done an extraordinary job in New York and the federal government partners a lot with New York.  Because obviously our concerns about terrorism oftentimes are focused on big city targets.  And I think Ray Kelly is one of the best there is.  So he’s been an outstanding leader in New York.

Kelly is one of the best there is? Kelly was the architect and dead-end defender of stop-and-frisk. In a study conducted by the NY Civil Liberties Union, it was revealed that in the cops stopped people on the street 532,911 times. 55 percent were Black, 32 percent were Latino, and only 10 percent were white. The NY Daily News, which has evolved recently into a critic of stop-and-frisk and which carried bold attacks on George Zimmerman ostensibly in order to assuage its largely Black working-class readers, nailed the top cop:

At bottom, the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk regime represents a civil rights violation — one that disproportionally targets young black and Latino men. Though they make up only 4.7% of the city’s population, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6% of stops in 2011. The number of stops of young black men exceeded the city’s entire population of young black men.

The commissioner contends that this happens only because officers go where the crime is. But last year, large percentages of blacks and Latinos were also stopped in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, where 77% of people stopped were black or Latino.

So why does Obama speak out of both sides of his mouth? Or perhaps more accurately, why does he say that he is opposed to racial profiling while he is at the same time ready to put a racist like Raymond Kelly in his cabinet?

Clearly the answer is that the Democratic Party needs Black votes to win elections. Unlike any issue in recent memory, the vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin has activated the Black community. Just this week, Willie Louis, the Black youth who testified against the killers of Emmett Till in 1955, died at the age of 76. Despite the obvious differences between the state of lawlessness that existed in the Deep South in 1955 and today, there is still a problem with racists declaring an open season on Black youth–both of whom coincidentally had just returned from an innocent visit to a convenience store. Obama was under some pressure to take a clear stand on this matter, even if his words were in contradiction to his actions past and future.

In 2009 I wrote an article for Swans on “Are We Living in a Postracial America?” that reviewed David Roediger’s recently published “How Race Survived U.S. History: from settlement and slavery to the Obama phenomenon”. I recommend a look at my article but more importantly Roediger’s book that was published by Verso. Let me conclude with a few paragraphs from my review. In deference to the editors of Swans, I will keep my excerpt brief—understandably as they are opposed to the sort of crossposting that is endemic to the Internet.

As part of the euphoria surrounding the election of Barack Obama, members of the punditocracy speculated that the U.S. had entered a “post-racial” epoch. Typical was The Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland who editorialized on Election Day last year:

Barack Obama has succeeded brilliantly in casting his candidacy — indeed, his whole life — as post-racial. Even before the votes have been cast, he has written a glorious coda for the civil rights struggle that provided this nation with many of the finest, and also most horrible, moments of its past 150 years. If the results confirm that race was not a decisive factor in the balloting, generations of campaigners for racial justice and equality will have seen their work vindicated.

After deploying data in his introduction to How Race Survived U.S. History to the effect that racism continues unabated (one in three children of color lives in poverty as opposed to one in ten of white families, etc.), David Roediger poses the question: “How did white supremacy in the U.S. not yield to changes that we generally regard as constant, dramatic, and, in the main, progressive?” The remainder of his brilliantly argued and researched book gives the definitive answer to this question. As such, it belongs on the bookshelf next to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and other such works that offer a “revisionist” history of this country in accordance with truth and — more importantly — justice.

The theme that Roediger keeps coming back appears initially in Chapter One on colonial Virginia in the 17th century (“Suddenly White Supremacy”); namely, that a white identity was created in order to unite men and women of conflicting classes against the most exploited groups of the day: the slave and the Indian. And when necessary, blacks were also recruited to the master’s cause against the Indians. As has always been the case, the British — including the freedom-loving colonists who would form a new republic in 1776 — have been adept at dividing and conquering. Roediger writes:

The most spectacular example of revolt, Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, took Virginia to the brink of civil war. Broadly arising from the desire for good land among European and African servants and ex-servants, the rebellion therefore also had anti-Indian dimensions, demanding and implementing aggressive policies to speed settlement onto indigenous lands. Bondservants joined those who had recently served out “their time” under the leadership of the young English lawyer and venture capitalist Nathaniel Bacon, laying siege to the capital in Jamestown, burning it, driving Governor William Berkeley into exile, and sustaining insurrection for months. Authorities offered freedom “from their slavery” to “Negroes and servants” who would come over into opposition to the rebellion. Rebels, meanwhile, feared that they would all be made into “slaves, man, woman & child.” Both the promise of liberation and the language registering fear of retribution suggest how imperfectly class predicaments aligned with any firm sense of racial division.

(I will be following up on this post with something about Obama’s doublespeak on the economy.)


  1. We had a long discussion about race on lbo-talk. There were quite a few people who seem to think we are in a more or less post-racial United States. They think that we need to struggle for equality, full employment, and the like, and this will do the trick in terms of the differences between black and white people in this country. none of them responded much to those of us who argued otherwise, that race-specific struggles are much needed today. Racism, they seemed to say was passé. It wasn’t 1957, you know. And other such (to me) stupidities. One person made much of the rise in the number of black college graduates and the slow decline in the prison population. People went on and on about Tim Wise, as if he was the source of our racial inequities because he harps on them so much and sees race behind everything. Plus he took a job advising Teach for America. And this from people who have taken money from far worse outfits. Anyone who spoke of white supremacy and white racism was really out of touch. The whole discussion left a bad taste in my mouth.

    Comment by michael yates — July 28, 2013 @ 7:47 pm

  2. What exists in the USA today is not a “post-racial nation” but a post-racial bourgeoisie. Among working stiffs you can easily find cases of white workers who are fearful for their jobs and vent it out by cursing black people. But among the bourgeoisie you will find closer ties between Dick Cheney & Condoleezza Rice than you will between either of them and either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. The days when race was a genuine dividing line among sectors of the bourgeoisie are long over and done with. Contradictions among the working class still exist in a racial form, but no contradictions among the bourgeoisie are any longer defined by race.

    The differences between those two issues is frequently blurred by a variety of ideologues. Some may wish to encourage a vote for a Democrat, and so deliberately seek to frame the issue as one of an intra-bourgeois conflict over race. Others may have different motives. But the reality of the post-racial bourgeoisie in the USA today is one of the central facts of our time. The older Black Nation Thesis which Zinoviev & the Comintern had advocated for back in the 1930s was always based on this assumption of a split between a black bourgeoisie and a predominant white bourgeoisie. That is nowhere in the cards today.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — July 28, 2013 @ 9:26 pm

  3. Regarding your comments on David Roediger’s “How Race Survived U.S. History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon” (Verso Books, 2008) and on Roediger’s treatment of Bacon’s Rebellion in his chapter 1 (“Suddenly White Supremacy”) – I offer the following:

    For those interested in the subject matter of Roediger’s Chapter 1, I much prefer and strongly recommend the documentation and analysis in Theodore W. Allen’s two-volume “The Invention of the White Race” (Verso Books, 1994, 1997, new expanded edition 2012) — Vol. 1: “Racial Oppression and Social Control” (see http://www.jeffreybperry.net/_center__i__font_size__3__font_color__sepia___b_5__the_invention_of_the_br_white_116386.htm ) and vol. 2: “The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America” ( see http://www.jeffreybperry.net/_center__i__font_size__3__font_color__sepia___b_6__the_invention_of_the_br_white_116387.htm ).

    [Allen uses “Origin” because it is “consistent with the argument of the book, which shows class struggle to have been the origin of racial oppression, rather than ascribing racial oppression to ‘natural’ and/or pre-American ‘prejudices.’”]

    Allen’s work is extensively and meticulously footnoted unlike Roediger’s work, which doesn’t have a single footnote.

    Allen’s “The Invention of the White Race,” with its focus on racial oppression and social control, is one of the twentieth-century’s major contributions to historical understanding. It presents a full-scale challenge to what he refers to as “The Great White Assumption” – “the unquestioning, indeed unthinking acceptance of the ‘white’ identity of European-Americans of all classes as a natural attribute rather than a social construct.” With its rigorous documentation, equalitarian motif, emphasis on the class struggle dimension of history, groundbreaking analysis, and theory on the origin and nature of the “white race” Allen’s work contains the root of a new and radical approach to United States history.

    Readers of the first edition of “The Invention of the White Race” were startled by Allen’s bold assertion on the back cover: “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.” That statement, based on twenty-plus years of research of Virginia’s colonial records, reflected the fact that Allen found “no instance of the official use of the word ‘white’ as a token of social status” prior to its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691. As he later explained, “White identity had to be carefully taught, and it would be only after the passage of some six crucial decades” that the word “would appear as a synonym for European-American.”

    Allen was not merely speaking of word usage, however. His probing research led him to conclude – based on the commonality of experience and demonstrated solidarity between African-American and European-American laboring people, the lack of a substantial intermediate buffer social control stratum, and the indeterminate status of African-Americans – that the “white race” was not, and could not have been, functioning in early Virginia.

    It is in the context of such findings that he offers his major thesis — the “white race” was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor solidarity as manifested in the later, civil war stages of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77). To this he adds two important corollaries: 1) the ruling elite, in its own class interest, deliberately instituted a system of racial privileges in order to define and maintain the “white race” and established a system of racial oppression; 2) the consequences were not only ruinous to the interests of African-Americans, they were also “disastrous” for European-American workers.

    In Volume II, on “The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America,” Allen tells the story of the invention of the “white race” in the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Anglo-American plantation colonies. His primary focus is on the pattern-setting Virginia colony, and he pays special attention to the reduction of tenants and wage-laborers in the majority English labor force to chattel bond-servants in the 1620s. In so doing, he emphasizes that this was a qualitative break from the condition of laborers in England and from long established English labor law, that it was not a feudal carryover, that it was imposed under capitalism, and that it was an essential precondition of the emergence of the lifetime hereditary chattel bond-servitude imposed upon African-American laborers under the system of racial slavery. Allen describes how, throughout much of the seventeenth century, the status of African-Americans was indeterminate (because it was still being fought out) and he details the similarity of conditions for African-American and European-American laborers and bond-servants. He also documents many significant instances of labor solidarity and unrest, especially during the 1660s and 1670s. Most important is his analysis of the civil war stage of Bacon’s Rebellion when “foure hundred English and Negroes in Arms” fought together demanding freedom from bondage.

    It was in the period after Bacon’s Rebellion that the “white race” was invented as a ruling-class social control formation. Allen describes systematic ruling-class policies, which conferred “white race” privileges on European-Americans while imposing harsher disabilities on African-Americans resulting in a system of racial slavery, a form of racial oppression that also imposed severe racial proscriptions on free African-Americans. He emphasizes that when African-Americans were deprived of their long-held right to vote in Virginia and Governor William Gooch explained in 1735 that the Virginia Assembly had decided upon this curtailment of the franchise in order “to fix a perpetual Brand upon Free Negros & Mulattos,” it was not an “unthinking decision.” Rather, it was a deliberate act by the plantation bourgeoisie and was a conscious decision in the process of establishing a system of racial oppression, even though it entailed repealing an electoral principle that had existed in Virginia for more than a century.

    In developing his analysis Allen’s repeatedly challenges what he considered to be the two main arguments that undermine and disarm the struggle against white supremacy in the working class: (1) the argument that white supremacism is innate, and (2) the argument that European-American workers “benefit” from “white race” privileges and that it is in their interest not to oppose them and not to oppose white supremacy.

    These two arguments, opposed by Allen, are related to two master historical narratives rooted in writings on the colonial period. The first argument is associated with the “unthinking decision” explanation for the development of racial slavery offered by historian Winthrop D. Jordan in his influential, “White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812.” The second argument is associated with historian Edmund S. Morgan’s similarly influential, “American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia,” which maintains that, as racial slavery developed, “there were too few free poor [European-Americans] on hand to matter.” Allen’s work directly challenges both the “unthinking decision” contention of Jordan and the “too few free poor” contention of Morgan.

    Allen also offers important comparative study that includes analogies, parallels, and differences between the Anglo-American plantation colonies, Ireland, and the Anglo-Caribbean colonies. He chooses these examples, all subjected to domination by Anglo ruling elites, in order to show that racial oppression is a system of social control not based on phenotype (skin color, etc.) and to show that social control factors impact how racial oppression begins, is maintained, and can be transformed.

    For those who are interested, I also recommend Allen’s critical review “On Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness (Revised Edition),” “Cultural Logic,” IV, No. 2 (Spring 2001) – see http://clogic.eserver.org/4-2/allen.html

    Finally, my article “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy,” (“Cultural Logic,” July 2010), esp. pp. 2, 10-11, 63, 74-88, 102, 109 discusses additional Allen comments on Roediger’s work. See http://clogic.eserver.org/2010/2010.html

    Jeffrey B. Perry

    Comment by Jeffrey B. Perry — July 29, 2013 @ 1:08 pm

  4. Louis, why do you capitalize “black” but not “white”?

    Comment by James — July 31, 2013 @ 3:30 am

  5. Melissa Harris-Perry’s comments I watched after the acquittal that Martin was an American walking in a public area were inaccurate. By cutting through a private condo complex, he was in fact trespassing. They were both wrong. Zimmerman for not following the 911 dispatcher’s instructions to stay in his car instead of playing cop and Martin was wrong for assaulting him and had to expect he would defend himself. As for the President’s commentary, as head of state and a lawyer himself, the proper thing for him to have said would be the matter should be left up to the courts to decide.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — August 4, 2013 @ 2:03 am

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