If there is a singular category of disappointment in the Obama years it’s in race relations. It’s not that race relations especially deteriorated while Obama was President. The problem was that race relations did not improve despite the expectation and the corresponding rhetoric that, since the election of a black president, we were living in a post-racial America. “After my election,” Obama reminded us, “there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”
When it became clear that a post-racial America was as far away from our grasp as it had ever been, this served as tinder for long buried but still hot coals. It was clear that decades of neglect and exploitation in black communities were not going to be addressed despite having a black president. In fact, a right-wing political movement was organized and was taking to the streets in part out of fear that communities of color might get some attention and some long denied resources. It was especially telling that even being President of the United States was not enough to insulate a black family from targeted, racial harassment and abuse.
The racial backlash was two-fold. On one hand, the election of our first black president brought the bigots out of the woodwork. Their traditionally coded language became more blatant, more openly bigoted in the political discourse. The failings, both real and perceived, of the Obama Administration were imputed upon his blackness. It became easy to convince whites, especially white men whose status was being challenged from multiple angles, that “those people,” welfare recipients, immigrants, food stamp users (all people of color) were being taken care of while whites were left to stagnate. This was absurd on many levels, of course, but perception is reality in the political realm.
Secondly, communities of color became energized and organized. The Age of the New Right’s approach to race, articulated in Reagan’s welfare queen and strapping young bucks was the dominant paradigm of racial discourse since the late seventies. Consequently, the work of the Civil Rights movement, having only just begun in the fifties and sixties, was left to flounder. When Obama was elected, two generations of neglected black communities, victims of exploitative policing, families ruined by catastrophic loss of wealth disproportionately suffered by black households, among many other grievances, no longer seemed impossible obstacles, but rather frustrating targets for action. Long smoldering tensions burst into flame, reigniting the civil rights movement.
Stories of police violence against unarmed black men, historically ignored, finally made their way into the mainstream media. The nation was shocked by judicial apathy to black victimization as we watched murderers walk away from juries, acquitted of crimes for which we knew they were guilty–crimes caught on video! The #blacklivesmatter movement was galvanized into a potent political force. A new energy imbued the civil rights community. Furthermore, these movements were attracting diverse support. One didn’t have to be black to see the disproportionate use of state violence against black communities and individuals.
Unfortunately, as with any viable social movements, we also witnessed a venomous backlash framing this diverse group of activists as “anti-white,” most effectively with the counter “All Lives Matter” movement. Others, who never gave a damn before, kept patronizing black activists and communities to pay attention to black-on-black crime as if nobody had ever noticed. More xenophobic elements referred to #blacklivesmatter as a terrorist organization directly responsible for promoting violence against police officers. The venom and ferocity of the counter-attack was testament to the veracity of this civil rights renaissance.
For the most part, President Obama was conspicuously quiet about these revelations and resulting movements. This was a source of frustration for black activists, most notably Dr. Cornel West. Of course, the President had a difficult balancing act to maintain. As a black president, showing an affinity for black communities would almost certainly be presented by the frothing Right as favoritism and accusations of being anti-white. For confirmation of this, simply research the reaction when Obama stated, correctly, that if he “had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” referencing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth killed by a gun-wielding, self appointed “neighborhood watch.”
President Obama did address race in some notable speeches in his second term. His more technocratic contributions to civil rights and criminal justice were not insignificant. It was in his Farewell Address, however, that Obama made the most powerful, most radical, most left-wing statement of his career. “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”
And, really, that’s what it all boils down to.
Look, the left, as it emerged from the 19th century, has always been a challenge to the lopsided power of the economic elite. Liberalism began with a critique of absolute authority of the state. It sought to redefine the sovereign as “the people” and government existed, not by virtue of God’s will, but by consent of the governed. It was a successful paradigm. So successful that both sides of the political spectrum play within the liberal rhetorical frame of freedom and democracy. By the mid 19th century, it was clear to every industrialized nation that limiting the power of government did not necessarily translate to greater freedom for the people. It turned out that economic oppression was just as tyrannical as any authoritarian political regime.
Racism has always been a component of economic oppression. This was especially true in the innately racist United States. Racism was integral to the Europeanization of the Americas right from the start. First, millions of “those people” had to be moved from their traditional lands, or enslaved, or killed to make room for English expansion. Then poor people had to be indentured to do the menial labor in the growing colonies. As the colonies grew and the demand for productivity increased, more of “those people” had to be brought in from West Africa. A population of slave labor had the added effect of impoverishing working class whites throughout the colonies and later the United States. These impoverished whites offered cheap labor, as well as a willing invasion force to liberate more land from natives. Even if they had nothing, they had greater status than blacks, free or slave.
Central to U.S. economic and political development was the imaginary line that demarcated us against them. As slave populations grew and slave labor became more crucial, blacks became a threat. The entirety of the white population, even and especially those who shared a common level of exploitation had to be convinced of two things. First, that those people deserved and even benefited from being enslaved. Second, that if those people were allowed to step out of their place they would rise up, kill all of the white men and rape all of the white women–because that’s just the kind of savages they are (it had nothing to do with the whole slavery thing). After Reconstruction, these discursive formations were preserved reproduced through black codes, Jim Crow, sundown laws and other forms of segregation. Similar discourses were used with regard to immigrants, especially the Chinese and the Japanese. Racial Tribalism existed throughout the country with varying levels of subtlety depending on geography and varying levels of intensity depending on the presumed “otherness” of the target population.
Racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, all elements of what I refer to as “Tribal Isms” all serve the purposes of the economic elite to divide the demos, making it less effective in challenging established power. This particular power dynamic must be addressed, and only the left has the theoretical paradigms with which to describe this process of ideologically driven false consciousness. Only the left has the language for bringing discourse into awareness. Racism is not just a matter of some innate human wariness of “the other” that we have to come to terms with by addressing discrimination and prejudice. Racism is a tool of exclusion and exploitation used by the powerful to dis-empower the masses. Yet despite having this language, the left struggles to construct its message of racial solidarity–mostly, I speculate, do to atrophy.
Bernie Sanders tried to bring a left discourse into the mainstream during his run for the White House. He tried to link his message of economic inequality to a discourse on racial justice. However, he was the first in a long time to do so. On one hand, he did not effectively communicate the intersection of racism and economic inequality experienced by increasingly insecure whites. He had the courage to speak of state violence against African Americans, but did not effectively connect this state violence to the breakdown of the white middle-class, a social change that is having very real and deadly consequences, especially for middle-aged white men.
Instead, the media and the right have us playing the decline of white standard of living and economic stability against unemployment rates in the black community. We are arguing about rural, white poverty against the stereotyped privations of the ghetto. The left, and the rest of the country are playing the right’s game, the rules of which long established and modified by our corporatocracy. The right would have us believe that white, working-class men (notice the emphasis on “working-class” when referring to whites) can’t get ahead because too much is being squandered on poor minorities (“poor” not “working”-class). The left finds itself playing defense against the Welfare Queen and Strapping Young Bucks that still guide our discourse.
Obama, for the first time in such a venue, broke through this discourse. He reminded us that the same corporate hand that closes the gate on suburban workers is the same that withholds investment from the inner city, that drives opportunities away from the countryside. It is the same hand that funds the laws that serve to fill their own coffers, to socialize their costs, to reduce their taxes, pulling revenue from those who need it. The corporate elite then demands more money for police and prisons at the expense of schools and parks so it can remain secure in its private enclaves. Like the slave master of old, the contemporary corporate villain despises those below their “station” equally, without regard for race. He plies race to his own ends. Look, those white guys in the suburbs don’t want to let you go to good schools. Look, those blacks want to go to your schools.
It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to embrace each other without regard for race.
It is up to the left to make the connection that President Obama resurrected in his Farewell Address. This isn’t about white and black. White men will never experience the stability that they once had so long as the black woman can be exploited. The black community will never know justice without the white community joining them in demanding it. We need each other if we are to pose a real check against the power elite, white, black, brown, yellow and red fists in the air. We cannot turn away from “identity politics.” Instead, we must learn to understand identity in terms dynamic power relations that distort our understanding of who we are in relation to others. In essence, the left must develop a new humanism that can adequately describe the great tapestry that is the human experience without trying to parse out the separate contributions of each colored thread. Take away one color and the tapestry is less for it.