Race Cowardice From the Top Down
Discussions of race in the US, except on the terms of and with the permission of privileged whites are impolite. They are "playing the race card." Attorney General Eric Holder labeled the national reluctance to engage with itself a symptom of cowardice, forcing his boss to defend him. But the old saying is that it takes one to know one.
by Paul Street
Last February in a speech to the employees of the United States Justice Department, the United States' first black Attorney General Eric Holder caused a stir by saying that that the U.S. is "a nation of cowards on race." Most Americans, Holder argued, avoid honest and serious discussion of the nation's continuing racial problems.
"Focusing Instead on Winning Over Whites"
The next time Holder wants to accuse Americans of racial spinelessness, he might want to take a closer look at his boss Barack Obama and in the mirror of recent history. According to USA TODAY shortly before the presidential election last fall, "Obama usually hasn't chosen to emphasize his race, focusing instead on winning over white voters critical in the Democratic primaries earlier this year and in general election Nov. 4."
That was quite an understatement. Consistent with winning majority electoral support in the "nation of [race] cowards," candidate Obama went to remarkable lengths to downplay his blackness and to distance himself from specifically black grievances and the supposedly obsolete notion that the U.S. continues to be deeply scarred by anti-black racism. Throughout his campaign, Obama aligned himself with mainstream white hostility to blacks who "carp" about racial disparities. He was more than ready, in black Left writer Glen Ford's words, "to paint young Black men with the broad brush of irresponsibility." Offering blacks little more anti-racist content than the simple fact of being black, Obama never advanced any explicit agenda to tackle the nation's deep institutional racism. During the primaries Obama actually ran to the right of not just Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards but even to the right of Hillary Clinton on questions of race and poverty.
"Yet to Perfect"
Eric Holder cites Obama's March 2008 Race Speech in Philadelphia as inspiration for his own "nation of cowards" speech. He claims that Obama's oration provided a good example of open and honest discussion of racial issues.
This is highly ironic. In calling for Americans to put race aside in pursuit of shared solutions to social and economic problems, Obama's instantly famous Philadelphia speech the one where the future president made his last break with his former pastor Jeremiah Wright drastically low-balled the nation's racial disparities by saying that "race" is "a part of our union that we have yet to perfect."
"Yet to perfect" was more than a bit mild in a nation where an eleven-to-one white-to-black wealth gap afflicts black American households and where one in three black males possess a felony record and blacks make up 12 percent of the population but nearly half of its more than 2 million prisoners.
Obama's "yet to perfect" statement was reminiscent of Obama's claim the previous March (in Selma Alabama 's historic Brown Chapel) that blacks had come "90 percent" of the way to equality in the U.S.
"As if Rev. Wright Was Stuck in a Time Warp"
Another disturbing aspect of Obama's Philadelphia speech was its portrayal of the racism that created his former pastor Jeremiah Wright and other black Americans' anger as a function mainly of "memories" of the past. This was profoundly misleading and deeply insulting to millions of black Americans. The racial oppression that upsets Rev. Wright and many other black Americans, young and old, is more than just a painful recollection and overhang from the bad old days! Black bitterness is generated within the U.S. by numerous interrelated and objectively racist policies and practices in the present, not just the past. Here are some of the more relevant such policies and practices that have survived the rise Obama and of Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Tiger Woods, and Condoleezza Rice:
* widely documented racial bias in real estate and home lending institutions, in hiring, job-training, and promotion, and in the provision of health care coverage and services.
* the tear-down of inner city public housing without adequate proximate replacement units and the related elevation of the notions of housing as a commodity and a profit center over the principle of housing as a human right.
* the destruction and manufactured shortage of affordable housing and the replacement of such housing by upscale commercial real estate development that is beyond the means of disproportionately black inner city poor people.
* the proliferation of expensive, taxpayer-financed roads and developments constructed on behalf of mainly white suburbanites far from the predominantly black inner city, which subsidizes white flight and takes critically needed economic resources further from those who most in need of such resources.
* the funding of schools largely on the basis of local property wealth, which tends to favor whiter school districts over blacker districts.
* the excessive use of high-stakes standardized test-based "dill and grill" teaching curriculum and related zero-tolerance pre-incarceratory disciplinary practices in many predominantly black public schools.
* the hyper-concentration of black children into ghetto schools where frazzled teachers have to deal with oversized classes where a large number of the kids are dealing with the special barriers to learning that come with poverty.
* the "War on Drugs" and the related campaign of mass black imprisonment and felony-marking, which are waged with such racially selective ferocity that two-thirds of Illinois' 40-thousand plus state prisoners are African-Americans and more than 80 percent of the state's drug prisoners are black even though blacks make up just 15 percent of the state and are no more likely to use illegal drugs than whites.
* the disproportionate investment of private and public capital and economic development funding in predominantly white communities that already possess the most development.
* the reluctance of banks and full-service grocery chains to set up branch outlets in predominantly black ghettoes and suburbs.
* the under-service of black neighborhoods and communities by public transportation.
Thanks to these and numerous other institutionally racist processes, new "memories" of racial tyranny are being created right now, beneath the national self-congratulation over some whites' readiness to vote for a certain kind of safe, conciliatory and forgiving black presidential candidate. As the left black commentator Bill Fletcher noted, Obama spoke in Philadelphia last spring "as if Rev. Wright is stuck in a time warp," deleting the fact "that Rev. Wright's anger about the domestic and foreign policies of the USA are well rooted - and documented - in the current reality of the USA."
Since his election and inauguration, Obama has offered no particular agenda to confront America's deeply entrenched race disparities and the rooting of those disparities in the polices and practices of institutional racism. He has not acknowledged the economic crisis' disproportionate and especially dangerous impact on people of color. He has stayed mute on the danger that his ascendancy poses to American society's already faded willingness to acknowledge the persistent and powerful role of racism in American life, now more deeply cloaked than ever by the existence of a black president.
"The Country, Alarmed at One Common Danger"
Particularly troubling for those of us who value and know the essential democratic importance of accurate historical knowledge, Obama has repeatedly spoken of the past in terms that are remarkably insensitive to the black historical experience. In his Inaugural Address, for example, Obama asked Americans to remember how "In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: 'Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).' "
Did anyone find it disturbing to hear the nation's first black president citing the founders' rebellion against England (1763-1783) as an example of how Americans need to stand together "against one common enemy"? Many American slaves and indigenous people found very good and logical reasons to favor the British over the colonists in the war between England and the rising new racist and settler-imperialist slave state. The new republic's snows and soils and forests and tobacco, rice, and cotton fields had long been stained and even occasionally soaked with the blood of its First Nations victims and its growing population of black chattel. The fate and struggle of the "homeland's" early black and red victims foretold the future struggles of Asians, Latin Americans, and Middle Easterners caught on the wrong side of "freedom"-loving America's imperial guns, alliances, and doctrines.
Another example is Obama's recurrent practice of praising the GI Bill for creating a great American middle class after World War II. The president shows no comprehension of the fact that the veterans' legislation offered far fewer benefits to African Americans than to working-class Caucasians in a time "when," in Ira Katznelson's words, "affirmative action was white." By Katznelson's careful account, the GI Bill and other social and economic policies enacted by the Democratic Party during and after the Great Depression "not only excluded African Americans from attaining social parity but actually widened the gap between white and black living standards." (Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America [New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2005]). This hidden history is a critical part of why the average black family still holds less than one-tenth the assets of the average white family more one hundred and forty years after the abolition of slavery and more than more than forty years after passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Throughout the campaign, Obama repeatedly praised the Democrats as "the party of Jefferson and Jackson." He will no doubt continue to so, leaving others to ruefully reflect on Thomas Jefferson's slave ownership and Andrew Jackson's bloody service to the eradication of native American culture and the expansion of black cotton slavery.
Barack Obama has played a more than collateral and inadvertent role in feeding the widespread white belief that the U.S. has "transcended race" and that racism is longer a significant barrier to black advancement and racial equality.
Working for Corporate and Imperial Whites in the White House
Consistent with his revealing historical deletions and his "race-neutral" campaign, Obama has followed in George W. Bush's footsteps by deciding to boycott the second international conference on racism, the "Durban II" gathering in Switzerland this month and for the same two basic reasons as Bush. First, the conference dares to raise the issue of slavery reparations. The conference dares to discuss the racism experienced by Arab Palestinians under the apartheid-like system in the occupied territories.
And so the new White House, with its first black president, its first black Attorney General, and its first black Ambassador to the UN decided not to be present at the world's leading forum to address international race relations.
Meanwhile Obama is finding ways to sustain the petro-colonial U.S. occupation of Iraq and to expand the related U.S. wars on Afghanistan and Pakistan. He revealingly resists pressure to investigate and prosecute the monumental war and human rights crimes of the Bush administration, claiming that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past." This from a former and supposedly liberal law professor, someone who should be expected to understand that one investigates and punishes past human rights crimes precisely in order to discourage and prevent their occurrence in the present and future.
He approves the denial of habeas corpus to the Empire's secretly detained "enemy combatants" as long as the mainly Muslim victims are flown to the Bagram Air Force prison in Afghanistan instead of Guantanamo (since prisoners in "war zones" can be more readily denied basic rights).
He resorts to off-the-books, so-called supplemental funding of the Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan Wars a deceptive war-financing method that Bush pioneered and which Obama said he would abandon.
He sustains the crushing 47-year trade embargo and the American travel ban on Cuba, rejecting broad Latin American sentiment and even the opinion of some Republicans by insisting on punishing and undermining the largely black and socialist island, which can never be forgiven for daring to modernize and develop outside and against the supervision of Uncle Sam.
All of these and other Obama foreign policies operate on the white and imperial side of global power and attack predominantly non-white others.
It's the same thing in the "homeland." Obama's "pragmatic" (neoliberal and state-capitalist) policy mix combines (a) massive corporate welfare for predominantly white Wall Street parasites and perpetrators with (b) drastically inadequate human and social welfare for the rising number of disproportionately black and Latino poor. It's not for nothing that Obama got a record-setting $38 million from the white-run financial, insurance, and real estate industries for his 2008 campaign, including nearly $1 million from Goldman Sachs alone.
Another threat to black interests is more indirect. "Wall Street Barry's" determination to continue and indeed expand giant taxpayer bailouts for the very financial firms who drove the economy over the cliff can hardly be expected to improve racial attitudes among the nation's working class white majority. Many in that group have long been led to ironically identify the cause of racial equality with upper-class "liberal elitism." The first black president's massive government giveaway to the financial elite seems like to deepen that dangerous identification.
That and much else about the Obama presidency including its supposed demonstration of racism's "over-ness" and its capacity to undermine grassroots black resistance and social justice and peace activism more broadly put the cause of racial justice at grave risk. But that's all part of why he was hired in the first place.
[Paul Street was Research Director and Vice President for Research and Planning at The Chicago Urban League between 2000 and 2005. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefied, 2007), and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008).]
Race Cowardice From the Top Down
Black Agenda Report
April 22, 2009
-----------Thanks to: ----------------------------
s. e. anderson is author of "The Black Holocaust for Beginners"
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