Five months into his presidency, Barack Obama has been the object of two unwarranted responses. The right wing, very vocal and with great media access, accuse him of showing his socialist colors and leading the country they love down the path to dictatorship and ruin. Media personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, media outlet Fox News, and Republican politicos like Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney have produced a constant chatter, constructing a conservative counter narrative for Obama’s every move, openly hoping for his failure and skirting treason. The militant far right, that is, the extra-legal militant right such as neo-Nazi and Klan formations, and including the open white nationalist militia formations, see Obama’s election as the fulfillment of their greatest fears and starkest warnings of the end of white America and the unmasking of the so-called ZOG, the Zionist Occupied Government. For these groups, the long prophesied, by them, race war has begun in the United States, and in an era when hate crimes had already increased against Muslims, attacks targeting people of color generally, African descent people specifically, Jewish people, and our institutions have still increased more significantly, despite the oft cited polls that say the both African Americans and European Americans feel that “race relations” have improved significantly. Can both those things be true?
Then there is the missing response from very many African Americans who have been dangerously uncritical of the Obama administration for his policies, domestic and international, that remain firmly in line with the general direction and goals of the United States ruling elite for the past thirty years. African Americans have opposed these policies consistently and correctly, and the fact of an African American POTUS should not silence that opposition or a genuinely alternative vision for the country. Yet silencing has been one of the most troubling effects thus far of the Obama presidency. Take opposition to war as an example.
The anti-war movement has fallen silent, unable to maintain a vocal and visible presence neither in the streets nor the news media, as the illegal occupation of Iraq begins to morph into another structurally integrated outpost for U.S. American troops and American “interests” as the government installed under the conditions of occupation becomes the only authorized government in the country. The troops have pulled out of the Iraqi cities and taken root in strategically placed bases that are slotted to become permanent features on the landscape. The Obama policy has escalated the war in Afghanistan and has expanded drone attacks into Pakistan. Approaching eight years of troops on the ground, the conflict there promises to become even more drawn out, twelve to fifteen years according to some projections. The anti-war Democrats have faded into the background, including most of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, choosing to follow the party leader rather than an ethically and morally founded politics of opposition to war-as-usual. On the issue of the war, Representatives Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, Keith Ellison and John Lewis stand nearly alone.
People act as if the mere presence of an African American president magically sanctions the administration’s policies and their execution as progressive and democratic. President Obama has done nothing that in any way challenges ordinary U.S. foreign policy. Instead, Obama puts a prettier face on U.S. policy, easing the exercise of policies that continue to favor uneven economic and political relationships between the Western powers and the rest of the world, as predicted by some of his conservative supporters like Andrew Sullivan, and often marginalizing local principled opposition to these neo-liberal policies. This free market orthodoxy highlights the ridiculous claims of the U.S. right. President Obama has changed tactics and strategy, not goals. Their opposition is based not on genuine analysis of the Obama administration’s policies, but on the ideological grounds that anything a Democratic administration may do must be opposed as the unnecessary and profligate intrusion of the State into the private sphere. The vociferous and frequent outrage against Obama is also in keeping with the white privilege to challenge the right and the ability of people of color in authority to lead. Obama got very little honeymoon as the new president.
Many groups that are ordinarily identified with the liberal politics, what in the U.S. mainstream serves as the left, have begun to demand delivery from Obama on promises made during the campaign. Gay and lesbian activists have started to demand action on the issue of marriage equality. Immigrant rights activists call for comprehensive reform founded on compassionate responses that take into account families and the responsibility of employers. Single-payer healthcare activists ask why the single- payer option has been rejected before it has been seriously discussed. African American reporters attending presidential press conferences for African American newspapers ask the president what specific policies and programs the Obama administration has planned to address the specific needs and conditions of the African American people as they face the worst of the current economic crisis, and President Obama is unable to give a specific answer beyond the “my-policies-will-lift-all-boats” answer because his administration has no specific policies regarding the needs and conditions of African American people.
And why should he? What demands did African American activists make during the campaign? Who demanded to know what his position was or is concerning the over-policing of African Americans and the mass incarceration resulting from the practice? Who asked him what he thought about the Black farmers suing the Department of Agriculture? Who asked him about unemployment rates for African Americans? Who wanted to know whether or not most African Americans agreed or disagreed with his public and de rigueur repudiation of the Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, or how the Reverend Wright played among the African American electorate? The fact is, African Americans demanded little more than having an African face in the Oval Office, a woefully insufficient claim to make upon power in the United States.
The vicious and relentless pace of the right wing criticism of President Obama kick starts our urge to barricade the president against the attacks. We recognize the irrationality, the inconsistencies and the danger of the barely veiled racism. We ignore how mainstream Democratic politics more subtly maintain the racial regime that the 2008 election was supposed to have overthrown, or at least seriously wounded. Candidate Obama-cum-President Obama could not take any position perceived to be specifically pro-Black. No serious Democratic candidate has been able to do so since Lee Atwater unleashed Willie Horton on an American public predisposed to the brute criminality of African American men. Bill Clinton publicly chastised Sista Souljah and executed a developmentally disabled African American man to prove his commitment to tough love for America’s ex-slaves. Gore and Kerry ignored African American issues. Identification with African American issues beyond the grossest examples of racist victimization, easily denounced, has been treated as electoral toxin for Democratic candidates, including among the new generation of African American politicians, those characterized as the inheritors of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, those like Barack Obama. How many Democratic politicians join the Republicans in thinking that what African Americans need most during campaigns is lecturing on the importance of fathering and hard work? In polite company, this isn’t called racism. No one’s wearing sheets. Still, these practices boil down to the comfort of white Americans, Republican and Democratic, and the now decades long “fatigue” the mainstream expresses about African American dissent. If white presidential candidates face such demands for programmatic purity concerning African Americans, how much more constrained is an African American candidate to an appeal to the great white American middle class? Winning the job does not change the rules.
But after all, the job of the POTUS is to protect and extend U.S. American interests, and U.S. American interests continue to serve structural white hegemony. This is difficult for many to see because of the apparent victory over racism that Obama’s election represents. And it certainly is a victory, but a very limited victory. The question of Obama’s fitness for the job, his intelligence, his political savvy, his leadership, the ability of a Black man to lead this country is not at issue. Those are cynical right wing talking points. A racial analysis, a “Black firsts” analysis, makes everybody feel good about achieving the inconceivable in the racist United States. What President Obama’s election should finally make clear is that African Americans at the pinnacle of power in what are essentially white institutions, the actual diversity of the population notwithstanding, can’t help but serve white interests, which are not necessarily and automatically the best interests of African Americans, other African descent peoples, and other people of color. The class based and race based structural problems in the society are too deeply rooted in the culture, and in the global exercise of U.S. American military and economic power. We have seen it before in the persons of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
But a black face on U.S. imperialism is still imperialism. And a black face on benign neglect in the domestic context is still benign neglect. So let us move beyond self-congratulatory myopia over the arrival of the Black Bourgeoisie to an apparent full partnership in the U.S. ruling class. Where President Obama’s policies deepen the despair of the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq, he should be opposed. Where President Obama’s policies continue to favor the bankers and the insurance companies over people, Main Street as he puts it, he should be opposed. Where President Obama continues to favor state secrets and detentions without trials over open government and due process, he needs to be opposed on principled grounds. African Americans especially need to spit out the kool-aid and hold Obama to the high standards of freedom and justice that have been our political tradition.