Obama, racial inequality and national oppression

Jul 1, 2014

The murder of Trayvon Martin showed clearly that the country is not ‘post-racial.’

Building an anti-racist, anti-capitalist movement in Obama’s second term

After the racist murder of Trayvon Martin, President Obama waited several days before making a largely apolitical statement that if he had a son, he would “look like Trayvon.” This comment alone, however, drew fire from the Republican primary candidates, who accused him of “injecting” race into what was “simply” a tragedy.

This is in line with the “post-racial America” myth that society has “moved beyond race” because of the election of a Black president. Now, in the name of “color-blindness,” one is called a “reverse racist” for bringing up discrimination, racist violence or disproportionate poverty in Black and Latino communities.

The issues of police brutality and mass incarceration did not come up in a single presidential debate either. A report compiled by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement recently found, however, that a Black person in the United States is killed every 36 hours by law enforcement. Try to tell their families, friends and neighbors about “post-racial America.”

Racial inequality

President Obama is well aware of the deplorable conditions for Black Americans, whose jobless rate is far higher than any other part of the population. An astonishing 28 percent of Black people are in poverty compared to 10 percent of whites. Across the board—on every indicator—racial disparities are the norm.

When questioned about how he plans to address this inequality, Obama typically responds by noting he is “the president for all Americans,” and that his economic policies will benefit all. The “rising tide can lift all boats,” he says, so there is no need to do anything “special” for Black communities.

The reality is not so simple. Historically, African American workers have always been the first to experience the ravages of recession and last to experience the benefits of “recovery.” In 2007, before the capitalist crisis hit, many inner-city Black areas had unemployment rates measuring as high as 50 percent. These figures have further worsened in the Great Recession.

This highlights a key fact about the struggle against white supremacy. President Obama’s ascendance to the presidency undoubtedly signaled the long-term progress in the country’s racial attitudes. But it did not uproot the class exploitation and national oppression that are at the base of continuing racial disparities. Nor does it mean that explicit racism is now less dangerous and a peripheral factor in U.S. politics.

Product of Civil Rights movement, and also its negation

In fact, the election of President Obama has had a chilling effect on discussions of racial inequality. On one hand, it is used to say that racism no longer matters. On the other, the Obama administration itself has steadfastly avoided policies that directly address the special needs of Black communities—so that he does not come off as favoring Black people.

The media resorts to sweeping generalizations when discussing the significance of Obama’s re-election in terms of “race relations.” Undoubtedly, the election culminates—and arguably closes—a political process initiated by the Voting Rights Act, which affirmed and reorganized Black electoral power to make possible the election of Black politicians. Over the last few decades, we have seen far more “Black faces in high places,” starting with heavily Black districts and cities, and finally to the highest office in the country.

But, like all political processes, this one is dialectical. Obama not only represents the success of the Civil Rights movement—its institutionalized expression—but also its negation. Whereas the activists of the Civil Rights movement fought for legal-political equality as a way to fight for social-economic equality, the existence of legal equality is now used to forestall discussion of economic inequality. Whereas the Civil Rghts movement forced the country to confront its long history of racism and white supremacy, the existence of a Black president is now used to hide this legacy.

During the period of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements, all of society—including mainstream intellectuals—had to discuss and debate how slavery, Jim Crow, racist mob violence and ubiquitous discrimination had left lasting impressions on U.S. society. Now, with the ascendancy of a Black man to the Oval Office, these discussions have been declared passé.

National oppression: deeper than attitudes

It is often said that race is a “social construction,” which is true. Race does not exist in biology, but in social relations. The settler colonies that became the United States developed the anti-scientific “one drop rule,” which created a social category “Black” for anyone with any African ancestry. Specially identified and targeted for political exclusion, social subordination and economic super-exploitation, this experience—along with centuries of determined resistance and cultural and economic commonality shaped within the United States—has formed Black people as a people, oppressed by the historically white ruling class. The ideology of racist class rule also became the ideology of many white people.

Thus, while race is a social construction, that does not make it unreal. It has always been central to the country’s reality. It is not just a matter of consciousness, but how society is ordered. This cannot be wished away by individuals who claim to “not see race” or the election of a Black president.

Racist attitudes and the double standards Black people face in daily interactions, job interviews, when trying to hail a cab, and so on, are an important part of national oppression. But prejudices serve to justify larger racial disparities—they are not the primary cause of them. Attitudes do not fundamentally explain why there are more Black males under correctional control than were held in slave chains, or why the rate of Black unemployment has swollen into the double digits. Nor do they adequately explain the enormous racial disparities in public health indicators, including the alarming new figures that 44 percent of new HIV infections occur among African Americans.

These disparities are rooted in the history of national oppression that is part and parcel of the U.S. cultural and economic development. Racism—or more precisely, white supremacy and the national oppression of Black people—has been an integral part of U.S. capitalism from the very start. It has served a specific purpose in regimenting the labor market, creating super-cheap labor, providing privileges to white workers—relative to other workers, that is—and maintaining social stability.

Black Americans were initially forged into a distinct people through the brutal process of slavery. Dozens of nations and ethnicities from the African continent were yoked together in embarkation centers, ship holds, auction blocks and plantation fields. They were eventually forced to speak one language, and subjected to all sorts of cultural restrictions.

Following the Civil War, there was a brief window of democratic opportunity that quickly closed. Racist ideology found new wings, Jim Crow cemented the new oppressive reality in the South, while de facto racial segregation prevailed nationwide, particularly in the labor market and housing. Bourgeois intellectuals and sectors of the scientific community popularized the notion of Black biological inferiority. Minstrel shows and other elements of popular culture promoted a vision of Blacks as a debased, brutish, promiscuous people.

Even after the Southern-based Freedom Movement smashed Jim Crow, displaying heroism that debunked the racist image of Black people, the fundamental inequality at the heart of the African American experience was not resolved. The eruptions of the 1960s and early 1970s, led to a significant uptick in “law and order” rhetoric and repression. The ruling class opted for a regime of police repression and mass incarceration to control the social problems brewing in the so-called ghettos.

The number of “Black firsts” increased, a small coterie of Black people entered the upper echelons of the economy, and there was a limited growth of a Black “middle class,” which remained very vulnerable to economic crises. But the economic crisis of the 1970s and decades of neoliberal policies have further eroded the standards of living among Black poor and working people.

Why won’t the politicians deal with ‘Black issues’?

There is some debate among Black politicians and intellectuals about whether it is better to pursue “race specific” or “race neutral” policies in order to help Black communities. What this debate tends to ignore is that to confront the many forms of Black national oppression requires a direct confrontation with the capitalist rulers of the United States.

The only way to address racist police brutality and mass incarceration is to take on the prisons, cops and judges that make up the core of the capitalist state. Likewise, it is impossible to deal with racial inequality without invoking economic inequality (and vice versa), the vast gap between rich and poor. Capitalist politicians may deal at the fringes of national oppression, but won’t touch “Black issues” directly because that invariably means poor people’s issues.

Think about it: Who is afraid of guaranteed employment for all? Higher wages? More livable and affordable housing? Free health care and education accessible to all? Those who stand to lose from such policies are the tiny clique of bankers and corporations that control the vast majority of the wealth. Speaking through both Republicans and Democrats, these rulers constantly stress that the country “can’t afford” decent living standards for all people, that cuts must be made to social programs and benefits.

Any real assault on the oppression facing Black Americans requires direct confrontation with the most powerful forces in the country, the banks and corporations, their bought and paid for politicians and the police. It means overturning their labor practices, establishing free social services, prioritizing affordable housing not commercial real estate, opening up the halls of knowledge to all—in short, it means an entirely new sort of system.

Fighting racism and capitalism together

The fight against race prejudice is central for people who want revolutionary change in the United States. Racist ideologies—those that present Black people as biologically inferior, or lazy, or prone to criminality—have played a central role in obstructing class consciousness among white workers and weakening potentially revolutionary movements of poor and working people. The only way to build trust among workers of all nationalities is to make central the fight against racism and white supremacy.

In the coming period, there may be a resurgence of far-right and white supremacist activity, upset by Obama’s re-election and the demographic shifts that made it possible. Ninety-three percent of Black people voted for Obama largely because they saw it as a contest against this racist Republican opposition.

The Party for Socialism and Liberation will be at the forefront against the far-right racists and racism in general. The PSL joins the fight against racism and national oppression with an anti-capitalist and revolutionary perspective. The weakening of racist attitudes and undermining of racist movements does not in and of itself resolve the special national oppression of Black people. The huge disparities that haunt Black America are lodged in the foundation of U.S. capitalism, not just people’s minds. The whole system must go.

The colonial roots of Zionism

The colonial roots of Zionism

The following two-part series of The Socialist Program with Brian Becker delves into the real history of the Israeli state. Both episodes feature Richard Becker, author of Palestine, Israel and the U.S. Empire—a book for which Liberation School has a study and...

The colonial roots of Zionism

The colonial roots of Zionism

The following two-part series of The Socialist Program with Brian Becker delves into the real history of the Israeli state. Both episodes feature Richard Becker, author of Palestine, Israel and the U.S. Empire—a book for which Liberation School has a study and...