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From the civil rights movement to Barack Obama

Manning Marable.

Beyond Black & White
By Manning Marable,
Verso Press, 2009, 319 pages

Review by Malik Miah

Manning Marable’s latest book, Beyond Black & White, is an update of a valuable critique of Black and US politics first issued in 1995. He revised it last year, adding new chapters covering the period from 1995 to 2008, including an analysis of the meaning of the election of the first African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama, in November 2008.

The closing chapter, “Barack Obama, the 2008 Presidential Election and the Prospects for a ‘Post Racial Politics”, is a good place to begin reading the collection of articles and essays. Marable’s two prefaces —for the first and new edition — outline his views on “Black and white” and the evolution of how race impacts US political conversations and the failure of leadership in the Black community.

While it is useful to read the book chronologically, it’s not necessary, since the articles were first published in various magazines and papers. I do recommend, however, three particular articles on “Affirmative Action and the Politics of Race”, “Malcolm as Messiah: Cultural Myth versus Historical Reality”, and “The Divided Mind of Black America: Race, Ideology and Politics in the Post-Civil-Rights Era”.

Relevant insights

The meaning of Obama’s election as the first Black president, what’s happened since his election and its impact on the discussion of Black leadership and racial politics and racism, US role in world affairs and the significance of the rapid rise of white racist tea party groups since Obama’s election can’t be separated from a general backlash that has a clear racial smell. Marable’s book, in that context, offers some very useful background and insights. Many of his points, even those made 20 years ago, are completely relevant to current debates among Black leadership layers and in society as a whole.

The growth of the tea party movement and white supremacist militias in particular cannot be ignored even though a majority of whites don’t subscribe to their extremist views. As a prominent anti-hate group based in the southern state of Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Center, has noted in its research, there has been a 244 per cent increase in hate groups since Obama’s election. These groups are not just anti-progressive or hard right, they are also openly racist toward the first African-American president.

As with everything in domestic US politics “race does matter”. There is an undercurrent of race and racism beneath the surface of conservative conversation, as shown by recent proclamations by two state governors (Virginia and Mississippi) hailing the treasonous and defeated Old Confederacy that fought to maintain “state rights” – the code words to keep chattel slavery.

As unique as it is that the country elected its first African-American president, the bigotry among a sizable layer of white Americans remains strong in parts of the country. The United States is not a “post-racial society” as some like to proclaim. The contradiction of some saying, “I’m not racist”, while promoting openly racist ideas, honouring slaveowners of the past, is more and more common since Obama’s election.

(I’m employed as an airline mechanic in San Francisco, for instance, where I work with white co-workers who don’t see themselves as having racist positions but who accept the most outrageous racial smears of Obama and the Black community. My reaction is not, “I understand your sentiment since you hate big government and Wall Street.” Instead I say, “Racism is wrong no matter why you say it, and must be repudiated.” It is never acceptable to bend to backward attitudes especially among fellow workers.)

Long history of activism

Marable has the credentials both as an academic who has published numerous books and activist to write on the subjects of race and racism and general politics. He is a professor of African American studies and professor of public affairs, history and political science at Columbia University in New York City. He has a long history of activism and an insight into questions of debate within the Black movement. I first met him at the first convention of the National Black Independent Political Party convention in 1972 in Gary, Indiana. Marable, like me and other activists, came to Gary to advocate the formation of a new political party based on independent Black politics. The party was formed, but never reached its potential.

Marable looks back at the main events of the Black movement, focusing on the lessons of the civil rights movement. Many of the essays look at the issues from the “prism of race” and racism in the country.

As he explains in the preface to the first edition, “The main thesis of the book is that ‘race’ as it has been understood within American society is being rapidly redefined, along with the basic structure of the economy, with profound political consequences for all sectors and classes... Because this social transformation is occurring at a political conjuncture dominated by conservative ideology and a retreat from welfare state politics, race relations and racial discourse are reflected within an altered debate about the character of discrimination, the nature of prejudice, and invented notions about who the ‘real victims’ of inequality are. A new generation of white Americans, born largely after the civil rights movement, felt little or no historical responsibility or social guilt for being the beneficiaries of institutional racism.” (Page xi.)

As true as that statement was in 1995, it is more so today. Marable points out in the second preface that he was too optimistic about the true possibility of building a new, militant leadership and alliance to take on institutional racism. The full integration of the Black middle-class leadership into the government and corporate world still had not run its course — and still hasn’t. The result is a working-class and poor population without a viable leadership team on a national scale to play the role that old leadership had did under legal segregation.

Impact of Black elite

Marable explains in looking back nearly 15 years after the publication of the first edition: “Beyond Black and White was overly optimistic and strategically in error in its treatment of social class as a factor in the development of social protest movements. Despite my criticisms of the Black elite’s comprador tendencies, its support for gentrification, and its crass manipulation of racial rhetoric to occasionally mobilize Blacks against their real material interests, I overestimated the weight of historic racial solidarity and Black identity as positive forces in shaping new black protests.” (Page xxvii.)

Marable indicates that the bourgeoisification of the Black elite and its integration into the political and economic system led away from protest politics. What he and many others had hoped for was a vibrant left movement in the Black community that would create a new leadership. One such formation was the Black Radical Congress (BRC) that he helped found but did not survive.

As he clearly articulates in the second preface, “The new leadership for democratic renewal would have to come from working class and low-income women involved in neighborhood associations and networks, from former prisoners, inmates and their families who were fighting against the prison industrial complex, from liberal religious activists inside faith-based institutions, and from the hip-hop artistic community.”

That didn’t happen.

“What emerged instead”, he explains, “given the vacuum on the Left, was the Barack Obama mobilization, a movement led by an African-American race-neutral, post-Black campaign that rarely made references to the central American dilemma of race.” (Page xxix.)

Obama’s election as president

In the closing chapter on the significance of the Obama victory (the book was completed soon after Obama’s electoral victory and well before evidence came in during his first year of office that he was a continuing the policies of the ruling elites and thus doing very little for the Black community), Marable observes that, “By the twenty-first century, hundreds of race-neutral, pragmatic Black officials had emerged, winning positions on city councils, state legislatures and in the House of Representatives. Frequently they distanced themselves from traditional liberal constituencies such as unions, promoted gentrification and corporate investment in poor urban neighborhoods, and favored funding charter schools as an alternative to the failures of public school systems.” (Page 301.)

Yet these “pragmatic promotions” did not lead to vast improvements for the working poor. Less self-organisation and solidarity within the community took place than Marable and others had expected. There was not a rise of new Black Power-type leaders that was seen during the 1960s when the civil rights movement won legal gains and sparked left-wing radicalism in the Black community (e.g., the Black Panther Party, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and Black nationalist and pan-African currents).

Failure of the `new’ pragmatism

What occurred instead was the convergence of the very tiny but ideologically driven Black conservative layers with the new pragmatism of the liberal Black elite. Both groups reject old-style street protests as a strategy to influence government or bring change. The policy of working within the system and seeking cross-over votes from whites is seen as the way forward to eradicate institutional discrimination and achieve full equality for Blacks.

Black conservatives go further by aligning themselves with the most right-wing views that oppose affricative action and reject racial identity politics and solidarity. These elements pretend to deny their Blackness except when it can be used to attack liberalism or when it serves their own self-interests when they themselves are under attack.

(The best example of the hypocritical stance of Black conservatives was the case of Black Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas who attacked his liberal critics as organising a “legal lynching” during his nomination to the court some 20 years ago. Today the Black head of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, is using the race card to respond to his critics.)

President Obama does not deny his Blackness or any of the other Black officials (in the recent US census form, Obama self-identified himself as “Black” even though he is of mixed parentage).

The new generation of pragmatic leaders see the for-profit system as the solution to institutional racism — something the assassinated civil rights hero Martin Luther King himself began to reject before his murder in Memphis, Tennessee, while supporting striking sanitation workers in 1968.

As Marable explains in his closing chapter on Obama, “In fairness, Obama never claimed to be an ideologue of the left. He promoted a post-partisan government and a leadership style that incorporated the views of conservatives and liberals alike.” (Page 309.)

The reality of Black politics in 2010 is that there is no serious left challenge to Obama and the Black elite’s perspectives. Only a few voices can be heard urging a return to past tactics to advance the interests of the oppressed in the era of Obama.

Politics of protests

Tavis Smiley, a nationally syndicated radio and television host, recently produced a documentary on Martin Luther King’s famous speech given at Riverside Church in New York City in 1967. King pointedly rejected the policy of the US government and the argument of other civil rights leaders and his organisation’s own board not to speak out on non-civil rights issues such as the war in Vietnam. He also criticised the so-called free market system that puts profit before human rights. (Go to http://links.org.au/node/336 to view the video.)

The steady decline of extralegal actions by the left and the Black community (including against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) also gives the far right the streets as it raises the banner of being against “big government” while its leaders are in bed with Wall Street.

The Black community, in this context, is left on the sidelines waiting to see what Obama and the new pragmatists can do for them instead of taking to the streets to defend their own interests. This inaction flies in the face of African-American history.

During WWII, for example, the mainstream Black leadership planned the March on Washington to demand equality, jobs, and spoke out against the racism of the war effort. It didn’t matter that Blacks were charged with aiding the enemy and being unpatriotic for doing so. The march never happened after the government agreed to make some concessions.

The high unemployment during the current “Great Recession” would seem to be a time to go back to the streets. Yet the significant up-tick of white militia groups and open bigotry since Obama’s election has become the new excuse by self-proclaimed leaders not to respond with mass action. The Obama proponents continue to push a legislative response instead of using extra-legal actions as occurred in the past. While this weak response to a Democrat Party president is not new historically speaking, the demobilisation and lack of action is far greater today among African Americans because of the Obama factor, who still receives 90 per cent support in Black communities across the country.

Call for a new leadership

Marable, remaining true to his long-time radicalism, argues for building a “new, antiracist” leadership. “A new antiracist leadership”, he states, “must be constructed to the left of the Obama government that draws upon representatives of the most oppressed and marginalized social groups within our communities: former prisoners, women activists in community-based, civic organizations, youth groups, from homeless coalitions, and the like. Change must occur not from the top down, as some Obama proponents would have it, but from the bottom up.”

While I agree with Marable’s “bottom-up” strategy, what’s ultimately needed is a powerful independent political movement that directly challenges the ideology of the for-profit status quo, including the two-party system that runs the United States.

The creation of a mass-based working-class party is still a long-term strategic objective for the left. We are not in a period of left political radicalism but a bottom-up protest movement is not enough either. The left needs to openly proclaim as its goal of building a new political party.

It’s not surprising that the policies of Obama on Black issues are actually to the right of the last two Democrat presidents, Bill Clinton and James Carter. The social protest movements are small and ineffective. Until that changes, the weak trade unions and civil rights groups are not likely to be revitalised, and there will continue to be as steady shift to the right in general and among the Black elites.

[Malik Miah is an editor of the US socialist organisation Solidarity's magazine Against The Current. He is a long-time activist in trade unions and a campaigner for Black rights. A shorter version of this review appeared in Green Left Weekly.]

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