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The elephant in the room: Obama, the left and the race question

By Malik Miah

August 10, 2008 -- Much of the world is fascinated by the current US presidential election. The main reason is because the United States is ready to do something that most developed countries would never consider doing: electing a representative from an oppressed minority as head of state.

Could Australia ever elect an Aborigine as prime minister? An Australian of Asian descent? Could Germany ever elect a German-born Turk as chancellor? What about a black as head of state in the United Kingdom or France? Yet we in the United States are discussing the real possibility that a man with a father from Africa, representing a community of descendants of former slaves, could actually be elected president of the most powerful country in human history.

So it is not a surprise that Barack Obama’s skin colour and bi-racial origins are a subtle and not-so-subtle issue in the presidential race. During the Democratic Party primaries, for example, Hillary Clinton and the former president Bill Clinton and their supporters made references to the “fact” that Obama could not appeal to enough “blue-collar workers” — meaning white working-class Americans in the main — to defeat the Republican nominee (Bill Clinton is still very upset that some in the Black community thought he was playing the “race card” to help get his wife nominated. He hasn’t met with Obama yet.)

Now the expected Republican nominee, John McCain, is playing the same dirty race card to undermine support for Obama — the likely Democratic Party nominee. The most infamous ad involved the two young white female personalities (Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton) and Obama. There is a long history of race-baiting politics using the fear of a Black man with white women in US society.

Race matters

Can the United States overcome its history of racial prejudice to elect the first Black president?

Race is the elephant in the room. But few will openly acknowledge its role in this unprecedented presidential race. Code words are used by the media to avoid the issue of racism and race prejudice.

Yet the fact is the Democratic Party expects to win big in the House of Representatives and Senate races because of the very low approval rating of the Republicans, especially President George W. Bush (some 20%) and his diabolical vice-president, Dick Cheney (even less).

But the polls show the presidential race too close to call. McCain is in a statistical dead heat with Obama.

There is only one reason for this: Obama’s skin colour. The Republican attack machine led by former Bush aides is running negative ads that tell angry white voters upset by high gas prices, fewer jobs and a dark future that Obama can’t be trusted.

While it is true that the racism and racial prejudice of most whites is at historic low levels, there is no doubt that the 23% of whites who openly state they will never vote for a Black can turn the 2008 elections to the Republican nominee. The Republicans know that several ``swing states’’ are in play and race can make the difference.

(The US presidential election is not won by a national popular vote. It is based on who wins the most electoral votes, which are calculated state by state. In 2000 Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral collage vote to Bush.)

What’s striking is that the Republicans have been able to attack Obama by playing the “race card” then blaming Obama for explaining how the race card will be used by the Republicans. Obama has repeatedly explained that his opponents will raise the fear of him to divert discussion of the issues of war and the economy because he doesn’t look like previous presidents on US currency.

The media falls for the lie as it did four years earlier when the same tactic was used to smear (“Swift boat”) Democrat John Kerry over his military record during the Vietnam War. Worse, the pundits have all accepted the false concept of “blue-collar workers” being only white workers, leaving out Black, Latino and Asian workers.

Obama’s campaign has played its hand too carefully on the race-baiting issue. The campaign has a strategic fear that any mention of race will agitate the “fear factor” among whites and may lead them to vote for the “safe” white candidate.

Race matters because racism is institutionalised throughout US society. The fact that an African American (bi-racial but Black, because skin colour is what defines you) could be elected to the most powerful office in the world is not a concern to the ruling class. It knows Obama will defend its interests.

But that truth is not enough to be elected. Political power has been in the hands of white men so long that a change of power won’t happen without a fight.

Many mainstream, journalists are now beginning to openly discuss this elephant in the campaign. EJ Dionne Jr., of the Washington Post, observed, “There is no doubt that two keys to this election are: How many white and Latino votes will Obama lose because of his race than a white Democrat would have won? And how much will African American turnout grow, given the opportunity to elect our nation’s first Black president?”

(Dionne notes that in 1960, when John F. Kennedy ran and won as the “first Catholic president”, his religion was an issue and he won 80% of the Catholic vote — about 30% greater than the Catholic share won four years earlier.)

Obama is fully aware of this history. It’s why he is shifting on issues like affirmative action and talking more about “class” as the basis for qualifications to enter higher education and other positions. The fact is skin colour is always a factor even for wealthier, more educated Blacks. Study after study shows — and proves — that equally qualified whites and Blacks applying for jobs, nine times out of 10 whites will get the job first. Affirmative action is necessary to level the playing field and to ensure equal opportunity. (Obama has told white audiences his two daughters won’t need it to appeal to their false belief that there is such a thing as “Black skin privilege.”)

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The problem for Obama and his supporters is the blatantly racist campaigns of the past (Richard Nixon’s infamous 1968 “Southern strategy” to get poor whites to change parties) are no longer viable. Today the campaigns are more subtle as the Spears-Hilton ad showed — and they tend to work.

The Republican attack machine uses “fear” of the Black man and Obama’s alleged “elitism” (he attended Columbia University in New York and Harvard Law School) as wedge issues for white workers looking for an excuse to vote against a Black candidate.

McCain’s charge that Obama is not qualified to be commander in chief is a red herring. So is the charge of elitism since Obama’s upbringing by a single white mother and a distant father is more in common to what most working-class whites face.

The “fear the Black man” machine is not just aimed at working-class whites, but at Latinos and Asians too. It is noteworthy that two-thirds of Latinos are polling for Obama, who they see as closer to their concerns especially on the issue of immigration. The Asian community is more divided but a majority still favour the Democrats and Obama.

Some 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., now a national hero, and the fall of legal segregation it is amazing that a Black man may be elected president.

If the Republican attack machine succeeds in turning the election into the “white guy versus the Black man” the outcome of the election could change with many anti-racists voting for Obama to express opposition to the race baiting of the Republican campaign.

There is no way today to predict what will happen in November. In the late 1960s after the victories of the civil rights movement that led to some important legal changes in law, the first Black candidates for higher office (big city mayors) faced vicious racial attacks. Whenever those elections were nominally labeled “non-partisan” many on the socialist left backed those candidacies as a rejection of racism and support to the right of the Black community to have elected political representation. They knew that these candidates still identified themselves as Democrats.

The 2008 presidential election has some similarities. The difference of course is that Obama doesn’t pretend to be independent. He isn’t running against the old guard of his party. He is campaigning as a “centrist” new Democrat, as seen in his positions on major issues — from energy, the economy, health care and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

World tour in this context

Obama’s quickly organised and highly publicised international trip in July, in this context, was to show the world and the United States (his main audience) that he is “presidential”. What he said was mainstream and in line with the shift in US imperial policy that began under former president Bill Clinton and accelerated under Bush.

Obama’s trip to the Middle East was not a repudiation of Bush-Cheney policies but an argument that the Democrats have a better strategic plan to protect Israel and defend US interests. Obama supports US domination of the Arab world. He advocates a more aggressive war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (He even told his staff and reporters not to wear “green” while in Israel and Jordan because it symbolises Hamas!)

Obama also told the media that he sees generals as tacticians carrying out the president’s orders. Obama, like Bush, will pick generals who support or accept his polices.

When Obama spoke to hundreds of thousands of Germans in Berlin, he focused on the responsibility of the world (“I’m a citizen of the world”, he said) to defend the “free world” from terrorism.

While much of the left sees Obama shifting positions on Iraq by proposing a long-term withdrawal, he strongly advocates a new “surge” into Afghanistan. He is also for a more aggressive policy toward Pakistan.

Obama simply believes he’s smarter than the Bush team and thus more capable of defending US interests while he rebuilds alliances with ``Old Europe” and rising Asian powers.

Obama’s domestic programs are centre right too. The “yes you” rhetoric taps the real desire for a change of leadership. While he will support some liberal positions on women’s rights and civil rights, his healthcare program is modest and does not guarantee healthcare as a right.

On energy policy he first opposed any new off-shore drilling. But as the Republican attack machine pushed back hard, he shifted his stance to allow it if “part of a comprehensive energy plan”.

The differences with McCain are sharper on social issues like affirmative action and abortion rights. But even on these issues he is fudging more and more to appeal to religious conservatives and white blue-collar workers. In the fine traditions of Bill Clinton, Obama is saying what his audiences of white gun carrying Americans want to hear.

The shift to the ”centre” assumes that minorities, particularly African Americans, will turn out in big numbers and vote for him anyway. It is likely that Blacks will do so because of the historic nature of electing a Black president. But for other groups, it’s not so clear. Obama will need a big turnout to overcome the white fear factor backlash.

Two contradictory realities

While socialists who recognise that lesser-evil politics can never free workers, including white workers, from capitalist exploitation and domination, the issue of race could be decisive if the Republicans are successful in turning the election into a referendum vote for or against the candidate best able to protect whites. Under those circumstances, it may be justifiable to cast a vote against McCain’s race baiting. I say this knowing that most socialists and those in favour of an independent working-class party will vote for the independent Ralph Nader or the Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney.

The contradiction of the Obama phenomenon is that it reflects two realties. One is the possibility that the world’s sole superpower is okay with having a Black man as its president.

Second, is the polarisation and legacy of racism in the United States. The reality is the ruling class may be okay but the politicians seeking the job are not ready to give up their privileges and power.

For socialists the issue of Obama (the unique figure and capitalist politician) is conflicted. On the one hand, there is no doubt that backing a candidate of the most powerful military industrial complex in the world is impossible.

On the other hand, the issue of race and racism poses the question: Is the election of Obama as the first Black president a way to push back racist ideology as it was in the1960s-70s when the first “independent” Black candidates for big city mayors were elected did?

I'm of two mind sets. As a socialist I will either vote for Nader or McKinney to advance the need for class independance.

But as a supporter of nationalism of the oppressed, I'm inclined to vote against the de facto race-bating campaign of McCain and elect the first Black president.

During the great American Civil War in the 1860s, Marx and Engels wholeheartedly supported the North against the South. They urged their followers to join the Union Army and help bring about the defeat of the slave owners. Marx and Engels had no illusions of what that meant for capitalist development and consolidation. But the smashing of the slave labour system and development of a modern-day US capitalism was in their view in the long-term interests of the working class.

A new body blow to racist ideology by electing a Black man as president isn’t on that order of significance for many reasons. But it would send a message that citizenship and rights should not be based on the false construct called “race” or the shade of your skin.

[Malik Miah is a San Francisco trade union activist at United Airlines, an editor of the US socialist magazine Against the Current and a supporter of the US socialist group Solidarity. A shorter version of the this article first appeared in Green Left Weekly.]


Progressives who back in Barack Obama are foolingthemselves
Column: Lance Selfa [1]

Chasing the Obama mirage

Progressives who see a kindred spirit in Barack Obama are fooling themselves.

August 14, 2008

SINCE CORRALLING the Democratic presidential nomination in May, Sen. Barack Obama has spent the last few months moving to the "center" on a number of issues that motivated his supporters during the primaries.

His somersault from opposing to supporting the rotten Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) bill that pardons major telecommunications companies for their collaboration with the Bush administration's illegal spying program occasioned protests from liberals.

Thousands of Obama supporters filled his campaign's interactive Web site with protests of his sell-out on the FISA bill, and other prominent supporters expressed unease in editorials in various liberal publications.

One group of prominent Obama supporters issued "An Open Letter to Barack Obama" [2] in the pages of the liberal Nation magazine. After congratulating Obama for his campaign's "tremendous achievements" that have "inspired a wave of political enthusiasm like nothing seen in this country for decades," the letter went on to raise concern: "[T]here have been troubling signs that you are moving away from the core commitments shared by many who have supported your campaign, toward a more cautious and centrist stance."

The open letter goes on to enunciate a list of policies--including withdrawal from Iraq on a fixed timetable and universal health care--that the signatories consider a minimum program for Obama to pursue. It concludes, in part: "If you win in November, we will work to support your stands when we agree with you and to challenge them when we don't. We look forward to an ongoing and constructive dialogue with you when you are elected president."

In the light of such indications of unease among his liberal supporters, Obama felt compelled to note the displeasure among "my friends on the left"--only to slap them down again.

"Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center," Obama told a crowd in Powder Springs, Ga., on July 9. "The people who say this apparently haven't been listening to me. I believe in a whole lot of things that make me progressive and put me squarely in the Democratic camp...I believe in personal responsibility; I also believe in faith...That's not something new; I've been talking about that for years. So the notion that this is me trying to look centrist is not true."

While most people would probably look at Obama's statements as a back-of-the-hand swat at his critics, prominent liberal blogger Chris Bowers of read the opposite into them: " [T]he speech is actually directed at what Obama calls 'my friends on the left.' I can't remember a presidential nominee specifically courting left-wing voters and activists before. Honestly, I really can't. This is a sign of increased respect and being taken more seriously."

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DESPITE THE signs of discomfort with Obama in the liberal camp, Bowers' response is actually much more indicative of the lengths to which many leading progressives are willing to go to consider Obama--already a member of one of the world's most exclusive clubs, the Senate, and with campaign coffers stuffed with millions in corporate cash--as one of them.

Typical of this willful suspension of disbelief was the founding statement of Progressives for Obama, [3] issued in March over the signatures of prominent figures like Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Barbara Ehrenreich and Danny Glover. Conceived as an intervention into the Democratic primaries on Obama's behalf in the wake of his March 2008 speech on race, it opens by proclaiming, "All American progressives should unite for Barack Obama."

The statement's key idea is that the support for Obama generated in the Democratic primaries--heavy voter turnouts and decisive backing from African Americans and young people--constitutes a social movement that stands in the traditions of the great American social movements of the past, like the labor movement of the 1930s or the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s.

As its authors write, "We intend to join and engage with our brothers and sisters in the vast rainbow of social movements to come together in support of Obama's unprecedented campaign and candidacy. Even though it is candidate-centered, there is no doubt that the campaign is a social movement, one greater than the candidate himself ever imagined."

The statement concedes that Obama "openly defines himself as a centrist." But this becomes the reason for the "formation of a progressive force within his coalition. Anything less could allow his eventual drift towards the right as the general election approaches. It was the industrial strikes and radical organizers in the 1930s who pushed Roosevelt to support the New Deal...And it will be the Obama movement that makes it necessary and possible to end the war in Iraq, renew our economy with a populist emphasis and confront the challenge of global warming."

There's no doubt that Obama's campaign--or at least its incarnation during the Democratic primaries--mobilized first-time voters and raised hopes for "change" among millions of people. But declaring Obama's campaign a social movement is an exercise in sophistry at best, and self-delusion at worst.

A discussion of social movements is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that the mobilization of millions in militant struggle in the union movement of the 1930s or in the civil rights movement of the 1950s/60s--against the forces of the state and employers--is a different phenomenon than voting in a bourgeois political primary. To confuse the two is to lose any realistic way to assess what is actually needed to win the type of social change the Progressives for Obama seek.

Any effort to tailor demands for progressive reforms to what is acceptable to an Obama administration's assessment of the politics of "the possible" risks settling for a lot less than could be won with an independent mobilization that forces all Washington politicians to address the movement's agenda.

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THAT IS the real lesson of the 1930s and 1960s: what will determine the direction of social and political change in the U.S. will be grassroots movements on the ground, not tallies at the ballot box. Progressives for Obama would most likely agree with that point, but in their actions so far, they have, as Glenn Ford of Black Agenda Report put it, lent their names and reputations to an effort "to allow Obama to 'pass' for what he is not: a progressive."

The arguments of Progressives for Obama also head off the possibility that those genuinely interested in voting for an end to the war in Iraq, a single payer health care plan or an end to government violations of civil liberties will find prominent advocates for their point of view.

The underfunded independent candidacies of Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney and independent candidate Ralph Nader are raising those demands. But with the likes of Progressives for Obama pledging to "seek Green support against the claim of some that there are no real differences between Obama and McCain," and with Black nationalist-turned-Stalinist Amiri Baraka comparing those who would vote for McKinney or Nader to the German left whose disunity allowed Hitler to triumph [4] (!), it's clear that genuine left voices will be muffled in 2008.

With so many millions wanting to see the end of Republican rule, Obama, rather than McKinney or Nader, will capture the vast majority of votes from those seeking progressive change. But regardless of any "moves to the center," his candidacy has raised expectations among large numbers of people that Obama has no intention of meeting. An Obama presidency will prove that--and set the stage for grassroots movements to emerge in larger form.

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Columnist: Lance Selfa

Lance Selfa Lance Selfa is the author of the forthcoming The Democrats: A Critical History [5], a socialist analysis of the Democratic Party, and editor of The Struggle for Palestine [6], a collection of essays by leading solidarity activists. He is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review [7].

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