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Black president in the White House: Not the `same old white supremacy' but …

Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address after being sworn in as president of the United States. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images.

By Mike Ely

For literally millions of people, for many of a new generation, the awakening to politics starts in these moments. This is the world, the arguments, the summations, the claims, the promises that they hear and that they will see unfold in the days ahead. We need to understand this moment, we need to also inhabit this world that they are seeing — in order to craft from among them a revolutionary force that can actually connect with and represent their highest hopes.

This essay was first presented at a Kasama Project forum held in Chicago before the two political conventions in August 2008. Six months later, after Obama's election and inauguration, the question is even more sharply posed: what is the change that this represents. What does it mean (to the United States, to its forms of white supremacy, to its norms and assumptions) that a Black man inhabits the White House. What does it mean to the people, to their view of this country and its system? (What about the rise of a new Black patriotism and “pride in America”?)

* * *

I want to talk about what the Obama candidacy represents domestically and I’d like to talk about it in this sense: Some major critiques that I run across of the Obama presidential campaign come from a certain tired 1960s Black nationalism. I don’t know if you all follow Burning Spear (officially known as African People’s Socialist Party, APSP). But I think its analysis is a good example of what I’m talking about. It argues that Obama should not be supported — but views this moment through a set of decidedly 20th century goggles. Burning Spear’s chairperson Omali Yeshitela gave a series of talks called “Barack Obama — White Power in Black Face” — which is worth listening to in this light.

And I think we have to include in this category political prisioner Mumia Abu-Jamal’s analysis (posted on Kasama).

Basically their analysis is: Look, a President Obama would just be a black face on the same old white supremacy.

And I’ve even run across some communists running a version of this line, saying, for example, that Barack Obama is not “really” Black or African American, and that is why he is acceptable and promotable within the “white power structure”.

And right from the beginning, we would have to say that there is a profound element of truth in what both Yeshitila, Mumia and other radical Black nationalists are saying: that the oppression of Black people will not be alleviated through some national election.

Yes, a President Obama will preside over the continued oppression of Black people.

That part is profoundly true and that is something we have to explain to people without sounding fatalistic. Something will uproot this oppression, but it’s just not Obama.

But it’s a mistake to say it’s the same old white supremacy if it is run by a Black president because first of all it isn’t. Black people widely have some sense of that.

Multiculturalism and its meanings

We should peel back what Obama’s “post-racialism” would mean and what is actually being contested in this country, because I think it will explain some of the facts that we have to think through. This is somewhat simplistic, we can always get deeper, but it’s very clear in a generation the majority of the people in the United States will be minorities. This is a huge demographic shift. It’s happening much more rapidly than they thought, and it’s a historic shift.

All previous waves of immigration came from Europe. Now the waves of immigration come from oppressed countries, including especially countries oppressed by the US. So if you bring in large numbers of people that have been oppressed by the US directly or indirectly –- from Mexico, Colombia, Guatamala, Puerto Rico, South Korea, and a dozen other countries –- it has a large effect on the politics and the culture of your country. So those running the US have to deal with it. And there is a sharp contention among the people who are responsible for the long-range operations of this empire about how to handle it.

We all are pretty much aware of the sort of right-wing arsehole approach — which is one pole within that contention: That’s the wall-at-the-border, run-the-Latinos-out, make-everyone-speak-English clampdown –- this is the call to enforce a traditional white Christian, male-dominated country, that’s-what-made-us-great-so-shut-the-fuck-up. I think we’ll see it in a virulent tone.

Opposed to that is another discussion that revolutionaries have not grappled with profoundly, for reasons we can discuss. And that pole is the Clintonian-sort of multiculturalism.

Rather than describe that pole perceptually, let me just say something about the history of this country: Black people have always been black African-descended people — they were forced into castelike conditions of slave, sharecropper and impoverished worker using the confines of a colour line.

But white people have not always been white people. When I was a kid, people talked about WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) running this country. And then suddenly, as the 1950s passed on, the talk is about “white people.” Jews and Italians became honorary members of the dominant natonality, after they had long been excluded under this banner of WASPs. A WASP, if you look at it, is Anglo-Saxon which means Brits and Germans (it allowed Germans in).

And even that WASP concept had a historic beginning. I wrote a piece on St. Louis and the German workers of the Civil War. One thing that stands out is that German immigrants used to be an oppressed nationality in this country. so were the Irish. At that time, the dominant nationality was Anglo-Americans. Then the Irish became white. (There’s a valuable book called How the Irish Became White that’s really worth reading.)

The author of that book, Noel Ignatiev is part of a radical break from traditional communist theory about the national question — creating a school of analysis sometimes called the “race-traitor” school that writes about the “invention of the white race”. And there are things worth understanding about what this school of thinking has dug up: That in the US the system has, over time, flexibly adjusted who was considered part of the dominant nationality — part of the social compact that helped keep African American people, Chicanos, Native Americans, and the latest immigrants pinned at the bottom of the class structure.

One of the things revealed is that the dominant structure of this country has sought to accommodate while continuing to oppress. Without going into all the depth of this: capitalism needs an oppressed class. But historically, in the US, the system had trouble maintaining a historically stable, hereditary oppressed class — there was a labour shortage, there was an opening for escape onto the frontier, there were pressures pushing up wages.

The United States has always had a labour shortage because it killed the Indians, because its economic growth was dizzyingly rapid and because European immigrants could seek “free land” (made “free” by killing their original inhabitants). So it was hard to keep white people working in fields and domestic service. (It was tried through a system of indentured servitude.)

The bringing in of Black people and making them do forced unpaid labour was a way to have a labour force at the bottom. And holding Black people in caste-like conditions at the bottom of the working class was a way of keeping a proletariat in this country.

This was not the experience of other nationalities: For example in the ’50s when the Jewish population went from being overwhelmingly proletarian to almost no members of the working class in twenty years. It’s one of fastest demographic transformation in history and it’s part of what conservatised Jewish people in this country. But through such changes affecting European immigrants, Black people have historically been held in caste-like conditions using the colour line.

Change in the structure of nationality and race in the United States

And now, we can see that there is consideration of a modification to that historic approach to Black people. And I think the possible modification goes along the following lines:

Capitalism in the US still needs an oppressed proletariat — more than ever because of the competition within global manufacturing. And certainly the capitalists themselves see the health of their domestic industries require the existance of significant sections of workers living and working at Third World levels. Over the last decades, they have brought in immigrants and they are keeping many millions of them illegal, which is a way of super-exploiting people -- keeping them below prevailing wage levels.

And this system has worked to re-exploit Black people. That was, for example, a capitalist calculation that animated the Clintonian approach to welfare: What’s the use, it was said, of having a proletariat if it’s not desperate for work, if it’s not willing to work for nothing? If Black youth are not interested in working for the minimum wage, then pressure needs to be brought to bear.

And so the existing structure of social services were changed — to pressure poor people to re-enter the workforce, at the bottom — to increasingly re-exploit, re-proletarianise them.

And at the same time, there has been a consideration of expanding the circle of those who are accepted into assimilation. Interestingly enough, the model of this kind of assimilation has been the supposedly “anti-racist” innovations of the post-Vietnam US military.

There are places in this society where there have been efforts to transform how these things work. The military is both extremely reactionary, and because of its need for humanpower, has done some accommodation on how Black people are brought into the structure.

There are also places in civil society in which, as a result of the 1960s, certain sections of Black people are allowed assimilation.

And there’s a link between the conditional assimilation of some sections of the upper class of the Black nation, and the continuing criminalisation and demonisation of those at the bottom, since desegregation.

There’s been an intensification of the class contradictions within the Black nationality so that, for example, Chicago’s South Side used to have Black doctors and lawyers — but then you desegregate some suburbs and loosen the rigidity of that colour line, and professional Black people can move out, then the people left stranded in the inner-city communities are the poorest part of Black people, leaving these communities much less economically diverse than they were before desegregation.

So, there is a debate, a struggle, within the ruling class over how to handle the coming state of minority/majority; and a profound and oppressive necessity to keep whole sections of non-white communities in caste-like oppression as proletarians fuelling the “competitiveness (profitability) of US domestic production.

A look from the killing floor

It became really clear to me when I investigated pork processing in North Carolina.

In manufacturing, if the capitalists can export the factory, they move the factory to low-wage areas across the border. But in some industries the capitalists just can’t shift the site of production: if it’s transport, subways, trucking, meatpacking, restaurant work …. You can’t move meatpacking plants to Guatemala because the meat can’t be profitably refrigerated and transported that far. So instead, the capitalists import the workers from the low-wage areas.

Either they ship the factory to the Third World or they ship the Third World people here.

One of the advantages that US capitalism has over many rivals (like Germany, Japan and other imperialist countries) is that the US has a long border with a populous Third World country, and it can exploit that desperate labour in cruel but innovative ways.

The US ruling class wants to continue and refine that, and yet debate ways of developing a more stable and broader arrangement within the nationality structure that defines the US.

Here’s what I’m arguing: That it’s just not the same old shit and, first of all, Black people know this in some ways.

There’s certain kinds of white superiority/Black inferiority that came out around this last election and some white people said, “Well I just could never vote for a Black guy” -– meaning: how could he be competent? And meaning: “I don’t trust a black man not to seek payback from those of us who took part in white racism.”

There’s a certain crude white racism that the Obama candidacy was an affront to; and we should be prepared to take it on, and not tolerate it for a fucking second... We should not be stand-offish… ``Oh it’s all the fucking same''. This is not tolerable and we should call it out and expose it whenever it appears.

Many people supporting Obama suspect that they may be able to knock those kinds of kinds of raw, old-time white racism out of the culture. A lot of it’s on the defensive already — raw white supremacy is no longer premissible in polite company. It is not considered acceptable. It has to be leaked out undercover, in whispers. This shift in social norms comes out when some folks complain bitterly that there’s just too much political correctness. What they’re saying is: How come I can’t speak real thoughts publicly in civil society? It’s because that kind of racism is already on the defensive.

What underlies this is that there are differences between what Obama and McCain represented in regard to the status of Black people. And we need a living critique of the multicultural proposal that Obama’s candidacy implicitly embodied. We have to show how this change in the superstructure and its assumptions cannot really emancipate the masses of Black people, or the oppressed of other nationalities at the bottom of US class society.

We need to dissect what Obama’s victory will actually mean? And which sections of Black people might see improvements because of the changes that a black president represents.

Obama’s rise: Proof that people cause their own poverty?

There’s another thing to take into this discussion: Some changes that an Obama presidency will bring domestically are not progressive. You can see already two different narratives being promoted in regard to Obama’s rise.

On one hand, there are people who say, “This finally proves that Black people are equally competent and there is no justification for closing any sphere of society to Black people.”

On the other hand, there are those who say, “The rise of an Obama proves that there really is no more racism in America, and that the continuing impoverishment and social problems of Black communities cannot be blamed on the system.”

This is, of course, the familiar way that highly reactionary forces in this country use the winning of civil rights laws. They say, ``Look you got legal equality in 1965; if you’re still poor two generations later, there’s something wrong with you.''

They say (or imply) that there’s some special pathology among Black people: because once you got equality it was just up to you; so there’s just something wrong with you and your culture, so you should abandon your culture and take more personal responsibility.

It's popular among Republican Party racists. But also embodied in the Bill Cosby line — and it is promoted by Obama himself with his highly conscious talk of personal responsibility and Black fatherhood.

Structural racism

When people say, our problem’s not the Klan anymore, it’s now us killing each other, it denies the existence of structural racism. It denies the ways in which a people are kept oppressed. It treats slavery as an event in the past, not a legacy that defines everything around us.

There is a whole push to not talk about the past — you see it in the reactionary right, but also in Obama (and his upholding of founding fathers and pioneers!).

When we bring up slavery, we’re explaining how this place looks now. Why is the South so reactionary? You think it’s not because of the blood of the African people and what went on there? Why do white people want guns in their houses? What’s the history of it? What are the events and dynamics that this still arises from?

You can get a glimmer of what an Obama victory can mean when you see how any mention of the oppression of Black people in the campaign was called ``playing the race card''. Here in the electoral campaign of a black person, there was almost zero discussion of the conditions of Black people and how they should be changed.

Obama’s campaign has not meant that the condition of Black people is finally centre stage — his campaign pushed those conditions off the stage.

This is not “our time has come”. This is, “I’m running and I’m not discussing you.”

And the moment Obama even mentions, “Look, I don’t look like the white guys on the dollar bill”, the whole political establishment shouts back, ``Whoa, let’s not be talking about race now.''

In other words, the price (the result) of having a Black presidential candidate is the suppression of any discussion of the oppression of Black people.

And I supsect this will not be a temporary phenomenon. It is part of what will come out of this election. That will become a generalised phenomenon.

This is justified (among Black people and among Democrats) in the name of, “He has to be president of all the people and if you just see him as a Black candidate you’ll never win” and all of that.

But really, there’s a whole other thing going on and we actually have to help people articulate that because there’s negative consequences of the system making this adjustment, and it includes perpetuating the demonisation of Black people and the argument that there aren’t structural reasons why Black people suffer the way they do in this hellhole. So I think that’s something worth peeling back, if you know what I’m saying.

To sum this up: When the Black nationalists say, ``He’s just a black face on the same old white supremacy”, I really think it’s mechanical and ahistorical. I think most people know better. It’s not the case. It is a Black face on the same society — on US capitalist-imperialist society — but it also represents some sea changes in how that society treats, portrays and oppresses Black people. And it may involve a certain acceptance of the assimilation of some strata of Black people, while intensifying the demonisation and hammering of those at the bottom.

The condition of Black people has been horrific in this country from its founding, heaping atrocities on African-descended people.

But there has never been anything we could call “the same old white supremacy”. There’s something very tired about this exactly because it doesn’t understand the dynamism of this society.

And this has been, always, a very dynamic and changing system. Conditions have always changed in leaps over this history. From several different forms of slavery at the beginning, to sharecropping, to working-class conditions to permanent unemployment. The oppression of African American people took the form of chains, then of segregation backed by lynching, now urban containment by police.

Similarly, the ideological justifications for it have changed a dozen times over 200 years. And they’re changing it again, you see. And to just say, as the Black nationalists do, “Well, it’s just the same old thing”, doesn’t correspond with reality, and for that reason won’t get any serious hearing. After all, these same Black nationalists said the same thing about Black mayors: ``These are just Black men who front for the white power structure.” It really does not understand the dynamics.

We need a revolutionary movement that does not see the events of today through the paradigms of the 1960s, that actually doesn’t just cling to old verdicts, and that doesn’t mechanically assume that this system is clinging to its own old verdicts.

Obama a pacifier?

So, I think objectively, if you look at it this, the rise of Obama is a very important phenomenon. It represents a major struggle within the ruling class over how to deal with both major international and major coming internal problems. It is not mainly pacifying the resistance of the people — which is why he gives so little lip service to the struggle and demands of the most oppressed people. Unfortunately, such resistance is not a permanent part of the political landscape; unfortunately the oppressors don’t always need to speak to radical challenges.

I would love to have a situation where the rulers need to produce a candidate to pacify the people (like they did with McGovern in 1972). But I don’t think that’s what’s going on right now.

And, looking at this question of Obama the “pacifier” from another side, I don’t think that the outcome of this campaign is simply and inevitably the pacification of people. It depends on how it turns out.

The US ruling class is very rough in its internal struggles. It may rough Obama up badly. I’ve followed these campaigns closely, and you can get so far and it looks like this and this is going, and then they just slap some dude down and he’s done. They may slap him down and Black people with him. And then it’s in your face. Sometimes political figures in this society are simply negated and removed from the scene — as George Wallace was in 1972 when he was getting in the way of Richard Nixon.

And such abrupt developments can really create an opening for a far more radical turn in things.

It’s not simply, Obama is going to pacify people and we just have to (somehow) get people to not pay attention to these events.

We actually want people to look and see what’s coming. To learn from what is coming now. As Mao said: “To go through it and come out the other side.”

[Mike Ely is a participant of the Kasama Project, which is seeking to reconceive and regroup a revolutionary movement within the United States. This essay is based on remarks made by Mike Ely at a Kasama forum held in Chicago before the two US political conventions in August 2008. It has been slightly abridged. It is published by Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Mike Ely's permission. It was originally Part 3 of a series called “Obama vs. the Revolution”, available at Mike Ely can be reached at kasamasite (at)]

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