United States: The financial calamity, African Americans and Obama

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Barack Obama supporters

By Malik Miah

October 8, 2008 -- The deepening financial calamity exposes how the “fundamentals” of the economy impact on working people, particularly African Americans. The so-called unfettered free market system has been a failure.

The issue of the economy has given the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, the first Black candidate for a major party, a big boost. After eight years of Bush-Cheney, Obama should be a shoo-in. Democrats are expected to garner big majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Yet, as television pundits and print commentators have noted, Obama is in a close race with the Republican John McCain because of one reason: the colour of his skin. While there are some differences on domestic and foreign policy, both men would forcefully defend the interests of the ruling class. Obama has repeatedly gone out of his way to state his willingness to use pre-emptive military force in Pakistan or against Iran, as well as increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan.

The race factor

Because the impact of the economic crisis and the presidential elections are so tied together, it is difficult to separate the two for African Americans. The blows to the economy are not new; the chance to have a Black person elected as president is. No African-American leader thought this was possible or realistic even a year ago.

The race factor, or racism to be more precise, shows the contradictions of US society. The careful tone of Obama’s Black supporters and his coolness under fire has a lot to do with the racist history of the country and how he and others have responded to charges of “elitism”. Blacks are very familiar with code words being used to put down or be condescending to Black men and women. The constant charge of “inexperience” by Republicans, for example, is the latest of a long history of racial code words against capable Black men. (Obama is as experienced as Abraham Lincoln, who was also a senator from Illinois, when he was elected president and then led the US Civil War.)

The economy

The economy of course is a huge issue for African Americans. Not surprisingly there is general anger about the US$700 billion Wall Street bailout. No such bailout occurred for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or for the permanently unemployed and underemployed in the Black community.

Most Black congressional representatives initially voted against the bailout. They changed their minds only after Barack Obama said it was necessary to vote “yes” for political reasons. He “promised” a future bailout of the “middle class” after he wins the presidency.

In September the official unemployment rate for African Americans was 11.4 per cent; for the general population it was 6.1 per cent; and for whites it was 5.4 per cent.

In addition, some 6.1 million part-time workers want to work full time. Blacks are a big part of that group. The rising healthcare costs hit African Americans hardest as many work in jobs with employers who don’t provide health insurance. The need for universal health care is obvious. As bad as the financial calamity is for average working Americans, it is qualitatively worse for Blacks.

African Americans nevertheless see the economic crisis and the presidential election as connected. The possibility of the first Black president is inspiring and hopeful. Voting for Barack Obama is viewed as more than just voting for “Black pride” but as a possible firewall to limit the worse blows of the financial crisis.

The Republicans understand this too, which is why the first African-American presidential candidate for a major party is attacked on “cultural values” and his ``character'' — which as McCain and Palin's handlers fully understand means his skin colour —to mobilise the votes of bigots and those not fully conscious of their biased attitudes.

The racist campaign against Obama is barely hidden. The code words and phrases of “he’s doesn’t look like one of us”, the emphasising of his middle name “Hussein” and accusations of  “palling around with terrorists” are aimed at getting white voters to vote on “fear of the Black man” over economic self-interest. (Bush in 2004 linked Democrats to being soft on “terrorism”; Obama has a double whammy—a friend of terrorists [maybe a sleeper] and being an “alien” to blue-collar Americans.)

`Racism without racists'

A revealing survey was conducted by StanfordUniversity with the Associated Press and Yahoo! in September. It showed that Obama would be at least 6 percentage points higher in every poll if he were white. What is known as the “Bradley effect” (referring to the African-American Democratic candidate, Tom Bradley, for governor of California in 1982 who lost even though he was up by more than 10 points in many polls) is why few assume that the economic crisis and other indicators assure that Barack Obama will win the November 4 election.

The steelworkers’ union in Pennsylvania is going door to door in working class neighbourhoods to win support for Obama. They’ve heard comments from white co-workers about not voting for “that boy”, some saying outright they will never vote for a Black man—and these statements are only from those who are open about stating their views. These are workers who have lost their jobs or and are angry about the Wall Street bailout.

Phillip Goff, a social psychologist at UCLA who focuses his research on “racism without racists”, notes, “When we fixate on the racist individuals, we’ve focused on the least interesting way that race works. Most of the way race functions is without the need for racial animus.”

In other words, he explains, the problem is those whites and others who believe in racial equality and have no objection to electing a Black person as president, yet who discriminate unconsciously. This is particularly true for older Americans. The younger generations who grew up after the victory of the civil rights movements in the 1960s tend to be less concerned about race and voting for a Black president.

The economy is causing a majority of whites and other ethnic groups to put their own self-interests over their anti-Black biases. I believe if that weren't true, the race factor of 6 per cent would be larger and polls would not show that more and more white men are willing to say that they will vote for Obama for his economic positions even if they don’t see him as “Joe six-pack”. Can this new trend negate the Bradley/race factor? The fact that Obama won the nomination when a similar smear campaign was launched by the Clintons shows how the depth of racism among whites in 2008 is much weaker than it was in 1982.

Blatant bigotry

This is not to minimise the virulence of the hardcore racist minority. The extreme ultra-evangelist leaders of the Republican Party will play the race card as Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the vice-presidential nominee and the attack dog on the issue, continues to do in public. She whips up the “base” that leads to shouts of “kill him” and “he’s a terrorist”. The crowd at one Florida event even began shouting epithets at an African-American member of a TV crew. It shows the logic of racism among a mob-like crowd.

In Macomb County, Michigan, a mostly white working-class area, pro-McCain ads have used images of the former disgraced mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, and Obama’s former minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, to turn them against Obama. Ads claiming Obama is a “Muslim” are also being circulated.

Right-wing talk show hosts regularly refer to Obama as “a communist, socialist and terrorist” and that “he’s not one of us” (meaning the infamous “blue-collar white worker” that Hillary Clinton more discreetly talked about during the Democratic primaries.)

Left analysis missing context

Many independents, socialists and opponents of lesser evilism who back Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney may say it doesn’t matter if Obama wins or loses because he is the head of a major ruling party.

What’s missing in this analysis is the context. The vast majority of African Americans who know and experience racism do care about the outcome. They see the virulent racism directed at Obama as being directed at them. In that sense a vote for Obama is a vote against the pure, subtle and not-so-subtle racism of the right. The principle here is to show unconditional opposition to race baiting and hate mongering.

That’s why in many ways the vote on November 4 is a referendum on race relations. Consider one point: if Obama is leading every major poll by 6-10 points, as he was on October 8, yet loses even as the Democratic Party makes big gains in congress, the impact and angry reaction could be huge in the African-American community.

While I believe that the changes since the victory of the civil rights revolution for Blacks is shown by the facts, a racist defeat of Obama could set back those gains — and open the door to encourage the bigots to push back on other programs that benefit minorities and women. Progress on race relations could be set back, especially for the Black middle class.

Obama has gone out of his way to remain cool under these attacks and not appear as the angry Black man that many whites fear.

Few illusions about future

African Americans are quite aware of the racial contradictions of US society and history. That’s why they see the current economic crisis and the presidential election tied together at least until the election is over. They recognise that voting for Obama is not a solution to the lack of jobs and opportunities.

But from a nationalist (or racial pride and community solidarity) point of view, Obama’s victory would be seen as a confirmation of the civil rights progress since adoption of the civil rights laws in the 1960s. No one from the civil rights era of Martin Luther King Jr. truly and genuinely believed that a Black man could be elected president of the United States in their lifetimes. That’s why most initially backed Hillary Clinton in the primaries, until Obama's broad appeal emerged early in the Democratic primaries.

The deepening economic calamity is causing more Blacks to lose their homes, be evicted from their apartments and lose their jobs. And while the Black community leadership has no plan of action to help the population, the hope is that the first Black president in 232 years of the United States will put programs in place that are fairer. There are few illusions but a great deal of hope — and pride.

[Malik Miah is an editor of the US socialist journal Against The Current.]