Gary Younge has another fine article up at the Guardian site. A black Briton whose parents immigrated there from Barbados, he spends a lot of time trying to explain us Americans to his British readers. It’s often in such outside appraisals that we first realize something interesting about ourselves.
In this one he’s talking about the situation faced by black people in the US today. As he points out, African-Americans are the most optimistic demographic group over the past few years. They’re more likely to feel that the economy is improving, that the country’s best days are yet to come, and that they themselves are better off than they were four years ago. They’re more likely to believe that the gap between blacks and whites in terms of income is decreasing. The problem is, most of this is not true.
In fact, blacks are worse off than they were four years ago. The wealth gap between blacks and whites has doubled, with whites now having 22 times the average wealth of blacks. The education gap has increased. While the national unemployment rate has remained fairly steady under the Obama administration, black unemployment has gone up 11%.
One can argue about the cause of those changes and the degree to which Obama bears any responsibility for either creating them or fixing them. But one cannot argue about the fact of them: the ascent of America’s first black president has coincided with the one of the steepest descents of the economic fortunes of black Americans since the second world war both in real terms and relative to whites.
This situation stands in stark contrast to the devotion of black voters to the president’s election. Both four years ago and now Obama can count on 90% of the vote from the African-American community, though as one community leader told Younge, that’s 90% of those motivated enough to go vote. Yet the fact remains that the group most loyal to Obama has benefited least from his tenure. Still, very few members of that group have questioned the president's approach or policies, at least publicly.
In part this is understandable. If a black leader publicly criticized Obama the comment would be replayed endlessly on Fox and all the right-wing radio stations and websites. Still, Younge reports that even among themselves black American intellectuals can be thought disloyal for critiquing the president, though the critic be known as a solid Obama supporter. This helps neither the country in its quest for the right path nor the black community in its search for a fair and equal place in American life. I hasten to add that this is not meant to blame the disadvantaged but to point out that all sectors of society must be willing to view others as they view themselves, and vice versa. Any group is proud to have one of its members in the White House for the first time, and no group has been more exploited and poorly treated than African-Americans except perhaps the Native Americans. Thank heaven we can finally get past the theory that a black person cannot be president. Now the question is whether this one is doing well or poorly.
Rather than bringing a post-racial era, Obama’s election has led to the most polarized electorate on racial issues in a generation. A recent AP poll found that just over half of all Americans now harbor racist attitudes against African-Americans and about the same for Hispanics. We have by no means cast aside our racist past and grown up. Considerations such as these recall
an era of black political leadership, where black politicians emerged from the church or historically black colleges, and fought not to win office outside the black community (white people wouldn’t vote for them) but to put the needs of that community on the agenda. There was, in a previous generation, a sense of ownership that black communities had over their politicians that no longer exists. This is partly progress. Ivy League universities will admit them, corporations will hire them, funds will come to them, white people will now vote for them. A whole range of opportunities are open to politicians of Obama’s generation that were created by Cornel West’s generation.
But that, in turn, has changed what it means to be a black politician and what, if anything, we mean when we talk about black politics. Unlike, say, Jesse Jackson or Martin Luther King, Obama was not politically produced by the black community, but presented to it after he had made his way through the mostly white elites. His political ties to the black community are not organic but symbolic. His arrival in the political class is hailed as the progress of a community when in fact it is the advancement of an individual.
“[Obama] is being consumed as the embodiment of color blindness,” Angela Davis, professor of history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told me in late 2007. “It’s the notion that we have moved beyond racism by not taking race into account. That’s what makes him conceivable as a presidential candidate. He’s become the model of diversity in this period … a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference. The change that brings no change.”
There’s lots more in this meaty article. Did you know that Obama’s most recent State of the Union speech was the first one since 1948 not to mention poverty or the poor? And as Younge says, when he does talk about it, it’s to recommend better parenting, healthy meals, and greater discipline. How, one might ask, are parents to provide healthy meals and greater discipline when they’re struggling or unable to pay the bills in a depressed economy in a failing empire where for generations their exploited families have not had a fair shake?
At a Congressional Black Caucus meeting in September [Obama] told his former colleagues: “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.” Compare that to the meeting he had with bankers not long after he was elected when they thought he was going to impose serious regulation. “I’m the only thing standing between you and the pitchforks. I’m not out there to go after you,” he told them. “I’m protecting you.”
All our public resources go to maintaining the ability of our corporations and financial institutions to exploit the world, and of course the ability of our military machine to take and hold whatever territory or resource those corporations deem necessary for their health and well-being, in other words their profit margins. Our economy has tanked because certain elements of society whose wealth gives them inordinate influence have discovered how easily they, through the media outlets they collectively monopolize, can gin up enthusiasm for war, tax cuts for the rich, reduced access to health care and education for the rest of us, and other such programs that would be impossible to impose on an informed citizenry. One cannot count on informed citizens in a democracy judging correctly at every single election; but an uninformed citizenry is hardly ever right and then only by chance, when it has failed to grab the bait dangled by the professional misleaders.
Unfortunately it is often those at the bottom of the economic ladder who are most familiar with the facts. They may or may not be exposed to the same amount of propaganda as those above them, but they are most certainly exposed to the harsh facts on the ground, to use the phrase government planners, especially military ones, have made us all familiar with in recent years. For African-Americans in particular this is not new knowledge; they’ve been exposed to the harsh facts for almost four hundred years, and it has shaped their political views, leaders, and movements. It has shaped their expectations. This, Younge suggests, might help us understand their optimism for the future despite difficult current circumstances and poor prospects.
That black Americans are doing worse than everyone else, and that the man they elected to turn that around has not done so, does not fundamentally change their view of how American politics works; almost every other Democratic president has failed in a similar way while Republicans have not even tried to succeed.
Conversely the fact that a black man might be elected president, that enough white people might vote for him and that nobody has shot him, really has changed their assumptions about what is possible.
This is why I cast my ballot for Obama last time, voting for a Democrat for the first time since 1988. William Greider argued that Obama’s election would end white supremacy in America; and I came to see that as a step that would be difficult to reverse, thus justifying my vote for someone I expected to be a poor president. (Little did I know.) To my mind the re-emergence of relatively open racism on the public stage seems entirely predictable: white supremacy will not concede its unearned privilege and power as long as any recourse remains. Nor is that subset of society among the more enlightened or introspective, rather the opposite; thus rationality and argument are of little use.
In the end, though, white supremacy cannot be allowed to direct the course of society, and the lowered expectations of African-Americans and other mistreated groups must not be continually confirmed, if the United States is regain the path toward the ideals stated in the country’s founding documents. We must practice looking at policies and effects, judging for ourselves what might help modify our current hell-bound trajectory. Critiques are not treason.
The day Obama took office, the world may have looked at black America differently, but black America has yet to look at Obama differently. When he went from being an aspiration to a fact of political life, the posters that bore his likeness in socialist realist style over single-word commands like Hope, Believe and Change should have been replaced with posters bearing the single-word statement: power. As Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Having cast my vote for Barack Obama four years ago hoping for, and getting, nothing more than an African-American president, I feel liberated now to return to my beliefs and vote for Jill Stein. If Romney wins California you can blame me; but it would be more sensible to blame Obama’s alliance with, even sellout to, power.