A few weeks ago, an assertive middle class black woman named Velma Hart politely but pointedly got in the first black president Barack Obama’s face during a televised town hall meeting. She said she was the near the end of her ability to defend Obama, a president for whom she had proudly voted out of faith in his hope-filled campaign promises:
HART: "I’m one of your middle-class Americans. And quite frankly, I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for…"
HART: "…and deeply disappointed with where we are right now. I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people, and I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet. And I thought, while it wouldn’t be in great measure, I would feel it in some small measure."
While Velma Hart is no Oliver Twist (she referred to having two children in private school), I was reminded of Charles Dickens’ iconic fictional waif, who dared to challenge the workhouse master with the famous words, "Please Sir, can I have some more?"
Listening to Obama’s bland, professorial response ("We’re moving in the right direction") to Hart’s complaint, I was reminded of an earlier moment when the president was unexpectedly confronted by public black criticism. Nearly one year ago, Obama made his belated first presidential visit to New Orleans, site of tropical storm and societal disaster Katrina Â the disastrous August 2005 hurricane and federal fiasco that left tens of thousands of disproportionately black and poor inner-city residents trapped in deadly floodwaters. Seeking to deflect criticism claiming that he had not paid sufficient attention to the city and the broader Mississippi Delta region,
Obama appeared to overwhelming applause at a town-hall meeting to claim that "progress is being made" with federal recovery efforts. But the event’s happy feeling was interrupted when a local resident asked "Why is it four years after Katrina, we’re still fighting for money to repair our devastated city?" The questioner added, "I expected as much from the Bush administration. But why are we still being nickeled and dimed?"
The president’s response was less than impressive. It waxed dry, wonkish and technocratic as he referred to "complications between the state, the city, and the feds in making assessments of the damages." According to The New York Times:
"The president, in a rare moment on the defensive in a format that is usually friendly to him, said many people in New Orleans were ‘understandably impatient’ and said he had inherited a backlog of problems."
"’These things were not going to be fixed tomorrow,’ Mr. Obama said. ‘So we are working as hard as we can, as quickly as we can.’ He added, ‘I wish I could just write a check.’"
"When some shouted ‘Why not?’ Mr. Obama replied, ‘There’s this whole thing about the Constitution.’"
"He added that ‘We’ve got to go through procedures.’" (Peter Baker and Campbell Robertson, "Obama Tells New Orleans Progress is Being Made," New York Times, October 16, 2009, A16)
Surely many in the town hall were well aware that the new president, the Democratic-majority Congress, and their constitutionally-encoded "procedures" had managed to quickly grant trillions of taxpayer dollars to the nation’s predominantly white financial barons and to the Pentagon and thus to the nation’s powerful "defense" contractors.
Some most certainly reflected on the fact that Obama, the U.S. House, and the U.S. Senate were spending vast federal resources on overseas wars of occupation while black ghettos, Latino barriers and working class communities of all races and ethnicities deteriorated across the imperial "homeland."
Obama the U.S. Senator and presidential candidate had made five visits to New Orleans after Katrina Â a great symbol of Republican and Bush administration incompetence and callousness towards the poor. After waiting nine months to visit the devastated majority-black city he’d found so useful to speak from during his campaign, President Obama now stayed for only a few hours before jetting off to a posh ruling-class fundraiser in San Francisco.
During his short stop in New Orleans, Obama did manage to promote his and Arne Duncan’s corporate-crafted schools privatization agenda by visiting the oxymoronically named "Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School" in the city’s predominantly black, flood-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward. "The school," Times reporters Peter Baker and Campbell Robertson noted, was "surrounded by boarded-up houses, empty lots with overgrown grass and dilapidated storefronts with for-rent signs."
The Times neglected to note that corporate educational interests had seized on Katrina as an opportunity, using the crisis to advance their privatization model on the reconstitution of New Orleans’ school system (see Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism [New York: Metropolitan, 2007], p. 5.)
As Maureen Dowd noted three days after Obama’s brief stopover, the White House Web site that went up during Obama’s first week in office boasted of four trips to New Orleans as U.S. Senator. It pledged to "keep the broken promises made by President Bush to re-build New Orleans." Obama’s confrontation with struggling black people in New Orleans was, like his Velma Hart moment, one of many telling episodes in the story of his fall from "Yes We Can" to "No We Can’t."
This story was well anticipated by the Obama Team, which spoke well prior to his election of how he would as president face a critical task: "the management" and even (as his former campaign foreign policy advisor Samantha Power put it) the "calibration" of (popular] "expectations" Â expectations they would ride and raise on the path to power and then betray in accord with their allegiance to the dominant imperial and state capitalist (and white-supremacist) hierarchies and doctrines that filter access to higher office (see Paul Street, "’Calibrating’ Hope in the Effort to ‘Patrol the Commons’: Samantha Power and the Hidden Imperial Reality of Barack Obama," ZNet, February 28, 2008).
Some leftists I know have noted with disappointment and criticism that in subsequent interviews Ms. Hart said she was still "100 percent" behind Obama. I understand the criticism. As the great radical historian Howard Zinn used to say, "the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting inÂin the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstratingÂthose are the things that determine what happens."
As the antiwar activist, author, and essayist Stan Goff put it recently on Facebook: "I’m glad Obama was elected. Otherwise, people would blame the war on McCain and the Republicans and continue with the delusion that elections can be our salvation. The modern nation-state was created by war, of war, and for war. That is its only real purpose, and all others are subordinate to it. You can change the executive director but he/she is still the commander in chief. That’s the job description." Indeed.
"We who protest the war," Zinn wrote in the spring of 2007, "are not politicians. We are citizens. Whatever politicians may do, let them first feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not for what is winnable… Except for the rare few, our representatives are politicians, and will surrender their integrity, claiming to be ‘realistic.’ We are not politicians, but citizens."
As should be clearer than ever after more than 21 months of Obama’s militantly corporate and imperial presidency Â a monument to center right business rule and militarism masquerading as progressivism Â real progressive and democratic change comes only from independent action from below. Velma Hart voted for, and still seems to hold out hope for something that doesn’t exist: democratic change from the top down. It’s not about "waiting, waiting" for the president to match the typical promises made to progressive voters seduced with the Democratic Party’s standard people-friendly pseudo-populist rhetoric (also used by John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton).
Obama has been busy meeting other, more important promises made to those who matter most in America’s corporate-managed fake democracy, ever more beholden to the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. His pledges betrayed to the ordinary working people are the flip side of his promises kept to the ruling class and the power elite.
Those other promises Â the ones given to the closet dictatorship of money and empire Â were readily discernible to anyone who was willing and able to do some due diligence research on Obama’s track record prior to reaching the presidency (two examples of such research are my 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics  and Chapter 6, titled "We Were Warned," in my new book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power ).
Of course, there’s nothing particularly new or unique about President Obama’s service to the rich and powerful. Every four years, it seems, million of Americans invest their hopes in an electoral process that does not deserve their trust. These citizens qua voters hope that a savior or at least a more effective manager can be installed in the White House Â someone who will raise wages, roll back war and militarism, provide universal and adequate health care, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, produce high-paying jobs, fix the environmental crisis, reduce inequality, guarantee economic security, and generally make daily life more livable. But the dreams are regularly drowned in the icy waters of historical and political "reality."
In the actuality of American politics and policy, the officially "electable" candidates are vetted in advance by what Laurence Shoup calls "the hidden primary of the ruling class." By prior Establishment selection, all of the "viable" presidential contenders are closely tied to corporate and military-imperial power in numerous and interrelated ways. They run safely within the narrow ideological and policy parameters set by those who rule behind the scenes to make sure that the rich and privileged continue to be the leading beneficiaries of the American system. In its presidential as in its other elections, U.S. "democracy" is "at best" a "guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population projects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process. It is an illusion," Shoup claims Â correctly in my opinion Â "that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate." (Laurence H. Shoup, "The Presidential Election 2008," Z Magazine, February 2008, p. 31).
Still, Velma Hart’s confrontation with Barack Obama wounded him in ways that he richly deserved. Despite Ms. Hart’s apparently more-than-lingering faith in personality-/ "leader"-centered politics, her televised and widely viewed face-down of the President of the United States can also be seen as a blow to the notion of change through politicians and elections.
It is very important that the shot was delivered by a black woman. The Obama campaign and presidency has enjoyed a strong race dividend when it comes to silencing rich criticism from the left and progressive side of the American spectrum.
Many liberals, progressives, and leftists have been less than excited to witness a "progressive" presidency that has set new corporate welfare records, expanded the epic taxpayer bail out of parasitic financial institutions, failed to move on promised legislation to re-legalize union organizing, failed to meaningfully control the financial sector and cut back its obscene profits (which have returned to record levels as millions more struggle to stave off destitution, wondering "Where’s MY bailout?"), approved an auto-restructuring plan that rewarded capital flight, passed an indecipherable health "reform" that only insurance and drug companies could love, undermined serious global carbon emission reduction efforts, approved reckless offshore oil drilling contracts that blew up in the Gulf of Mexico last April, failed to seriously attack massive unemployment and rising poverty, escalated and expanded the scope of imperial violence, failed to prosecute past torture practices by the George W. Bush administration, continued Bush’s Orwellian police state practices, escalated what might be called the War on Dissent (on whistleblowers and radicals) within the United States, and…I could go on and on with a list of "progressive" betrayals).
Under Obama the eloquent Democrat as under Dubya the boorish Republican, "People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe." As William Greider noted last year in a Washington Post column titled "Obama Asked Us to Speak But is He Listening?": "They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it."
But while much of "the Left" (a term that is thrown around quite irresponsibly by the political and media class) has been angered and otherwise bothered by all this and more Â including the Obama administration’s continuing habit of criticizing "the Left" for wanting "too much" from the White House and for supposedly being too critical Â it has also been excessively surprised and disappointed (the other promises, the ones to the ruling class, were all there to be studied from the beginning of the Obama phenomenon) and unduly reluctant to challenge the corporate-captive Democratic Party. Related to this, it has been reluctant to criticize "the first black president," whose election held deep symbolic and emotional significance for many black and other Americans as a great (supposed) defeat of racism in the United States, the land of slavery.
Let’s hope the Velma Hart episode helps liberals and leftists overcome some of this shyness. Many white progressives would do themselves, democracy, and racial justice a favor by dropping the sense that they are doing blacks a favor by holding back from passing negative judgments on the "black but not like Jesse" Obama, who has been quite bad on racial equality Â probably worse than a President Hillary Clinton or John Edwards would have been on race and possibly no better than a McCain presidency would have been. Consistent with his painfully post-racial campaign, President Obama has been just as eager to distance himself from the racial justice cause (ironically enough given his recurrent efforts to link his legacy to that of Martin Luther King, Jr.), as he has been to put distance between himself and "the Left."
In early December of last year, recall that the nation’s first black president received some interesting criticism from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBS) Accusing the White House (with reason) of ignoring the economic plight of minorities, 10 members of the caucus boycotted a key House committee vote on financial regulations. The group expressed frustration at the White House and Congress’ failure to tackle minority-specific economic problems including a black unemployment rate of 16 percent, higher than the national rate of 10 percent. "We can no long afford for our public policy to be defined by the world view of Wall Street," the black caucus announced, adding that "policy for the least of these must be integrated into everything we do. Obama flatly rejected the criticism in a special interview with USA TODAY and the Detroit Free Press prior to a White House "jobs summit" in early December. "It’s a mistake," Obama told the newspapers, "to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together" (Justin Hyde and Richard Wolf, "President Says He Shouldn’t Put Focus on Blacks’ Troubles," USA TODAY, December 4, 2009, 4A).
Just because he happened to be black, Obama was announcing, black Americans should have no reason to think that he would be any more willing than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton to acknowledge and act upon the distinctive oppression and inequality still experienced by many in the nation’s still highly segregated and relatively impoverished population. The title of the USA TODAY article reporting Obama’s response to the Congressional Black Caucus’ criticism was on point: "President Says He Shouldn’t Put Focus on Blacks’ Troubles."
In a February 2009 speech to his new employees at the Justice Department, the United States’ first black Attorney General Eric Holder caused a momentary media stir by saying that the U.S. "is a nation of cowards on race." Most Americans, Holder argued, avoid honest and serious discussion of the nation’s continuing racial problems. But beyond the simple fact of being headed by an African American, the administration in which Holder serves has done little to move itself or the nation past racial cowardice. There has been no "betrayal" on this score, however. Candidate Obama’s political team took an official position of weakness and fear on race, generally refusing to seriously engage the nation’s deep racial problems beyond the symbolically powerful fact of advancing a half-black candidate for the presidency. The refusal was politically astute given "post Civil Rights" white America’s majority sentiment that racism no longer poses significant obstacles to black-American advancement and racial equality Â a sentiment that is sadly but unavoidably furthered by Obama’s historic election.
As the Velma Hart episode suggests, many Black Americans are less awestruck by The One than a lot of "progressive" whites may think. "He was presented to our community by the white elite," one older black Chicago woman (a onetime neighbor of my mother’s) told me last year, "but he doesn’t really come from that community." I heard this sort of sentiment and harsher sentiment on Obama more than once during my five years working (as research director) in a predominantly black civil rights institution at 45th Street and Michigan Avenue, in the historical heart of black Chicago on the city’s South Side.
For what its worth, I expect Obama’s black popularity and his ability to convince blacks to vote to decline more and more as the election hangover recedes yet further and as a rising number of Americans of all colors get it that (if I might speak provocatively) his administration is actually bad for racial justice in at least five key ways.
First, the election of a technically black president has reinforced the longstanding conventional white illusion that racism has disappeared and that the only obstacles left to African-American success and equality are internal to the black community Â the idea that, in Derrick Bell’s words, "the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races"(D. Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform [New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004], 77-78).
The white-run political culture’s regular rituals of self-congratulation over the defeat of overt and de-jure racism have long reinforced the dominant post-Civil Rights white sentiment that the United States no longer has much of anything to answer for in regard to its treatment of black America and the ubiquitous white notion that racism is something only from the relatively irrelevant and distant "past." But nothing can trump the ascendancy of a black man to the nation’s highest office when it comes to selling that belief. How nice to imagine that racial oppression is something so nonsensical and superficial that it could be expunged by the mere act of putting into the White House a technically half-black politician who went out of his way not to threaten majority white cultural and ideological sensibilities surrounding race and other and related matters! Sadly, one commonly runs across this notion in white conversation and discourse. Meanwhile, racial inequality and black destitution rise in the U.S., as the current ongoing Epic Recession follows the usual historical pattern of inflicting disproportionate damage on people of color.
Second, the simple fact of Obama’s technical blackness Â a sufficient trigger to white racial fears in and of itself Â has made his administration if anything more reluctant than a white Democratic presidency would have been to tackle racial inequality and injustice in any kind of relevant policy way. Obama and his team know he barely survived or overcame the simple fact of being black in the last presidential primary and election cycle in white majority America. They have hardly shown any eagerness to press racial buttons any further with real policy actions against any of the large number of racist institutional and societal structures, practices, and policies that continue to plague American society.
For much the same reason, the Obama White House was remarkably cowed in response to ridiculous right-wing racist campaigns against: (A) the brilliant black Obama appointee and short-lived "Green Jobs Czar" Van Jones (let go quickly by the White House after the proto-fascist neo-McCarthyite lunatic Glenn Beck absurdly labeled Jones a "Black Nationalist" and "Communist"); (B) the minority-based activist group ACORN; and (C) former black Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod, instantly fired by Obama’s Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack after Republican hacks threw up transparently falsified video nonsense purporting to show that she was an anti-white racist.
Third, the identity-politicized reluctance of many white "progressives" to challenge a first black president costs the racial justice struggle essential allies in the battle for substantive social and institutional race equity beneath and beyond the comparatively small matter of the technical skin color of who sits in the nation’s top state-capitalist job. Those racially indisposed left-liberals and leftists might want to reflect on John Pilger’s July 2009 reflections on the functional utility of Obama’s ethno-cultural identity for the American power elite: "The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda.
For what is so often overlooked and what matters, I believe, above all, is the class one serves. George W. Bush’s inner circle from the State Department to the Supreme Court was perhaps the most multiracial in presidential history. It was PC par excellence. Think Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell. It was also the most reactionary." (John Pilger, "Obama and Empire," speech to International Socialist Organization, San Francisco, CA, July 4, 2009, at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/08/18/john-pilger-obama-is-a-corporate-marketing-creation )
While liberal and progressive Obama supporters have done often indirect battle with "the Tea Party" and other Republican rightists over presidential skin color, the predominantly white business elite Obama has (like all presidents) served has seen its wealth concentrated yet further upward and empire is re-legitimized and redeployed in South Asia and around the world. Meanwhile, none dared recall or consider that Obama was attractive to the establishment in part because elites sensed that all-too widespread white American fears of the "angry black man" would make it close to impossible for a black president to conduct the "epic fight" with the wealthy Few that the crazy John Edwards rightly said would be required to attain any meaningful progressive reform. Recall Obama’s Wall Street-warming response to Edwards in Des Moines in December 2007: "we don’t need more heat, we need more light."
Fourth, we have to acknowledge what the intrepid black left writer and activist Glen Ford (Executive Director of the indispensable radical weekly zine Black Agenda Report) calls "the Obama Delirium Effect" on part of black America. The Obama presidency has convinced a significant number of black Americans Â long the leftmost ethno-cultural segment of the U.S. citizenry and electorate (for some very good reasons) Â to turn a blind eye to persistent harsh and worsening race disparities.
Citing Pew Center findings showing that the Obama phenomenon and presidency create a powerful illusion of black advancement even as black economic circumstances deteriorate, Ford warned last spring that "Obamal-Aid "[as in Kool-Aid]Â is a mind-altering substance, a hallucinogen. It makes Black people see progress when they are actually facing disaster. Obama-on-the-brain also behaves like an opiate, blocking out pain. African Americans’ ability to apprehend political and economic danger is compromised by Obama-induced delusion, while the opiate effect prevents Blacks from knowing where and how badly they have been hurt. That’s a fatal combination." (See Ford’s reflections and accompanying black opinion data in "Living a Black Fantasy: The Obama Delirium Effect," Black Agenda Report, January 20, 2010, at http://blackagendareport.com/?q=content/living-black-fantasy-obama-delirium-effect ). It is deadly, among other things, to the continued viability of a progressive and independent black politics that is willing to meaningfully resist the corporate, imperial and still objectively white-supremacist structures, practices, and policies of state and society.
Fifth, the first black president’s service to concentrated wealth has reinforced some working class whites’ "backlash" tendency (encouraged as usual by right wing activists and media) to associate black equality and Civil Rights (however imperfectly and deceptively identified with Obama) with upper-class elitism and privilege, not with the struggle of the multiracial Many against the privileged Few. Combined with the strong identification that many white liberals and blacks in general feel with the President, Obama’s cold corporatism encourages the so-called Thomas Frank Kansas effect: the ease with which the regressive, repressive, authoritarian, messianic-militarist, sexist and racist right is able to pick off and pick up white working class recruits and votes and to channel white populist rage in ways that are contrary to the interests of working people and the common good.
I thought about including a sixth factor: increasing violence against poor African Americans by racist white police officers, prison guards, and other "security" personnel who are troubled by supposed black authority in the White House and who take their resulting frustration on blacks who are unable to defend themselves.
Another factor to watch is the possibility that the Obama’s institutionally mandated failure, largely unavoidable (we must not exaggerate the role of the individual in history), to overcome or even meaningfully address the major and severe difficulties facing the working class American majority ends up feeding vicious white racist narratives (a modern day version of the racist white slander of southern black Reconstruction governments after the Civil War) Black incompetence and inferiority. Maybe it’s not about running for higher/highest office or getting behind others who run.
Maybe it’s not even a particularly good thing to put a black person (however intelligent, eloquent, and charismatic) in the White House under the prevailing institutional realities of de facto corporate and imperial dictatorship Â of a "representative democracy" scarred by too much corporate and military representation and too little actual popular democracy.
As Matt Taibbi recently noted in Rolling Stone: "In the Tea Party narrative, victory at the polls means a new American revolution, one that will ‘take our country back’ from everyone they disapprove of. But what they don’t realize is, there’s a catch: This is America, and we have an entrenched oligarchical system in place that insulates us all from any meaningful political change" (Taibbi is on to something there, but the criticism on the limits of electoral change under the prevailing "oligarchical system" could just as well be directed at many liberals, progressives and Obama supporters as at "the Tea Party.").
Maybe it would be better for racial progress to have a white face as the public face of the dismal policy results imposed by Shoup’s "hidden primary of the ruling class," by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s "unelected dictatorship of money." "They All Said No" For what its’ worth, the difference between (A) electing a bourgeois, money-captive president (or mayor or governor) who happens to be black and (B) undertaking a serious engagement with deeply entrenched social disparities when it comes to attacking the problem of racism is well understood in much of the black community.
For many black Americans and for anti-racists of all colors, the lesson (already clear to many beneath understandable but fading excitement over the emergence of a first black president) is that there is curiously little to be concretely gained by most black Americans, and more perhaps to be lost (mainly what’s left of the white majority’s willingness to acknowledge the persistent role of racism in explaining black disadvantage) from (A). Only (B) carries serious promise of advancing racial equality, something that will become more and more evident over time Â with educational help from progressive anti-racists Â as savage racial inequality and the racist institutional forces that feed it survive the Age of Obama.
Here is an interesting message I received from a teacher of black students in the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) last February: "Today, I asked a class for which I was subbing (high-school English students, about a dozen, all-black, at one of CPS’s actually nice high-school facilities) what they thought of Obama. Their initial reaction was one of, for lack of a better way to say it, pride and joy." "But upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a rather shallow sentiment. For when I asked them if they expected any real changes under Obama, they all said no." "So while they are (currently) happy he is in the White House, they know full well that he will be no different from any other president Â and it’s not something they only know ‘deep down.’ They know it pretty close to the surface."
If I’m right, and I think I am, there are a number of ways Â five strong ones, by my tally above Â in which Obama’s ascendancy may have heralded not simply "no change" for racial justice but even, sadly, change for the worse.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org )is the former Vice President for Research and Planning at The Chicago Urban League and the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007) and (just out) The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=243410 )
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