Obama Won’t Address Specific Black Concerns
by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
"Barack Obama has hard-wired himself to avoid" answering questions on redress of specifically Black grievances in the United States. To pull this off, he must deny the legitimacy of such grievances - which in turn requires him to constantly lie about the state of the nation, and to lay the blame for Black suffering on African Americans, themselves. The logic of race-neutrality cannot stand up to the facts of American life and history, but the Black misleadership class "has abdicated their responsibility" to confront Obama with hard questions. Last week, the Uhuru Movement tried to flush Obama out on his plans for the Black community. He did not cooperate.
Obama Won’t Address Specific Black Concerns
by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
"What about the Black community, Obama?" read the banner held aloft by three young African American men at what was supposed to be the usual campaign pep-rally (nominally a town hall meeting), in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Not far away, in Orlando, National Urban League President Marc Morial, preparing for the organization's annual convention last weekend, vowed that the candidate would be quizzed on "what steps should we take as a nation to alleviate the effects of racial exclusion and racial discrimination?"
Barack Obama has hard-wired himself to avoid answering such questions. His responses, when offered, range from skillful shadings of the truth to outright lies about his own statements on how he would confront the living legacy of American slavery and apartheid - if at all. And, although there is little reason to believe that masses of Blacks are reconsidering their overwhelming support for Obama, there is evidence of growing anxiety at the Illinois senator's determined "race neutrality."
Spouting the same line that endeared him to "centrist" whites and corporate contributors in 2004, Barack Obama steadfastly refuses to put forward any program to address specific historical and contemporary grievances of African Americans. The catechism is always some variation of his "There is no Black America, there is no white America..." speech at the Democratic National Convention, in Boston. He seldom acknowledges, and then only grudgingly, that African Americans continue to be subjected to institutionalized harms that are qualitatively different than those endured by whites of any social strata. He is willing to curb certain racist behaviors, such as racial profiling, but will do nothing to systematically reverse the accumulated assaults that are particular to the African American experience and condition.
In other words, Blacks have no special gripe, as far as Barack Obama is concerned - which is the source of his attraction to unprecedented numbers of white voters seeking, if not absolution for past crimes, at least a muting of Black complaints. That's the kind of "change" they're anticipating, race-wise.
Crashing the Party
Black "leadership" formations abdicated their responsibility to make demands of Obama when it could have made a difference: during, and in the months before, the primaries. Obama has not been compelled to justify his policies as they relate specifically to African Americans - the only major ethnic group whose misleadership class has given him a free pass. The duty to demand that Obama be made accountable to Black people has devolved to alternative structures and parties shunned by the corporate media - activists that have found they must barge into the choreographed Democratic Party conversation to make legitimate Black concerns heard.
Thirty-one year-old Diop Olugbulu and fellow members of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement - probably to their own surprise - succeeded in gaining seats at the top of the bleachers behind Obama at the high school in St. Petersburg, strategically situating themselves in front of the television cameras. Obama was caught visibly off-guard and, stammering in his ridiculous pseudo-southern accent, allowed the dissenters to go first in the question and answer session - all of it caught on YouTube. Olugbulu made his case:
"In the face of the numerous attacks that are made against the African community, or the Black community, by the same United States government that you aspire to lead - and we're talking about the attacks like the subprime mortgage that you spoke of, that wasn't just a general ambiguous kind of phenomenon but a phenomenon that targets the African community and Latino community. Attacks like the killing of Sean Bell by the New York police department, and Javon Dawson, right here in St. Petersburg, by the St. Pete police, and the Jena Six and Hurricane Katrina, and the list goes on," said Olugbulu, the Uhuru Movement spokesman.
"In the face of all these attacks that are clearly being made on the African community, why is it that you have not had the ability to, not one time, speak to the interests, and even speak on behalf of, the oppressed and exploited African community, or Black community, in this country?"
Obama's fans were roiling, startled and angry at the audacity of the Uhuru activists. The nerve of them, to question The Anointed One!
"I think you're misinformed when you say, ‘not one time,'" said the candidate. "Every issue you've spoken about, I actually did speak out."
The crowd cheered - but truth suffered. "I've been talking about predatory lending for the last two years in the United States Senate, and I worked to pass legislation to prevent it when I was in the state legislature. And I have repeatedly said that many of the predatory loans that were made in the mortgage system did target African American and Latino communities. I've said that repeatedly."
Obama was regaining his composure, his delivery steadied by the spinning of his own, reconstructed version of reality.
"Number two. Jena Six," said Obama, the words slapping the air like cards on a table. "I was the first candidate to get out there and say, ‘This is wrong, there's an injustice that's been done, and we need to change it.'" Obama paused for effect. "That's number two."
He continued. "When Sean Bell got shot, I put out a statement immediately, saying, this is a problem. So...on each of these issues, I've spoken out. I may not have spoken out the way you may have wanted me to speak out, which is fine [applause] What I'm suggesting is that, on each of these issues that you mention, I have spoken out, and I've spoken out forcefully."
And now, the truth
In fact, Obama's April 2007 legislation against "fraudulent and predatory lending practices," the Stop Fraud Act, makes no mention of racial patterns in lending abuse. Nine months later, with the housing crisis at hurricane strength, Obama's response was the weakest of the three ‘top tier' Democratic primary candidates. "Obama is staking out a position to the right of not only populist [John] Edwards but Clinton as well," wrote Max Fraser, in the January 24 issue of The Nation. "Only Obama has not called for a moratorium and interest-rate freeze. Though he has been a proponent of mortgage fraud legislation in the Senate, he has remained silent on further financial regulations."
Obama's early race-neutral position on the prosecution of the Jena, Louisiana Six caused Rev. Jesse Jackson to publicly call the candidate out on the subject. As ABC news reported on September 20, 2007:
"At a fundraiser tonight in Atlanta, Ga., Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., expressed indignation over the plight of six black teenagers in Jena, La. It was the first time Obama had spoken out forcefully about the teens on the campaign trail, and it came just 24 hours after reports surfaced that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had said Obama was ‘acting like he's white' for not doing more to publicize the situation in Jena.
"'On this day when we are outraged over the disparities of treatment in the criminal justice system, in a time when in Jena we are puzzled over by how it is that a schoolyard fight gets charged with attempted murder, we wonder how it is Scooter Libby doesn't get any jailtime, and you've got young men in a fight getting charged with attempted murder," Obama said to loud cheers from the 2,000-person crowd. ‘People are weary of that. They know we've got to bring about a change.'
"Obama's language was vastly stronger than it was two weeks ago, when he was asked about the case in Storm Lake, La. Obama appeared visibly uncomfortable by the question and said the teens ‘appear to have been railroaded into a very difficult situation," but he would not say what remedy he hoped to see in the case."
Obama followed his usual pattern in the Jena Six case: avoid the subject of race until there is no choice but to acknowledge it.
Obama displayed a chilling insensitivity to Black community outrage following the acquittal of New York City cops in the Sean Bell killing. His terse statement was almost hostile in tone:
"We're a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down. Resorting to violence to express displeasure over a verdict is something that is completely unacceptable and is counterproductive."
In contrast, Hillary Clinton was empathetic and attuned to Black sensibilities:
"This tragedy has deeply saddened New Yorkers - and all Americans. My thoughts are with Nicole and her children and the rest of Sean's family during this difficult time. The court has given its verdict, and now we await the conclusion of a Department of Justice civil rights investigation. We must also embrace this opportunity to take steps - in our communities, in our law enforcement agencies, and in our government - to make sure this does not happen again."
In the Sean Bell case, Obama might have done better to have kept his mouth shut.
Hurricane Katrina sorely tested Obama's ability to banish race and racism from his political vocabulary. On September 6, 2005, through his Senate website, Obama absolved FEMA of what the vast majority of Blacks saw as racist behavior:
"There's been much attention in the press about the fact that those who were left behind in New Orleans were disproportionately poor and African American. I've said publicly that I do not subscribe to the notion that the painfully slow response of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security was racially-based. The ineptitude was colorblind."
Obama went to extreme lengths to deny the significance of race in the Katrina catastrophe.
"...I see no evidence of active malice, but I see a continuation of passive indifference on the part of our government towards the least of these. And so I hope that out of this crisis we all begin to reflect - Democrat and Republican - on not only our individual responsibilities to ourselves and our families, but to our mutual responsibilities to our fellow Americans. I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren't just abandoned during the Hurricane. They were abandoned long ago - to murder and mayhem in their streets; to substandard schools; to dilapidated housing; to inadequate health care; to a pervasive sense of hopelessness."
Note that Obama pointedly refuses to attribute even the historical, past ills of New Orleans to race. Apparently, he fears to make dead white people uncomfortable.
After mischaracterizing his positions on predatory lending, the Jena Six, Sean Bell's death, and Hurricane Katrina, Obama bragged about his Chicago days:
"...I was a civil rights lawyer, I passed the first racial profiling legislation in Illinois. So these are issues I worked on for decades. I passed some of the toughest death penalty reform legislation in Illinois."
It is true that Obama worked against racial profiling, as a state senator from a majority Black Chicago district. But his remarks on the death penalty give the impression that Obama opposes capital punishment. He doesn't. Obama's modus operandi is to lead people to assume or imagine that he is on their side of an issue. Defending himself from Black critics at the St. Petersburg high school, he attempted to display his inner city progressive political credentials - whether they exist or not. Obama then concluded with the pan-American theme that sold him to "centrist" whites and corporate Democrats, four years ago:
"I believe that the only way we're going to solve these problems in our country...is that all of us come together, black, white Hispanic, Asian, Native American, young, old, gay, straight - that, I think, has got to be our agenda. Alright? OK."
The rare sight of Black protest at an Obama event prompted the corporate media to ask if other African Americans were troubled by the candidate's aversion to directly addressing "Black" issues. National Urban League chief Marc Morial said he expected members to ask Obama "what action he would take in the first 100 days of his presidency" to close the "gaps" between Blacks and whites in America. Instead, Obama presented the Urban League convention with a reprise of his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech:
"Our march is a march for America. Not black America or white America. Not rich America or poor America, rural America or urban America. But all America. An America where no child's destiny is determined before she's born - and no one's future is confined to the neighborhood he's born into. An America where hard work is still a ticket to the middle class - and you can make it if you try."
Barack Obama's America is a place where nobody calls racism by its name, where Black grievances are made illegitimate through the logic of race neutrality - the truth be damned.