Disrespecting Obama: Race, Class, Empire, and Identity Politics – Paul Street/CounterPunch
A Rap Sheet Fades Behind the Extravaganza
I wonder if anyone is enjoying the current endless quadrennial presidential electoral extravaganza more than Barack Obama. With the United States’ corporate-managed media and politics culture fixated on Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, the Republican National Committee, Ted Cruz, and even sometimes the nominal socialist Bernie Sanders, Obama’s ongoing criminal record on behalf of corporate rule and American Empire has gone under the radar like no time in recent memory.
Beneath the hoopla over who will sit in the Oval Office in 2017, it becomes all too easy to forget that the current occupant persists in serial killing Muslims with a far-flung Drone War that Noam Chomsky has aptly described as “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times.” Also nudged to the margins of public attention is Obama’s continuing quest to secure final passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a blatantly arch-corporatist, eco-cidal, regressive, and authoritarian measure that is disliked by the majority of the U.S. populace (all four of the top presidential candidates, including even its onetime leading champion Hilary Clinton, are technically opposed to the TPP because of popular dissatisfaction with such “free trade’ [investor rights] measures.)
It’s consistent with the neoliberal Obama’s long record of lending fake-progressive assistance to the rich and powerful. His championing of the TPP fits the profile of his long ruling class rap sheet. It matches his mega bailout and his ongoing political and fiscal protection of the leading, arch-parasitic financial institutions that crashed the economy and crafted a business-rule-as-usual “recovery” for profits over people. It corresponds with his so-called Affordable Care Act, a blatant negation of longstanding majority U.S. support for national single-payer health insurance. As with his recent arrogant lecture to the Cuban people in Havana, the nation’s “first Black president” seems determined to serve the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire until last days in office.
All of this is quite consistent with the real and “deeply conservative” Obama that serious investigators of the Obama phenomenon understood before his election to the presidency. That description of Obama belongs to the liberal journalist and New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar in the spring of 2007. “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFarquhar wrote after extensive interviews with candidate Obama in May of 2007, “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean…It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good.” MacFarquhar cited as an example of this reactionary sentiment Obama’s reluctance to embrace single-payer health insurance on the Canadian model, which he told her would “so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” Obama told MacFarquhar that “we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” So what if large popular majorities in the U.S. had long favored the single-payer model? So what if single payer would let people keep the doctors of their choice, only throwing away the protection pay off to the private insurance mafia? So what if “the legacy systems” Obama defended included corporate insurance and pharmaceutical oligopolies that regularly threw millions of American lives by the wayside of market calculation, causing enormous disruptive harm and death for the populace?
Betraying Black Voters
Few Americans beneath the 1% have benefitted much from Obama’s seven years in office. The absence of tangible gains for non-affluent Americans is especially glaring in Black America, which turned out for Obama in record numbers in 2008 and 2012. Black median family income under Obama has fallen by one fifth. Black home ownership has declined and the Black-white wealth gap has risen. In 2009, white households were seven times richer than black households. Now, white households are eight times wealthier. Deep and deadly racial bias remains endemic across the nation’s giant, globally unmatched criminal (in)justice system of mass surveillance, arrest, imprisonment, and felony branding.
Adding insult to injury, white Americans habitually point to Obama’s presidency as final proof (for them) that anti-Black racism no longer poses serious barriers to Black advancement and equality. Countless Caucasians have told me “Hey, the President of the United States is Black, okay? Stop talking about race!” Never mind that racism, seriously understood, is about how the nation’s core day-to-day institutions (the labor market, the housing market, the education system, the criminal justice system, etc.) and social structures function, not simply a matter of counting racial faces in high places. Never mind that the “Black but not like Jesse” Obama’s ascendancy depended on pleasing the white majority by not offending its delicate racial sensibilities and on running with a deceptive “post-racial” narrative that provided cover for the persistence of societal and structural racism. Never mind that Obama has barely lifted a finger as president to confront the nation’s profoundly entrenched institutional racism. Or that the United States’ first half-white president has continued his nasty Black-bourgeois and white-pleasing habit of giving lower and working class Black Americans noxious neoliberal lectures on their own supposed personal and cultural responsibility for their disproportionate presence at the bottom of the nation’s savagely steep socioeconomic pyramids.
“Tired of Seeing Obama Disrespected”
For these and other reasons, “I’m [also] Ready,” to quote a recent essay by the Black philosophy professor and university diversity coordinator Lawrence Ware, “For President Obama to Leave the White House.” My reasons are somewhat different than Ware’s, however. Ware is understandably disgusted at the white racism that Obama, “the most disrespected president in American history,” has confronted. The affronts have been egregious, from the wacky white Birthers who questioned Obama’s national origins to the southern white Congressman (Joe Wilson) who shouted “You Lie” during a State of the Union Address, to the white Daily Caller reporter who heckled the president in the Rose Garden, and the former white New York City Mayor (the ridiculous Rudy Guliani) who complained that Obama “wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” Now we have the spectacle of a white Republican Senate Judiciary Committee that refuses to hold confirmation hearings or even to meet with the moderate Republican white male that Obama nominated to replace the recently deceased right-wing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
“It is clear that no matter how high you rise, no matter what office you hold, no matter how hard you work,” Ware writes, “if you are black, many will view and treat you like a second-class citizen…I’m tired of seeing President Obama blatantly disrespected, and my soul is weary from having to see him grin and bear it. I’m ready for President Obama to be free from the burden of having to perform for white supremacy – and I’m ready to be free from the burden of having to watch him do it.”
A Vacuous-to-Repressive Neoliberal President
Now, of course, the insults and denigration that Obama has received from malevolent white Republican reactionaries and idiots like Joe Wilson (R-SC), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Charles Grassley (R-IA) and the leading Birther Donald Trump have been repellent. They are racist and vile and deserve repudiation from all decent progressives. At the same time, however, Leftists of all colors have always had some very good reasons to hold Obama in flaming contempt and to look forward to his coming helicopter flight off the grounds of the White House (in nine months and fifteen days). These reasons have nothing to do with racism and everything to do with the fake-progressive poseur Obama’s power-serving conservativism, including his conservativism on race. They go back well before Obama’s presidency and indeed prior to his emergence on the national scene. Listen to the Black left political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr’s description of the future president in The Village Voice just after Obama won his initial election to the Illinois Senate:
“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway.”
How was that for a dead-on advance look at what would be the basic nature of Obama’s political career up through his presidency? Ten years later, the investigative journalist Ken Silverstein examined “the smooth Harvard lawyer” on the eve of Obama’s presidential campaign “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” Ken Silverstein noted in a Harpers’ Magazine report titled “Obama, Inc.,” “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform…On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’”
Disrespect Obama? You’re damn right, from the anti-racist portside. Read the pages of the Black-run and militantly anti-racist radical zine Black Agenda Report (BAR) from its origins in 2006 on. There you will find a large number of essays and commentaries detailing Obama’s allegiance and service to each of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the triple evils that are interrelated”: white supremacy; economic injustice (capitalism); and U.S.-imperial militarism. Countless such reflections and reports can be found across progressive media, all written by non- and anti-racists. My own early books, talks, and essays (many of the last category appeared on BAR) on and against the Obama phenomenon and presidency followed my five-year stint as the director of a leading anti-racist research department in Chicago.
O.J.Bama? Some Curious Parallels
Lately, watching the B-minus FOX cable series on the O.J. Simpson trial, I’ve been struck by similarities between Obama and Simpson. Please, super-PC liberal identitarians, do not misunderstand me. I am aware that Simpson is a vicious thug (the National Football League’s brutal, brain-wrecking sport may have something to do with that) who savagely murdered his wife and her friend Ron Goldman, whereas Obama is a refined Harvard Law graduate who published a semi-eloquent coming-of-age memoir, worked as a community organizer, taught Constitutional Law, sat on liberal foundation boards, and entered electoral politics. Obama is by all indications an unusually decent president in his private and personal life, like Jimmy Carter. It is preposterous to imagine him stabbing anyone to death in a fit of jealous rage.
But the parallels are real. I’ll mention five. First, like the 1980s and 1990s O.J. brand prior to the famous double murder, the Brand Obama that arose in 2004 depended on a Black personality’s cross-racial popularity with whites, informed by a sense that the hero in question wasn’t really all that Black and was therefore unthreatening to the racially skittish and thin-skinned white majority.
Second, like O.J. after his emergence as a star athlete, Obama has never had all that much allegiance or strong connection to the Black community. Simpson lived in the tony white West Side Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood, where he killed his white ex-wife, and hung out mainly with white friends like Robert Kardashian. O.J. was initially taken aback by his race-conscious Black lawyer Johnnie Cochran’s determination to “play the race card” in the Simpson murder trial. “I’m not Black,” Simpson protested, “I’m O.J.!”
Obama for his part came from a relatively privileged white family in Hawaii and climbed up through the predominantly white and elite Ivy League institutions of Columbia University and Harvard Law. Even as a state senator representing a Black majority district on the South Side of Chicago (while living and working as a professor in the upper middle class and integrated neighborhood of Hyde Park-Kenwood [my own childhood neighborhood], he was remarkably unpopular in Black Chicago, where he was seen as “too white,” “too Ivy League,” too University of Chicago (where he taught as a highly paid adjunct), and too connected to predominantly white downtown corporate interests and pseudo-liberal do-gooder foundations. The U.S. Congressman and former Black Panther Bobby Rush exploited these sentiments to crush Obama when the future president challenged Rush for his supermajority Black South Side congressional district in 2000.
During his rise to the U.S. Senate and then the presidency, Obama relied heavily on the support of wealthy white funders including his good Zionist friend Lester Crown, a Forbes 400 capitalist and chairman of the Chicago Commercial Club and the imperial Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He did everything he could to disassociate himself from “excessive Blackness” and from the cause of racial justice, deeply understood, in his Senate and presidential campaigns. As president, Obama has done nothing, or next to it, to repay Black Americans for the flood of identity-politicized support they gave him after he emerged as a state-(Illinois-) wide and national political force in 2003 and 2004.
Third, as with O.J., Obama’s lack of any special concern for Black America (the actual existence of which Obama denied in the Democratic National Convention speech that made him an overnight celebrity in the summer of 2004) has not stopped Team Obama from garnering benefits from the simple fact of the president’s skin color. O.J. got away with murder thanks to a brilliantly executed racial strategy in the legal and public courtrooms. For his part, Obama’s race helped motivate millions of voters (including droves of liberal white voters) to mark ballots of him with little or any regard for his deeply conservative, power-serving essence and record. It has also made liberals, progressives, and even some leftists unduly unwilling and unable to speak, write, and even think clearly about and against “our Black president’s” bottomless loyalty to concentrated wealth and power. Along the way, Team Obama has not been above deploying a certain amount of manufactured Blackness – a key part of the Simpson team’s trial strategy – to provide cover for his underlying fidelity to white-supremacist power structures.
Fourth, both O.J. and Obama represent in their own different ways the triumph of private over public power in the neoliberal era. The public prosecutors’ office that tried to send Simpson away for a ferocious double murder was outmatched by the well-heeled private defense team that the millionaire ex-athlete was able to assemble. More than two decades later an Obama administration that was staffed by Wall Street agents would give the nation what the liberal columnist William Greider would memorably call “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They have watched,” Greider wrote, “Washington run to rescue the very financial interests who caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend – when the right people want it” And little to spend on the rest of us, the wrong people, soon to be known as “the 99%,” left to ask “where’s my bailout?”
“A Killer” – and “Good at” it
Fifth, Obama, like OJ and like all U.S. presidents before him, is a murderer – and this of course on a much larger scale than Simpson.
“Peace prize? He’s a killer.” So said a young Pashtun man to an Al Jazeera English reporter on December 10, 2009, the day that Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize by some very silly white people in Norway. “Obama,” the man added, “has only brought war to our country.” The man spoke from the village of Armal, where a crowd of 100 gathered around the bodies of 12 people, one family from a single home. The 12 were killed, witnesses reported, by U.S. Special Forces during a late night raid. “Why are they giving Obama a peace medal?” another village resident asked. “He claims to want to bring security to us but he brings only death. Death to him.”
Al Jazeera also went to the Afghan village of Bola Boluk, where a U.S. bombing butchered dozens of civilians the previous spring. “He doesn’t deserve the award,” a young woman said. “He bombed us and left us with nothing, not even a home”
Obama had blasted her village in May of 2009. In the first week of that month, the president’s air-strikes killed well more than 100 noncombatants in Bola Boluk, located in western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by U.S. explosives were children. Just 22 were males 18 years or older. As the New York Times reported:
“In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to outraged members of the Afghan Parliament,” The New York Times reported, “the governor of Farah Province…said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed.” According to one Afghan legislator and eyewitness, “the villagers bought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred. Everyone at the governor’s cried, watching that shocking scene.”
The response of Obama’s Pentagon to this horrific incident – one among many such mass U.S. aerial killings in Afghanistan before and since – was like something one might expect from the totalitarian, U.S.- and Western Europe-backed Paul Kagame dictatorship in Rwanda. It was to absurdly blame the civilian deaths on “Taliban grenades.” While Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “regret” about the loss of innocent life, neither she nor Obama would issue an apology or acknowledge U.S. responsibility for the blasting apart of civilian bodies in Farah Province. The United States, Obama has said both as a U.S. Senator and as president, should not apologize for its “mistakes” (that is, its crimes). This, he explains, is because the United States is “an enormous force for good in the world,” one that prefers to “look forward,” not “backwards.”
The child-killing Obama administration struck again, execution-style, at the end of 2009 in Ghazi Khan, a village in eastern Afghanistan. As the Times of London reported on December 31st, 2009:
“American-led troops…yesterday…dragg[ed] innocent children from their beds and shooting them during a night raid that left ten people dead. Afghan government investigators said that eight schoolchildren were killed, all but one of them from the same family. Locals said that some victims were handcuffed before being killed…In a telephone interview last night, the headmaster [of the local school] said that the victims were asleep in three rooms when the troops arrived. ‘Seven students were in one room,’ said Rahman Jan Ehsas. ‘A student and one guest were in another room, a guest room, and a farmer was asleep with his wife in a third building. First the foreign troops entered the guest room and shot two of them. Then they entered another room and handcuffed the seven students. Then they killed them. Abdul Khaliq [the farmer] heard shooting and came outside. When they saw him they shot him as well. He was outside. That’s why his wife wasn’t killed.’ A local elder, Jan Mohammed, said that three boys were killed in one room and five were handcuffed before they were shot. ‘I saw their school books covered in blood,’ he said.”
But all this was just a small foretaste of further carnage to come courtesy of the new Nobel Peace laureate. Obama’s body count has risen considerably from those early days, thanks primarily to his drone campaign, which has killed many thousands across the Muslim world from Somalia and Yemen to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The president’s victims have included European doctors with Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) targeted by a US AC-130 Gunship that killed 30 physicians and patients in the Afghan town of Kunduz last October. Thanks to the large number of white European professionals killed in the horrific “incident” (war crime), one of Obama’s military officials had to break form and issue a formal apology in this case.
Obama’s chilling, far-flung, personally supervised, and cowardly targeted assassination program has done more than George W. Bush’s clumsy “boots on the ground” invasion of Iraq to expand the geographic scope and fervor of Islamist jihad.
It has been a source of some ironic entertainment for Obama. As the highly respected establishment journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s reported in their book Double Down: Game Change 2012, the President once joked to his aides that, thanks to the drone weapon, “it turns out I’m really good at killing people.” That’s different from Simpson, who kept insisting that he’d killed nobody (even if he did later write a book titled If I Did It) and who showed himself as less than stealthy and skillful at murder (even if his defense team and a poor prosecution helped him overcome his sloppiness at homicide).
No journalist followed up the report of Obama’s chilling “good at killing people” remark with a request for comment from Obama’s former South Side Chicago pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright – the anti-racist and anti-imperialist Black preacher who Obama threw under the bus in the name of color-blind American Exceptionalism in March of 2008. Too bad. A call to Reverend Wright have made an interesting story.
The Class One Serves: Content of Character and Color of Skin
In his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King looked forward to the day when Americans “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” What has Obama’s presidency revealed about his character behind his skin? Very, very little that is remotely worthy of respect and far, far more that is worthy of profound disrespect from an anti-racist Left perspective. His presidency has exposed him as being precisely what Reed, myself, John Pilger, and numerous other and multi-colored Left commentators including Bruce Dixon, Glen Ford and others at Black Agenda Report tried to tell progressives Obama was well before the candidate sent chills up liberal legs by becoming a serious Black presidential contender in the land of slavery. The Obama years have exposed him as a dedicated agent of each of the “the triple evils” wrapped in “progressive” branding and cloaked by the resistance-disabling tonic of “middle class identity politics” (Reed). That politics sustains the suspicion that the President’s critics (even his Left ones) don’t really object to his policies but are upset rather by the color of his skin. Surely when the democratic socialist King made his famous, ringing remark on character and color, he did not mean for it inhibit legitimate denunciation of a Black politician or policymaker for doing the poisonous bidding of a racist Empire and a vicious capitalist ruling class.
“What matters,” anti-colonial psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote 63 years ago in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, “is not so much the color of your skin as the power you serve and the millions you betray.” Fanon was reflecting on the black African leaders who failed to serve the interests of the black masses whose national aspirations they rode to power in the post-World War II era. His formulation holds with haunting relevance to the performance of the in-power African National Congress in post-apartheid neoliberal South Africa and in its own way to the presidency of Barack Obama.
Also worth recalling are Pilger’s eloquent reflections on Obama in the summer of 2009. “The clever young man who recently made it to the White House,” Pilger told a gathering of international socialists in San Francisco, “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 above all, is the class one serves.”
I, for one, am ready to be free of the burden of being expected to grant undue deference to a president who betrays the ideals of the great social justice and antiwar leader (King) whose bust sits behind Obama as he orders another mass-murderous and arch-terrorist drone hit somewhere in the Middle East, North Africa, or South Asia.
Hillary Playing Cards…and Maybe Losing
Now the first Black President is stealthily giving his seal of approval to his unpopular and far less charismatic successor Hillary Clinton over the considerably more well-liked and progressive Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders (who is “disappointed” by Obama’s Wall Street-pleasing domestic policies but embraces his drone war and other imperial policies). For all the “bad blood” said to exist between Obama and the Clintons, she and her husband are cut from the same exact deeply conservative “New Democrat” ideological cloth as the current U.S. president (they helped weave and dye the cloth in the 1970s and 1980s, in fact). Mrs. Clinton represents a continuation both of Wall Street-captive imperial neoliberalism and of identity politics combining with partisan politics to provide cover for that noxious policy stew. She plays the race card to keep an advantage with Black voters, subtly accusing Sanders of being racially incorrect by daring to have express some dissatisfaction with Obama’s nauseating conservatism. And of course the Clinton campaign has played the gender card against “angry white male Beniebros,” deleting the fact that Mrs. Clinton is losing among younger female Democratic voters. In four or perhaps eight more years, perhaps we will to read essays from disgruntled women and feminists on how they are ready for Hillary Clinton to leave the White House because they are tired of seeing the nation’s first female president disrespected by sexist men within and beyond Congress. The sexist and offense that these writers complain about will be real and noxious enough to merit progressive condemnation. And meanwhile, perhaps, Leftists will note that the Hillary Clinton presidency has been a disaster – an imperial and neoliberal nightmare – for millions upon millions of women (and children and men) at home and abroad. Left activists and writers will look forward to Hillary’s departure for at least not having to be suspected of sexism for daring to observe that her presidency served the nation’s unelected and combined dictatorships of class, empire, race, eco-cide, and patriarchy – what we might today call the five evils that are interrelated.
Or maybe not. The former Goldwater Girl who decided that right-wing Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay were not true conservatives like her and her husband lacks Bill’s unmatched skill at conducting what a still left Christopher Hitchens called in 1999 “the essence of American politics”: “the manipulation of populism by elitism.” A terrible campaigner, she is much less effective than Obama and Bill at bamboozling progressives. As I write today on the morning of Tuesday, April 5th, it seems distinctly possible that Sanders’ recent string of primary victories will continue today in Wisconsin. Sanders’ seems increasingly less hopeless in New York and California, his gender and race notwithstanding. It looks like a Bernie Sanders presidency is at least as possible as a Chicago Cubs trip to the World Series this year.
1.“Now even as we speak,” Obama told delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, “there are those who are preparing to divide us… I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”