Barack Obama deeply troubles me. As a Mexican
who grew up in a Black neighborhood in the U.S. at the height of the
Black Power era, I absorbed Black people’s rage - their righteous
rage with the aim of justice and, ultimately, with the aim
of healing - until it had sunk into my very bones. It was
not a rage aimed at me, and no one “taught” it to me,
no one schooled me in it. School was just everyday life in
a Black senior high, for example, school was having my own
personal cop who stopped me every time he saw me, the first
pig who ever took me to jail. I didn’t try to act Black; I
didn’t try to talk Black; I never tried to walk Black or dress
Black; I didn’t even particularly listen to Black music outside
of Motown and funk - the crossover stuff.
I was a little stunned and more than a little confused when,
as I entered my 20’s, I had to confront how different I was
from people in the white world and in the Mexican world. I
didn’t realize it as a teenager, of course; it was just natural.
But as I came into deeper contact - and sharp conflict - with
the world I had not grown up in - the world outside of the
working class area that people now would call the “ghetto,”
I came to realize that while I had not adopted Black culture,
I viewed the world through a Black lens. And since I had only
been a kid when I developed the lens, there was little about
it I could articulate, and almost nothing I could find to
help me illuminate my experience of what post modernists and
other people who long to go slumming these days now call “the
borderlands”- a phrase they ripped out from under Gloria Anzaldua,
a Chicana lesbian feminist writer, poet and cultural theorist.
They talk about “alterity” and “difference,” and it’s nothing
more than chic poses and impotent cultural elitism by those
who have no authentic experience of what difference
Growing up on the border I grew up on was not
exotic, nor did I think of it as a kind of crucifixion or
torment. It was just normal. The Black world and my
odd presence in it were just normal. The sense of torment
would only come later, when I learned that I reacted to white
middle class bullshit - the “polite” evasions of naming the
daily realities of power and pain that characterize the white
middle class - just the way any Black youth of my time would
have reacted. They dumbfounded and enraged me. It took a long
time to get that they are not just outright phonies, straight-up
deliberate hypocrites, almost every one of them - but that
they don’t see - and for that reason, they are very
dangerous to those who do. My reality was not their reality.
Today, I am blessed to have a radical white
Bennett, who gets this clearly. He calls white people
like this “Not-Sees.” His pun is intentional. But I didn’t
get the white world at all as a kid. They just enraged me.
Not one of them talked straight, as far as I could see. The
“nicer” they were, the more they enraged me.
real torment came later, when I had to learn, not only to
see, but to fully articulate what I see. And for someone in
my position, there were very few guideposts then for me to
follow. I had to learn for myself and largely from myself
which part of me was which, what was Mexican, what was absorbed
from white culture, and what was Black in how I experienced
myself and the world I lived in. It’s easy now; I can switch
culture and tone like switching a channel or clicking a link.
I can do it, but usually I don’t bother; I just come from
where I am at the moment, secure in who I am and what I know
about the world and the dynamics of it that I am meeting in
the moment. I rely less on my own tone than on understanding
and knowing how to listen. Then, however, it was all sheer
I came from both inside and outside the Black
world. My reality was Black reality, a Black world - and even
at that it wasn’t really mine, in a sense, although I grew
up in it. The Mexican community wasn’t quite mine either:
I was lacking in the proper resepto, and there was
nothing - or very little, of the agachado in me. I
was arrogant, a sinvergüenza. Besides, my Spanish was
poor. White people very often had no idea what to make of
me; I felt they instinctively feared me, and I despised their
thinly veiled brutality.
I reacted to the world as a Black youth, not
as a Mexican or white youth would react, and I didn’t understand
When I was 16, I used to buy The Black Panther
newspaper at a little convenience store across from the local
supermarket on what is now called Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. It came to haunt me. I always bought it
- for a quarter - from the same brother. Then, one day, I
was listening to the radio. The pigs had the local Panther
headquarters under siege. There was a shoot-out. I don’t know
what may have happened to him, but I never saw the brother
again. And I never talked to anyone about it. There was no
one to talk to. It never occurred to me to talk to
anyone about it. As I said, I had no teacher. I was just a
kid, I wasn’t Black, and no one in my family cared - just
me. I remained silent. Millions of people from the oppressed
nationalities in the US remain silent; and it’s
not just that white people don’t care about oppression - it’s
that we are punished for speaking out, for saying what we
Here’s one simple example. About half the workers
at my place of employment are people of color. Supervisors
are hired in-house, as a rule. The boss is a “liberal” white
woman in a company whose work is devoted to “liberal” causes.
She came to our office after busting a union on behalf of
the company in another city. In her first year and a half
here not a single person of color became a supervisor. In
my case, she tried to fire me - she sent my case to the corporate
president and the corporate lawyers to see if they could fire
me for having organized a union in another, similar workplace
in the past. I came to work every day for four and
a half months last year not knowing, if, that day, I would
be fired. That’s the way it is, that’s the atmosphere white
Amerikkka - liberal and conservative alike - has created for
poor people and minorities.
of course, those of us who work there are the working poor.
The “passionate” liberals who run the company act like they
never heard of a living wage - but there is a shelf
in the kitchen with “free food” for the people whose paycheck
didn’t stretch far enough this week. It’s bought with money
the liberal boss solicits from the workers. No one
says anything. We all know the nature of the white liberal
façade; we all know we’ll be punished if we speak up, if we
demand equality in hiring or a raise, much less a living wage.
So, our rage simmers in a pot with a tight lid. There’s one
guy, though, who has blown up at work a couple of times over
racist incidents. He’s one of the company’s most productive
employees. I was told by a lower level supervisor that he
was passed over for a promotion only because he’d gotten angry
on the floor about racism - he’d created “conflict.” He wasn’t
So we stay silent, as a rule, on the job. We
stay silent as a rule, in the white world.
Barack Obama is the living symbol of our silence.
He is our silence writ large.
He is our Silence running for president -
With respect to Black interests, Obama would
be a silenced Black ruler: A muzzled Black emperor. A Black
man at the head of the White Amerikkkan State - one who’s
unwilling to speak truth to power, but more than willing,
like a Condi Rice or a Colin Powell, to become that power
and to launch wars of aggression against other people of color.
In Obama’s case the targets will be Iran
(which he has threatened with “surgical” missile strikes)
rather than Iraq. That’s the only difference
between Obama and Rice and Powell, or Bush, for that
News notes that “Obama, one of the more liberal candidates
in the race, is proposing a geopolitical posture that is more
aggressive than that of President Bush.” Washington Post columnist,
Robert Kagan, in a column titled, “Obama,
the Intervensionist,” cites Obama’s claim that “he wants
the American military to stay on the offense, from Djibouti
to Kandahar.” To help the empire stay on the offensive,
and despite the fact that US military spending is breaking
the bank at over $1 trillion a year, and far outstrips the
spending of any potential imperial rival, Obama wants
to beef up military spending, adding 65,000 troops
to the Army and 27,000 more Marines beyond the obscene levels
already under arms in the so-called “War on Terror.”
That’s another matter. Most of us at my workplace,
for example, don’t want to become that power, we don’t
want to lord it over others or punish them if they disobey
the corporate rules, much less the rules of Pax Amerikkkana.
We don’t want to “succeed” that badly, not badly enough to
sell our souls and boss around - and certainly not kill
- people who, we know, suffer every day just like we suffer.
Nor do we want to be cops - pigs - or to be
the commander in chief of pigs, be they local police or the
cops of the world. No one imagines themselves the commander.
We’d like things to be better in our personal
lives, of course, if we could have them better and still feel
And that’s the Obama equation. Keep your Black/
Brown mouth shut and you can “succeed.” And you can
still feel “clean.” Here we have the real story behind
Obama’s portrayal of his squeaky clean-ness. Yes, Black man,
yes, Black woman, you can have power in this killer-racist
system and stay “clean.” In Obama’s carefully constructed
image lies a symbolic resolution of a profound inner conflict
that all people of color in the US face in their daily lives.
Obama plays the role of a Black Cinderella.
He does for Black folks what Cinderella does for girls. He
shows that oppression and silence can be good for you
- at least if you are the one the prince chooses, or if you
are the one who gets to be the prince. It’s total fantasy.
It’s a glass slipper that will break at the arch and be turned
on us like a broken beer bottle or a jagged-edged knife; the
same knife Obama has threatened to turn on the people of Iran
But, he’s getting over with it, if for no other
reason than that the inner conflict I’ve described remains
largely unconscious for oppressed people in the US. That’s why one Black poet,
spoken word artist, Darian Dauchan, wrote a piece called “Damn
You Barack Obama You Pretty Mothafucka.” It’s because
Dauchan was trying to sort it through. Even though he fails
- he buys into the Obama myth - nonetheless he had to sort
it through as best he could, because Obama is the walking
illusion of the realization of an impossible dream; the dream
that in white racist Amerikkka a Black man could be judged
on the content of his character, not the color of his skin.
There is, of course, a racist subtext to Obama
being called “pretty”- it’s the subtext of internalized racism
and the imposition of an internal color-caste system within
the Black nation itself, a color-coded stratification held
over from the era of slavery - the era of the “mulatto, the
“half-breed,” “quadroon” and “octoroon” - a caste system in
which “whiter” is better, smarter, “prettier,” more worthy,
The rest of the racist subtext is this: Obama,
with his extraordinary intelligence and presence (by any
standard), is, in the eyes of white Amerikkka, (and, according
to the standards of the so-called “Enlightenment,” which still
rule the thinking of Euro-Americans) the half-white, and
thus, half-redeemed “Black savage” - “redeemed” by his
“white blood”, “civilized” by it. He is redeemed by his relative
whiteness - ultimately redeemed and refined by the white nation
The question from the Black perspective has
been posed as to whether Obama is “Black enough” - which is
to say, “Is he loyal enough to the Black nation? The more
decisive question, viewed from the white electorate’s standpoint,
at least, is this; “Is he white enough, is he loyal
enough to whiteness and to the white nation?” That’s why the
question of his religion,
and of his Arabic
name, are points of attack and vulnerability from the
standpoint of the more openly racist and xenophobic sectors
of the white public. That’s why his “patriotism” is also questioned,
unlike any white candidate. After all, everyone in
knows that people of color with Arabic names are the enemy.
It doesn’t matter, apparently, how many nukes Obama wants
to hit Iran
with, he’s got to stand up and recite
the pledge of allegiance to prove he’s not a terrorist
- at least not an anti-US terrorist.
Obama is not being judged on the “content of
his character.” The question of how his character is perceived
in a racist nation and, conversely, among a colonized African
people, is a question that is sociologically inseparable
from the color of his skin.
people, nonetheless, think Obama is the realization of Dr.
The power of this archetype is immense. It’s why the completely
empty catch-phrase “Change” works for him, and it’s the deeper
reason for the quasi-religious wave of “Obama fever.” Obama
is Cinderella and King’s Dream rolled into one. He’s even
had the myth of Kennedy’s so-called “Camelot” invoked on his
behalf. For many, he’s not only phenomenally charismatic,
but irresistible. There’s even been talk of an “Obama
Cult.” (The comments at this link, many of which attack
the essay, are every bit as interesting as the essay itself.)
But, if Obama is the realization of King’s
dream, then the price of the dream is silence. And, as the
slogan goes, “Silence = Death.” If Obama is the realization
of King’s dream, then the price is silence about the oppression
of Black people - and the abandonment of the millions locked
away under the conditions of mass incarceration that have
replaced Jim Crow. If Obama is the realization of King’s dream,
then being Black means being white - then Black is
white, or at least it’s Black on white terms. It’s
a Blackness that dare not speak its name.
Obama’s shot at the presidency doesn’t signal
the end of racism in the U.S. It is made possible, rather, by the new
form racism itself has taken, a form that offers a prison
cell to poor people of color, and, for the middle class, on
the other hand, an Apartheid-style pass card stamped “SILENCED.”
The functioning of this new dynamic of racism
is plain to see in Obama’s attitude toward the newest persecuted
“Other” in U.S.
society - Brown migrants. On one hand, in one
of his most impressive moments, he very rightly called
attacks on migrants “scapegoating” (although he failed to
critique NAFTA or US Imperialism at any level.)
His campaign even lifts and translates the
migrant chant of “!Si Se Puede!” into English as “Yes we can,”
and uses it as a slogan. (Obama himself has been a prime beneficiary
of the mass opposition of the wrongly labeled “New Civil Rights
Movement” in 2006 - the pro-migrant movement that not only
cracked open and deeply divided the Republican Party so severely
that it has not been able to re-group, but that also put white
Amerikkka on notice that it would never get by with
making instant felons of millions of Brown people, and that
openly racist persecution, at least, would not
be tolerated from Republicans or anyone else.)
Obama favors driver’s licenses for the undocumented,
but he’s all for the Apartheid Wall being built on
the US side of the Mexican/ US border. Obama is willing
to issue pass cards to migrants who make no trouble, since
- after all - they’re here, for god’s sake.
attitude toward brown migrants is the much the same as that
of white liberals toward the Black middle class. It’s much
the same as the attitude of the white ruling elite toward
him. Keep up the racist wall, but give the “trustworthy
ones” a pass. In the case of the Black middle class, the “trustworthy
ones” are the ones who maintain silence about oppression.
In the case of immigrants the “trustworthy ones” are the ones
who have “learned English”, and “ have paid a fine,” as Obama
puts it, for the violation of having been driven from their
countries by hunger - by the gutting of their nation’s economies
by the global capitalist empire headquartered in the U.S.
Even more telling is Obama’s refusal
to recognize the right of Palestinians to return to the land
stolen from them by Israel during the Nakba
of 1948 - the disaster of the birth of the Israeli regime.
and promotes the character of Israel as an exclusively
Jewish state - in other words, as an Apartheid
state, a Jim Crow state that not only keeps Palestinians separate,
but which uses its military might to bomb them at will.
Like the Israelis themselves, Obama wants a
separate Palestinian state - separate, but certainly
There can be no authentically autonomous Palestinian
state located on the border of a nuclear-armed Israel
- only a subjugated state militarily controlled by its neighbor
- its oppressor. Such a state can be nothing but a Bantustan.
In the meantime, while the whole world condemned the recent
Israeli closure of Gaza, including a cut
off of electricity that impacted its hospitals, Obama asserted
that “Israel was forced to do this.”
Obama knows the rules of the game, after all
- he is the rules of the new race game - his candidacy
itself is a manifestation of the new system of racism.
He knows how to make white Amerikkka feel good
about the status quo, here and abroad.
There’s a reason for that.
If he told the truth, if he stood up for justice,
and on that basis, authentic healing, he couldn’t be
president. Under those circumstances, if he’d attracted any
measurable attention, much less the global attention he’s
gained today, he'd more likely be dead.
Dead, like Steven
Biko of the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania / South Africa, or Fred Hampton from Chicago.
Or imprisoned for decades, as Nelson Mandela
But Barack Obama doesn’t have that kind of
vision and courage.
And he’s not, in the end, even a street activist.
He’s been bought. What kind of “street activist” or
“community organizer,” after all, ends up a millionaire?
One who won’t say what white people don’t want
What white Amerikkka doesn’t want to know,
Obama is not about to tell them. That’s a large part of why
they like him; it’s key. Whites don’t want to know, as a rule,
the actual conditions of Black America, just as the German
people, as a rule, didn’t want to know the actual conditions
of the Jews and Gypsies, even as the smoke of the crematoria
drifted through their streets.
Here’s one part of the core truth that Obama
The U.S., which has roughly 6%
of the world’s human population, imprisons 20% of the
world’s prisoners. The vast majority of those it imprisons
are men of color. American Indians have the highest incarceration
rate on the planet. Black men have the world’s next highest
rate, although their absolute numbers make up the largest
group of US prisoners. Mexicans and other Spanish speaking
Natives in the U.S.
have the third highest rate of imprisonment of all the world’s
According to a report from MSNBC,
about 16% of black men in their twenties who are
not college students are currently either in jail or in prison,
while almost 60% of black male high school dropouts
in their early thirties have spent time in prison.
Rights Watch notes that in the U.S.,
“Nationwide, blacks are incarcerated at 8.2 times the
rate of whites. That is, a black person is 8.2 times more
likely to be in prison than a white person. Among individual
states, there are even more extraordinary racial disparities
in incarceration rates. In seven states - Connecticut,
Minnesota, New Jersey,
Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin
- blacks are incarcerated at more than 13 times the
rate of whites. Minnesota
has by far the highest disparity - blacks in that state are
incarcerate d at 23 times the rate of whites. In the
District of Columbia, blacks are incarcerated at
34 times the rate of whites. Even in Hawaii and Vermont, the states
with the smallest racial disparities in incarceration rates,
blacks are still incarcerated at more than twice the
rate of whites.”
But to hear the mainstream media spin it, racism
in the US
After all, Barack Obama might be president
of the US.
To hear Barack Obama tell it, “There is no
divide that we can’t bridge.” The easiest divide to “bridge”,
of course, is the one you pretend doesn’t exist, the one you
White Amerikka wants to believe it is innocent
- that racism is over. It doesn’t want to know that its rulers
solved the “problem” presented to them by the end of Jim Crow
segregation and by the eruption of the Black Power movement
by replacing the de facto chains of Jim Crow with the even
more literal shackles of mass imprisonment.
rejects the Black militant stance - even the pro-Black stance
of Dr. King or Reverend Jackson - not only by distancing
himself from Jackson, but much more importantly, by remaining
silent about the fact that the white imperial ruling class
met the challenges they faced with the end of segregation
and the rise of the Black Power movement by flooding Black
streets with crack cocaine and guns - creating a “gang problem”
out of nowhere - then by inventing “The War on Drugs” and
“The War on Gangs” to carry out the greatest mass imprisonment
in human history, a campaign more Draconian and Machiavellian
than anything most dictators, even the demonized Saddam Hussein,
ever dreamed of.
The isolation engendered by a quarter-century
of the War on Drugs and the War on Gangs - which is actually
a war on poor people of color in the US - is overwhelmingly intense. It’s suffocating,
and the silence about the war on poor people of color in the
US has been punctured only twice - first, by the Los Angeles
rebellion in 1992, and secondly by the mass marches of millions
of Brown people protesting the State’s efforts retroactively
to turn even more millions of migrants into instant felons
The war against the oppressed nationalities
in the US
is real. In the ghettos, the barrios and on the rez
it’s a palpable phenomenon: millions of families are missing
their sons and daughters. Again, their children make up roughly
20% of the prison population of the world, again - not just
of the US - of the world.
But for white Amerikkka, it may as well be
taking place in Baghdad,
not next door. They know a little about what’s up in Iraq, of course, but not about what is happening
much more intimately, right next door, and in their names.
Barack Obama, in the meantime, says that the
invasion of Iraq was misdirected. It was the wrong war. The
Empire’s real enemy, he says, lay elsewhere.
He says nothing at all about the War at Home
against his own people.
It’s not, after all, that racism is over. It’s
that whites imagine that they can now be at peace about it
- that the race war in Amerikkka is over as a two-sided
An exhaustive NAACP report indicates that there
is very little difference between the stances of Obama and
Clinton on issues important to Blacks. Others have noted the centrist
nature of the Obama campaign more broadly. Black legal scholar
Vernellia Randall, of the University of Dayton, Ohio, says
that Obama has No
specific plan for addressing institutionalized racism,
and that he doesn’t even acknowledge the issue. (Others have
noted the centrist
nature of the Obama campaign more broadly.)
In the white imagination, Barack Obama represents,
not the “End of Racism” (racism has an experiential, existential
meaning for only the barest sliver of the white population),
but he represents, rather, the end of the struggle
to end racism.
The “End of Racism,” like the “End of History”
proclaimed by Francis
Fukuyama with the fall of the Soviet Union, is meant to
signify and hail the end of polarization and struggle, a final
assimilative victory in which the antagonist (Communist or
Black, respectively) is absorbed into the benevolent embrace
of the white capitalist empire - there to disappear as a problem
- even as a distinct entity.
Obama, in this context, can be viewed as a
kind of Gorbachev, a figure that surrendered the sovereignty
and independence of his nation, opened it to overt capitalism,
collapse and chaos, and who, in the process, became the darling
of the capitalist world; who became, in the West, at least,
a figure representing “reconciliation and peace” - not capitulation
In the Amerikkkan imagination, Obama signals
the co-optation, not of the pseudo-Marxist Soviet style socialism,
but of the drive for Black liberation, autonomy and self-determination
- the end of Black Nationalism, of the Black nation as a distinct
people with a distinct history, distinct needs, a distinct
culture, a distinct oppression and a distinct agenda. It signifies
the supremacy of the white nation over the Black nation, just
as the so-called “End of History” is meant to signify the
supremacy of capitalism over all anti-capitalist potentials
for organizing society.
only awareness most whites have of racism comes as a result
of the immediate and very short term impact of the struggle
of peoples of color upon their consciousness. The silencing
of that struggle means only the end of its painful intrusion
into white awareness - not the end of racism as an omnipresent,
violent burden on the oppressed, not the end of racism as
omnipresent oppression and degradation. As noted above, Obama
has no plan, and thus, it is fair to say, no intention
of ending systemic racism in the US.
It’s easier to pretend for popular consumption, that it no
Barack Obama is priceless. If he didn’t exist,
as the saying goes, they’d have had to invent him. And, no
matter Obama’s subjective intentions - white people did
just that in their imaginations and in setting the
social terms of the New Racism. The very best one can
say is that Obama’s let them get by with it by pandering to
it. I’ll leave the worst one can say to you. It’s closer to
the point, and to the truth.
It should be more than clear by now that Barack
Obama will not save us. But neither is the point to expose
the man as an individual, or even as a hypocrite, betrayer
or oppressor. The point is to see him in context, within
the limits of the system, the matrix, the cultural and political
environment in which he arose and in which he operates. It’s
not that Barack Obama, per se, is worthless; it’s that none
of the dreams that he speaks to so deeply in us can be fulfilled
under the system of oppression of which he is an expression
and that his candidacy concentrates in visible form.
There is nothing wrong at all in the
hopes we have that Obama’s rhetoric speaks to. The problem
lies in what Herbert Marcuse called “repressive desublimation”
- a hope, a need, that has been buried and denied by an oppressive
system, is allowed some room to breathe, then co-opted and
redirected back into a form that ultimately reinforces the
oppressive system that denied and suppressed out hopes and
needs in the first place. That’s what Obama represents.
He speaks to our dreams of connection, of reciprocity,
of balance, sanity and a noble way of life. He speaks to our
hope for a world worth living in, to our hope for the future
generations that have been crushed for decades now under the
heel of the Bush regime and its predecessors. The enormous
energy for change unleashed in the 1960s has been buried deeper
and deeper under the weight of oppression, and especially
for the last 7 years, under the weight of the most cynical,
sadistic, apocalyptic regime of our lifetimes, a regime that
has embraced a vision of global destruction and that has denied
every life-giving hope.
Bush regime was and remains an expression of a conscious
plan by the far right - especially of the Christian fascists
under the leadership of Paul Weyrich, founder of the Heritage
Foundation and co-founder of the Moral Majority - to crush
everything that came to life in the upheavals of the cultural
revolutions of the 60s era. They meant, as they consciously
expressed it, to counter the counter culture, the culture
of hope, and offer a new “hope” of a “purpose driven life”
in the context of the old traditions of oppression. They meant
to, as they put it, “reframe this struggle as a
moral struggle, as a transcendent struggle, as a struggle
between good and evil” along traditional Christian lines.
The Christian Fascist strategist Eric Heubeck