February 28, 2008 - Issue 266
Barack and the "End" of Racism
By Juan Santos
Barack Obama deeply troubles me.
As a Mexican who grew up in a Black neighborhood in the
So, 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 really is.
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 friend, Tim 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.
The 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 suffering.
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 it.
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
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.
Yes, 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 trustworthy.
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
(which he has threatened with “surgical” missile strikes) and Pakistan,
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
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 clean.
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
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
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
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, etc.
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 itself.
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 the
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.
Many people, nonetheless, think Obama is the realization of Dr. King’s dream. 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
The functioning of this new dynamic
of racism is plain to see in Obama’s attitude toward the newest persecuted
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
Obama’s 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
Even more telling is Obama’s refusal
to recognize the right of Palestinians to return to the land stolen
from them by
Like the Israelis themselves, Obama wants a separate Palestinian state - separate, but certainly not equal.
There can be no authentically autonomous
Palestinian state located on the border of a nuclear-armed
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 /
Or imprisoned for decades, as Nelson Mandela was.
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 to hear.
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 is silencing:
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
But to hear the mainstream media
spin it, racism in the
After all, Barack Obama might
be president of the
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 never mention.
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.
Obama 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
The war against the oppressed nationalities
But for white Amerikkka, it may as
well be taking place in
Barack Obama, in the meantime, says
that the invasion of
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 affair.
An exhaustive NAACP report indicates
that there is very little difference between the stances of Obama and
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 and betrayal.
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.
The 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
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.
The 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 wrote:
The regime of Bush the Lesser was the pinnacle of this effort - he carried the agenda as far as it could go, before it began to fracture and collapse under the weight of its own madness - before it met the determined resistance of society’s most vulnerable, scapegoated and openly stigmatized targets, as they marched in their millions refusing to be victims. The combined force of the Christian fascist juggernaut, the repressive powers of the State, and the US war machine looked unstoppable until it met this opposition at home, and until it met the mad and fierce resistance of the people of Iraq who have, however chaotic and horrifying the tactics, refused to be conquered. With these events, the aura of invincibility and unstoppable momentum was destroyed, the lid of repression began to crack, and what had been suppressed in us rose again to the surface. Literally, in terms of time in office, and as a sweeping reactionary social agenda, the Bush regime is coming to an end. With its end, inevitably, comes a wave of hope and euphoria.
This is the wave Obama is riding, the ocean of energy he is trying to steer into an acceptance of the same old deal, the same old wars, the same old systemic racism, packaged as if it were something new. This wave of energy is not something he’s inspired, it’s something he’s riding and that he is uniquely qualified to channel toward his own ends - which are not our ends.
As we have seen, Obama doesn’t represent peace - he represents an expansion of war and the power of Empire. He’s even more extreme on this than Bush himself, except in his public rhetoric. He doesn’t represent the real and legitimate needs, desires and hopes of Black people - he refuses to speak openly of the most fundamental issues affecting Black people. He doesn’t represent the “end of racism,” but the perpetuation of oppression in a new guise.
Obama doesn’t represent a new system or the new way of life we dreamed of and fought for and that has been suppressed - he represents the old one. He represents a system that is fundamentally rooted in exploitation, oppression and destruction on a global scale, and he is living proof that no fundamental change for the better can - or will - come about under the system he represents and upholds. It doesn’t work that way. To tell the truth is to betray the system, and he can’t bring himself to do it, even though he is far too conscious not to know it.
Attaining authentic freedom requires, as its barest starting point, the naming of what keeps us subjugated. What keeps us subjugated is the very system Obama wants to rule. The system, even with Barack Obama as its first Black emperor, is not our hope. It’s our enemy, the enemy of the world, and, because this system is rapidly undermining the ability of the planet to foster and sustain life, it is the enemy of all Life on Earth. This is exactly the understanding that the Christian fascists like Weyrich and Heubeck wanted to crush out of our awareness, and the lack of such awareness is exactly what Barack Obama depends on if he is to remain a symbol of the impossible dream that the system can be something other than what it is.