Racism and politics in America

January 25, 2008

Race and racism are center stage in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination as the South Carolina primary approaches. But as Lee Sustar explains, this issue has been a central factor in U.S. politics for many decades.

THE ISSUE of race and racism emerged openly at the heart of U.S. politics in the Democratic presidential campaign in January. But as any serious student of U.S. history knows, racism is always beneath the surface of U.S. politics.

The trigger for the current debate was a comment by Sen. Hillary Clinton that "Dr. [Martin Luther] King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done." This was taken by many African American politicians and longtime activists as denigrating the entire Black liberation movement.

Certainly, Obama's campaign owes its existence to that movement. The fact that an African American is today a serious contender for the presidency is part of the legacy of those who defied the violence and humiliation of American apartheid in the Deep South.

But as Martin Luther King Day approached, Obama chose to highlight the historic impact of another figure in U.S. politics--Ronald Reagan.

"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama told journalists. "He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.

What else to read

Ahmed Shawki's Black Liberation and Socialism provides an excellent overview of race and class in U.S. history, with several chapters devoted to the recent past.

Jack Bloom's Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement examines the role of class divisions within the African American struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.

For a more general overview of the civil rights movement, Manning Marable's Race, Reform and Rebellion and Harvard Sitkoff's The Struggle for Black Equality are good starting points.

An excellent account of the radicalization of the African American student movement can be found in Clayborne Carson's In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. For an early but still relevant analysis of the Black Power movement, see Robert Allen's Black Awakening in Capitalist America.

"I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown, but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think...he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was [that] we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."

Why would the country's most prominent African American politician praise the supposed political genius of Reagan, who played the race card all the way to the White House?

Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where the Ku Klux Klan had murdered three civil rights workers in 1964. In his speech, Reagan declared, "I believe in states' rights"--the euphemism used by white racists in the 1960s to defend Jim Crow segregation in the South.

Reagan frequently resorted to racially charged stereotypes--the "welfare queen" driving a Cadillac and the "young buck" buying steak with food stamps. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 that ended legal racial discrimination in voting, was, according to Reagan, "humiliating to the South."

In the Reaganite worldview, the "excesses" of the 1960s and 1970s cited by Obama included the struggle to end legalized racism, not to mention other social movements--against the Vietnam War, and for women's rights, and gay and lesbian liberation.

Certainly, this can't be news to Obama. His public appreciation of Reagan is part of a calculated attempt to appeal to "swing" voters--Republicans fed up over the economy, the war, White House incompetence and corruption.

This overture to the right is typical of Obama's political career. He has positioned himself to the right of the generation of African American politicians that emerged from the civil rights and Black Power movements. The product of an interracial marriage, Obama has been deemed by some pundits as a "post-racial" politician.

The fact, is, however, that no African American in the U.S. can completely avoid the legacy of 500 years of slavery, racism and oppression.

Nevertheless, the relationship between race, class and politics in the U.S. has been transformed in the 40 years between the assassination of Martin Luther King and Obama's candidacy. Understanding those changes helps provide a framework for understanding both the powerful appeal of Obama's campaign to millions of people, as well as his moderate politics and the very limited horizons of his call for "change."

THE PASSAGE of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 marked the transition from a civil rights movement centered on the South to a Black Power revolt in U.S. cities.

The act was signed into law five months after Martin Luther King's famous march in Selma, Ala., and five days before the Los Angeles Black ghetto of Watts exploded over an incident of police brutality. With segregation now outlawed, the movement had to reorient on economic and social demands.

As a leader of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X had criticized Martin Luther King's moderation at various points. But in the last year of his life before he was assassinated, Malcolm went further, embracing revolutionary politics and identifying the African American movement with Third World liberation struggles.

Malcolm's development in turn influenced the Black Panther Party and other groups who saw revolutionary socialism as the means to achieve Black liberation in the United States. "Black Power" became a popular slogan in the movement.

But just what Black Power meant depended on who was talking. While the slogan implied socialism to the Black Panther Party, it meant economic opportunity for the Black middle class that had long been limited by legal segregation in the South and racial discrimination everywhere in terms of employment, housing, obtaining loans for business and much else.

The Democratic Party establishment sought to harness the "Black Power" demand to its own ends. In 1967, Louis Martin, an African American deputy chair of the Democratic Party, recommended that the Johnson administration try to "achieve 'Black Power' in a constitutional, orderly manner."

Martin wanted Black Democrats to "take a more active role in community leadership and not leave the kind of vacuum which is usually filled by civil rights kooks." He hoped that Black elected officials would provide the Democratic Johnson administration with a "link to the Negro community and...effectively bypass the Rap Browns and Stokely Carmichaels [both radical leaders] and even the Martin Luther Kings (none of whom have been elected to anything)."

However cynical, Johnson's overture to Southern Blacks was intolerable to the party's Southern wing. Most white Southern Democrats backed George Wallace's segregationist presidential campaign of 1968, which received 8 million votes.

Richard Nixon's Republican administration deepened the split within Democratic ranks by attempting to block civil rights legislation, and white Southerners overwhelmingly voted for Nixon in his landslide victory over George McGovern in 1972.

This was the origins of the Republicans' "Southern strategy"--appealing to white conservatives in a backlash against the civil rights movement.

Instead of openly defending segregation and white supremacy, the racists repackaged their message around issues of "crime," "welfare fraud" and affirmative action as "reverse discrimination." It's been effective ever since, giving the Republicans an electoral lock on much of the South since then.

Meanwhile, Louis Martin's strategy of expanding the base of African American officeholders quickly bore fruit. The number of Black elected officials increased fourfold to 1,860 between 1967 and 1971. In many cases, Black activists weren't intentionally co-opted by the Democratic Party. They had to fight their way in, challenging racist Democratic political machines in Northern cities.

The perspectives of the new radicals and the Black Democrats coexisted uneasily at the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., on March 10-12, 1972. Attended by over 8,000 people, the convention marked the first large-scale gathering of the various currents in Black politics: radical nationalists, cultural nationalists, socialists, Maoists and Black Democratic elected officials, including the host, Mayor Richard Hatcher.

The preamble to the National Black Political Agenda written for the convention was radical. It read in part: "The profound crises of Black people and the disaster of America are not simply caused by men, nor will they be solved by men alone.

"These crises are the crises of basically flawed economics and politics, and of cultural degradation. None of the Democratic candidates and none of the Republican candidates--regardless of their vague promises to us or to their white constituencies--can solve our problems or the problems of this country without radically changing the systems by which it operates."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, then director of People United to Save Humanity (PUSH), went on record in support of a future break with the Democrats, but said the "Black political movement was too young" for such a move, and instead urged Blacks to seek "delegate power" at the Democratic National Convention that summer.

JACKSON'S APPROACH prevailed as the movement dissipated in the 1970s. By the 1980s, African Americans had captured City Hall in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and other cities, and had held senior positions in key congressional committees.

This represented an advance for the Black middle class, which could use the dismantling of Jim Crow and new laws against discrimination in order to advance in politics and business and, often, escape segregated neighborhoods as well. But the advance within the system for a minority of African Americans was a retreat from the radical goals of the 1960s movements.

Jackson's presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988 highlighted these contradictions of the Black political establishment even as it showed that growing numbers of white working-class voters were prepared to support Black candidates.

In 1984, Jackson tapped African Americans' anger at Ronald Reagan, and he swept the Black vote despite the opposition of most prominent African American politicians. By 1988, Jackson had forged an alliance with key Black politicians, who, even if they didn't care for Jackson's approach, concluded that if they couldn't beat him, they'd have to join him.

The "Super Tuesday" primary of March 8, 1988, dominated by Southern states and designed to favor a conservative candidate, mobilized the Black vote for Jackson. Of 21 primaries, Jackson placed first or second in 16, and became the frontrunner in terms of delegates. This was followed by a victory in the Michigan party caucuses, with 55 percent of the vote. He ended the race with 7 million votes, 30 percent of the total.

Jackson's success rattled the Democratic establishment. Yet on the other hand, the Jackson campaigns marked the final stage in the transition of African American politics from being dominated by social struggles to becoming--in the view of party leaders--just another Democratic voting bloc.

A voting bloc that needed to know its place, that is. Democratic powerbrokers reacted to Jackson's success by forming the Democratic Leadership Caucus (DLC), a group dominated by Southerners who wanted the party to distance itself from Blacks, organized labor and women's groups and develop closer ties to Corporate America.

A former DLC co-chair, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, implemented a "Southern strategy" of his own to win over white conservatives in his 1992 bid for the White House and in his re-election. Clinton's tactics included denouncing the rap artist Sistah Souljah at an event sponsored by Jesse Jackson; presiding over the execution of mentally disabled Black man, Ricky Ray Rector; and staging a photo op at a Georgia penitentiary work gang of hundreds of Black men.

Once in office, he presided over "anti-crime" legislation that left more African American men in prison than in college. He also collaborated with the Republican Congress to abolish the federal welfare system, something Ronald Reagan could never have gotten away with.

At the same time, however, Clinton cultivated allies in the Black political establishment, which was ever more distant from the struggles that had propelled it to prominence.

Clinton's race-baiting politics were part of an overall turn to the right by the Democrats. While they remained to the left of the Republicans, the Democrats have embraced the post-Reagan formula of free market economics, a dramatically reduced welfare state and the projection of U.S. military power abroad.

To be sure, Black elected officials tend to be more liberal than the average Democrat, reflecting the preferences of their voting base. But most are completely caught up in politics as usual.

As journalists Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman point out, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation receives big donations from auto, oil, tobacco, alcohol and junk food companies, which has effectively silenced the caucus on issues ranging from public health to alternative energy.

THE BLACK political establishment's drift to the right isn't a question of personal failings, however. It's part of a trend towards greater class divisions among African Americans over the past 20 years.

Enter Obama. As a member of the post-civil rights generation, the one-time community organizer tailored his politics to fit the new political reality. As he said of his days as a college activist in his (second) autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, "I would find myself in the curious position of defending aspects of Reagan's worldview. I couldn't be persuaded that U.S. multinationals and international terms of trade were single-handedly responsible for poverty around the world; nobody forced corrupt leaders in Third World countries to steal from their people."

Thus, Obama's first high-profile campaign was an attempt to unseat Rep. Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, from his seat in Congress in the 2000 elections. "Part of what we are talking about is a transition from a politics of protest to a politics of progress," Obama said then.

He lost badly, but won new and influential backers. After winning his U.S. Senate seat in 2004, he regularly took pro-business positions, including voting for a bill that caps jury awards in wrongful injury lawsuits used to hold big business accountable for faulty products.

Meanwhile, Obama quickly became adept at raising campaign cash for others--and himself. He's been able to match the vaunted Clinton fundraising machine, thanks in part to big money from hedge-fund managers and key players across Corporate America.

Yet for all his efforts to locate himself in the mainstream, Obama inevitably must contend with the question of race and racism in his personal and political life. And the prospect of an African American president in a country built on slavery and racism is exciting for millions of people--not just African Americans, but others who see a vote for Obama as a vote to put the U.S.'s sordid history of racism behind us once and for all.

But the symbolism of an Obama presidency, however powerful, wouldn't uproot racism's legacy.

The commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson put it his way: "An Obama presidency would be a racial step forward in the sense that it shows that enough whites can and will look past race to make a Black, especially an exceptional Black, their leader.

"It would not, however, show that they are willing to do the same for the millions of Blacks that cram America's jails and prisons, suffer housing and job discrimination, and are trapped in failing public schools in America's poor, crime ridden inner cities. Their plight and how they are viewed and treated will remain the same after Obama takes office. A President Obama won't change that."

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