Race in the Obama era

May 3, 2013

In the aftermath of the election of the first Black president, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor examined the tasks ahead for combating racism in the U.S.

THE HISTORIC election of Barack Obama represented an undeniable blow against the legacy of racism in the U.S. For the first time ever, a Black man was elected president of a white majority country. Slavery persisted in the U.S. for more than 300 years, and when slavery was abolished, Blacks were legally designated second-class citizens until the civil rights rebellion of the 1960s finally produced full legal equality.

This backdrop made Obama's victory last November all the more astonishing. Even in the desperate dog days of the McCain-Palin campaign, when Republicans tried to make race an issue by reviving the dead issue of Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright, calling Obama "dangerous," letting conservative followers believe Obama was Muslim and Arab, and calling Obama "uppity"--they failed miserably.

In fact, the Republicans' strategy backfired. The closer we got to the election and the more desperate they became, the more they began to slip in the polls. For the first time in 40 years, the staples of American politics--race-baiting and racial scapegoating--failed as a political strategy, and the result was the election of the nation's first African American president.

The History of Black America

Since the election, the media has manufactured a discussion about whether the U.S. has entered some netherworld of post-racialism. The mantra was quickly picked up by conservative pundits who have always denied the saliency of racism. They concluded that the political ascendancy of Obama was the final "proof" that the U.S. was a color-blind society. Dinesh D'Souza, who wrote the 1995 book The End of Racism, recently gloated:

As I watched Obama take the oath of office, I was moved, along with many others, but I also felt a sense of vindication. In 1995, I published a controversial book The End of Racism. The meaning of the title was not that there was no more racism in America. Certainly in a big country, one can find many examples of racism. My argument was that racism, which once used to be systematic, had now become episodic. In other words, racism existed, but it no longer controlled the lives of blacks and other minorities. Indeed, racial discrimination could not explain why some groups succeeded in America and why other groups did not...for African Americans, their position near the bottom rung of the ladder could be better explained by cultural factors than by racial victimization.

D'Souza's outburst aside, the idea that Black poverty and unemployment is the result of individual failure and personal dysfunction is a regular staple of political parlance in the U.S. Even Obama made news when he spoke at a Black church last Father's Day and chastised Black men for not being more involved in their children's lives. "We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception," he said.

Without a condemnation of the racism that shapes the communities, choices and interactions of poor and working-class African Americans, this kind of moralistic finger-pointing essentially blames the victim.

Moreover, D'Souza's outburst underlines the problem with measuring racism in American society simply by changing ideas or attitudes, as opposed to barometers that actually measure the quality of life of African Americans. The current meltdown of the American economy, which faces its gravest crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, demonstrates the institutionalization of racism in the U.S.

A Black depression

While most Americans are struggling to find ways to cope with the economic recession, African American communities have been experiencing a protracted financial collapse since 2000. The impact of the unraveling U.S. economy on African Americans is nothing short of startling and should give lie once and for all to worn axioms that describe Black poverty and inequality as products of the Black community itself or the result of cultural deviance.

While the media have marveled at how quickly the national unemployment level ballooned to 8 percent over the last two months, Black unemployment currently stands at more than 13 percent, while Latino unemployment creeps toward 12 percent.

Since 2000, Blacks and Latinos have been 40 percent more likely to experience unemployment than whites. But the national unemployment rates don't really speak to the catastrophic levels of job displacement in Black communities, particularly among African American men.

In a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, social scientist Marc Levine looked at the total unemployment of Black men aged 16 to 65 in urban America. He included men who were out of the labor market for a range of reasons, including those who were incarcerated and those who were jobless because they had given up looking for work.

He found that Black men in Milwaukee had the highest rate of unemployment at 51 percent, followed by Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago, where Black male unemployment is 45 percent. In other large metropolitan areas like New York City and Washington, D.C., unemployment rates for African American men of working age were more than 30 percent. In Detroit, the 11th largest city in the U.S., Black workers have been devastated by the plunging fortunes of the auto industry, where, by last December, more than 20,000 Black autoworkers had lost their jobs.

This rise in unemployment will undoubtedly increase the numbers of African Americans without health insurance--already at a high of 19 percent.

The job losses that began before the current economic crisis have led to an increase in Black poverty, from a historic low of 19 percent in 1999, back up to 24 percent in 2007. Poverty rates for Latinos are also at more than 20 percent. This number will surely rise if predictions are that official Black unemployment will exceed 20 percent by the end of 2009.

In addition to the job losses shaking African American communities, the collapsing housing market is having a disproportionate impact on Black homeowners. Because of a racist legacy of redlining, housing discrimination and the patterns of predatory lending as their result, Blacks were three times more likely to be steered toward subprime loans for home mortgages than whites.

This has meant that as rates for these loans readjusted upward and beyond the means of Black homeowners, tens of thousands have been forced into foreclosure, destroying what little net worth exists among African Americans. Home foreclosures are not measured by race, but a recent study found that since 2004, Black homeownership has dropped from 49 percent to 46 percent.

By 2007, 30 percent of Black households had zero net worth, compared to 18 percent of white households. According to the nonprofit think tank United for a Fair Economy, households of color lost between $164 billion and $213 billion over the past eight years because of foreclosures and ballooning subprime loan rates. According to economic analyst Dedrick Muhammad, the cumulative impact of these losses will result in a 33 percent reduction of the Black middle class.

The election of Obama, while significant, doesn't change the daily struggle against deprivation that shapes the Black experience in the U.S.

What's race got to do with it?

The crisis is having a disproportionately brutal impact on Black workers because of the racism inherent in American capitalism. U.S. capitalism was built on the labor of Black slaves, and when slavery ended, capitalists in the North and South stoked racism to divide their workforces, drive down wages and increase their profit margins.

Throughout the first 70 years of the 20th century, millions of African Americans moved from the rural South to the urban North and South in search of jobs and freedom from the codified racism of Jim Crow. Black workers found that racism in the North was only different by degrees from the racism they encountered in the South.

Violent white mobs and racially restricted covenants in housing deeds--which allowed private homeowners to forbid the selling or renting of homes to African Americans for up to 20 years--hemmed African Americans into ghettos. Federal housing policy stipulated that Black inner cities be restricted from mortgage insurance, guaranteeing that businesses and developers wouldn't invest or build in the cities.

Instead, government monies subsidized building and investment in white suburbs. The disinvestment in the central cities fueled residential and school segregation, creating a political economy of racism where Blacks paid more for inferior housing and services, while the managers of inner cities reaped the profits of minimal investment.

Existing employment in the inner cities became increasingly elusive as businesses either moved to the suburbs, to the South or out of the country altogether in search of cheaper labor. The conditions of diminishing employment, low-wage service jobs, underfunded schools and segregated housing created by racist federal policies are maintained and policed by a racist criminal justice system, and have been since Blacks arrived en masse in the North.

These public and private practices have led to historic disparities between African Americans and whites. The social movements of the 1960s eliminated the last vestiges of legal racism and opened up greater opportunities for the economic and political advancement of a small layer of African Americans, but for the majority of ordinary Blacks, racism continues to restrict opportunity. This means that Blacks have borne the greatest brunt of this economic catastrophe.

The managers of capitalism profit handsomely from inequality and racism in the U.S. because they guarantee a combination of low or lower wages paid to Black workers and the absence of a welfare state. Moreover, these same managers have historically used racism to divide political struggles for public or state entitlements--welfare--to poor or unemployed workers regardless of race.

The material impact on the lives of Black workers should be clear enough, but ideologically, the systematic and institutional impoverishment of African American communities perpetuates the impression that Blacks are inferior and defective. These perceptions are perpetuated and magnified by the mass media, Hollywood and the general means of ideological and cultural production in bourgeois society.

The recurrence and persistence of racism in this economic system is not accidental or arbitrary. American capitalism is intrinsically racist.

A new era

The racist nature of American capitalism doesn't mean that workers of color and white workers do not challenge it. The political struggles of the 1960s are but one example of this potential, but so are the heroic struggles to build unions and anti-poverty movements during the Depression era in the 1930s.

The era of Obama is a welcome change from the era of Bush and opens the potential for a new period of struggle that can both fight for economic reforms and against racism. During the Bush administration, not only did the economic gains of Black America during the 1990s go into reverse, but the racial symbolism of the Bush administration was downright regressive.

From his theft of the 2000 election at the expense of Black voters in Florida, to the malfeasance of his administration during the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, to the unleashing of raids in Latino communities, to the imprisonment and internment of Arab and Muslim men across the U.S., the Bush administration was a disaster for communities of color.

The election of Obama represented a popular rejection of this state-sanctioned racist hostility. But what concretely replaces the racist Bush agenda will depend upon struggle from below. While Obama's candidacy and election represented a dramatic shift in racial attitudes in the U.S., Obama, has eschewed almost any racial discourse--and continues to.

Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, made the strange comment that when it comes to race, "Americans are cowards," when it is the Obama administration that has gone out of its way to avoid putting forward coherent policies aimed at curbing the racism evidenced by the overwhelming impact of the economic crisis on Black families.

To be sure, the almost $300 billion in economic stimulus aimed at working-class communities is a welcome change to the tired mantra of tax cuts--but it's woefully inadequate when compared to the more than $1 trillion filling the troughs of corporate America and Wall Street. Moreover, given the disproportionate way in which the crisis is impacting African Americans, there needs to be specific programs and solutions aimed at Black urban communities.

This must include more than infusions of cash to increase food stamps and unemployment cash benefits. Economists predict that the jobs that have been lost are not likely to come back, as American capitalism restructures and retools itself. This means there could be a long period of unemployment until new, sustainable jobs are created, rather than short-term "project"-oriented jobs.

This in turn means that the U.S. needs a new public welfare system that can house, feed, clothe, pay and take care of its population while the job market fluctuates. The public entitlement to welfare was gutted in 1996 during the boom, as recipients were made to "work" for their meager cash benefits.

The assumption was that the economy was supposedly awash in jobs--which were largely low wage and in the service sector--and, if people weren't working, it was because they didn't want to. These anti-poor policies, shrouded in anti-Black rhetoric, were underpinned by the politics of "personal responsibility," which looked to shift the blame for poverty and unemployment away from inherent problems in the system--as they were identified in the 1960s by everyone from the Black Panther Party to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.--to the individual failings of Blacks themselves.

But the rapid disintegration of the job market has opened up the ideological space to expose the racist assumptions that Black workers are more interested in welfare than work. When 650,000 jobs have been lost every month since December, it's difficult to mount an argument that the problem of unemployment is a moral one.

Moreover, when banks and corporations fail as a result of the personal irresponsibility and greed of executives, but are still bailed out to the tune of trillions of tax dollars, it rightfully raises the question of where is the bailout for ordinary workers--Black, white and Latino.

The ruling class proposal for resolving the economic crisis--blank checks and no questions asked for Wall Street--diminishes the extent to which they can argue that workers shouldn't also demand our piece, in the form of direct cash stimulus, universal health care, a new welfare system, real affordable housing, an end to home foreclosures and more.

The key to winning any of those demands depends on building a movement of workers, the unemployed and the poor to take on the obvious economic inequities that have been exposed as a result of the crisis, but it also demands the building of an explicitly antiracist movement that can highlight and organize against the specific ways this crisis is affecting Black workers.

While Obama has been reluctant to discuss the issue of race or racism, the vast majority of African Americans viewed his election as their own victory--as demonstrated by the dancing in the streets in Black communities across the country last November when he beat McCain. A CNN poll conducted in the days leading up to Obama's inauguration found that 69 percent of Blacks felt that King's dream was now fulfilled because of Obama's victory.

In March, a poll found that African Americans were more optimistic than the general public that the financial crisis would be resolved by the end of the year. Fifty-eight percent of Blacks said they expected their household financial situation to improve by next year, and 85 percent said they were generally optimistic about the future.

But the confidence and optimism that resulted from successfully sending a Black president to the White House has come into conflict with the reality that African Americans are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn in the U.S. At the same time, the election of Obama has raised the expectations of African Americans--and most workers--for more, not less.

While the Obama honeymoon within Black communities may not end for while, the worsening economy will demand politics, organization and activism from Black workers. This new reality, in a new political era, represents an opportunity to build a movement to demand new social programs for the working class, with Black workers and antiracist demands at its center.

There is also the possibility that as conditions grow worse, there could be a rise in racism against Obama and other minorities in the guise of right-wing populism--as racists and the right intensify their efforts to scapegoat and blame sections of the population for the crisis.

This is why the revival and rebuilding of progressive forces and the radical left must put the fight against racism at the center of its politics--as opposed to focusing only on the economic dimensions of the crisis. Racism and class oppression have always been the nexus of American politics, and today is no different.

This article first appeared at SocialistWorker.org on April 3, 2009.

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