The Pale Reflection: Barack Obama, MLK and the Meaning of the Black Revolution
The Empire and Inequality Report
by Paul Street
"The black revolution is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws - racism, poverty, militarism and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced." - Martin Luther King, Jr., "A Testament of Hope" (1968)
"My Very Existence"
One of the most alarming things about Barack Obama's March 4th 2007 speech at the legendary Brown Chapel AME in Selma, Alabama was the Senator's recurrent self-reference. Sometimes it almost sounded as if Obama thought the essential purpose of the famous 1965 Selma Voting Rights March (1) - formally commemorated each year at the Brown church - was to put the Great Barockstar on the national stage.
In the fifth paragraph of his speech, Obama said "I'm not sure I'd be here today" if "it were not for" legendary civil rights activist and now congressman John Lewis.
In the sixteenth paragraph, Obama credited the people who marched in the face of state repression for the fact that "I got the kind of education I got, a law degree, a seat in the Illinois Senate and ultimately in the U.S Senate. It is because they marched," Obama added, "that we [meaning black Americans] elected councilmen, congressmen."
In the seventeenth paragraph, Obama said that "my very existence might not have been possible had it not been for some of the [civil rights veterans] here today." Thanks to the civil rights movement, Obama claimed, his white mother and Kenyan father "got together and Barack Obama, Jr. was born...I'm here because somebody marched. I'm here because you all sacrificed for me."
"So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama," Obama added. "Don't tell me I'm not coming home to Selma, Alabama"(2).
"The blue-pen drawing Obama doodled on his newspaper during fundraising calls was a portrait of himself."
Reading Obama's speech the other day, I was reminded of one of the strangest passages I've ever read in the pages of political journalism. It came at the end of a laudatory essay on Obama in Atlantic Monthly in the summer of 2004. In the next to last paragraph of this article, titled "The Natural (Why is Barack Obama Generating More Excitement than John Kerry?)," Ryan Lizza offered a disturbing observation:
"If there is a knock against Obama, it is that he is perhaps a little too enchanted with all the attention and acclaim. During the Democratic primary campaign he raised eyebrows by sweeping an opponent's wife into an embrace - a moment captured by a Chicago Tribune reporter. The opponent's staff was sufficiently piqued to complain. And I couldn't help noticing, when we sat down to talk in the dilapidated storefront that houses his Springfield campaign headquarters, that the blue-pen drawing he'd doodled on his newspaper during fundraising calls was a portrait of himself" (3).
"Not Really All That Black"
All of which raises an interesting question: what's so great about the existence of Barack Obama from the perspectives of racial inclusion and social justice? How well is Obama honoring his "claim on Selma" and the "sacrifices" made for him by the Civil Rights Movement? Where does Obama - introduced to the Brown Chapel crowd as "living proof that a person of color can become anything they wish" - stand in relation to that towering hero of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and the black revolution that King helped lead?
As was painfully evident from Obama's forced drawls and other attempts to sound and look more culturally "black" (3), Obama has never been an especially African-American public figure. The man does not say "y'all" in his normal discourse. He deletes such terminology when addressing the AIPAC Policy Forum or the Council on Foreign Relations - to reassure them of his deep commitment to the predominantly white ruling class's imperial ambitions and to the apartheid state of Israel (4) - or the Caucasian masses in Des Moines.
One of the dirty little secrets about Obama is that he owes no small part of his popularity with many whites to the fact that many Caucasians don't think of the biracial Senator as being "all that black" (5).
Bad on Class: "The Virtues of Capitalism"
Obama made positive reference in his Brown Chapel speech to "the principles of equality that were set forth" by the Civil Rights Movement and "have to be fought for each and every day." He criticized some blacks for thinking that "the height of ambition is to make as much money as you can" and embracing "materialism," thereby turning away from Jesus' "golden rule" (paragraphs 28 to 30). He called for "absolute equality in this country in terms of people being treated on the basis of their color or their gender" and bemoaned the stubborn persistence of racial health, education (achievement and school funding), empathy and hope "gaps" in the U.S. "We've got 46 million people uninsured in this country," Obama observed, "despite spending more money on health care than any other nation on earth. It makes no sense" (paragraph 33).
But he prefaced his critique of "materialism" by saying that "it's a good thing" to "drive the biggest car and have the biggest house and wear a Rolex watch and get your own private jet" and "get some of that Oprah money" (paragraph 29). Obama, it is worth noting, is a freshly minted millionaire (6) who recently purchased an opulent Georgian Revival Mansion below price at $1.65 million thanks to some help from the felony-indicted political fundraiser Tony Rezko (7).
"Obama's book refers to the United States' rapacious, savagely unequal and fundamentally ‘materialist' capitalist economy as the nation's ‘greatest asset.'"
More importantly, Obama's power-worshipping campaign book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006) - the book to which Obama refers reporters asking him for policy specifics behind his often vague statements - refers to the United States' rapacious, savagely unequal and fundamentally "materialist" capitalist economy as the nation's "greatest asset." Audacity absurdly praises the "American system of social organization" and "business culture" on the grounds that U.S. capitalism "has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources" (8). It commends "the need to raise money from economic elites to finance elections" for "prevent[ing] Democrats...from straying too far from the center" and for marginalizing "those within the Democratic Party who tend toward zealotry" and "radical ideas" (like peace and justice). It praises fellow centrist Senator and presidential rival Hillary Clinton (D-NY) for embracing "the virtues of capitalism" (9) and applauds her "recognizably progressive" husband Bill Clinton for showing that "markets and fiscal discipline" and "personal responsibility [are] needed to combat poverty" (10) - an interesting reflection on the militantly corporate-neoliberal Clinton administration's efforts to increase poverty by eliminating poor families' entitlement to public cash assistance and privileging deficit reduction over social spending (11).
Obama's badly mis-titled book audaciously lectures poor people on their "duty" to feel "empathy" for wealthy oppressors (12) - including Bush and Cheney, who are "pretty much like everyone else"(13) - and on their need to understood how well off and "free" they are compared to their more truly miserable counterparts in Africa and Latin America (14). It deletes less favorable contrasts with Western Europe and Japan, the most relevant comparisons, where dominant norms and institutional arrangements produce significantly slighter levels of poverty and inequality than what is found in the hierarchical U.S (15).
It also advances a model of health care reform that mocks his claim to support "universal" insurance. "Like the [corporatist] Democratic Leadership Council [members] he flocks with," BAR's Glen Ford notes, "Obama advocates retaining the for-profit nature of American health care, and mandating that poor people pay for it, somehow. His plan is only ‘universal' in the sense that mandatory auto insurance is universal" (16)
Bad on Race: "Even the Most Fair-Minded of Whites"
Obama's Audacity is as audaciously bad on race as it is on class. It ignores mountains of research and experience on the persistence of racial discrimination and the powerful living legacy of past racism (17) when it claims that "what ails working- and middle-class blacks and Latinos is not fundamentally different from what ails their white .counterparts" (18). It justifies Obama's rejection of race-specific measures to overcome persistent white supremacist policies and the living legacy of centuries of open racism by claiming that "white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America" as "even the most fair-minded of whites, those who would genuinely like to see racial inequality ended and poverty relieved, tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimization - or race-based claims based on the history of racial discrimination in this country" (19).
Wow. I'm white and along with numerous other left Caucasians (e.g. Joe Feagin, Tim Wise, Michael Albert and many more), not to mention a large number of black Americans, I support not simply the "race-based" claims of affirmative actions but the demand for reparations to address the living and powerful legacy of slavery and Jim Crow (20).
"Obama embraces neoconservatives' incorrect notion that family public cash assistance created intergenerational black inner-city poverty."
The Audacity of Hope is peppered with favorable references to Obama's many good friends in the black super-bourgeoisie, including one wealthy "black friend" (probably Aerial Capital Management chairman John Rogers) who lent him an airplane "one of the first times I needed a corporate jet" (21). It makes Bill Cosby-esque references (repeated in his Brown Chapel speech) to the black poor's alleged cultural responsibility for its own hyper-segregated poverty (22). It also embraces neoconservatives' incorrect (23) notion that family public cash assistance created intergenerational black inner-city poverty (24).
This does not stop Obama from claiming, however, that most black Americans have been "pull[ed] into the socioeconomic economic mainstream" (25). Never mind what James Loewen calls "the astonishing 1-to-11 black-to-white wealth ratio that now afflicts African-American families" (26).
Obama's indifference to the depth and degree of racial inequality in the U.S. was reflected in his Brown Chapel claim that 1950s and 1960s civil rights activists - who he referred to as "the Moses Generation" - had brought black America "90 percent of the way" to racial equality. It's up to Obama and his fellow "Joshua Generation" members to get past "that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side" (27).
Ten percent? ! Maybe that's how it looks to Obama and his corporate-jet-owning friends in the black super-bourgeoisie. By the latest count of the leading academic wealth gap-expert Tom Shapiro, however, it appears that black America still has 93 percent of the way to go. "In 2002," Shapiro noted for the mainstream Center for American Progress, "a typical Hispanic family owned 11 cents of wealth for every dollar owned by a typical white family, and African-American families owned only 7 cents" (28).
Really Bad on Empire: "With All the Best of Intentions"
The worst parts of "Audacity" actually have to do with foreign policy, a topic that Obama made sure to completely avoid in his Selma oration. With good reason. Black America is especially advanced in its rejection of the American Empire Project, something that Obama has strongly and dangerously embraced both in his book and in a number of high-profile foreign policy speeches to date. His shifting, shifty, and "mush-mouthed" (29) statements against (sort of) the occupation of Iraq - an openly criminal and brazenly imperialist oil invasion that Obama considers a "strategic blunder" executed "with all the best of intentions" (30), including a desire to "export democracy by the barrel of a gun" (31) - should not be confused with principled criticism of the American Empire Project.
As Lance Selfa notes in the most recent International Socialist Review, the opposition of Democrats and some Republicans to George W. Bush's "dumb" (Obama's term) war in Iraq "represents the ruling class's concern with saving, rather than burying the U.S. imperial project. These forces are worried continued failure in Iraq will weaken the U.S. military overall. They fear that Bush's uniltateralism and clumsiness has wrought a cost in the ‘soft power' of the U.S. (its ideological, political, and cultural influence) across the world. So while leading Democrats are bashing Bush's escalation in Iraq, they remain hawkish in their criticism of Iran, unshaken in their support of Israel's most outrageous atrocities, and quietly supportive of Defense Secretary Robert Gates' calls to increase the size of the armed forces by almost 100,000. "This is not to mention," Selfa ads, "that leading liberals and Democrats are the ones clamoring for ‘humanitarian intervention' in the Darfur region of Sudan" (32).
"The junior Senator from Illinois is an avid and militaristic United States world-supremacist."
Obama is no special exception to Selfa's judgment, as can be readily seen by reading his leading foreign policy statements to date. The junior Senator from Illinois is an avid and militaristic United States world-supremacist who refuses to support taking "surgical" first (and likely nuclear) strikes on Iran off the table of U.S. "military options" in the Middle East. He has gone so far as to chide the U.S. citizenry for being insufficiently globalist and therefore (supposedly) "isolationist" and to lecture "developing" (Third World) nations on their need to reject the (Obama thinks) foolish notions of "rejecting American hegemony" and pursuing (imagine) "independent development" beyond the noble, neoliberal supervision of Uncle Sam. He absurdly equates such hope for autonomy with a "reject[ion" of "the ideals of free markets and liberal democracy" (33).
Not content to embrace U.S. imperialism in the present and future, Obama's Audacity applauds the wonderful (for him) "post-[World War Two] leadership of president Truman, Dean Acheson, George Marshall and George Kennan" for "craft[ing]...a...new...order that married [Woodrow] Wilsonian idealism to hardheaded realism, an acceptance of American power with a humility regarding America's ability to control events around the world" (34). This is a remarkably deferential and whitewashed commentary on such memorable moments in American modesty as the arch-criminal atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (mass-murderous shots across the bow of the emerging Cold War), the enormous imperial assaults on Korea and Indochina (3 million "enemy" dead), the U.S. restoration of fascist power in "liberated" Italy, the intervention against popular social revolution in Greece (smeared as a Soviet export by U.S. policymakers in order to "Scare the Hell out of the American people" to garner support for massive new imperial "defense" expenditures) and the U.S. subversion of democracy and national independence across the planet. Iran (1953), Dominican Republic (1965), Guatemala (1954), Chile (1970-1973), Indonesia (1965) are just some of the more spectacular examples.
Washington consistently justified its remarkable record of global criminality after World War II with a great enabling myth that Obama eagerly embraces: the existence of a Soviet Union willing and able "to spread [in Obama's words] its totalitarian brand of communism" (35). Honest U.S. assessments acknowledged that the real Soviet danger was that USSR modeled the possibility of independent national development outside the parameters of U.S.-led world-capitalist supervision and indicating an impermissible refusal "to complement the industrial economies of the West." Under the guise of protecting the world from an imperially useful but non-existent threat, Obama's "hardhead Wilsonians" ordered the benevolent murder (preferably via proxy agents like the Suharto regime and the Shah of Iran) of untold Third World millions (36).
Here's a "Hardheaded Wilsonian" for You, Senator Obama
Before turning to Martin Luther King Jr.'s very different approach to American Empire and Inequality, it might be useful to look at an interesting formulation from one of Obama's favorite "hardheaded Wilsonians" - the leading Cold War architect Kennan. As Kennan explained in Policy Planning Study 23, crafted for the State Department planning staff in 1948:
"We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population...In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity...to do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives...We should cease to talk about vague and ...unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better....we should not hesitate before police repression by the local government." (37).
"The Greatest Purveyor of Violence in the World"
This and much else in Obama's record stands in sharp contrast to the legacy of that ultimate "Moses Generation" figure Martin Luther King Jr. King refused to heed his more cautious allies' call to avoid the divisive problem of United States imperialism within and beyond Vietnam. How could he argue against violence inside the U.S., King asked, while remaining silent about the mass murder being perpetrated against Southeast Asia by the U.S. government - identified by King (on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before his assassination or execution) as "the leading purveyor of violence in the world?" (38). How could he credibly call for an end to poverty in the U.S. while not opposing the enormous squandering of government and social resources on American hyper-militarism - a waste that that was strangling the "War on Poverty" in its cradle? (39). How could he call for freedom at home when the United States was exhibiting its desire to export what King termed "so-called freedom" abroad by bombing villages and napalming children in Vietnam (40).
"We Want No Castes or Classes"
"The democratic socialist King said that only ‘drastic reform' involving ‘the radical reconstruction of society itself' could ‘save us from social catastrophe.'"
By 1966 and 1967, King was openly and repeatedly criticizing what he called "the triple evils that are interrelated:" racism, economic exploitation/poverty (class inequality) and militarism/imperialism (41). "The evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together," King said, "and you really can't get rid of one of them without getting rid of the others" (42). Consistent with what we know to have been his deep and (I have tried to show) early rejection of Obama's supposedly "efficient" American capitalist system, the democratic socialist King (43) said that only "drastic reform" involving "the radical reconstruction of society itself" could "save us from social catastrophe" (44).
Consistent with the teachings of Marx - of whom King was something of an admirer during his time at the Crozier Theological Seminary in the early 1950s (45) - and contrary to sentimental bourgeois moralists like Dickens (46), King argued that "the roots of [economic injustice] are in the [capitalist] system rather than in men or faulty operations" (47). In King's view the simultaneous existence of mass and disproportionately - but not at all exclusively - black poverty at home and U.S. imperial violence abroad attested to the fact that "a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them." It informed King's insistence that we "question the whole society [emphasis added]," seeing "that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. They are the triple evils that are interrelated"(48).
As King explained in his brilliant and haunting posthumous essay "A Testament of Hope:" "The black revolution is much more than the struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws - racism, poverty, militarism and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced... White America," King added, "must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical change in the structure of our society." (49).
"The Black revolution reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced."
Speaking of Selma and King's radicalism, David Garrow relates an interesting story from that town just a few weeks before the famous 1965 marches in that Deep South town. Writing about King's brief stay in a Selma jail in February of that year, Garrrow notes that "King and [his Southern Christian Leadership Conference partner Ralph] Abernathy shared a cell with white SCLC staffer Charles Fager." One morning, "King struck up a conversation with Fager about how difficult it would be to win true freedom. King's vision was more far reaching than his public remarks would indicate. It was an unforgettable realization, Fager recalled years later. ‘I remember the words, exactly, ‘if we are going to achieve equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism'" (50).
Obama lectures poor residents of the United States on how fortunate they are compared to miserable Third World masses. In the summer of 1966, by contrast, King was most struck by the greater poverty that existed in the U.S compared to other First World states. "Maybe something is wrong with our economic system," King told an interviewer and observing that (in David Garrow's words) "in democratic socialist societies such as Sweden there was no poverty, no unemployment and no slums" (51).
"The Most Modest Circumstances Possible"
King's discomfort with capitalist values, it is worth noting, was distinctly personal. He was exceedingly reluctant to enjoy the material accouterments of success and privilege while millions lived in poverty at home and abroad. King incurred the wrath of his formidable wife Coretta by giving away his 1964 Nobel Prize money and insisting that his family "live in the most modest circumstances possible" (52). It is difficult to imagine King even half-jokingly saying that there was anything "good" about wanting "the biggest car" or "house" and to cash in on the civil rights movement.
King was a serious follower of Jesus' uncompromising opposition to wealth and hierarchy. He was intensely aware of Jesus' claim that "it is easier for a camel to get through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter into God's reign" (Mark, 10.23-25) and his counsel to "protect yourself against every desire for having more" since "life does not lie in the abundance of things one owns" (Luke, 13.15).
Against "Ingrained and Tenacious Racism"
Given his socialist and anti-imperialist beliefs - probably intact by his early twenties (53) - King naturally wrote and spoke of the need for cross-racial economic justice. He included poor whites (making repeated sympathetic references to the white poor of Appalachia, for example) and the Third World along with poor black Americans in the circle of those who deserved a new social order beyond the narrow confines of capitalism (54). "We want no classes and castes" he said in 1956, the year he first emerged on the national stage (55).
"There is a fire raging now for the Negroes and the poor of this society," King wrote in 1967. "They are living in tragic conditions because of the terrible economic injustices that keep them locked in an ‘underclass,' as the sociologists are now calling it. Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds" (56).
By King's observation in 1966, the impoverished blacks of the northern ghettoes were struggling what with "class issues - issues that relate to the privileged as over against the underprivileged" and were hardly limited to race. At the taproot of the problem, King emphasized, was the fact that "something is wrong with the economic system of our nation...something is wrong with capitalism" (57). That system, King felt, "produces beggars" alongside luxuriant opulence for the privileged few, thereby recommending "the restructuring of the entire society" and "the radical redistribution of economic and political power" (58). "One unfortunate thing about [the slogan of] Black Power," King even wrote that same year, "is that it gives priority to race precisely at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike. In this context, a slogan of ‘Power for Poor People' would be much more appropriate than the slogan ‘Black Power'"(59).
"The system, King felt, ‘produces beggars' alongside luxuriant opulence for the privileged few, thereby recommending ‘the restructuring of the entire society' and ‘the radical redistribution of economic and political power.'"
But King nonetheless continued to believe that black Americans - poor black Americans, above all - required and deserved race-specific policies crafted to address the specially and super-exploited position in a persistent white-supremacist (and capitalist) society. He remained consistently aware that black and lower class experience (and black middle and upper-class experience too) remained distinctively oppressed and fundamentally distinct. This reflected what he called "white America[‘s]...ingrained and tenacious racism" (60). That racism may have been considerably rooted in capitalism but it possessed a significant terrible life of its own, he knew - a life that could not be wished away by color blind fantasies or a desire to appease and otherwise enable the denial of "fair-minded whites."
Beyond Cheap Revolution
King, it is worth noting, was remarkably unimpressed by the mid-1960s "Moses Generation" civil rights accomplishments that Obama hails for setting the stage for black America's "90 percent" march to racial equality. More than is generally recognized, King saw his movement's mid-1960s triumphs over southern racism (and his own 1964 Nobel Prize) as partial and potentially problematic gains. He saw the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts as relatively partial and merely bourgeois accomplishments that dangerously encouraged mainstream white America to think that the nation's "race problems were automatically solved"(61).
He saw these early victories as having fallen far short of his deeper objective: advancing social, economic, political, and racial justice across the entire nation (including its northern, ghetto-scarred cities) and indeed around the world. It was one thing, this King told his colleagues, for blacks to win the right to sit at a lunch counter. It was another thing for black and other poor people to get the money to buy a lunch.
"King saw the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts as relatively partial and merely bourgeois accomplishments."
It was one thing, King argued, to open the doors of opportunity for some few and relatively privileged African-Americans. It was another thing to move millions of black and other disadvantaged people out of economic despair. It was another and related thing to dismantle slums and overcome the deep structural and societal barriers to equality that continued after public bigotry was discredited and after open discrimination was outlawed.
It was one thing, King felt, to defeat the overt racism of snarling southerners like Bull Connor; it was another thing to confront the deeper, more covert institutional racism that lived beneath the less openly bigoted, smiling face of northern and urban liberalism.
It was one thing. King noted, to defeat the anachronistic caste structure of the South. It was another thing to attain substantive social and economic equality for black and other economically disadvantaged people across the entire nation (62).
King reflected long and hard on his bitter experience in the urban North (63) when he penned the following trenchant considerations on the impasse that the nonviolent struggle for black equality had reached in the wake of its fateful "turn North" in 1965 and 1966 and after the great Voting Rights victory won partly at Selma, Alabama (64):
"With Selma and the Voting Rights Act one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end. A new phase opened...For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade - the first phase - had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination.... When Negroes looked for the second phase, the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared. The Negroes of America had taken the president, the press, and the pulpit at their word when they spoke in broad terms of freedom and justice. But the absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is pot the presence of justice. To stay murder is not the same as to ordain brotherhood. The word was broken and the free-running expectations of the Negro crashed into the stone walls of white resistance. The result was havoc. Negroes felt cheated, especially in the North, while many whites felt that the Negroes had gained so much it was virtually impudent and greedy to ask for more so soon."
"Even though we gained legalistic and judicial victories," King told his colleagues during a specially called SCLC gathering in the fall of 1966, the last six months had showed him that these accomplishments "did very little to improve the lot of millions of Negroes in the teeming ghettoes of the North," so that "the changes that came about were at best surface changes...not really substantive" (65).
"Many whites who concede that Negroes should have equal access to public facilities and the untrammeled right to vote," King noted near the end of his life, "cannot understand that we do not intend to remain in the basement of the economic structure...This incomprehension is a heavy burden in our efforts to win white allies for the long struggle" (66).
In a remarkable passage in "A Testament of Hope," King argued that the attainment of racial equality would require a major societal investment, reflecting the steep price imposed by historically deep and cumulative racial oppression. The cost of introducing the "radical change" he advocated would be far greater than the comparatively slight and easy price paid by white privilege for the comparatively easy victories achieved by the black freedom struggle to date:
"Stephen Vincent Benet had a message for both white and black Americans in the title of a story, ‘Freedom is a Hard Bought Thing.' When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process. Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate health care - each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our heritage. Each will require billions of dollars to correct. Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost for this society will be substantial as well as human terms. The fact has not been fully grasped, because most of the gains of the past decade were obtained at bargain prices. The desegregation of public facilities cost nothing; neither did the election and appointment of a few black officials" (67).
Were he able to miraculously return today, King - who paid knowledgeable attention to detailed racial disparity data in his time - would certainly be displeased with Obama's "90 percent" statement. He would question the Senator's embrace of "absolute equality" only "in terms of people being treated on the basis of their color or gender." What, King would want to know, about economic and class inequality, which he knew to be intimately and dialectically related to the living and central problem of racial oppression?
"King would be much less accommodating than Obama towards white denial of living racial oppression and the false belief that the nation's racism problem has been solved."
King would worry that the success of people like Obama and Oprah is part of the problem for black America insofar as the much ballyhooed advance of a relatively small number of privileged blacks tends to strongly reinforce "white America's" (King's phrase) desire to believe that all the racial corrections have been made and that the only remaining relevant barriers to black progress and racial equality are internal to the black community itself (68). He would be much less accommodating than Obama towards white denial of living racial oppression and the false belief that the nation's racism problem has been solved. Reflecting his awareness that racial oppression is historically cumulative in its impact on current inequality, he would not be as willing as Obama to accept "white America's" (King's recurrent phrase) sharp distinction between "past" (or "historical) and "present" racism.
"No Interest in Being President"
But this essay is perhaps overly focused on individuals. It is important to recognize that Obama speaks, writes and legislates in ways that are richly consistent with his objective of being selected for the presidency in an openly plutocratic and white majority nation where substantive democracy and its twin, social justice, are regularly trumped by concentrated economic power and the insidious, authoritarian logic of corporate-crafted winner-take-all politics. Obama's determination to make a viable run for the White House in such a context pretty much requires him to be a pale reflection of King - and here I am referring to moral and ideological shades, NOT to skin-color. This would be the case even if Obama were predisposed - as would be very unusual and unlikely for a former editor of the Harvard Law Review and a longtime Constitutional Law professor at the legendarily conservative University of Chicago - to follow in the at once democratic-socialist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist footsteps of the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
King, it is worth recalling, had "no interest in being president." He rejected progressive calls for him to head an anti-[Vietnam] war ticket in 1967. "I would rather think of myself as one trying desperately to be the conscience of all the political parties, rather than being a political candidate," he told student petitioners. As King told his key left (and former Communist Party member) advisor Stanley Levison, "I need to be in the position of being my own man" (69) - something that would have been difficult indeed, given his left values - were he to try to run for the presidency.
"Obama cites and quotes King on a regular basis, but with the radical content deleted."
"I've never had any political ambitions," King told a Boston crowd (70), consistent with Jesus' opposition to all forms of hierarchy, not just economic inequality. As Gary Wills has recently noted, Jesus "rebuke[d] the followers who jockey[ed] for authority over each other and over others," saying that "everyone lifting himself up will be abased and anyone abasing himself will be lifted up" (Luke, 14.11). "There cannot be a clearer injunction of hierarchy of any kind," says Wills, adding that Jesus "never accepted violence as justified" - something that would forbid entertaining the possibility of a U.S. strike ("surgical" or otherwise) against Iran - and remarkably indifferent to politics (71).
Obama has been making a big point of being a devout Christian (72), but don't look for him to cite these relevant passages from the New Testament. And don't look for him to quote from any or many of the numerous passages in which King called for radical societal restructuring to overcome "the triple evils that are interrelated." Obama cites and quotes King on a regular basis, but with the radical content deleted.
During the same time he was rejecting entreaties to run for president (the spring of 1967), King gave David Halberstram an interesting look at what he, his "own man," believed on how to think and act in relation to the "triple evils." As Garrow wrote in his magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of King (73):
"After [a] Cleveland stopover, King flew west for speaking engagements in San Francisco and Denver, accompanied by [Bernard S.] Lee and free-lance journalist David Halberstam. 'For years I labored under the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there,' King told Halberstam. ‘Now I feel quite differently. I think you've got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values,' and perhaps the nationalization of some key industries. King expressed similar views to a crowd of seven thousand at Berkeley's Sproul Plaza, telling them that the movement's new phase would be ‘a struggle for genuine equality,' involving ‘issues that will demand a radical redistribution of economic and political power.' Support for such changes would be difficult to muster, he warned, because ‘many Americans would like to have a nation which is a democracy for white Americans but simultaneously a dictatorship over black Americans.' Scores of signs calling for a ‘King-[Dr. Benjamin] Spock' ticket bobbed in the crowd, and King declared that ‘the clouds of a third world war are hovering mighty low.' If such a cataclysm occurred, ‘our government will have to take the chief responsibility for making this a reality'"
King's comments at Sproul Plaza are a reminder that King wedded his democratic socialism to a persistent attention to race and racism. In an age of racially disparate hyper-incarceration when one in three adult black males carries the lifelong mark of a felony record and roughly one in three black males youths can expect to spend time in prison during their adulthood (74), King's fears of racial "dictatorship" seem less than hysterical and a bit prophetic. Like much else that King said and wrote in his final years, the last line sounds hauntingly relevant on the eve of the spring 2007 and a possible new imperialist adventure (75) by "the leading purveyor of violence in the world."
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The Empire and Inequality Report is a bi-weekly news and commentary letter produced by veteran radical historian, journalist, public speaker and activist Paul Street, a noted anti-centrist political commentator located in the Midwestern center of the U.S. Street is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, and Policy in Chicago (Chicago, 2005) Street's next book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007). Street can be reached at [email protected]
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