The Pitfalls of Race Consciousness
By Dhoruba Bin-Wahad
Wednesday, 19 November 2008
(Substituting Political Reformation of White Finance Capitalism for Building an Independent Political Movement)
Barack Obama’s ascendency to the U.S. presidency has been consistently portrayed as the culmination of the African-Americans protracted struggle for “equality” in America. In a sense it is, because all advancements secured by Africans in America have enhanced the rights of all people, but those advancements have seldom moved the majority Africans in America out of the economic and political doldrums. The brutal truth is this portrayal is both facetious and inaccurate.
While it is true that for the first time white Americans in significant numbers have voted for a “Black” man to be President, it is of course inaccurate to say that Barack Obama represents or even reflects the historical or contemporary experience (legacy) of African-Americans who are connected at the Hip to White America. After all, with the exception of Tiger Woods (who has tried to invent a race to match his background), how many Africans in America were raised in Hawaii by white grandparents and went to Harvard Law school?
Clearly those whites who voted for Obama voted for him based on the “American Story” version of “Dreams of My Father” rather than Nightmares of my Ancestors. Hence, it is facetious to claim the majority of white voters consciously voted for an “African-American” descendant of the slaves their forebears terrorized and exploited for centuries– they voted for an African-American without that baggage, perhaps trusting that he couldn’t experience a DNA induced flashback to the bull-whip days on the plantation and go buck-wild as commander-and- Chief because he had no cultural/social connection to that past.
I think this was at the basis of the claim by many whites (especially from among “undecided” and neo-liberal whites) that they “didn’t really know Obama or who he really was.” I am sure many will consider such distinctions “playa hating,” or another knock on a Black man’s achievements. Quite the contrary. Such distinctions are often the strand of thread upon which history hangs in the balance. I know for a fact white lefties, Blacks of all classes are disconcerted by the above view. But those same lefties and Blacks wouldn’t express such disconcertion with a similar analysis of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whose disability was an important subjective factor in his political career) or perceive a critique of John F. Kennedy’s relationship to his Quasi-Gangster Dad and clan Patriarch as inappropriate in ascertaining what influenced the character of JFK.
Clearly Obama is an extraordinary individual and is to be commended for his success. His success has opened up plenty of African minds to their own self-value. But just feeling good about one’s self won’t stop others who don’t feel so good about you from pursuing their nefarious ambitions.
That the Obama campaign was able to effectively avoid entirely the influence of a race-based power paradigm in formulation of U.S. foreign policy in no small part was due to the McCain camp’s absolute lack of racist subtlety. The racist and reactionary rightwing supporting McCain attacked Obama with excerpts from the sermons of his family Pastor Jeremiah Wright, an activist and Liberation Theologian, in an attempt to associate the ideology of Black Nationalism, the noble legacy of Black militancy with Obama and to thereby frighten white voters into knee jerk racist apoplexy. Not a difficult task for a nation that has never confronted the true legacy of its history. As if “thinking Black, thinking African, or viewing history from the experiences of one’s own peoples was a form of subversive moral blasphemy. Perhaps it is. Michelle Obama (who does have the bullwhip days in her family DNA memory) was attacked as “un-American” for saying “for the first time” she felt proud of America” – a sentiment shared by 90 % of African-Americans - when Obama received the Democratic nomination.
To reassure white folks that African history in America was not his legacy, his basis of analysis and frame of reference, Obama renounced all association with Rev. Wright and defined Wright’s views as “divisive” rather than worthy of challenge by American historians. Moreover, Obama didn’t take the Wright imbroglio as an opportunity to educate America about race, instead he merely distanced himself from the issue and moved on to win the ultimate political prize in the land, the Presidency of the United States. To Many of course this was “strategy” after all, you can’t scare “white people” who believe they have an innate right to piss on the rest of the world while whistling the Battle Hymn of the Republic and expect to win a national election.
Only a monumental crisis that threatened everyone’s livelihood could shake up white folks more than the prospect of a Black President, and lo and behold, finance capitalism’s October surprise – economic meltdown. America woke up to the reality of debt-based prosperity as the American empire tumbled into financial distress. Fannie and Freddie were on Viagra and the pharmacy wasn’t taking anymore credit. Of course this opportunistic view in itself is deprecating because it also presumes that white Americans are a bunch of historically challenged and ignorant Hoogies and can’t be trusted to think beyond their narrow self interests. So the economy gave Obama a boost – but he probably would have won anyway.
Even if McCain had run his campaign like the Clintons, he may have still lost, but he would have had a broader spectrum of undercover racist whites on his side, and conservative self-hating Negroes applauding his virtues. Indeed up until the Democratic convention disgruntled Hillary supporters were anti-Obama and mumbled their support for McCain ostensibly because of his “inexperience.” Hanoi Shorty tried to exploit this discontent among white female Democrats by appointing “Muffy” from Alaska, Sarah Palin as his running mate. She was a true political Palindrome – an air head spelled the same backwards as forward- an affront to any thinking woman, white or Black. Few could believe it! Obama couldn’t have chosen a better opposition to run against if he wanted to. The McCain – Obama contrasts were so stark and glaring that they could have illuminated Ray Charles’s way to Georgia were he still alive. Clearly the only way Obama could lose was if the Republicans “butched-off “the elections as they did the previous two national elections. Of course the rest is “history” (his-story) and as George Will the erudite right-wing pundit explained, the Obama campaign has relieved white America of the lodestone of race – “Obama is white America’s Emancipation Proclamation.” I would suppose George Will envisions a different Reconstruction scenario from the one that took place at the end of the Civil War.
The Obama rise to political eminence has given bigots and white supremacy a pass - straight to the gun shops. White supremacy is going back underground for awhile – to resurface in opposition to the grass roots struggles against racist cops; the war on urban communities financed by the government as “Drug Wars, and gentrification; domestic colonialism (subjugation of entire communities to Criminal Justice systems that feed Black flesh into the economic matrix of a Prison Industrial complex that enriches rural white communities) soon to be transformed by Obama and his Kool-drunk minions into “District Anti-Terrrorism Committees” under the jurisdiction of Homeland Security. “Now that we found love what are we going to do with it?” Build more jails? Kill more Muslims? Gentrify culturally Black communities?
Weeks after the historic U.S. election we have some glimpse of the quality of “Love” we’ve just found by electing America’s first Black President. Not encouraging. It’s as though like most Africans in America, President-elect Barack Obama is looking for love in all the wrong places. President-elect Obama, advocate of a fresh approach to government, after his historical triumph turns to former Clinton appointees to manage his transition to State power and fill out his cabinet. Lest we be reminded by images of Black women from Harlem’s roughest projects singing “stand by your man” when Hillary appeared at Harlem’s historical Abyssinian Baptist Church at the height of the Lewinski scandal, former President Clinton is considered by many wanna be middle-class Blacks as the first Black President in all but hue only. Clinton was a consummate manipulator of the Black gatekeeper class – those Blacks who derive income and status off of America’s race politics and exploitation of African-American marginalization. Clearly continuation of Empire cloaked in the rhetoric of change looms on the horizon not real change. Lest we forget, it was both Democrats and Republicans who have presented us with this historical moment of global economic crisis, foreign interventionist wars, and collapse of urban infrastructures. To transcend the myopia of his social being and truly move America in a new direction President-elect Barack Obama is going to have to be as “Black” as he can, rather than as white as the position requires. An extremely difficult challenge made all the more impossible by Obama’s failure to educate whites to the simple notion that the African experience in America could embrace both the “Rosetta Stone” to the Republics salvation and the chronicle of its fall.
In Search of One’s Identity: In the Land of the Blind the person with the one eye is King.
The overwhelming majority of African-Americans are descendants of the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. At best it can be said that African history in the U.S., (the Black Experience in America) obliquely relates to Obama’s social existence – indeed it is probably the social and psychological disconnect that many offspring of mixed-racial unions experience and strive in their personal lives to reconcile that inspired Obama to settle in Chicago and do work in the Black communities there, rather than the altruistic sacrifice of a brilliant Harvard Law graduate who shunned corporate (and hence a successful) law career as popularly portrayed. Perhaps Barack was trying to find his roots as a Black man. Only President Obama can honestly answer whether this is true or not, and how much political ambition flavored his reconciliation with his “Africaness,” for he has clearly renounced any connection to the ontological Black American experience when he denounced Reverend Jeremiah Wright to appease white bigotry. Again and again Obama, directly and indirectly insinuated that the “African” experience in America is in fact the “American” experience – hence there is no legitimacy to African-American claims of sovereignty – to sovereign thinking or Africans in America charting their own political destiny based on that experience. In an almost African soap opera twist, both the historical debt of post slavery reconstruction and emancipation, as well as the concept of post-industrial reparations, has been neutered by the first successful Presidential campaign of a Black person.
Clearly jingoistic American nationalism has achieved its greatest victory over the ideology of African self-determination. It follows that because “race” is purportedly no longer a factor, (relegated to the dustbin of history by Obama’s election) there can be little legitimacy to the proposition that Africans in America constitute a distinct people who were culturally and socially traumatized by successive systems of chattel slavery, feudal share-cropping, wage slavery, and now the prison-industrial plantation system. Clearly, the Barack Obama success marks the absolute distortion of African history in America and its appropriation by the state and dominant white culture. It is as if during the centuries-long horror of white supremacist domination, our struggles, sacrifices, and triumphs were really fought by Blacks to enrich the humanity of the white majority and burnish the imagery of the “American Dream”; when in fact we have always sought independence, self-sufficiency, dignity and freedom for ourselves in a world dominated by Europeans.
However, many will argue that Obama’s upbringing doesn’t matter now because people of all racial and class persuasions voted for the 44th President of the U.S. But it is precisely because Obama’s personal history that he has risen to political superstardom at this historical moment – when white America still infected with the ignorance of white supremacy is so frightened, fed-up, and hungry for change that they would throw their weight behind the vision of an extraordinary Black man for the chief-executive post of the Nation.
African history, once confined to the back of American textbooks, has now, in its revised and sanitized version become a major text of the great melting pot myth – that bouillabaisse of ethnic mingling that Newark mayor Corey Booker (himself a light-skin former law school whiz who moved to the Hood for political positioning, described as a “delicious” mixture of ethnic blending). Unfortunately the Black experience on America’s soup line was less like a flavorful meal and more like force feeding at Guantanamo.
African history in what was once the European settler-state of America conferred the experience of both de facto and de jure predatory discrimination, consigned generations of Africans to feudal share-cropping, discriminatory wage slavery, and the criminalization of culture. All of this is what has brought us to this moment in time, and while we must not dwell in the past, we must understand it to inform the present and help prepare us for the future. Should we let go of our legacy, born of resistance and nurtured with the blood of countless African heroes and sheroes (of whom white America would define as terrorists and radicals).
Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Malcolm, Marcus, Harriet Tubman were heroes of our cause as are Assata Shakur, Mumia Abu Jamal, Imam Jamil Al-Amin, and dozens of others – not the cause of white supremacist America. President-elect Obama when asked did he think, if Dr. King were alive today whether he would have endorsed Obama for President; Barack wisely commented that he would probably have endorsed neither he nor McCain, but would have been in the street organizing poor people. Perhaps Obama is more acutely aware of his real historical legacy than the millions of African-Americans who voted for him, and distilled their dreams and hopes in him. He does not so much represent the culmination of the Black experience in America merely because he’s dark skinned by European standards, as he represents the attempt of an entire culture, state, and economic system to redefine itself in the 21st century without being held accountable for its historic crimes. In a way President Obama is the bridge between the known and the unknown of that process – he stands astride the historic moment of global realignment between the powerful and the powerless, between the dispossessed and the rich, and he knows it.
His foreign and domestic policies will tell us exactly how powerfully he is influenced by the countless African bones at the bottom the Atlantic Ocean that have enriched Europe and the Americas, or how strongly he is tied to the very forces that have enslaved and exploited the African world and peoples of color around the globe. While the first Black President figures this out, we, poor people, ordinary people, activists, educators, African American Historians and opinion makers must not tip-toe around issues to burnish the image of the first Black President. This is no time for platitudes of shallow good will, but the time to organize a true people’s movement for change in America, a movement led by the millions of victims of Americanism. As Black Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks once wrote in the second sermon on the Warpland: “we are the last of the loud…..so have your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind”…..