Tim Wise on Obama’s “victory over white supremacy,” part II: Or, Why Obama won’t do shit for black people (and why there’s shit to be done)

In the previous post, I contested Tim Wise’s argument (or rather his declaration, as he doesn’t really “argue” for the claim) that Obama’s win is a “victory over white supremacy.” I maintained, however, it still holds a “significance” for that struggle. It represents progress and should be applauded as such. Still, this should not be confused with a reason to think Obama will contribute to further progress as President.

This merely expresses a logical distinction—an index of progress is not a prospect of further progress. This does not in itself mean Obama won’t be good for black people; it just means the question of whether he will be good for black people is separate from whatever “progress” his election “represents.”

Nonetheless, a hell of a lot of other things mean he (probably) won’t be good for black people.[1]

Obama on (but mostly off) race

There is no evidence that Obama is much concerned with racism, nor even that he believes it exists in any interesting form. Certainly, he does not acknowledge racism in a form that fighters of “white supremacy”—like Tim Wise himself—are concerned with. Judging from his book and his speeches, including his begrudging response to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright flap, Obama’s view of racism has three interrelated parts:

(a) Racism amounts to “prejudice”—individual, mostly conscious, feelings of “ill will” toward blacks—and acts which flow from this. The concept of a system of oppression which acts upon people apart from their ideas is denied by omission.

(b) Racism is largely a thing of the past. (This follows from Obama’s “idealist” definition of “racism”; if racism means overtly racist ideas, there is indeed much less of this than in the past.) We’ve come, for Obama, “90 per cent of the way” on race; we have only “yet to perfect” ourselves on that issue. He castigates Wright for focusing too much on the “historically oppressed”—not the still-now-oppressed.

(c) Black people are largely to blame for anything affects them negatively in particular, as a group. (Again, this follows from the first two points.)

This trinity is as false as it is dangerous.

The persistence of racial inequality

First, racial inequity is not merely an ugly historical relic. This is evident as soon as we separate whites and blacks into groups and make comparisons. In terms of every conceivable factor by which we measure quality of life—nutrition, housing, health and health care, access to credit and freedom from debt, physical safety at work and in the streets—we (still) find deep, enduring discrepancies between blacks and whites. (These are analyzed nicely in Tim Wise’s own Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male.[2])

But in brief: If we imagine all American whites to constitute the population of their own country, that country would have the highest standard of living in the world; American blacks, considered separately, have a third world standard of living.

And as society reproduces or “re-peoples” itself over time, the inequality maintains itself; the actors change, but the positions they occupy relative to one another don’t. [3] So either this is the grandest coincidence in history, or there are real, underlying causes that foster black inequality.

Reducing race to class

Obama does not—he cannot—deny the inequalities but prefers to reduce them to a matter of class, rather than race: In his book, he writes, “What would help minority workers are the same things that would help white workers: the opportunity to earn a living wage, the education and training that lead to such jobs, labor laws and tax laws that restore some balance to the distribution of the nation’s wealth, and health care, child care, and retirement systems that working people can count on.”

Obama sometimes illustrates this by citing Ronald Reagan’s “rising tide lifting all boats” metaphor. In other words, there are no specifically “black” problems—at least, no serious ones—thus no specifically “black” grievances for a government to address. What ails black America is just whatever ails white America. A color-neutral approach to economic health and growth is justified.

Not quite

But this “class” analysis doesn’t hold up. Indeed, black households have about one-tenth the net worth (i.e, wealth) of white households. But even when we control for income—comparing only blacks and whites with the same pay scale—this only narrows the wealth gap by a quarter. Blacks retain far less wealth than whites in the same “class.” This is not what we would expect if the issue were merely economic.[4]

And this is how it goes for all such “wellness indicators”: Among blacks and whites with identical health care coverage, blacks are still far less healthy; they are more prone to under- and misdiagnosis and live shorter lives, with or without treatment. Where education and training are parallel, blacks look longer for jobs, lose them more quickly, and are sooner passed over for promotion. (A white man with a high school degree has the same odds of being employed as a black man with a college degree.)

In general, black dollars are just worth less than white ones. Black households have to work twelve weeks longer per year than whites to get the same income, and have to take on more debt to maintain the same consumption levels.

In other words, while there are economic factors behind black struggles, these are thoroughly racialized. They are “picky” rather than colorblind.

This is why, contrary to the metaphor, no historical “tide” has ever fostered racial equality. The biggest “tides” for workers were probably the New Deal and the post-war boom which followed. These periods were defined by those same redistributive “labor laws and tax laws” Obama favors. But they also saw an increase in absolute black-versus-white inequality.[5] Broad economic trends are never indiscriminate: When good tides arrive, they favor whites; when bad ones come, they hit blacks hardest.

Matter over ideas

Contrary to Obama, this phenomenon is not fundamentally about what kinds of ideas white people carry around in their heads. (And think about it: If racism were rooted in “naughty thoughts” about black people, it would be no more sinister than a dislike for redheads or tennis players. The fact that we even have a word for “racism” and not for dislikes of redheads and tennis players indicates there must be more to the issue.)

Obama’s view of racism in ‘(a)’ can be described as “psychological” rather than “structural” or “systemic.” He fails to appreciate the ways in which, once inequalities are in place, impersonal economic forces can perpetuate them—apart from what anybody thinks about the victims.

Structural Racism: Two Examples

1. Disinvestment

For one example, blacks are disproportionately concentrated in poor urban centers. Since a poor market can only buy so much, these centers suffer disinvestment—larger companies won’t set up shop there and banks won’t risk business loans to locals. This keeps the poverty going. Schools are largely funded by property taxes, so lower education is worse, which diminishes black chances in the higher education lotto—further diminishing the pool of eligible borrowers. Among those who manage to get degrees, there is a “brain drain” whereby the educated migrate to sectors that can employ their skill set. More poverty means more crime (of a certain type) which leads to aggressive policing which leads to more convictions of breadwinners, which maintains the poverty. And so on…

2. Hand-me down wealth

A second example can be found in Tim Wise’s latest book. He chronicles the role of VA and FHA loans, tax incentives, and the GI Bill in creating the American middle class—and how the beneficiaries of these helps were almost exclusively white men. In the generations since, this wealth has been transferred from older whites to their offspring, snowballing with interest all the while. Wise writes:

“…[T]he baby boomer generation of whites is currently in the process of inheriting between $7-10 trillion in assets from their parents and grandparents, property handed down by those who were able to accumulate assets at a time when people of color couldn’t. To place the enormity of this intergenerational wealth transfer in perspective, consider that this is an amount greater than all the outstanding mortgage debt, all the credit card debt, all the savings account assets, all the money in IRAs and 401(k) retirement plans, all the annual profits for U.S. manufacturers, and our entire merchandise trade deficit combined.”

In this way, the massive racial wealth gap of “yesteryear” is ever rolled over to the present. Aiding the process, black families retain less access to credit, mortgage and business loans than whites, and are charged higher rates of interest for them. This is partly due to a perception of the “typical” property owner as white—a perception this cycle of inequality has helped create in the first place.

“Colorblindness” won’t fix the problem

Neither of these dynamics depend on personal prejudice against about black people; nor would they change if racist ideas were eradicated tomorrow. Companies do not divest in black neighborhoods because they are racist—though they may be—but because these communities lack spending power; white people do not choose white heirs because they are racist—though they may be—but because their offspring are (typically) white.

All of this suggests that we need economic solutions that target blacks as blacks. Asking for “color-blindness” in this situation is a deadly mistake. In fact, it isn’t even “color-blind”: It amounts to throwing up our hands and leaving quite color-conscious social forces to operate as they will, unchecked.

Targeting the right audience: Appeasing whites and lecturing blacks

Again, unlike a Sharpton or Jackson, Obama has assured white people he won’t press for any specifically “black” demands. This is a critical part of his “electability.” Indeed, most of his few references to race are directed toward whites—either to massage their guilt over historic racism or quell their fears that an Obama presidency might actually do something about it. When he bashes the “divisive” and “destructive” “excesses” of the 1960’s and the “failures of liberal government”—again, praising Reagan for rolling them back—he signals to whites that no “special interest” appeals will compete for their slice of the pie.

But Obama also addresses blacks on race. His plea, in the Wright speech, that we should put the matter of race aside altogether for the sake of “unity” was not directed to those majority whites who would like nothing better than to do just that.

When he speaks to blacks openly and directly, it is politically obligatory, and serves mostly to castigate them for thinking race mattered that much in the first place. It is almost invariably to let white people off the hook for something. In this way, Obama scrambled to assure blacks the Katrina tragedy had nothing to do with race(!), and bade them “respect the verdict” exonerating the white cops who pumped fifty bullets into an unarmed Sean Bell and his companions.

Or worse, mimicking Bill Cosby, it is to blame blacks for their slothfulness, irresponsibility, and degenerate culture. Obama asserts that “conservatives and Bill Clinton were right about welfare” as a leading cause of a lack of initiative, discipline, independence, and overall “order [and] structure” in the black community. (Thus he voted in the Illinois Senate to attach punitive work requirements to welfare receipts.)

In the fine American tradition of Sambo, Mammy, and Stepinfetchit, Obama has personified black culture in the racist caricature of poor, lazy “cousin Pookie,” whom he urges to “get off the couch,” “turn off the TV” and “start a business.”[6] He adds that “the single biggest thing we could do to reduce inner-city poverty” is to get unmarried black girls from reproducing.

Obama’s cultural commentary is as false as it is racist. The assumption that “black” problems like poverty and high teen pregnancy follow from “welfare dependency,” or a broader, chronically dependent mindset, puts the cart before the horse. There is precisely zero evidence to support this, and what research we do have—and it is voluminous—consistently cites the lack of meaningful, dignified, secure, long-term economic (and other) opportunities in urban centers as the primary cause of high black pregnancy rates and unemployment.

Obama is miles away from any plan, such as a mandatory living wage, that can begin to address this.

[See also the next post: Four additional considerations on Obama and Race.]


[1] As with many of my posts lately, the above is indebted to Paul Street’s book, “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics,” from which is drawn both inspiration and a few of the specific examples.

[2] Brown, et. al., Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society offers a more “scholarly” but less accessible account.

[3] That is, the “deep…discrepancies” are maintained between the groups.

[4] For more on the racial wealth gap, see Shapiro’s The Hidden Cost of Being African American.

[5] On the New Deal and post-war boom, see Ira Katznelson, “When Affirmative Action Was White.

[6] Toward full disclosure: Obama only tells Pookie to “get off the couch”; but in the same context he tells blacks of whom she is the collective caricature to “not only get a job, but start a business.”


2 responses to “Tim Wise on Obama’s “victory over white supremacy,” part II: Or, Why Obama won’t do shit for black people (and why there’s shit to be done)

  1. Pingback: Tim Wise on Obama’s “victory over white supremacy,” part I: Or, The difference between an index and a prospect « amerikanbeat

  2. Pingback: Four additional considerations on Obama and Race « amerikanbeat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s