Category Archives: election 2008

Four additional considerations on Obama and Race

In the last post, I argued that, despite Obama’s technical blackness, his administration is unlikely to do anything to remedy black inequality and hardship.

To this we can add the following considerations:

(1) Obama is too nationalist to admit racism in his nation

Obama’s racial blindspot meshes nicely with his silly uber-nationalism. As he said during the Rev. Wright flap: “I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies.” In this way Obama whitewashes the Iraq war, and every other nasty foreign policy of ours, as a well-intentioned overstep in our noble zeal to create a pleasant world. The idea that the American nation-state, or its dynamic capitalism, or a simple majority of its ordinary citizens, could be fundamentally, flat-out wrong about anything is unthinkable to him. Of course, this includes the idea that America still harbors serious barriers to black success.

We should trust this approach as much as we would trust a doctor who refuses to believe that any of his patients could ever have a disease.

(2) Obama’s “blackness” may be a net loss for progressives and black people [1]

Ironically, Obama’s “blackness” could prove to be a net liability from a progressive, anti-racist perspective. Indeed, it already has, in two ways.

First, as a constituency, African-Americans are substantially to the left of the general population and have driven a ton of progressive legislation in the past. Fairly or not, black politicians with a similarly high profile (Jackson, Sharpton) have reputations among whites for “rabble rousing.” In general, whites (unfairly) view blacks as disposed to be unconventional and disruptive.

For such reasons, Obama’s race has allowed him to appear more progressive than he actually is, in Paul Street’s words, to “put misleading rebel’s clothing around his ‘deeply conservative’ commitment to dominant domestic…power structures.” This false progressive appearance leads real progressives to overlook or rationalize Obama’s genuinely conservative aspects.

(This “free ride” only enhances another: Contemporary Democrats already “get a pass” for being not-Republicans. Not wanting to make “their guy” look bad (or admit that he is), progressives will tolerate policies they would never let a Republican get away with. In this way, Clinton made cuts to welfare that Republicans could only dream of, and dropped more bombs on Kosovo than in all of WWII without a tenth of the domestic anti-war sentiment Bush’s Iraq garnered.)

Second, having a black president allows white Americans, in Obama’s words, to “purchase racial redemption on the cheap”—to imagine we can “finally put all this pesky business about race behind us once and for all.” Whites can now tell themselves they couldn’t be racist since they are willing to vote for a black man.

And the very fact of Obama’s election appears to discredit any race-based grievance. It seems to say: If a black man can become president, how could racism still pose significant obstacles to black achievement? If Obama “made it,” then, with hard work and determination, so can the others.

This argument has been endorsed by conservatives like George Will as well as Obama supporters. Obama has done much to suggest it himself. However, as argued in the previous post, there are significant barriers to black success, which won’t go away if we ignore them. The idea that we’ve “arrived” on racial issues fosters a false sense of security in our progress and distracts from the need to do further work. We can’t dismantle racist structures if we can’t admit we have any.

(Also: It is false to say that electing a minority to the highest office in the land means that group can’t be oppressed. Sikhs are an oppressed ethnic minority in India; the government there has killed a quarter million of them across the past twenty years. Yet the same country has elected a Sikh man Prime Minister.)

(3) Obama’s “blackness” may be a net loss for the world

The “free ride” effect above has a foreign policy corollary. Given the demographic of our globe, the victims of U.S. aggression are almost always people of color. It is among people of color that the image of the U.S. is most severely bruised. For this reason, Obama’s race (as well as his Muslim name, and his being raised abroad) will almost certainly help him gain international support for his foreign policies.

Obama himself articulates this best. As he stated on the campaign trail:

I am the face of American foreign policy and…power…I think that if you can tell people, “We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,” then they’re going to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in their lives and country. And they’d be right.

Dennis Ross, Obama’s Middle East advisor, added, “When have someone like President-elect Obama as president, it is a lot harder to demonize the United States…It increases our capacity to…leverage.”

Even the neoconservative pundit Nicolas Kristoff has welcomed the election as a chance to “rebrand” America in the eyes of the world. When the world sees we have a black man as commander in chief, they will see our military adventures could not be informed by petty racism or the like: “[W]e may find a path to restore some of America’s global influence—and thus to achieve some of our international objectives—in part because the world is concluding that America can, after all, see beyond a person’s epidermis.”

Note that the hyper-militaristic Kristoff does not anticipate Obama’s foreign policy being fundamentally different than it has been in the past, or different than he would like it to be. And he’s correct. As I will outline in a future post, Obama is firmly committed to American empire and “leadership,” and exercising force to maintain it.

Indeed, Obama’s own comments above are not about breaking with America’s hated foreign policy, but getting the world to swallow it. (This implies, of course, that the world is wrong to hate our policies in the first place. They are dupes who don’t know their own interests as well as their foreign bombers and occupiers do. This, if not itself a racist view, will do until a racist view comes along.)

(4) If Obama ever cared about racism, he will sell that out like he sold out the other stuff he (may have) cared about

Finally, Obama is—like a lot of politicians—careerist and opportunistic, though he works hard to give the appearance that he is not. For example, he lobbied vigorously to get the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and before it was officially extended to him he was tipped off that it would be; later, he lied about this, reporting he was totally surprised by the offer and ignorant of how the selection process worked.

At every “step up” in his career, Obama has abandoned constituencies and stances that helped him in the previous period. When he was state senator for a liberal district, he was safe to deliver his “anti-war” speech in 2002. As soon as he decided to run for a national seat, he struck the speech from his website, quit returning activists’ phone calls, and switched to talking about how to efficiently win in Iraq.

For the same reasons, when Obama was organizing poor blacks on the South Side of Chicago, it made sense to join a large, black liberation theology church with a heavy profile in the community. As the political stakes grew, and Rev. Wright became a liability, he was dropped—for saying the stuff he’s said (and Obama has heard him say) his whole life.

As president, Obama’s constituency is more conservative (at least, has more conservatives) than either Illinois’ 13th District, or Illinois itself, and the career stakes have only grown. All of the factors that have pushed him rightward on race (and on everything else [2]) have only intensified. This should temper any expectations that his own blackness or past associations will push him in a racially progressive direction.


[1] I mean of course that Obama’s blackness will be used in such a way that it could be a net loss for progressives and black people. (See next section also.) In and of itself, as I’ve written before, the fact that a black man is president of the United States is a beautiful statement, given our history.

[2] In the span of just a few weeks last summer, Obama publicly tacked to the right on everything from NAFTA to the death penalty to gun control to campaign finance to Iraq to government spying on cell phone conversations.

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.”

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

Seriously, my biggest fear with Obama’s presidency is that it will make radicals stupid. This is already evident in the tendency of some leftists to hyper-inflate the political significance of his “blackness.”

Tim Wise is a writer and activist who is dead-on about the persistence and ubiquity of white privilege. As a speaker, he is smart, aggressive, witty, and immensely competent. I’ve gotten chills watching videos of his debates. I’ve linked him favorably on this blog before.

However, his latest essay is a particularly vulgar example of this “stupidity.” Its the absolute worst thing he has ever written. (It may be the only very bad thing he has written.) He attacks “barbituate leftists”—“downers” who are so wedded to the “revolution” that they pooh-pooh any signs of progress short of the full program. So far as I can tell—and I’m from the same city as Wise—these guys either don’t exist or are too marginal to warrant serious address.

Don't harsh this guy's mellow, dude

Don't harsh this guy's mellow, dude

In Wise’s view, radicals have failed to appreciate how Obama’s win is “a victory over white supremacy.” At the root of this failure is “left cynicism”—the idea among radicals that Obama is just “the same” as Republican politicians and thus that his win represents nothing good.

As Lou Proyect points out [and nods to him for the Wise link], American elections actually presuppose—they require—that Democrats and Republicans not be “all the same.” And this, indeed, is part of the problem: As I’ve written before, Democrats can so assuredly count on “lesser evil” votes from their “core historical constituencies” of women, minorities, labor, and the poor, that they don’t have to be but a step to the left of (indeed, merely “less evil” than) their rivals. And they don’t have to offer their “core” anything; they only have to deal with the white, male, wealthy voters who are actually up for grabs. This moves the whole spectrum of political thought—what counts as left and what counts as right—a bit further to the right every single election. (If both parties were “the same,” this might be better. There wouldn’t be this internal regressive dynamic; the spectrum could just “hold” rather than slide right-ward.)

The thing is, Wise never defines just how Obama is a “victory over” white racism. At most he notes there is a “significance in the election of a man of color in a nation founded on white supremacy.” And indeed, this is true. Obama would not have been elected when black people were being murdered for looking whites in the eye or reading books without pictures. Nor would a black man have been elected just eight years ago, as some polling data [1] suggests.

But this describes not so much a “victory over” anything as it is an index or representation of victories already gained. And let me stress that this does not make it “nothing”; the “significance in the election of a man of color in a nation founded on white supremacy” is real, positive, and nothing to be “cynical” about. This was indeed my first thought on hearing the election results. And, contra Wise, I haven’t encountered a single leftist who would say otherwise.

But we still have to call things by their proper names. An index is not the same as a prospect. The fact that Obama represents progress on race doesn’t mean his tenure won’t still be a net loss for black people (and white workers, and the world, for that matter)—any more than a wedding, as an index of a couple’s love, means they will actually have a good life together.

And really, the prospect is the important thing here, right? At least, it is far, far more important than anything Obama “represents.” Wise seems to agree: He objects to radicals’ “lecturing the rest of us about how naïve we are for having any confidence whatsoever in [a President Obama]” (i.e., confidence in the prospect that he will do good things on the racial front). But he never bothers to argue why such a confidence is warranted. At most, he cites the “millions of people who…are mobilized and active,” whose “[political] energy is looking for an outlet.” Ostensibly he means that this energy can be harnessed for progressive political ends. Fine, perhaps we should “hav[e] confidence” in them. But what does this have to do with “confidence in Obama” himself?

(Maybe Wise hopes Obama will be progressive. Well, so do I. I hoped Bush would be, too; I hope the Iraq occupation goes well; I hope the Klan starts serving inner-city children breakfast. I hope golden coins fall out of my cat’s ass. But I have no “confidence” in any of it.)


The point (index versus prospect) is a logical one: A, quite simply, is not B. But beyond this, we have good reason to be, if not “cynical,” at least reticent about B—that is, about the prospect that Pres. Obama will further the fight against “white supremacy.” I argue for this specifically in my next post.

But for now:

(a) If I’m right—if Obama looks to be a bust for black people—there is no contradiction in stating this fact while celebrating the positive things his election “represents.” Indeed, if so,

(b) We should focus on that fact, because it affects the kind of strategy we who are concerned with black liberation and “progress” should follow.

In the end, Wise’s lament against political “downers” has no teeth on its own. When “downing” is applied to a deserving target, it simply amounts to telling the truth. It is only wrong to deny “confidence” in Obama IF he has given us a reason to have confidence in him. (Nobody would tell the doctor, “Come now: First the cancer diagnosis, now diabetes? Stop being such a downer!” If they do have cancer and diabetes, “downing” is just what they need.)

So Mr. Wise: Do the work; make the case. If we should have “confidence” in Obama’s willingness to fight “white supremacy,” give us the evidence, as you would (and do) with any other truth-claim.

Again, I present my own evidence to the contrary in the next post.


[1] Richard Wolffe and Darren Briscoe, “Across the Divide: Barack Obama’s Road to Racial Reconstruction,” Newsweek (July 16, 2007). 2007 Poll shows 59% of respondents agree the U.S. is “ready to elect a black President”; only 37% said so in 2000.

Obama’s tax plan “socialist”? (Not even progressive)

[Revised 11.19.09]


Joe the Plumber injected the topic of progressive taxation into the election when he argued (paraphrased) that “You shouldn’t pay more in taxes just because you make more.” I know people who voted for McCain entirely on the supposition that Obama’s tax plan violates this principle. This belief has led everyone from Mike Huckabee to Sean Hannity to Michelle Malkin to Glenn Beck to McCain himself to call Obama a “socialist,” even. (Yeah, I wish.)

How progressive—socialist, even?—is Obama’s tax plan?

Some argue we already have progressive taxation—that it should be either continued, or reversed as an injustice. Indeed, if you look for progressive elements in our system, you’ll find some. (If you look for white hairs on a black cat, you’ll find some of those, too.) But there isn’t progressive taxation in any overall, net sense.

First, keep in mind you can’t just consider the tax rate. The tax rate is applied to pretax income; but the richest Americans qualify for a host of very substantial loopholes on top of this rate that have no correlate in lower income groups. Nobody making more than $250,000 a year pays the set rate, unless their kid brother is doing their accounting.

Second, while federal taxes are at the heart of the current debate, they aren’t nearly the whole story. Before the Bush tax cuts of 2003, taxes as a percentage of income were nearly identical for all income groups when you consider all government taxes, including state ones. (See graph [1] below.) Of course, the Bush cuts were regressive, favoring the wealthy; since things were basically proportional before, this skewed the whole tax profile in a regressive direction.

Nor is Obama proposing much “progress” to reverse this situation: The Bush tax cuts reduced the federal income tax rate for the richest 2.3% of Americans from 39.6 per cent—where it had been since the Clinton years, an unprecedented boom time for this group—to 35 per cent. This cut is set, per Bush, to expire in 2010. Obama’s plan is simply to let it expire accordingly. Or possibly to rescind it a few months early. His “socialism” amounts to not pushing to renew one of his predecessor’s programs. This is what the hype is about. This is the big red scare. Even Ronald Reagan wanted to socialize health care for life-threatening conditions, and conservatives love him. Obama can’t not propose a new tax cut on the millionaires without being vilified. This is how far to the right the spectrum of political thought has shifted.

[More on progressive taxation in the next post.]


[1] 21doublechart