On July 16, 2009, President Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president, spoke to the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As an active, card-carrying member of this organization, I felt a need to write about Obama’s speech after I read it. He says some good things but, as a whole, I was not impressed. I felt his speech showed a need for a redefinition of the struggle that black people are fighting, which will be the topic of this piece.
As usual, Obama’s speeches are very eloquent and have exquisite oratory – this speech was no exception. He paid tribute to civil rights leaders such as W.E.B DuBois and Thurgood Marshall for beating back Jim Crow and paving the way to his own presidency. He talked about how, despite the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, racial discrimination still exists but in different forms, against other people (such as Latinos, Muslims and gays and lesbians) and must be eradicated. He also mentioned the role of government in implementing policies that help eliminate racial disparities in the workplace, healthcare and education.
Then, he gave a little “tough love” to the audience. He said that “one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way we’ve internalized a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little from the world and from themselves.” While mentioning the odds of African-Americans growing up amid crime and gangs is higher than someone who lives in a wealthy suburb, he said that is no excuse for African-American children to get bad grades, cut class and drop out of school. He went further to lecture parents to put away the Xbox, put their children to bed at a reasonable hour and encourage them to be more than rappers and basketball players.
Around the end, he talked about his own experience, as a community organizer, and witnessing kids lose hope, as they grow older, because they weren’t given a fair chance in life. And he talked about his own experience growing up in a single-parent household, having a trouble life but having a mother who knew how to set him straight. He wrapped up his speech with his trip to Ghana and emphasizing the need for the new generation of civil rights leaders to tackle these pressing issues .
All in all, it seemed like a great speech and it received an enormous amount of applause from the audience. Even little radical me agreed with parts of his speech, especially where he said that the many members of the black community have “internalized a sense of limitation” and expect very little from them and from the world. So what’s wrong with his speech?
Let me start with the education part. Obama talked about education as if the government and schools are not doing enough to help poor and nonwhite children. That’s a mild interpretation. Not only is society not doing enough to help nonwhite children but society is designed in a way that actively perpetuate social inequality. Society does not care about poor and nonwhite children because there is a clear social hierarchy that exists and the ones at the bottom, who are predominantly poor and nonwhite, are actively neglected, exploited and oppressed to maintain the rule of the ones at the top, who are predominantly affluent and white.
To illustrate my point, I want to pull a quote from Amanda E. Lewis’s book “Race in the Schoolyard”, who is a professor of Sociology and African American Studies at the University of Michigan. In this quote, she talks about how schools perpetuate racial inequality through the unequal distribution of different forms of capital (resources): economic (money), social (social networks, connections), cultural (cultural knowledge), and symbolic (a status marker, in this case, race):
“…economic, social, cultural, and symbolic capital are not distributed equally among racial groups in the United States. Though not uniquely available to particular groups, these forms of capital are for historic and contemporary reasons more widely available to some than to others. Importantly, each not only is a resource in securing access to good educational experiences but helps students to succeed and achieve. In these ways, capital plays a key role in the reproduction of racial inequality. Having access to it in certain forms facilitates getting access to it in other forms. Clearly one cannot simply or directly ‘cash in’ social or cultural capital at the bank to pay the rent, but both provide advantages in securing a good education – still the surest path to future economic stability. Despite the prevalent assumption that our school system is open, equitable, and fair, in many ways the system is not nearly so meritocratic. Students do not all have an equal chance for success or even a fair shot at it. Despite some dynamic tension, educational options and opportunities are largely constrained before the child even enters the classroom.
This is not to suggest that we live within a closed system in which the alleged opportunities do not exist. There is much evidence to the contrary…However, past inequality is also still reproduced more often than it is challenged. In many ways schools continue to play a key role not only in the reproduction of racial inequality in the United States today but as justification for not doing more about it. In the face of persistent evidence of vast racial inequities, many continue to assert that equal opportunities exist for all in the availability of universal schooling. Differences in outcomes are explained as the result of either individual failure or group-level deficiency. I have tried to demonstrate that the imbalance is not the result of these individual or collective factors; rather, it is the larger systemic, structural, and institutional processes that produce racial inequality in both school outcomes and beyond.”
She also points out in her book that the children who get sent out the most are African-American males. Because of society’s view of African-American males as naturally prone to bad or criminal behavior (a view that goes all the way back to American slavery), anything they do in the classroom is viewed with more scrutiny and punished more severely. Over time, this has an effect on the child’s self-esteem as he begins to accept his position as a low-class criminal (or “thug”) because that’s the way society treats him. Thus, leading him to do poorly in school and not expect anything of himself. This can be seen as an unequal distribution of cultural and symbolic capital.
When it comes to economic and social capital, because of the economic resources that most whites have, they can choose to send their children to better schools than parents of nonwhite children. Lewis notes that many nonwhite parents want more for their child feel “trapped” in the environment that they live in. White parents, on the other hand, showed a sense of entitlement (mainly because of their whiteness) and could freely send their kid to any school they want. So if a school was poor and had a lot of minorities, they would send their kid to another school that is more affluent and white. Thus, white children will be better prepared in life to go to schools like Berkeley, Stanford and Yale, while the options of nonwhite children are far more limited.
It is through this unequal distribution of capital in the school system that racial inequality is perpetuated and the ruling social hierarchy is preserved. While I don’t expect Obama to say all of this (and he might even agree with me), it is important to understand the context of our education system if we’re going to be talking about reforming the education system uplifting minority children. It’s not entirely a matter of society not doing enough to help underprivileged children. These schools exist in this way because their function is to preserve a clear social hierarchy.
Another (perhaps the biggest) problem I had with Obama’s speech was little “tough love” portion. I don’t disagree with him that the black community could do more to look out for one another. But, at this point, considering President Obama’s buddy-buddy relationship with the Wall Street crooks who caused our financial crisis (Goldman Sachs was his biggest campaign contributor and one of his economic advisors, Larry Summers is a Goldman alum) and his repeated call to “move forward” on torture and not prosecute former Bush administration officials for war crimes, I find a little hypocritical of him to be giving the black community a lecture on good morals.
This extends to my problem with the black conservative mindset, which is what Obama’s “tough love” segment catered to. The view is that black people should stop looking for “government handouts” and pick themselves up by their bootstraps (which is hard if you’re born with no boots), exercise “personal responsibility” (as if anyone is against that), go to church more often, be good parents, stop trying to piss off the White Man, support free market capitalism and then the community will be uplifted. Adherents to this view include Shelby Steele and Thomas Sewell.
This mindset essentially tells black people to accept the way society fundamentally is, focus on bettering their own, individual sphere and not fight for freedom or social justice. I find such a mentality to quite poisonous. First, practicing self-help and good morals is a good thing on a micro-level but not on a macro-level. The issues that plague the African-American community (education, healthcare, judicial system, economy, etc.) occur on a macro-level and affect large numbers of people. Thus, any meaningful change that helps the African-American community (and other oppressed peoples) free itself from oppression must occur at this level through legal work, advocacy for specific policies, institutional reform and, if need be, a revolution.
Secondly, this mindset operates within framework of “really existing free market theory”. Professor Noam Chomsky outlines this perfectly:
“…the principle of really existing free market theory is: free markets are fine for you, but not for me. That’s, again, near a universal. So you – whoever you may be – you have to learn responsibility, and be subjected to market discipline, it’s good for your character, it’s tough love, and so on, and so forth. But me, I need the nanny State, to protect me from market discipline, so that I’ll be able to rant and rave about the marvels of the free market, while I’m getting properly subsidized and defended by everyone else, through the nanny State. And also, this has to be risk-free. So I’m perfectly willing to make profits, but I don’t want to take risks. If anything goes wrong, you bail me out.
So, if Third World debt gets out of control, you socialize it. It’s not the problem of the banks that made the money. When the S&Ls collapse, you know, same thing. The public bails them out. When American investment firms get into trouble because the Mexican bubble bursts, you bail out Goldman Sachs. And – the latest Mexico bail out, and on. I mean, there’s case after case of this.”
Prof. Chomsky is right when he says “there’s case after case of this.” The most recent case of this is the current economic crisis. When American investment firms such as Goldman Sachs, AIG and JPMorgan Chase got into trouble because the housing bubble burst, the government bailed out these banks and made the public pay the tab. Even though those firms exacerbated the problem by making bets off of shady mortgage loans.
Black conservatism operates within this framework. It accepts that the current capitalist system is okay and does not bother to challenge the political and economic elite or give them lectures on “tough love”, even if they commit acts such as torturing people, waging wars of aggression, pollute the environment or reap massive profits from shady, Wall Street bets on people’s mortgages. However, it will spend an enormous amount of time lecturing poor blacks and other minorities about how they need to get their act together.
In contrast to black conservatism, there is black liberalism, which is probably the ideology that dominates black political thought. This line of thought is essentially reformist in orientation. It sees that there are current problems with the way society is and seeks to remedy it. Racism still exists in American society and is a painful residue from the years of slavery. While the civil rights legislation that was passed during the Civil Rights Movement did a lot to beat back Jim Crow and provide new opportunities for black and other nonwhite people, there is still a lot to be done. In order to achieve progressive change for African-Americans, black liberals seek to work within the existing political system to pass legislative reforms and view it as the only viable strategy to implement change. Black liberalism is very much in line with the Democratic Party and considering that the vast majority of black Americans support the Democratic Party, black liberalism is the dominant ideology in black politics .
While black liberalism is a well-intentioned philosophy, there are problems with this, too. Because black liberalism seeks to work within the existing political system, the gains it achieves are limited since it does not tackle the systemic root of the problems that black people face. It essentially leaves the fundamental features of society in place but just tampers with it to make it less oppressive, rather than uprooting a fundamentally oppressive society. In the end, the policy reforms of black liberalism are purely cosmetic and not fundamental.
Before Martin Luther King, Jr. died, he admitted to his friend, singer and activist, Harry Belafonte that he felt everything that they had fought for during the Civil Rights Movement was not living up to his expectations. He was worried that black people were heading toward integration and integrating into a “burning house”. When Belafonte pressed him on that, Dr. King said that America had lost its moral compass and even its soul. Over 40 years later, those words still ring true.
American society was built on racism, exploitation and conquest. Under the guise of “Manifest Destiny”, America wiped out millions of the indigenous natives to make room for westward expansion. America also enslaved millions of black Africans to provide the labor force for the selling of cotton and other cash crops, which built American capitalism, an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and motivated by the continuous selfish accumulation of profit. These historic events contributed to the rise of the American hegemon we know today and it is capitalist exploitation and militaristic conquest that are at the heart of this hegemony . This is why America has been in so many military interventions, such as the Spanish-American War of 1898, the numerous military interventions during the Cold War, and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is also why, despite the growth of the black middle class the majority of blacks live in a disadvantaged social position. In 1982, a University of Wisconsin study was conducted by Erik Olin Wright, Cynthia Costello, David Hachen and Joey Sprague called “The American Class Structure” analyzed the American class structure through a Marxian, relational perspective. Classes were defined in “social relations of control over investments, decision making, other people’s work, and one’s own work.”  The bourgeoisie, or capitalist class, had control over the investments, means of production, decision making, theirs and other’s work while the proletariat, working class, had far less, if not lacked, control of these social relations. Managers and supervisors were somewhere in between. Concerning the relationship between class and race, the study found that 64% of blacks were in the working class contrasted to 44% of whites. About 9% of whites were employers and capitalists compared to 0.7% of blacks . In the U.S., as a whole, 46.3% are working class, 29.6% are managers/supervisors and 6.8% are bourgeoisie .
Another study, published in 2000, analyzing the growth of the black working class between 1850 and 1990. It looked at class through an occupational perspective rather than a Marxian perspective. Its findings were somewhat similar to the 1982 study. It found that the majority of blacks are in the working class. In 1990, 77.7% of blacks were in the working class compared to 68.4% of whites. Around 11% of blacks were bottom class, compared to 8.4% of whites, and 11.5% of blacks were middle class, compared to 23.2% of whites .
What does this all mean? It means that the majority of blacks (and most Americans, including whites and other nonwhites) are in the working class, the class that provides the labor force for society, does not control the means of production, and has little participation in the realms of higher decision-making processes, even though they are affected by those decisions. The ones who control the means of production and these decision-making processes are the power elite – a conglomeration of government, the military, and the corporate sector. The government dominates the political establishment and creates laws, the military is the arm of the state that projects power overseas in the interests of the state, and the corporate sector is composed of corporations who dominate the economic order and work in a very tight relationship with the government to make sure the political establishment functions in its interests. This elite is small in size compared to the rest of the population but their decisions have major consequences for the majority of people .
Even with integration and new opportunities expanded to minorities, this elite is still composed primarily of white males. At best, these integration policies modestly diversify the composition of the power elite without getting rid of the hierarchy itself. This is the fear that Dr. King had when he told Harry Belafonte that black people were integrating themselves into a “burning house”.
This is the challenge posed by the election of Barack Obama as president. While America has an African-American president, the power structure still exists – it’s just been diversified with a black face. Obama may be a well-intentioned human being but he is operating within the confines of an oppressive power structure that is responsible for the injustices witnessed at home and abroad. His politics exist within the center of black conservatism and black liberalism, two ideologies that fail to get rid of the reigning power structure. That’s the problem I had with his speech to the NAACP and with his politics, in general.
So since black conservatism and black liberalism are not adequate enough to liberate blacks (and other oppressed peoples) from oppression, what is adequate? How do we fix the justice system so that is fair and does not unfairly imprison so black males? How do we fix our education system so that all children – black, white and all colors – get a quality education and have the adequate intellectual tools to participate in a democratic society? How do we eliminate social inequality and achieve a free and classless society? These are all huge questions that I do not have all the answers to. However, what I advocate is a new approach to black politics that will help us solve our problems.
The approach I advocate is black radicalism. An honored tradition in black political history, black radicalism (generally, radical politics) advocates getting to the root causes of society’s injustices and working for root-level, fundamental change. Radical politics embraces ideas such as socialism, radical democracy, anarchism, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, feminism, and human rights. In addition, radicalism sees issues such as poverty, war, racism, sexism, and imperialism as interconnected issues that part of a broader, interconnected and interrelated system and seeks to address these issues at the fundamental base. The issues that affect black people are not just “black issues”; they are violations of fundamental human rights and human dignity and offend all members of humanity. Police brutality and oppression against black people in America is just as wrong as the brutality committed against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. I believe that this orientation in thinking should help solve the problems we face.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating a vanguard approach or a bulletproof solution to society’s problems. The world’s problems are far too complex for a bulletproof solution to solve. In addition, vanguard politics can breed elitism and can lead to a new oppressive hierarchy. Grassroots, nonhierarchical organizing is the best to way address society’s ills as the most meaningful change, throughout history, has occurred from the bottom through vibrant social movements. Dr. King put it wonderfully when he said:
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-society society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Our society needs a “radical revolution of values” to move us beyond the confines of militarism, racism, sexism, and economic greed and injustice. One does not need to consider themselves to be a “radical” but the philosophy of radical politics, a philosophy that tackles social injustice at the root-level, can help us solve the problems that we face. We must organize for a better world to leave future generations. We must begin in our workplaces, schools, and communities. Parents and teachers can educate students to think outside of the box and provide them a social conscious to analyze and solve society’s problems. Workers can collectively organize to own the means of production and establish democratic and participatory workplaces. Students can educate themselves and each other and provide a vibrant force for democratic social movements. We, as citizens, can apply pressure on our politicians, especially President Obama, to enact the change we wish to see, work to strengthen human rights institutions at home and abroad and establish our own forms of democratic organizations within our communities to address society’s problems. These are all just ideas to get the ball rolling but as long as we awaken the power within us to change the world, there is no stopping what we can do. Let us organize together in a spirit of compassion and solidarity for a free, humane, just and peaceful world and let us do this now!
 View a copy of his speech and an AP article about it here: http://www.truthout.org/071709B.
 Lewis, Amanda E., “Race in the Schoolyard: Negotiating the Color Line in Classrooms and Communities”, (Rutgers University Press, 2003), pgs. 186-7.
 Noam Chomsky, “Free Market Fantasies: Capitalism in the Real World”, talk delivered at Harvard University, April 13, 1996.
 According to a CNN poll of the 2004 election, 88% of African-Americans voted for John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate. According to the New York Times, 95% of African-Americans voted for Barack Obama.
 I recommend reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and Lerone Bennett, Jr.’s “Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619-1962” for more on this history.
 Erik Olin Wright, Cynthia Costello, David Hachen, Joey Sprague, “The American Class Structure”, American Sociological Review 1982, Vol. 47, pg. 709
 Ibid., 725
 Ibid., 718
 Hayward Derrick Horton, Beverlyn Lundy Allen, Cedric Herring, Melvin E. Thomas, “Lost in the Storm: The Sociology of the Black Working Class, 1850 to 1990”, American Sociological Review, Vol. 65, No. 1, Looking Forward, Looking Back: Continuity and Change at the Turn of the Millennium (Feb., 2000), pp. 131
 I recommend reading C. Wright Mills’ “The Power Elite” for more on the power elite.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence”, delivered April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.
UPDATE (7/28/2009): “A ‘post-racial’ America?” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (Socialist Worker, July 27, 2009). Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor made a very great comment in Socialist Worker about what the arrest of African-American academic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says about the state of racism in the era of Barack Obama. Her argument connects with the argument in my piece.