African Americans Ignored in the Age of Obama
— Malik Miah
WHO WOULD EVER have thought that after 400 years, African Americans would become an invisible community to most politicians and the ruling class? The community’s issues are barely mentioned by the mainstream media — and when they are, it’s usually in a way to criticize civil rights gains of the past.
The right wing media led by Fox News and talk radio use code words like “food stamps” and “takers” to denote the Black community. Their Orwellian attacks focus on so-called special racial treatment as undermining “freedom.”
Yet African Americans continue to suffer from double digit unemployment, poor schools and inadequate health care. Black interests, which include union rights, are under siege. The threat of a new recession hits Black America — which hasn’t recovered from the previous one — hardest of all.
The Black community’s concerns are more invisible within the “mainstream” than the community has seen in decades. There is an assumption that if you are Black, you expect government help. The right goes further by blaming safety net programs for this dependency.
Many liberals on the other hand, including the Obama defenders, argue that his “colorblind” approach lifts all people including the Black community. It dissolves the Black question into the “American question.” The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and institutional discrimination is ignored or dismissed as “history.”
Race, Class: Double Oppression
What couldn’t be done in the pre-Obama era — dissolve the Black question into the general issue of the poor and workers — is being accomplished willingly by Obama and his backers. This approach enables the conservative ideology, which argues that race and inequality are liberal justifications to keep Blacks and the poor dependent on welfare and food stamps.
The facts are African Americans are worse off than other ethnic groups, particularly whites, because of racial oppression and class exploitation. The double oppression has not changed with the first Black president, who has shown little inclination to do much explicitly to remedy institutional racism.
The 2012 presidential election did mark a historic moment for the United States in that the first African-American president was reelected — after a not-so-subtle racist effort by the Republican Party — showing that a majority of Americans do look beyond “color” and race to make a vote for president.
This does not mean, however, that institutional discrimination is a thing of the past. Without steady pressure on the government and employers to enforce equal opportunity laws and practices, retreats and setbacks to equality will continue.
There is a determined conservative minority intent on doing so. Some 40% of Republicans polled after the vote, for example, believe the now-defunct community rights group ACORN “stole” the election for Obama! ACORN did play an instrumental role in getting out the vote of African Americans and the poor in urban areas in the 2008 election; it was destroyed after a far-right racist campaign against it. The liberals of the Democratic Party threw them under the bus even though it turned out every charge was a lie.
At the same time nearly 40% of whites did vote for Obama, and a broad coalition of ethnic minorities overwhelmingly saw the Republican Party as a party belonging to the rich and older whites.
Some 71% of Latinos (including nearly half of Cuban Americans), 75% of Asian Americans and 93% of African Americans voted for Obama. Jewish Americans likewise voted by 70% for Obama, only a slight reduction from 2008 despite the Israeli prime minister’s de facto endorsement of Mitt Romney.
Since the election, much of the media discussion has focused on why Latinos voted in such high proportions for Democrats and Obama. The reasons are not a surprise in view of the right wing’s attacks on illegal immigration, especially immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and its push for English-only laws and against bilingual education.
Less analysis has come forth on why Asians voted for Obama, although it should be obvious that for Asians, like Latinos, immigrant rights are an issue.
Yet while liberals focused on how Obama overcame the bigotry of the far right and how much the country has changed, the fact is there has been a shift backwards for working class and poor African Americans since Obama‘s election — on almost every social and economic issue.
The slide back will continue unless the concerns of African Americans are focused upon — which requires Black leadership with a focus on these issues, even if that rocks Obama’s agenda. So far there is little if any indication that will happen.
Not Really Progress
The contradiction of the Barack Obama presidency is how gains of the Black working poor are being eroded with little resistance. The demobilization of the old guard civil rights leaders is striking.
It is not progress to dissolve issues of particular concern to Blacks into the category of “the poor of all ethnic groups.” This reminds me of past discussions with many on the left who argued that the issue of “class” is paramount over race.
In fact, for African Americans the issues of class and race are combined. Race is central precisely because of racism. Being a worker does not mean a Black worker can escape the race issue, even over labor fights centered on bread and butter job issues.
The “victory” of Obama confirms that African Americans at the top can overcome the racism of the far right and win a majority of votes in most elections. Although it is obvious that the drive to suppress the vote is far from over, Blacks are integrated in many Fortune 500 companies and, so long as they operate as “color blind” proponents, they can succeed.
The class divisions in the Black community mean the majority of Blacks are left out. Considering them simply part of “the poor” serves to make them invisible to the leadership and society. The fact that Latinos are the largest minority (although very diverse) makes the Black working poor even more invisible in corporate media and government “policy” discourse.
The Black middle class and their organizations rarely talk about this reality. And those who do — PBS host Tavis Smiley and academic Cornel West who organized a Poverty Tour last year and plan a conference in January before Obama’ s second inauguration — are isolated by establishment civil rights officials, including some with left backgrounds, who are uncritical backers of Obama.
A truly equal and diverse United States is not possible unless all Americans come to grips with the origins of the race issue, its centrality to U.S. politics, and why African-American issues must be central to revitalizing the civil rights and labor movements — which also requires rebuilding the dream for full equality by direct action.
January/February 2013, ATC 162