On the Issue of “Race”: A Biocitizen’s Perspective of the Obama Presidency
In part 1, we learned that there is no scientific basis for “race” and “racism” and, therefore, both are “cultural constructs”—myths invented and used for centuries by European marauders to justify and excuse their cruel economic behaviors of colonization and slavery, and their extensive crimes against humanity. Now, let’s examine how these constructs continue to be employed by today’s neoliberal capitalists to justify and excuse the “economy of the 1%,” the endless “war on terror,” and planetary biocide.
When Barack Obama (who I canvassed for) was running for POTUS in 2008, Jesse Jackson’s son, then a Democraticexpressed an idea that many believed was true; Obama was MLK.2:
Barack Obama will accept the Democratic nomination for President on August 28th — the 45th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ Speech. In many ways, Senator Obama’s nomination as president is a fulfillment of a dream — a dream long deferred — envisioning a country where people would ‘not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’
With the election of Obama, it seemed that the national curse of slavery had finally been lifted.
Voters had not only rejected the “war on terror” and deregulated Wall Street (which had just crashed); we had also endorsed the idea of a multicultural society, where all people enjoy equal rights, opportunities and respect. It seemed that the United States might live up to its own propaganda as an “exceptional nation“: a representative example of a democratic republic with a government of laws enacted by consent and enforced impartially and, because of this, the spreader of freedom, justice and equality throughout the world.
Of course, this didn’t happen. The USA remains at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our war-making around the planet has magnified exponentially to include Yemen, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Iran and the Ukraine. Despite the election of a “black” president, the economic reality of “blacks” has worsened since 2008:
Black Americans have overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in two presidential elections, but they have fallen further behind during his term in office, losing ground in measures of income, employment, and education.
The national unemployment rate has dropped to 7 percent, but the jobless rate for blacks has hardly moved since Obama took office, declining from 12.7 percent in 2009 to 12.5 percent, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
The poverty rate for blacks sharply increased, rising from 12 percent in 2008 to 16.1 percent Wednesday. Median income declined by 3.6 percent for white households to $58,000, but fell 10.9 percent to $33,500 for black households, Census Bureau figures show.
To understand how Obama failed to become MLK.2, we turn to Dr. Boyce Watkins, a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition:
The wealth gap is the largest that it’s been since officials began tracking the disparities back in 1984. At that time, the gap was merely 12-to-1, implying that African Americans are worse off than they were in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan promoted trickle-down economics, which destroyed black communities everywhere.
“I am afraid that this pushes us back to what the Kerner Commission characterized as ‘two societies, separate and unequal,’” said Roderick Harrison, a former chief of racial statistics at the Census Bureau. “The great difference is that the second society has now become both black and Hispanic.”
Another reason that whites are so much better off than blacks is because they are more likely to own stocks. The same Wall Street bankers who caused the recession were the first to be bailed out, leading to a quick recovery for those who owned securities. Whites are far more likely than blacks to own 401(k) and IRA plans, in addition to stock funds, with these assets accounting for 28 percent of their wealth. On the contrary, only 19 percent of black wealth comes from these assets.
Each time I notice how much worse off the black community has been during the last three years, my mind goes back to the statement by President Obama, in which he argued that the “rising tide will lift all boats” as it pertains to the economic recovery. The argument by the Obama Administration was that by dealing with the broader economy, African Americans would naturally benefit. At the time, there were those who expressed concern, given that this policy of ignoring economic inequality sounded a lot like a racialized version of trickle-down economics.
Since that time, black unemployment has risen by 150 basis points (14.7 percent to 16.2 percent), while white unemployment has declined (9.4 percent to 9.1 percent). Additionally, black family wealth has dropped to levels we haven’t seen since I was a little boy. Having so many Wall Street bankers on the Obama Administration economic team doesn’t add much hope that perhaps our government even remotely understands the complexities of deep and historic wealth gaps between blacks and whites in America.
“Race,” as we know, was invented to justify the economy of slavery—& it is important to point out that, though “race” is a construct, the history of its use by economic actors is not a construct; it is American history.
The persistence of its use is due to the fact that slavery—if not chattel, then in the form of what Lincoln era liberals called “wage slavery“—has remained a consistent feature of American capitalism since our nation’s founding. MLK knew this. Obama might know, but his non-action as president proves doesn’t care enough to do anything about it.
Well—as Locke imagined in the Second Treatise of Government, capitalism is an economy that converts nature into coin (i.e., capital) and those who convert the most nature into coin deserve to possess more than anybody else; after all, he adds, they are not hurting anybody!:
[I]n the beginning all the world was America, and more so than that is now; for no such thing as money was any where known. Find out something that hath the use and value of money amongst his neighbours, you shall see the same man will begin presently to enlarge his possessions.
But since gold and silver, being little useful to the life of man in proportion to food, raiment, and carriage, has its value only from the consent of men, whereof labour yet makes, in great part, the measure, it is plain, that men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth, they having, by a tacit and voluntary consent, found out, a way how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus gold and silver, which may be hoarded up without injury to any one; these metals not spoiling or decaying in the hands of the possessor.
There is no place on Earth that epitomizes the practice of converting nature into coin (i.e., capital), and hoarding it, more than Wall Street. Thanks to the institutionalization of deregulatory “free market” neoliberal economic theory from the Reagan era to our own, Wall Street has gained (in Locke’s words) “a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth.” Obama had the opportunity and voter support to re-regulate Wall Street, but he didn’t and the result has been the “economy of the 1%“:
“Since roughly 1980, income has grown most for the top earners and dropped for the poorest 20 percent. Incomes for the highest-earning 1 percent of Americans soared 31 percent from 2009 through 2012, after adjusting for inflation, according to data compiled by Emmanuel Saez, an economist at University of California, Berkeley. For everyone else, it barely budged, rising an average of 0.4 percent.
Presently, there is no substantive regulatory governance of Wall Street—which proves neoliberalism has triumphed. Wealth continues to accumulate for those 1% who hoard the coins, which allows them to buy lawmakers and judges, while the 99% languishes, a “surplus population” of wage-slaves who are spied upon. Manufacturing jobs—that would be the source of a healthy middle class—are continually shipped overseas to places like China, where workers are wage slaves without workplace protections, and where there are virtually no environmental laws to worry about.
Today in China, Obama is pushing very hard to pass the largest “free trade” treaty in US history—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP; the text of which no elected congressperson or senator has been allowed to read in full)—that will protect Wall Street investments in wage slave nations while decreasing middle class jobs here in the USA. One of its key features is that it removes our elected government’s congressional and judicial control of trade, and gives that control to corporations and banks, which are in turned controlled by Wall Street, as Eli Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, explains:
“the TPP, unfortunately, is really a delivery mechanism for a lot of the things McConnell and the Republicans like. So, for instance, it would increase the duration of patents for Big Pharma and, as a result, give them windfall profits but increase our medicine prices. It could roll back financial regulation on big banks. It could limit Internet freedom, sort of sneak through the back door the Stop Online Piracy Act, SOPA. And—they love this—it would give special privileges and rights for foreign corporations to skirt around our courts and sue the U.S. government to raid our treasury over any environmental, consumer health law that they think undermine their expected future profits, the so-called “investor-state” enforcement system. Plus, it would have the NAFTA-style rules that make it easier to offshore jobs, making it easier to relocate to low-wage countries.
The reason Obama likes the TPP is given by Locke; he actively supports and protects Wall Street’s “disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth.” This protection is seen most obviously in the “war on terror” which was precipitated by Osama Bin Laden’s attack on Wall Street on Sept. 11, 2001. The “war on terror” might have ended when Obama assassinated Bin Laden but it didn’t, and now has metastasized into what is looking abroad like the beginning of World War 3 and at home like the constant-war police-state Orwell envisioned in 1984. In the Middle East and West Africa, US military might is being used to control the global oil trade, and in the Ukraine, where Obama deposed the elected president, a new Cold War has begun, with the US threatening to strike violently against Russia, which Ukraine’s deposed president wanted closer economic ties with. The US-led “regime change” was designed to draw Ukraine out of the Russian-controlled “Commonwealth of Independent States” and into the US/Wall Street-compliant European Union. So much for “free trade”! Here we see that the neoliberals and the neoconservatives are the same thing; neolibs make great-sounding promises and when the promises are broken, the neocons arrive and start killing/incarcerating/spying-on everybody. The evidence—Obama is the commander in chief of “the world’s sole superpower” whose military is designed to protect its Wall Street economy of the 1%—and that is why his support and protection of “free trade” requires he use violent force against those who resist or refuse it.
The economy of the 1%, which values short-term capital gains over the long-term health of humans and non-human creatures, is the primary dynamism that generates our wars, and our continual economic and ecological collapses. Most people do not want their governments to be taken over by lawless corporations (who have been given the Constitutional rights of humans), or their jobs to be low-paying and meaningless, or their environments destroyed—but that’s what Wall Street wants and gets. There is not enough short-term capital gains to be made off changing the world for Wall Street to invest in it; this world, just the way it is, is exactly what Wall Street pays lawmakers and judges to keep in place. Obama, like other politicians, tries to “grow” our economy—and that means forcing people and all living creatures to submit to its relentless destructive mechanisms.
Obama was marketed as the first “post-racial” president but, as his dismal economic record of squashing the “American dreams” of African-Americans proves, he’s kept the hierarchical social structure of the “whites” intact. By drawing most public attention to the racial -redemption or -persecution narratives of his tenure, he has been able to draw attention away from the “Uncle Tom”-role he plays in assisting the Wall Street in its economic war against middle and lower classes. As Cornel West explains:
Obama comes in, he’s got all this populist rhetoric which is wonderful, progressive populist rhetoric which we needed badly. What does he do, goes straight to the Robert Rubin crowd and here comes Larry Summers, here comes Tim Geithner, we can go on and on and on, and he allows them to run things. You see it in the Suskind book, The Confidence Men. These guys are running things, and these are neoliberal, deregulating free marketeers—and poverty is not even an afterthought for them.
Because he, and his handlers (most notably, executives of Goldman Sachs) so ably exploited the symbolism of the Civil Rights Movement, and used the cover provided by it to prevent the reformation of our economic and political system so all Americans would share in its common wealth, Obama deserves to be called the first “post-political” president. By failing so substantially to correct the mistakes of the neoliberals, who crashed the economy and got bailed out, and their accomplices the neocons, who never intend to end America’s economy-protecting wars, Obama has put an end to citizen’s expectations that government can help them. Under his “president who never was” leadership, his Democratic Party has lost Congress and the Senate and there seems little hope that they will regain either in 2016. People don’t believe him or his rhetoric anymore, because he didn’t mean it either. (“What is history going to say about you[, Obama]?” Dr. West asks. “Counterfeit! That’s what they’ll say, counterfeit. Not the real thing.”)
There are many conservative African-American politicians who will do the bidding of Wall Street far more efficiently, and with greater joy, than Obama. The Democrat Party’s use of African-Americans to portend MLK-like economic activism could only work once because Obama’s timing was absolutely perfect (after Bush, and against Hillary). Black skin color won’t work again as a potent symbol of change for Democrats. To put it the crude terms of Fox News, the Republicans will make sure that the Dems can’t use the “race card” again, simply by pointing out the Democrats’ glaring failure to help African-Americans achieve middle class status even as Obama takes credit for growing the economy. Considering the fact that the Democrats were considered the Civil Rights party, the loss of this association is devastating to their “brand,” and bad news for most of us, because the Republicans are even less fit to control what’s left of the US government than the Democrats, as George Lakoff explains:
Progressive and conservatives have very different understandings of democracy. For progressives empathy is at the center of the very idea of democracy. Democracy is a governing system in which citizens care about their fellow citizens and work through their government to provide public resources for all. In short, in a democracy, the private depends on the public. ….
Conservatives, on the other hand, have a very different view of democracy. For them democracy is supposed to provide them with the liberty to do what they want, without being responsible for others and without others being responsible for them. For them, there is only personal responsibility, not social responsibility. Indeed, providing public resources is, to a conservative, immoral, taking away personal responsibility, making people dependent, lazy, unable to take care of themselves. Removing public resources is seen as providing incentives, and individual liberty is seen as the condition in which you can carry out your incentives.
But these are not just two equally valid, though opposite, moral systems. Because the private really does depend on the public, because personal responsibility without public resources gets you nowhere, the conservative view of democracy has radically false consequences. It is immoral because it lacks empathy, but it also just plain false.
We are witnessing the corporate takeover of our national government, and part of what we are noticing is the abyss between what our politicians are saying and what they are doing. We saw Bush spread democracy by committing gross crimes against humanity in Iraq, and elsewhere. We saw Obama save the economy by bailing out Wall Street. We hear him saying he wants TPP passed because it will “spur greater jobs growth, [&] set high standards for trade and investment.” The disjunction between the president’s performance of such claims and the actual realities he consciously misrepresents as he’s making them, has made our political culture a simulated reality—another (& less entertaining) version of “West Wing.” We have intense nostalgia for World War Two, when the USA was justified in its massive use of violence, and it was actually spreading democracy. The colonial holdings we inherited or took from European, Asian, African and South American nations made us a superpower, and now in the twilight hours of our short history as an empire these nations drift from, or turn on, us. Our system of knowledge and values is losing currency as capitalism moves its world headquarters elsewhere, poor New York City soon to left behind by a world that has no center of finance, only centers. Expect the claims of our politicians to become even more detached from actual reality, for they do pledge allegiance to the past—none more so than our politically-powerful global-warming-denying southern conservatives who cherish their traditonal slaveocracy heritage.
“Race” and “racism” are constructs, but their use in history and in politics is not. Obama’s presidency is a profound and tragic example of this, a politician who traded on, then betrayed, the moral beliefs of people who believe in freedom and equality—a profound example because his promise to change the world gave so many hope, a tragic example because we needed that change. It will come, but we will have less control over it when it does, because it will happen as a break down, collapse, disaster. This collapsing will increase violence and suffering. whereas reformation would have minimized it. One of the last gestures of our government was to create the Department of Homeland Security, and it has trained and equipped our army, national guard and police forces to protect private property, and control domestic populations. Obama will be gone, and the next even worse president will take his place until we have fully military government, controlled by the coin hoarders. Our government is a machine, and the machine is broken. Our economy is imperial, and the empire is over. We didn’t get to choose our moment in history, but it is ours.
In the last part of this meditation I will re-envision the biocitizen, and how it is being called forth by “the triumph of neoliberalism”: the demise of the Democratic Party, and with that demise the beginning of the post-political era.