19. Obama’sPhiladelphiaSpeech: “A More PerfectUnion”—The
NewAtlantaCompromise and the New Jim Crow……………………………………………………….. 50
20. Renewing the Struggle for Equality in the Obama Era………………………………………………….. 64
I. The Obama Era
1. The Obama Candidacy: On the Verge of an Historic Step Forward
1. In the face of a downward-spiraling economic crisis, the American people are on the verge of electing the nation’s first black president. Most generally accepted predictors of electoral success indicate that Senator Barack Obama ofIllinois, the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, should be elected the next President of theUnited Stateson November 4.
The likelihood of this outcome grows in the wake of the financial crisis of fall 2008, the gargantuan government bailout, and an overall American economy in decline—a situation which frightens most Americans and for which most Americans blame the policies and attitudes of the Republican Party and the Republican administration of George W. Bush. In the light of these conditions, most political polls and most political commentators agree in predicting failure for the Republican Party and success for the Democrats in the November 2008 Congressional and presidential elections.
Should these indicators hold true, the United States will be inaugurating Barack Obama next January as the nation’s first black president, and President Obama will be working with a relatively friendly Congress dominated by his own party.
2. Almost all Americans recognize that the election of the first black president would be an event of historic importance.
To millions of black and other nonwhite Americans it would be far more than that. It would be an assertion of their long-denied rightful place in American history, a milestone in the struggle against white racism and for equality. To millions of nonwhite people around the world, the election of Barack Obama as the American president would represent a vindication of their own basic dignity and self-respect in a world still defined by racial inequality and dominated by racism.
Furthermore, throughout American history white racism has been a profound and pervasive force, decisively distorting American politics irrationally in a way that has undermined the ability of millions of Americans to act—indeed to think—rationally about their own economic and social interests. Ever providing the rich and powerful with a divide-and-conquer strategy to prevent united mass struggle for social progress, racism has, over and again, been the key factor in delaying the victory or securing the defeat of human progress.
Precisely because of the importance of the irrational factor of white racism in our history, Barack Obama’s victory in the November elections must be recognized as far more than a question of the victory of one very gifted, moderately progressive black American or of his moderately progressive party. It is a question of the American people, in their majority, asserting themselves on the side of what is rational in American history and against what has been most irrational and ugly. It would represent a vindication by the American electorate of their own progressive and rational convictions—of their own rational self-interest and their own most humane and large-minded principles. It would represent, even taking into account all necessary qualifications, truly a victory of reason against unreason.
3. Nor should the fact of the economic crisis be used, as it has been by certain political commentators, to diminish the significance of an Obama victory, as if the economic situation would guarantee victory to ANY Democrat in this election year. This attitude ignores the fact that a period of economic crisis could easily provide ideal ground, as it has in the past, for the arousal of irrational racist fears—in this case especially irrational fears of placing the presidency in black hands at such a time. Also, explaining an Obama victory as an inevitable consequence of the economic crisis, tends to belittle the factor of the considerable abilities Barack Obama must have in order to have brought himself to this moment in history.
Given the role of racism in American history, Barack Obama has to be an unusually gifted politician and, more than that, in a number of respects a rather remarkable person indeed to be in the position he is. He has to have had a great deal of downright courage simply to make and stick to the decision to run for President against the abundance of counterindications in American history and against abundant advice that now is not the time to change that history. Many commentators have remarked on Obama’s “coolness under pressure,” his extraordinary discipline, self-control, and determination. He has to have human qualities as a leader that are strong enough to force their way through the traditional American white blind spot that has blinded millions of white Americans specifically to the leadership qualities of black people. Even a new Great Depression would not be enough on its own to force light through that blind spot.
4. For, over and over again in American history, racial and religious bigotries have overridden economic self-interest and the exercise of reason in the political behavior of millions of white Americans. On the basis of such mass irrationality, cultivated by demagogues, the Slave Power ruled the country until a great and bloody civil war broke its hold. On the basis of this irrationality, throughout our history, worker’s strikes and unions have been dragged down to defeat. On the basis of this irrationality, throughout our history, poor and working-class people have supported leaders and parties whose policies have made the poor poorer, intensified the exploitation of labor, and increased inequality and injustice.
The challenge facing the American people this year is precisely the question whether the electorate is ready, in its majority, to set aside the irrationality of white racial prejudice in favor of the rationality of their own urgent needs and interests. Until now, the answer to that question in American history has been no. For a majority to change that historic no to yes would represent far more than a tribute to Senator Obama’s undoubted talents as a leader of his own party and national electoral politician. It would represent far more than the modest electoral shift to the left that Senator Obama and his party’s timid policies could accomplish. It would represent a major breakthrough in the political consciousness of the American people themselves—and in particular on the part of the American workers, poor, youth, and minorities who share the greatest frustration and anger with the current economic and political situation and bring the greatest hopes and the highest expectations to the Obama candidacy and to the prospect of an Obama victory.
2. The Key Question: the Growing Political and
Moral Maturity of the American People
5. It is this factor—the importance of the Obama candidacy to assessing the political character and consciousness of the American electorate, to determining the political—and, in a sense, the moral—maturity of the American people, that is the decisive, the key, the fundamental question of this moment in American history. This means that Senator Obama’s success in securing the nomination of his party in itself represents a great step forward, for the Obama victory in the presidential primary contest showed that the progressive ranks of one of the two main parties of the American electoral system were prepared to insist that now is the time to take this step, and take this step over against the determined opposition of a section of their party’s national leadership.
For an electoral majority to make a similar decision in the November general election, against a considerable section of the nation’s political leadership and its demagogic scare tactics and over against much of the weight of the nation’s real political history, would represent an even greater moment in the raising of the political consciousness of the American people. For this progressive political majority to build the support for Obama to a sufficiently massive proportion to impose their decision on the nation’s undemocratic electoral system, will represent an accomplishment by the progressive sections of the American people that will tend to empower and embolden the American people themselves on the basis of their own most progressive consciousness and impulses.
It is this self-assertion of their own progressive character in a manner calculated to change history for the better that could make the November election an historical moment of real democracy, surely incomplete and inadequate in itself, but in its potential full of hope. These mass-democratic and somewhat defiantly progressive elements in the mass movement supporting Obama—in many respects in stark contrast to the moderately conservative and timidly progressive character of their candidate himself—have given the Obama movement the character of an excited and inspiring struggle for the cause of social justice. Candidate Obama’s promises of a new birth of hope in America may remain all-too-comfortably vague and platitudinous in keeping with the long, not very honest tradition of American electoral cliche-mongering. But millions of his mobilized and inspired supporters have in mind a very real agenda of hope for social justice, economic rationality, equality, an end to militarism and imperialist arrogance, and the empowering of the disadvantaged and oppressed.
3. The Obama Movement and the Question of Leadership
6. BAMN congratulates the American people, and especially the rank and file activists of the Obama movement, for this historic step forward and the broad hope for progressive change awakened with it.
The realization of this hope depends on the development, in this new historical period, of new leadership, new organization, and new levels of consciousness. These new developments must start with the inspiration and raised expectations of the Obama movement and with the tendencies to deepen understanding of the nature of modern society and to reopen the question of methods of political action provoked by the global economic crisis and the failure of American militarism abroad.
For BAMN, an organization dedicated to rebuilding the struggle for equality, it is crucial to appreciate the full meaning of this moment in American history. We must understand the depth of the importance of the likely election of Barack Obama as president, but we must also understand the limitations of the importance of this election and the dangers of overestimating what this election alone can actually accomplish.
7. Moreover, the ways in which Barack Obama has conducted his campaign bring out sharply the differences between the methods of modern American electoralism and the methods necessary to rebuild a mass movement for equality and social justice. At key moments it has seemed as if a central premise of Senator Obama’s electoral strategy has been the conviction that a black American could only be elected president by taking care to give the impression that the struggle for racial equality is no longer an urgent matter, no longer the ongoing national crisis that it actually is. In American political history the failure of leadership to recognize the practical urgency of the question of racial equality has always meant a failure in theory and practice to address the overall question of social and economic inequality. Yet the growing economic inequality in theUnited Statesand in the world is the most urgent question of our time. In true terms, no leadership can succeed which fails to place this question at the center of its consciousness and action.
Yet the electoral campaign of Senator Obama has been all too like the campaign of his conservative rival Senator McCain in its failure to address this fundamental question of growing inequality and grinding poverty. It is hard to imagine what Senator Obama’s slogans about “new hope” and “fundamental change” mean in a nation and a world in which the poor get poorer.
8. The election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president could represent an important development which could favor the accomplishment of BAMN’s difficult historical task of building a new independent civil rights movement. Or, ironically, the negative features of his campaign’s attitude toward the struggle for equality could mean that the victory of Senator Obama and his party could actually make it much more difficult for that necessary movement to be built.
Whether this development makes our job easier or more difficult, BAMN’s supporters must have as deep an understanding as possible of this important moment in American and world history. The future of the struggle for full immigrant rights and the struggle for affirmative action and integration—and therefore the struggle for equality in America—will depend on our ability to orient BAMN’s work correctly in the face of this new turn in American history.
While BAMN shares the sense of millions of Americans that a victory for Barack Obama would represent an important step forward in American history, the manner in which this victory is being achieved, in particular with regard to the struggle for equality, makes it, however ironically, impossible for BAMN to endorse Senator Obama’s candidacy. The truth is that the Obama campaign’s ambiguities, vacillations, and plainly wrong positions on the struggle for equality raise grave concerns, which BAMN has an obligation to address theoretically and in the most practical terms possible. The progressive fighters for the new hope of the Obama movement deserve nothing less of us.
4. The Other Side of American History: the Role of White Racism;
the Shamefaced Racism of the New Jim Crow
9. To begin with, it is necessary to confront the other side of the political polarization that we are witnessing in the face of the imminent election of the nation’s first black president and the evolution of the economic crisis: a resurgence of racist irrationality.
BAMN must pay extremely close attention to the ways in which the Obama candidacy has become a target for the mobilization by demagogues of the racist forces in American society. This racist mobilization is especially dangerous because it has been driven, not by some right-wing paranoid fringe, but by national leaders of the two main parties in the course of the mainstream national presidential electoral process itself.
First the presidential primary campaign of Senator Hillary Clinton, at a certain point despairing of defeating Senator Obama by any rational and legitimate strategy, cultivated a set of coded appeals to the racist fears of white voters in the Democratic primaries. This did not produce electoral success for Senator Clinton, but it did sanction the irrational racist fears and hatred of millions of Democratic primary voters, whom Senator Clinton and her surrogates provided with a supposedly respectable vocabulary in which to couch their racial prejudices.
Then, as the fall presidential campaign of Republican Senator John McCain similarly despaired of the success of any rational strategy for winning the election, the McCain campaign predictably built on the ugly precedents established by Senator Clinton.
Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was delegated the role of demagogic attack dog. At large campaign rallies at which Palin absurdly accused Senator Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” elements in the Republican crowds shouted back “Terrorist!,” “Traitor!,” “Nobama! Nobama!,” and “Kill him! Kill him!”
Meanwhile at his own campaign rallies, McCain was firing up his crowds with a litany of attacks on Obama punctuated with “Who is the real Obama?” The crowd shouted back the expected “Terrorist!,” “Traitor!,” and the rest. Racist epithets abound in the McCain-Palin crowds, and the sale of racist memorabilia at Republican and conservative events this year has been reported in the news media.
The McCain-Palin policy has so emboldened the paranoid and racist elements in the Republican Party that McCain himself has been forced into a series of public statements taking a sort of polite, minimal exception to some of the more extreme paranoias (obsessed repetitions of the Internet slanders crazily claiming that Senator Obama is actually a Muslim [= “extremist”] or an Arab [= “terrorist”], because his middle name is Hussein). Yet McCain’s own public behavior (“that one” in the second presidential debate), the overly polite and feeble character of his “dissociations” from the Muslim-baiting, his pretending there is some question who Obama really is, and his running-mate Palin’s reckless rhetoric about “palling around with terrorists” have at least exploited, certainly encouraged, and to some extent spawned the irrational ugliness.
With understandable concern, on 15 October, during an exchange in the third presidential debate on “negative campaigning,” Obama himself quoted the cries of “Terrorist!” and “Kill him!” at Palin rallies and pointed out that Palin had not offered so much as a word of objection to this sort of behavior among her crowds. In reply, not only did McCain not condemn the murderous language or declare that in the future his running mate would object to cries of “Terrorist!” and “Kill him!” from her crowds. On the contrary, he ignored these death threats against Obama, seemed to treat the people making them at his and Palin’s rallies as an irrelevant, harmless “fringe”—for which he took no responsibility—and gushed defensively, rather pathetically, and unconvincingly about how “the people that come to our rallies” are “the most dedicated, patriotic men and women that are in this nation, and they’re great citizens,” as if the issue was excessive criticism of demagogy, racism, and death threats. McCain then defended his demagogic methods by wrapping himself in Hillary Clinton’s use of the same demagogic methods in her Democratic Party primary contest against Senator Obama.
Both Clinton and McCain have had to present their racist appeals in coded terms that most white mainstream journalists and academics have dutifully accepted as nonracist. This is a situation typical of the period that BAMN has characterized as the New Jim Crow, one of the features of which is a public, official stance of embarrassment over and opposition to open expressions of racism, while the coded and disguised racism that is actually on the rise is not only not confronted and opposed but in fact increasingly sanctioned and promoted.
History has shown that the toleration of coded, “respectable” appeals to racism from the mainstream has the most terrible of consequences. Once antisemitism was treated as a certain fashionable excess of nationalist zeal on the part of the German political and intellectual elite—an unpleasantness, perhaps, but hardly a serious problem except among a few crazed, irrelevant fringe fanatics. Then the fringe was the Nazi government. Then Auschwitz andBuchenwald. Both Senators Clinton and McCain have stood before the tragic memorials and muttered, piously, “Never again.” But their behavior in 2008 has declared, for all with ears to hear, the terrible message, “Again! Again!”
10. Even though most polls and most commentators agree in predicting the success of Obama and his Democratic Party in 2008, the role of race and racism in American history makes clear that it would be a mistake to take Obama’s victory for granted.
Simply the fact that Senator Obama is a black American means that the usual predictors are more likely to be wrong than would be the case were he a white candidate. For millions of white Americans, it has always been difficult at historical moments such as this to set aside knee?jerk prejudices and paranoias, fearing steps in the direction of equality. Over and over again, many white Americans have allowed the exercise of their right to vote to be distorted by the racist appeals of demagogues urging them to defend what are actually unfair, irrational, and even imaginary elements of white privilege.
For this reason alone—the irrational factor of white racial prejudice—the usual political indicators are not as reliable as usual. Polls and surveys often fail to register this factor of white racism adequately, and journalists regularly avoid dealing with racism. Part of the reason for this failure to take account of racism is that pollsters do an inadequate job of looking for it and journalists are content to remain ignorant of it. Part of the reason for this failure is that those occasional efforts to get at the specific role of racism rest on a fallacious method of attempting to abstract racism from the overall reactionary and irrationalist prejudices with which racism has been inextricably bound up throughout American history. And in part racism is difficult for pollsters and journalists to take account of because many prejudiced white voters misrepresent their actual views to pollsters, because of embarrassment about the open expression of their racism.
11. This embarrassment is a revealing expression of the status today of one of the fundamental contradictions of American history.
In theory, our nation was founded on the principle of equality (Jefferson’s “all men are created equal,”Lincoln’s “conceived inLiberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”). Americans are taught that their history has centered on an inexorable process through which that principle has been increasingly made real. Yet, in reality,Americahas always been a profoundly unequal society—and unequal in a diversity of ways. Differing in different periods in degree, with some groups gaining and new groups assuming the role of primary targets of discrimination and scapegoating, the reality is that all of American history has been characterized by economic, racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and other social inequalities.
And, in reality, the significant progress in the struggle for equality in theUShas not occurred as a result of any automatic historical process. On the contrary. The great gains in equality have resulted from the struggles of great mass movements, vast social upheavals—struggles ordinarily opposed by the economic and political establishments of the time, elites that have opposed the movements for social equality in the very name of an elitist interpretation of the “founding principles” of the nation. It is the relative success of these mass upheavals in overcoming the opposition of the elite establishments of their time that has made the United States a more democratic and more egalitarian society—not any automatic realization of Jeffersonian or Constitutional principles and not any benign intentions on the part of the economic and political powers that be.
In the most recent of these periods of mass upheaval, the civil rights struggles of the 1960s created a sort of balance of power in American society that made open and explicit expressions of racism and the continued retailing of racist stereotypes a thing of the past, along with the de jure segregation and legally sanctioned discrimination of the Jim Crow era. But the forces of racism and reaction regrouped in the late 1960s and 1970s, fostering a New Jim Crow whose aim has been to halt and, to the extent possible, reverse the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.
It is the balance of power between the gains of the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of the New Jim Crow that accounts for the strange, embarrassed character of the coded and camouflaged racism of the presidential election of 2008. To understand this strange, shamefaced racism and learn how to fight it, it is necessary to leave behind the myths and mysticism that surround and obscure the history of the struggle for equality in theUnited States.
5. How American History Has Really Changed for the Better
12. After the first Revolution created the nation as an independent republic, three great mass social movements have altered American history fundamentally for the better.
From the 1830s through the 1870s, the mass radical abolitionist movement waged an intransigent struggle that culminated in the end of slavery through the Union victory in the Civil War and the strivings for racial equality expressed in Radical Reconstruction. Bold, courageous, and independent abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and John Brown confronted the nation with new models of political action and new definitions of liberty, equality, and citizenship itself.
The great class struggle of the American labor movement that came to assume mighty proportions in the decades following the Civil War culminated in the collective victory of the CIO and the principle of industrial unionism during the Great Depression of the 1930s. With these victories of organized labor’s collective struggle, new economic rights and expectations became de facto principles of the nation’s historic social contract.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s resumed Frederick Douglass’s fight against Jim Crow and the defense of the principles of Radical Reconstruction, forced the implementation of Brown v. Board, broke down the citadels of de jure racial segregation in the South, launched the assault on de facto segregation throughout the country, and forced the nation to adopt a policy of affirmative action to make real the promise of equality for its nonwhite citizens.
13. The most important question of American history today is whether there are leaders ready and able to build a fourth great social movement which can build on the great struggles of the past and renew the fight for equality in a way that can win. There are two important factors that favor the building of that leadership: the great Movement of 2006 for Immigrant Rights and the existence of BAMN.
There is also one rather complicated set of factors that, taken as a whole, sum up today’s greatest obstacle to building a new, victorious struggle for equality. These factors can appropriately be referred to as the New Jim Crow.
Understanding the importance of the Obama campaign requires, more than anything else, assessing the Obama candidacy, the prospect of an Obama presidency, and, most important of all, the Obama movement, in relationship to those positive and negative factors facing the new struggle for equality.
II. The New Jim Crow
6. A Balance Sheet: King’s Dream vs. a New Jim Crow
14. The legacy of the Civil Rights Movement survives today in the conviction of most Americans that racism is one of the profound evils of American history. Because of the struggles initiated by the movement led by Martin Luther King, most Americans today believe racial discrimination, inequality, and bigotry should be eliminated from American political, economic, and social life.
Yet the reality is that today, in anAmericain which economic inequality is increasing, our society remains very racist and, in the current period, is becoming more so. This period of increasing racism is characterized by two tendencies.
First, certain key relations between racial and ethnic groups are becoming more unequal, more divided, and more strained.
Second, while the problems of racial inequality have been intensifying, the willingness of the established leaderships to address these problems has been diminishing dramatically.
On the political right, there is an increasingly consistent and frenzied opposition to any new positive measures and an increasingly determined attack on the gains of the past. Meanwhile, on the part of liberal leaders, there is a growing reluctance to advance new positive measures or even to defend the measures won by the civil rights struggles of the past. Liberal leaders endlessly bob and weave rather than defend past gains for racial equality (Brown v. Board and the entire perspective of integration and affirmative action) and tremble impotently before the prospect of advancing the necessary new progressive initiatives (that is, BAMN’s program of integration, affirmative action, and immigrant rights). The right wing, on the other hand, has mounted a full-scale attack whose aim is to render Brown v. Board and its vision ofAmerica a dead letter and to stigmatize into silence any honest discussion of the issues of race and racism in American public life.
Examples of the myriad indications of these gains for racism and segregation include: the string of court decisions whose practical effect is the outlawing of desegregation and affirmative action, the success with a majority of white voters of ballot propositions aimed at banning affirmative action, the success of local and state ballot initiatives banning bilingual education and adopting “English?only” policies, the increasing difficulty of speaking the plain truth about racism throughout our society, the increasingly hostile climate for minority students on many of our nation’s campuses, and, most recently, in the character of the primary campaign of Senator Clinton and the presidential campaign of Senator McCain and his running mate against Barack Obama.
7. “Racism without Racists”/”Racists without Racism”
15. The great majority of Americans condemn most explicit expressions of racism. It is true that, in the era of the New Jim Crow, even some open, explicit, and highly public expressions of racist bigotry are regaining a measure of toleration. In particular, both immigrant-bashing and anti-Muslim bigotry have become the stuff of mainstream political rallies and popular entertainment. However, by and large, explicit racism is regarded as uncivil and unacceptable behavior, at any rate in public. Except for a right-wing fringe, people in the public eye, from public officials to popular entertainers and other celebrities, treat explicit, public expressions of racism as wrong or at least as too likely to be the subject of controversy to be worth the risk.
Under these contradictory conditions, racist inequality and bigotry have been forced to assume new modes of operation and new forms of expression. This New Jim Crow (ironically termed “racism without racists” by some students of the phenomenon) is merely the latest example of what historian John Hope Franklin has called the extraordinarily “improvisatory” character of racism throughout American history.
16. So it has become well established that, in the period since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, many white voters have misrepresented their positions on racial issues and nonwhite candidates in opinion polls to avoid appearing “insensitive” on racial issues, while casting their votes to defend white privilege in the secrecy of the voting booth—racist votes without any nasty evidence of actual racism: “racism without racists.”
More than that. In the period of the New Jim Crow, political figures who head up racist campaigns like Ward Connerly’s attack on affirmative action are obliged to improvise rhetoric and images which advance the cause of racism without being explicitly racist. Connerly’s organizations call themselves “civil rights initiatives,” claim to be opposing “racial preferences,” and wrap themselves with shameless hypocrisy in the slogan of “equality.”
In the era of the New Jim Crow, to appeal to and mobilize the “racism without racists” in American society, racist leaders must present themselves as “racists without racism,” even using traditional slogans of the historical struggle against racism to advance the racist cause. Today’s New Jim Crow?style racists even engage in the misleading quotation of Martin Luther King, giving new meaning to the old adage about the devil quoting scripture for his own evil purposes.
8. The Emergence of the New Jim Crow
17. The old Jim Crow developed in the period following the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction. It was the response of the white-supremacist leadership of the Old South to the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the secession of the Confederate states that had aimed at preserving and extending the Southern slave system. The purpose of the old Jim Crow was to prevent a new, more democratic society developing in the South, in which an alliance of the former black slaves with poor white people threatened to overturn the traditional relations of political and economic power and privilege.
In the face of the historic defeat of the slave system, the former white slavocracy and its successors developed the policies that came to be known as Jim Crow in an attempt to drive the black population of the South into a condition as close as possible to the stigmatized conditions of a race of slaves. The aim of the old Jim Crow was to reverse as many of the Civil War and Reconstruction gains of black people as possible, to severely delimit the exercise of those rights that could not be reversed, and to create new forms of degradation to replace the antebellum forms that had perished with slavery. Unable to return the black population of the South to slavery, the Jim Crow leadership would turn the freedpeople into a caste of aliens in their own land, cut off from rights and opportunities, segregated into a world of disadvantage, poverty, and official inferiority.
Jim Crow segregation divided black people from rights and opportunities and divided the white workers and poor from the black-white alliances that had fueled mass struggles for democratic and social progress after the Civil War. The victory of Jim Crow segregation meant equally the defeat of the black struggle for racial equality and the Southern labor and populist struggles for economic justice. Dr. King once remarked that, in exchange for their poverty and hunger, the segregationist leaders gave the Southern white poor Jim Crow to eat—an imaginary sense of racial superiority to fill the reality of empty stomachs.
18. The New Jim Crow has developed in the period following the victories of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Like its predecessor, it is essentially a countermovement of retrenchment and reaction launched against the successes of a great movement of human progress. Just as slavery was dead (“dead as their dead grandfathers” Sherman called it) after the Civil War, so the old Jim Crow was dead after the stunning victories of Dr. King’s movement in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. Congress and the President ratified those victories won on the streets of struggle with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But, as we move into the new century, the New Jim Crow is increasingly, also like its predecessor, as much a countermovement directed against the possibility of a more just and democratic future as it is an attempt to reverse or delimit progressive gains of the past. For, in its deepest and most farseeing impulses, the New Jim Crow is a rearguard reaction counterposed to the demographic changes which, over the next few decades, will make the United States a truly diverse and multinational “minority-majority”—and therefore white-minority—society. The New Jim Crow is an attempt to foster a mass national politics based on some white people’s fears of that inevitable demographic development and its range of implications for the nature of American society.
Hidden, camouflaged, coded though it may be in public, the real slogan of the New Jim Crow is the same as the central principle of the old Jim Crow: Defense of White Privilege. To the white working people of the nation who are suffering from the increasing gap between the rich and everybody else, to the industrial workers whose jobs have been sacrificed on the altars of capitalist free trade, to the millions without private health insurance who cannot afford access to medical care, to the youth who cannot imagine how to pay for college, the powers that be have, in reality, little to offer. So, as Dr. King understood so well of the old racism, having nothing else to offer, the leaders promoting the new politics of racial scapegoating and discrimination offer an increasingly disaffected white population Jim Crow to eat.
19. The old Jim Crow centered on a divide-and-rule strategy of legal segregation. The body of segregationist legislation was supported by the falsehoods of the legal and social doctrine of “separate but equal.” The old Jim Crow required, in fact, a whole intellectual arsenal of falsehoods: the revisionist Big Lie of the “Lost Cause Theory” of the Civil War; the spread of racist myths and stereotypes by the postwar white intelligentsia and academia, white newspapers, the white pulpit, and popular forms of entertainment; the myth of the idyllic antebellum plantation, with happy and pious black slaves rendering adoring service to their gentle white masters; a vicious parade of white-supremacy and black-inferiority theories, images, notions, superstitions. And, in the end, sustaining it all was the extralegal regime of lynchings, the real “legal system” of the Jim Crow South from the end of Reconstruction to the murder of Emmett Till; the bombing that killed the Four Little Girls in Birmingham, Alabama; and the martyrdom of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in the deadly heat of a racist Mississippi Summer.
20. The New Jim Crow starts by trying to draw a line around the ending of de jure (legal) segregation much as the old Jim Crow sought to draw a line around the ending of slavery. The New Jim Crow accepts the impossibility of returning to the days of legislated black-vs.-white segregation. But it wants to prohibit all efforts at ending discrimination that go beyond the elimination on paper of de jure segregation. Under the dogmas of the New Jim Crow, nothing must be done about the much vaster problems of the de facto segregation that irrationally divides Americans from each other and cuts off millions of still-ghettoized nonwhite people from the exercise of supposedly guaranteed rights and opportunities. The New Jim Crow seeks to do nothing less than destroy the entire body of laws and other policies developed in the 1960s and 1970s to address the malignant evils of de facto segregation (measures which came to be known as affirmative action).
Yet Martin Luther King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s recognized that little would be gained and much lost for millions of black people if the end of segregation meant nothing other than the formal prohibition of legal discrimination. Such a limitation, the movement’s leaders understood, would tend to degrade Brown v. Board and the civil rights laws from statements of living principle to dead letters on mere pieces of paper, historical artifacts with no relevance to the ongoing future of American society. In the South, the possibilities of uniting the white and black populations on the basis of fully equal rights and opportunities—the possibilities, that is, of the real integration that was the heart of Dr. King’s vision for the redemption of the region—would be undermined. In the North, where the system of racial discrimination was overwhelmingly “de facto,” the oppression of urban ghettoes and barrios could never be addressed at all.
When Dr. King was assassinated in Memphisin 1968, he was still wrestling with the question of how to spread the civil rights struggles whose victories in Birmingham and Selma overthrew de jure segregation in the South, to the terrain of the northern-style racism of de facto discrimination. The essential correctness of his assessment of the dangers of a limitation of desegregation to the legal discrimination of the old Jim Crow is tragically confirmed today in the persistence of extraordinary extremes of racial polarization in the South and the failure to lift the suffocating oppression of life in the nation’s impoverished urban minority communities.
9. Racism Today
21. Whereas the old Jim Crow was based on the legal (de jure) segregation of the former slave states of the South, the New Jim Crow is a national phenomenon based on countless forms of legally sanctioned and protected forms of segregation and discrimination. This de facto discrimination produces the same effects as de jure segregation but presents itself as something else.
That “something else” can be the false claim of standardized tests like the SAT to measure human intelligence or the aptitude to benefit from an education. It can be the supposedly sacrosanct character of the boundaries of school districts in one case, in another case the irrelevance of such boundaries in the face of a fictitious principle of parental “freedom of choice.” It can be the assertion of state’s rights in one case, of Federal authority in another. It can consist in an argument for the “strict construction” of the Constitution at one moment and a moment later require the wholesale rewriting of the plain words of the Constitution. In one case it is supposedly a question of the sacredness of voters’ decisions at the ballot box. But when the voters have voted for desegregation plans, voters’ decisions don’t matter any more.
22. The old Jim Crow was openly defended with white?supremacist and segregationist theories, the openly racist demagogy of white politicians, the pseudoscience and falsification of history of racist intellectuals, the racist populism of movies like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. The New Jim Crow is wrapped in a pretty language of abstract equality and phony democratism. The apologists for the New Jim Crow retail a host of disingenuous racist code phrases—”concern for academic standards,” “law and order,” “racial preferences,” the presumed evils of “political correctness,” “tough love” for racial minorities, “the problem isn’t race, it’s class,” “I’m not racist, but…,” “preserving American [meaning white and English?only] culture and values,” “protecting our borders.”
Both the Clinton and the McCain-Palin campaigns against Barack Obama have provided perfect examples of the methods and the vocabulary of the New Jim Crow. The candidates or their surrogates in both campaigns have, over and over, repeated insinuations that a man with an African father and a non-European name couldn’t possibly be “as American” as his lily-white electoral rivals. This man named Obama, Americans were told by both campaigns, didn’t share “American values,” couldn’t understand the experience of “real Americans like you.” In the course of these campaigns, it has been shocking and depressing to witness, at the beginning of the 21st century, the number of times the word “American” has been used as if it meant “white.” (It is arguable in this regard that theClintonprimary campaign was even worse than the fall campaign of McCain and Palin.)
Such coded vocabulary all has the value to the project of promoting acquiescence to racism of being transparent enough to convey their real racist meaning to the racist consciousness they are aimed at, but still passing muster with the news media and academia as legitimate and respectable expressions of “mainstream views.”
The New Jim Crow presents itself as the hypocrisy of “racism without racists” and “racists without racism.” At its most loathsomely hypocritical, the New Jim Crow uses a language of false solicitude for the members of the nation’s minority groups whose long denied and fought-for rights it is seeking to take away and whose hard?won opportunities it is determined to eliminate. Here the New Jim Crow’s language is entirely reminiscent of the false solicitude of certain white slaveowners over the dangers supposedly presented by freedom to their slaves.
23. The old Jim Crow victimized all racial minorities but focused its horrors with especial hatred on the nation’s black communities. The New Jim Crow focuses its bigotry with equal bitterness and hatred on the black and rapidly growing Latina/o communities and promotes attacks onLatinaand Latino immigrants with a special fury.
Over the first decades of the 20th century, the old Jim Crow branched out from its focus on attacks on black Americans to chauvinist attacks on the millions of immigrants to the US fleeing poverty and persecution in Southern and Eastern Europe. Racist currents, including the KKK, launched waves of both verbal and physical terror directed against the largely Catholic immigrants, along with anti-Semitic demagogy and threats addressed to the growing communities of Jewish laborers and intellectuals in the nation’s urban centers.
As the new century wears on, the New Jim Crow is increasingly about immigrant-bashing, its attacks focused on Mexican and other Latin American immigrants and the vital communities they have created throughout the US.
24. Both the old Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow must be understood as both national and international phenomena.
The white-supremacist practices of the old Jim Crow South required acceptance in the North, an acceptance gained through the spread throughout the country of a white-racist fear of the place the former black slaves would assume in American society after Emancipation. The determination to put a brake on progress for black people with the end of Reconstruction came to unite the white population of the nation on the basis of this racism. Belief in white superiority became a defining element of national consciousness, North and South.
For the generations after the great progressive act of the Civil War, these racist patterns would delimit or vitiate the gains of the war and undermine the struggles of the labor movement that grew explosively after the war. This white racism would also be turned against the Chinese, the Japanese, and other immigrants whose contributions were essential to the creation of the postwar society, denying Asian and other immigrants basic citizenship rights for generations. And it would shape the American republic’s understanding of its relationship to the world, creating an American version of the ideology of the white man’s burden, and help lay the basis for the acceptance of imperialist and militarist policies that emerged at the turn of the century. American white supremacy at home became a premise for American white supremacy around the world. It was this sort of linkage between white racism and imperialism that moved W.E.B. DuBois to declare that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”
The New Jim Crow also has its international aspects. The anti-Muslim paranoia of American foreign policy is echoed in the anti-Muslim racism in the 2008 presidential campaign. Domestic immigrant-bashing is not merely a domestic question, for immigration is today one of the most important, fundamental, and vast features of the global economy, global politics, and global culture. Chauvinist militarism abroad requires racism at home. Immigrant-bashing at home feeds national-chauvinist arrogance abroad. Imperialist policies abroad always have their roots in the conditions of inequality at home.
The New Jim Crow has already created the conditions in which the problem of the Twenty-first Century must also be the problem of an imperialist color line.
25. It is worth emphasizing the importance of one political characteristic that the New Jim Crow shares with the old Jim Crow. Like the old Jim Crow, the New Jim Crow has not only its right?wing but also its left?wing face.
In reality, the right?wing advocates of the New Jim Crow would stand no chance of success without the de facto cooperation of these left?wing pretend opponents but real allies.
Today, as in the days of the old Jim Crow, the left face of racism assumes two main forms. Both rest on the “left-wing” fallacy that progressive causes can advance if only the “distraction” of issues of race and racism can be set aside. This perspective of a “white people’s populism” has been a fundamental negative trend in American politics throughout our history.
In one aspect it is the attempt to build progressive struggle on the basis of abstracting from issues of race and racism. In its other aspect it is the claim of supposedly progressive forces to oppose racism, but never forcefully and never now.
The New Jim Crow has already produced its own 21st-century versions of the populist and Progressive currents of a century ago, who could take up any progressive banner except the banner of opposition to the regime of racism sustained by lynching in the South. The liberal and “radical” left of today has also already displayed a panoply of its own versions of the Southern white moderates and liberals of the 1960s whose timidity and hypocrisy Martin Luther King decried. On the electoral front, those who tried to portray Hillary Clinton as some sort of “populist” alternative to an “elitist” Obama have now taken their place in that long, disgraceful tradition of “left-wing” racism.
BAMN has always stood against this “white-populist” fallacy and its long consistent history of misleadership, cynicism, and defeat.
26. The old Jim Crow rested, in the end, on the reign of terror of the regime of lynchings throughout the South and the unwillingness of Northern white people to do anything about it. It took the struggle and suffering of the civil rights convulsions of the 1960s to bring an end to the regime of lynchings, including a heroic army of civil rights martyrs.
So far, at first glance, it may seem that the bullies of the New Jim Crow are violent mainly in occasional excesses of rhetoric, full-scale cowards in any real question of action. But a closer look should find real dangers in the right-wing militias that threaten to take immigrant-bashing into their own extralegal hands, in the images of lynching inJena,Louisiana, and in the complacency with which the nation’s leaders contemplated the hundreds of black bodies floating in Katrina’s floodwaters over the streets ofNew Orleans. As civil-rights-veteran Congressman John Lewis’s pained response to the character of the McCain-Palin rallies should have reminded his nation, in American history, racist politics have never been a nonviolent affair for very long.
27. The old Jim Crow sought to preserve a system of white privilege by reducing the black freed people to a condition that approximated as closely as possible the abolished status of slavery. The New Jim Crow seeks to preserve white privilege by keeping the disadvantaged nonwhite populations of the nation in conditions that approximate as closely as possible the supposedly eliminated conditions of the old Jim Crow.
The New Jim Crow, then, can be summed up as:
1. rendering Brown v. Board a dead letter: rolling back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s
(those political and legal policies whose aim is to block the measures necessary to rid American society of the discriminatory consequences of slavery and legal discrimination and to prevent the steps necessary to end the de facto discrimination that remains pervasive and is in certain respects increasing in our time)
2. immigrant-bashing: stigmatizing immigration and immigrants, opposing rational immigration policies and immigrant rights, making the lives of immigrants as difficult as possible, especially Mexican and other Latin American immigrants
(those political and legal policies aimed at protecting white privilege and preserving the norms of a “white man’s republic” by blocking, delaying, and delimiting immigration and the demographic evolution of the United States into a more diverse society and, eventually, a “minority-majority” nation; implicitly defining citizenship itself as a question of preserving white privilege).
The New Jim Crow is characterized by a general acquiescence to the forms of racist discrimination and oppression that have survived and flourished in the wake of the closing down of the great civil rights struggles of the last Civil Rights Movement. The New Jim Crow’s ostensible argument is that NOTHING ACCEPTABLE CAN BE DONE about today’s pervasive forms of discrimination. Its real argument is that NOTHING SHOULD BE DONE ABOUT RACISM. This is joined with the argument that EVERYTHING POSSIBLE SHOULD BE DONE TO MINIMIZE LATINA/O IMMIGRATION AND TO BLOCK THE NORMALIZATION OF THE PLACE OF LATINA/O IMMIGRANTS IN AMERICAN LIFE. Undergirding the theory and practice of the New Jim Crow is a pessimistic mystical conviction that racism and national chauvinism will always be with us, along with their accompanying inequalities and paranoias, and the only question is which side of the inevitable mystical divide between advantage and disadvantage one happens to have been born on.
28. Like Dr. King before us, BAMN rejects both the divide-and-rule policies and the underlying pessimism of all racist and national-chauvinist theories and all acquiescence to racism. The New Jim Crow merely represents the latest form of these policies and these attitudes in American history.
III. The Obama Paradox
10. The Real Significance of the Obama Campaign:
Redefining What National Leadership Means
29. Inevitably the Obama presidential campaign presents unusual challenges to theUnited Statesin a period in which the inspiring power of the Civil Rights Movement is still alive but weakened and reeling in the face of the recent advances of the New Jim Crow.
In the first place, the Obama campaign itself is strong evidence that, despite many particular tactical gains against the cause of human progress, the strategy of the New Jim Crow is far from victorious. For the Obama campaign has made clear that most Americans, including millions of white Americans, just don’t accept the logic (defense of white privilege) or share the base instincts (fear and hatred of nonwhite people and immigrants) of the purveyors of the New Jim Crow.
Even more than that, the actual election as president of a relatively progressive black politician would challenge, simply as an historical fact, the fundamental premises of white racism throughout American history. From the days when the first black slaves were set to labor for white masters in colonial Virginia to today’s demagogic claims that Obama has “nothing to offer” other than his race, it has been an essential premise of white supremacy that black Americans were well suited to be white people’s servants, but not to be leaders, and certainly not to be leaders of white people or of the nation as a whole.
30. Despite the widespread belief over the course of American history among certain white people in the inferiority of black and other nonwhite people, in actual American history there have been many extraordinary leaders who were not white. Above all, two black leaders have stood out in American history as leaders of national movements and of both black and white Americans.
Frederick Douglass was the greatest leader of the abolitionist and antiracist struggles of the nineteenth century. Douglass addressed himself to both white and black Americans and was, during the 20 years before the Civil War and during the War itself, both the effective spokesperson for black Americans, slave and free, and the most important leader of the national abolitionist movement, guiding and inspiring both the black and white masses in the struggle against slavery. Further, while leading what was in reality an integrated mass movement against slavery, Douglass always recognized and frequently spoke out against the racial prejudices to be found among white antislavery people.
To millions of people around the world, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the greatest American political leader of the 20th century. Like Frederick Douglass, Dr. King was the central spokesperson for black Americans in his lifetime. And, also like Frederick Douglass, Dr. King presented himself to his fellow citizens of all races as inspirer and leader in the common national struggle for equality and justice. Also like Frederick Douglass, Dr. King saw it as one of his duties to speak out and fight against the prejudices and the discrimination practiced by even the white people—the white liberals—who declared themselves to be his allies.
The greatness in their own times of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King is indisputable. But, simply because they were great black leaders of the past, it has been too easy for historical treatments to turn them into figures of pious and boring irrelevance, not the powerful mass political leaders they actually were, leaders with practical lessons to teach us on the necessity of struggle and on the methods that can enable struggles to win. In our time, the truth of the lessons and life of Martin Luther King has been travestied, turning this courageous and unyielding fighter into a feeble and harmless stained?glass?window saint, who supposedly spoke and stood for nothing other than sanctimonious and patriotic platitudes.
31. Despite the subsequent historical falsification and belittling of the roles of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, in their lifetimes they redefined what it means to be a national leader inAmerica. They were black leaders of interracial movements that transformed American history. In both cases, that they were black Americans was essential to the decisive role they played in making the nation a more democratic and just society for all. Their relationship to the black population of the country gave them their deep insight into what was most fundamental to the character of the nation as a whole and made them capable of being the decisive national leaders of the movements that steered the nation through successful radical change.
Because Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King redefined the meaning of national leadership in their lifetimes as the heads of powerful national mass movements, the nation itself was changed in ways that have made it possible for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign to acquire the significance it has. The struggles of these great movements, led and educated by these great leaders, created the conditions in which the American people can say today, in their progressive majority, “national leadership” does not just mean “white leadership,” and “black leadership can mean national leadership.” Such a declaration on the question of national American leadership inevitably redefines as well what it means to be an American in the direction of inclusiveness, internationalism, and rationality. Therefore, even taking into account the severely limited character of the candidate’s own progressive positions, the successes of the Obama campaign so far represent an historic setback for the forces of racism, national particularism and arrogance, and unreason.
11. The Meaning of an Obama Victory:
The Political Maturity of the American People
32. The election of Barack Obama as US president would send out a clear message against racism in ways that even the great struggles of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King have not.
In the first place, the election of Obama as president can only take place if millions of American voters, including white voters, repudiate some of the most important elements of the nation’s history of white racism in order to elect him.
Were Obama a black conservative, white voters could elect him as a hypocritical means of defending white privilege, much as white racist politicians supported the elevation of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court or pour adulation on Ward Connerly for leading the attack on affirmative action. But Obama supports his party’s longstanding relatively progressive positions on issues of race and racism, including defense of certain affirmative action and integration policies and opposition to the most draconian attacks on immigrants. Support for Obama is not, then, a plausible ploy for New Jim Crow?era racists as a “nonracist” front for advancing the rollback of civil rights.
A vote for Barack Obama requires the recognition that a black citizen, committed to at least a minimal defense of the gains of the past Civil Rights Movement, is at least as qualified as any available white candidate to be the elected and legally constituted leader of the nation and the person treated internationally as the most powerful single individual in the world. To vote for Barack Obama, millions of white Americans will have to repudiate 400 years of racist mythology and demagogy, even if only for the moment they are in the voting booth.
In that moment, they will have changed American history in a small but still important way for the better, because of the way in which they will have declared that the character of the American people has changed for the better.
It is in this sense, as an indication of the maturing antiracist consciousness of a mass electorate of millions of American citizens, that the Obama candidacy and the prospect of Obama’s election as president matter profoundly to BAMN.
12. The Paradox of the Obama Candidacy
33. While recognizing the progressive historical significance of the possibility of an Obama victory in 2008, BAMN must also recognize the contradictory significance of certain features of the way in which this situation has been achieved. For there has been a paradox in the Obama candidacy that is especially important to BAMN’s project of building a new civil rights movement. That paradox is the difference between what the Obama candidacy means to his wealthiest financial backers and what the Obama candidacy means to the progressive base of the Democratic Party whose candidate he became in the course of the presidential primary contests. This paradox became clear only in the course of the surprising development of the electoral struggle among the candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for president.
As of the first Democratic Party caucuses and primary elections of 2008, there was, hypothetically, a significant field of candidates, but only three of these candidates seemed to have any real chance of securing the presidential nomination: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. Of these three “serious” candidates, Edwards, running as a “populist”—that is, as a candidate appealing to the party’s left?wing base on issues of economic and social inequality—was regarded as a long shot in comparison with the two better funded frontrunners, Clinton and Obama.
All three leading candidates entered the primary contest as independently wealthy people with sufficient backing from other wealthy people to sustain their campaigns through the first weeks of 2008. Clinton and Obama, however, had substantially more financial resources and, specifically, the backing of both more very wealthy individuals and a substantially larger number of those wealthy individuals who could pull together (“bundle”) contributions from groups of individuals to overcome the legal limitations on the amount of individual contributions.
This financial advantage convinced most political pundits that only Clinton and Obama were likely to survive the early primaries, and events proved the pundits’ predictions correct.
But the pundits assumed something else that turned out very differently. Between Clinton and Obama, they assumed there was little reason to expect anything other than aClintonvictory. Senator Clinton appeared to be the clear favorite of the national party apparatus and a large number of state and local officeholders who, by early in 2008, seemed to be rushing to endorse her as the presumed presidential nominee. By the time the primary votes were well under way, Senator Clinton had gathered substantial numbers of pledges of support from the unelected convention delegates known as superdelegates, chosen by appointment by party leaders because of present or past positions as governmental officeholders or party officials.
As the wife of Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to be president, Hillary Clinton was viewed by many of her supporters—including her husband—and by many journalists, as the almost inevitable nominee of her party for president. Many seemed to view the primary process more as a sort of extended coronation ceremony, with presumptive Queen Hillary graciously going through the pretense of an electoral exercise.
Two early developments clouded but did not seem to disturb this essential complacency about the inevitability of a victory by Queen Hillary. First, Senator Obama seemed to be outstripping Senator Clinton in the early reports of donations from wealthy backers. Second, the launching of Senator Obama’s campaign on the basis of vague promises of a “New Hope” forAmericasomehow different from the established leaderships of both parties produced a surprisingly passionate response among the Democratic Party electorate as well as many people who call themselves “independents.”
34. While these two sides of the Obama campaign had certain things in common—in particular, the view that it is time for theUnited Statesto elect a black president—they represented, overall, quite different aspects of the mass agglomeration that is the Democratic Party. Their support of Barack Obama represented quite different political trends and impulses in the Democratic Party.
To Obama’s wealthy backers—liberal capitalists, professionals, intellectuals, and artists—Senator Obama has seemed to represent the safest option for using the Democratic Party to achieve their ends. These wealthy liberals want a break with the right?wing fanaticism, overreaching arrogance, and extreme divisiveness of President Bush’s Republicans. But they want an extremely mild sort of break.
35. In foreign policy, for example, these wealthy liberals want an end to the overreaching neoconservative fanaticism that led to the invasion and endless occupation ofIraq. But they see no alternative to an essentially militarist policy in dealing with theMiddle Eastor, for that matter, the world. Their criticisms of the Bush policy are largely technical and tactical, not fundamental. In their view, Bush has been arrogant and incompetent, not essentially wrong. They want not an end to American militarism abroad but a militarist policy conducted more pragmatically, with greater competence and more diplomatic finesse.
Endangering these wealthy liberals’ aims is not only the continuing commitment of McCain’s Republicans to Bush?type fanatical militarism but, even more, the very different opposition to the Bush policy coming from the progressive mass base of the Democratic Party.
The attitudes of the Democratic Party’s progressive base—especially those elements of the party base most passionate about the Obama candidacy—are very different from those of most of the party’s wealthy elite. The progressive base wants a real break with the Bush foreign policy, an end to the militarism and extreme, go?it?alone chauvinism of the Bush presidency. Though the left?wing mass base of the Democrats lacks an agreed?upon, clearly worked?out alternative to the Bush policy, they want a policy that is fundamentally different, a foreign policy in theMiddle Eastand around the world that actually expresses the most progressive, democratic, and internationalist elements in American history, not the most authoritarian, bigoted, and chauvinist elements. They want a policy based on mutual respect and cooperation among peoples, not on endless slaughter and bullying by the American military—a policy actually based on democratic and humane values, not military terror.
36. With regard to domestic policies, the gap between the Democratic Party’s progressive mass electoral base and its wealthy liberal funders is much the same. The actual, active, progressive voters of the party base want real reform, the defense of fundamental progressive principles, and the clear rejection of conservative Republican policies. In education, the Democratic Party’s progressive base wants a clear defense of the principles of universal public education, not privatization and charter schools. In health care they want universal quality health care affordable for all, not the latest insurance companies’ scheme to protect and maximize their profits.
37. The Democrats’ electorally crucial black and growing progressive Latina/o base support the party as the only realistic electoral alternative to the avalanche of racist attacks under the Republican aegis. Black Democratic voters want a real defense of affirmative action and a renewal of a meaningful effort to realize the democratic and egalitarian vision for Americaof Brown v. Board and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s led by Martin Luther King.
Most progressive Latina/o Democrats share this vision but also yearn for an end to immigrant?bashing and the cruel raids of the ICE marauders. Across the country, Latina/o communities want the establishment of a humane and realistic immigration policy that gives legal recognition to the de facto citizenship of millions of people without whose labor and talent entire American communities and economic sectors would collapse.
38. Certain important trade unions have been especially important in providing large sums of money and organizational resources to the Obama campaign. These unions have as their own aims legislation to clear certain roadblocks to organizing new unions and, more generally, reviving certain progressive aims from the period of the mighty class struggles of the American labor movement. These unions also have, in general, weighed in on the side of the overall agenda of the progressive mass base of the Democrats.
39. On most of these domestic policy issues, the actual policies of most of the Democrats’ wealthy financial backers have a similar character to their attitudes on foreign policy: they want milder and more pragmatic versions of the conservative Republican policies, not a sharp, qualitative break with them and not authentically progressive policies of meaningful change.
13. Barack Obama and the Historic Struggle within the Democratic Party
40. This gap between party base and wealthy funders is hardly new. For going on forty years, there have been few people inAmericamore deserving of sympathy than the progressive base of the Democratic Party, because of the contempt with which they have been treated by their party’s funders and the party tops tied to them.
To the economic and political czars of the Democratic Party, the party rank and file’s vision of the party as an engine for realizing progressive ideals is not the life’s blood of the party that gives it its only real reason for existing. To these behind-closed-door leaders, these backroom “insiders,” the idealism of the party’s base is its main problem, the primary obstacle that keeps the party from becoming the party of moderate conservatism the wealthy funders want and believe they have paid for, as opposed to the party of progressive reform the rank and file yearn for.
For many years, the Clintons have been among the most important party leaders who have been trying to drag the party to the right, away from the ideals of the progressive party base, to convert the Democratic Party from a party of moderate reform into a party of moderate conservatism. It is therefore understandable if many left?wing Democrats have sought to find a way to derail Queen Hillary’s presumed progress toward coronation as their party’s presidential candidate. But this tendency does not even begin to explain the remarkable character of the Obama phenomenon.
For the paradox of the Obama candidacy is that Senator Obama emerged through the primary process as the preferred candidate of most of the activists on both sides of the historic division within the Democratic Party.
41. For the members of the party’s progressive base who have passionately embraced Barack Obama as THEIR candidate, the irony is that Senator Obama, by and large, agrees with the party’s wealthy funders and party tops, not with the progressive base who support him so ardently.
In fact, on most of the essential issues, Senator Obama and Senator Clinton agree. Among the original larger field of Democratic presidential primary candidates, Senator Obama and Senator Clinton were, in reality, closer to each other than they were to the other candidates. It was only after the February Super-Tuesday results left only Obama and Clinton standing, that the false polarization of a two?person contest created the illusion of serious policy differences between these two candidates.
On most of the most significant policy issues, Obama and Clinton were not to the right or left of each other, but merely tweedledum and tweedledee to each other. Only a few of their most overwrought supporters even suggested otherwise.
42. Between the February Super?Tuesday vote and the final spring primaries, Barack Obama’s overall showing had reduced the possibility of Senator Clinton’s overtaking him to negligible proportions. Traditional conventional wisdom at such a point usually dictates that the candidate who is plainly losing withdraw graciously in the name of party unity and the best interests of the nation. Many important figures in the party made clear they thought Senator Clinton should bow out. But most party leaders remained silent on the question. And Senator Clinton herself remained stubbornly in the race, apparently never doubting that she would find somewhere the millions of dollars necessary to do so.
To many Obama supporters, their candidate seemed to have won heroic victories against staggering odds and over against the preconceived notions of theClintonsand the elite party apparatus tied to them. If anyone had ever earned a presidential nomination, surely Barack Obama had done so. To them, the mere idea of depriving him of the presidential nomination after such an achievement began to look like some indefensible behind?closed?door conspiracy against any black candidate, with no rational basis whatsoever.
If there was no significant policy difference between Obama and Clinton, if both historical factions of the party in actuality found Obama an easy candidate to embrace, then why did the contest continue? Why didn’tClinton’s wealthy backers put her under more pressure to withdraw from the contest, in the name of the party unity all agreed was essential to defeating John McCain’s Republicans in November?
And if Obama was in reality always in essential agreement with his party’s moderate?conservative establishment, why did the party’s left?wing base embrace him so passionately?
These are questions which seem to cry out for answers. Some observers have assumed that the apparent mystery here can be banished and the two questions be brushed aside by the mere assumption of a stance of cynicism. These cynics assume that the two apparent mysteries can be explained by Senator Clinton’s insane ambition, on the one hand, and by the naive and desperate illusions of Senator Obama’s rank?and?file supporters, on the other hand.
To BAMN it seems clear that here, as usual, cynics can offer facile answers but rarely true and useful ones. We are convinced that answering these two questions posed by the specific character of the Obama phenomenon requires recognizing that there are actually larger issues at stake than Senator Clinton’s personal ambition or condescending allegations that Senator Obama’s devoted and idealistic rank-and-file admirers are naive.
14. The Two Obamas
43. The Democrats’ wealthy liberal funders who have supported Obama in preference to the other Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton, support Obama from a somewhat complicated standpoint.
In the first place, they feel confident that Obama is on the Democrats’ moderate?conservative wing, not the party’s progressive left wing.
Eager as these rich liberals are to get the Republicans out of power, they are fearful of the fact that in order to do this they must risk emboldening and empowering the Democrats’ left?wing mass base, which wants to travel much further down the road of progressive policies than the wealthy liberals and the party apparatus and which tends to oppose certain conservative policies favored by the liberal elite. The wealthy elitists therefore want to do whatever they can to ensure that the Democrats’ presidential nominee will stand with them on certain key issues against the party’s left wing.
In Barack Obama the moderate?conservative elite have been convinced they have such a candidate.
44. However, Hillary Clinton is also such a candidate. And in fact many leading figures of the Democratic moderate?conservative wing made clear their essential satisfaction with either Obama or Clinton. Why were so many of these wealthy liberals and party?apparatus people so deeply convinced of the superiority of Obama as to raise vast sums of money for him to defeat Clinton and risk the future wrath of the former First Lady, her former?president husband, and their many powerful backers?
Over the course of the campaign, it became evident that there were two main reasons for this somewhat surprising phenomenon.
The first reason is relatively straightforward and, at first glance, apparently admirable. These moderate?conservative members of the Democrats’ financial and organizational elite believe that it is time for theUnited Statesto elect a black president, as long as that black president shares their moderate?conservative views.
The second reason is more complicated and casts the first reason in a less?than?admirable light.
These members of their party’s elite must look ahead to the nature of the situation once the Democrats have taken the presidency from the Republicans, presumably while retaining control of both houses of Congress, perhaps with increased majorities. Once this has happened, this elite knows that they will be less frightened of the return to power of the despised Republicans and more frightened of the raised expectations of the Democrats’ left?wing base. They cannot get rid of Republican arrogance, dogmatism, and incompetence without the assistance of their party’s rank-and-file left?wing base. But they must have a way to keep that base from realizing the major elements of its own progressive aspirations.
This is especially true in foreign policy, where the party base views the Bush policy in Iraq as simply wrong. Rank?and?file Democrats are overwhelmingly committed to ending theUSmilitary occupation ofIraqand the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq as soon as possible. The party elite employs the rhetoric of reversing the Bush policy in Iraq, which it regards as badly motivated and badly executed, but is in reality committed to maintaining the essence of the Bush policy: altering the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of the US by maintaining as large as possible a US military presence there on a long?term basis.
For most Democratic voters the problem is how to get out of Iraq and end the policy of relying solely on military intimidation to influence developments in the Middle East. For the party elite the problem is how to make a show of withdrawing US troops fromIraqto appease popular opposition to the Bush policy, while actually maintaining or enlarging US military presence in the Middle East. This is no easy shell game. Yet the Democrats’ party establishment is convinced that a real withdrawal of US military forces, a genuine reduction of the US military presence in the Middle East, and an actual shift from the Bush emphasis on militarism, would place the US in the position of having to support or conciliate the genuine forces for progressive change, for democracy and egalitarianism, in the Middle East, forces the US government regards as too radical and far more dangerous over the long run than Islamic fundamentalism.
This party elite sees in Barack Obama a president with a much greater ability to play this shell game with the party’s progressive base, to maintain a militarist policy while keeping the party base from rebelling. They think he can play this role qualitatively better than Hillary Clinton because he is not tied to the party leadership’s failure to mount meaningful opposition to Bush’s invasion of Iraq in the way Clinton is, because, more generally, he is not seen as a party?establishment insider in the way Clinton is, and because, as the nation’s first black president, he would be much more likely than Clinton to receive the benefit of the doubt, at least for a time, of a party rank and file exhilarated by this historical achievement. In many ways Obama has presented himself in this light to the party elite in the course of winning their political support and financial backing.
On domestic issues, this party establishment views Obama as having the same qualitative advantages over Clinton as they do on foreign policy. They see him as a president far more able to co?opt the party’s rank and file into swallowing policies they oppose and not taking advantage of their opportunities to advance the policies they believe in.
But this is not the end of the matter.
45. If the economic and political elite of the Democratic Party have their vision of Obama and their understanding of the significance of his campaign for president, the progressive rank and file of the Democrats have their rather different vision of Obama and a quite different set of aims for his campaign.
To the Democratic Party’s rank and file who have taken up the Obama candidacy as their own cause, the somewhat surprising support of a section of the Party elite for Obama means that the progressive base of the party has a realistic opportunity to do things they very much want to do:
1. Elect the United States’ first black president.
2. Take advantage of the increased hope and raised expectations of such a moment in American history to strengthen the forces committed to the progressive positions they believe in.
These progressive Democrats hope that Obama’s election will result in a sufficient shakeup in the party establishment to weaken the hold the moderate?conservative elite have had on the party leadership for a generation.
46. In a very real sense, then, the support the two wings of the Democratic Party are giving to Obama stem from opposed aims and motives—from counterposed visions of the future of their party and the future of this nation.
For the moderate?conservatives, Obama represents the best means possible to co?opt the party base into accepting the conversion of a party of moderate reform into a party of moderate conservatism. To the party base, Obama represents the best available possibility for accomplishing the great progressive act of electing a relatively progressive black American as president and, in so doing, strengthening, overall, the progressive forces in the country to achieve a new period of meaningful progressive reforms.
To the Democratic Party’s progressive base, electing Barack Obama President of theUnited Stateshas become, essentially, a means of EMPOWERING THEMSELVES AND THE FORCES OF PROGRESSIVE CHANGE IN AMERICA.
To the moderate?conservative wealthy elite of the Democratic Party, electing Barack Obama has precisely the opposite purpose. The moderate?conservatives see an Obama presidency as their best bet for preventing the empowerment of the Democratic Party’s progressive base.
47. In the course of the primary campaign, it became clear to both of these counterposed tendencies in the party that, given the actual nature of the American electoral system, for the time being, each needed the other in order to succeed. In effect, in 2008, the right and left wings of the Democratic Party emerged from the primary contests committed to parallel attempts to maneuver with and manipulate each other in order to achieve their counterposed aims. The Obama candidacy is itself the key policy for both these wings, the decisive tactic in their counterposed, mutual maneuvers and manipulation.
Obama himself was obliged to appeal to both wings of his party in order to achieve his victory in the primaries. His campaign had the character of an endless succession of vaguely worded compromises between the two tendencies, framed by abstract rhetoric about hope and change. Vagueness of this kind is typical of American politics in general and presidential politics in particular, but the Obama campaign has represented an unusually extreme and important example of it.
IV. Obama and the Struggle for the New Civil Rights Movement
15. The New Jim Crow Clinton-Style
48. As the primary electoral contest proceeded, the campaign of Hillary Clinton had no legitimate basis on which to defeat Obama’s efforts. Senator Clinton had no honest way of appealing effectively either to the more conservative or more progressive wings of her party. She was herself in many ways the leading figure of the conservative wing. But, as of the beginning of the primary contest, much of that conservative elite was already convinced, for its own reasons, of the superior advantages of an Obama presidency. It was not possible for Senator Clinton to win on the basis of their support. Nor, precisely because of her and her husband’s actual political record, did Senator Clinton have any plausible chance of grabbing the banner of the progressive forces in the party from Senator Obama.
Senator Clinton did, however, have one strategy in which she and her advisors seemed to believe for a period of time, which in fact did show some early signs of success. To the historic achievement of electing the nation’s first black president she could counterpose the historic achievement of electing the nation’s first woman president. She and her campaign organization accordingly crafted a strategy largely on this basis.
The election of Hillary Clinton as the nation’s first woman president, taking into account her and her party’s moderately progressive positions, would indeed represent an important historical gain for much the same reason as the election of Obama as the first black president. It would express the ability of the American people to overcome past prejudices against the leadership of women and to take a stand against the oppression and inequality of women.
Just as Senator Obama has faced inevitable right?wing racist attacks for seeking to be the nation’s first black president, Senator Clinton has faced sexist attacks for seeking to be the nation’s first woman president.
BAMN has unequivocally condemned and opposed and will unequivocally condemn and oppose both these racist and sexist attacks, starting from BAMN’s fundamental principle that the different sections of the oppressed must unite in order to win.
49. This Clinton strategy, however, did not on its own show the ability to prevail over Obama’s overwhelming advantages as a candidate.
By the aftermath of the February Super?Tuesday vote, it began to seem unlikely that Senator Clinton had a meaningful chance of overtaking Obama in the nominating process. A troubling shift seems to have taken place then in the Clinton approach to the primary contest.
Instead of focusing her appeal to primary election voters mainly on her political positions and record and her experience and on the importance of electing a woman president, Senator Clinton began using “surrogates”—prominent supporters who could say things on her behalf that were too controversial for her to say herself—to appeal to white racist voters, especially white racist women. These “surrogates” declared, in a series of public statements, in effect that Senator Obama had nothing to offer as a candidate other than his race.
These racist appeals seem to have had the desired effect: they drew many white women into voting in the Democratic primaries in order to vote for Senator Clinton, in part as an expression of support for electing a woman president and in part as an expression of opposition to the election of a black president—that is, in part on an arguably feminist basis, but definitely in part on a racist basis.
50. This policy has not been the subject of anything like the widespread public outrage it has deserved. On the contrary. Democratic Party leaders have publicly and privately rejoiced in Senator Clinton’s success in drawing into the Democratic Party ranks millions of white racist (the code word is “conservative”) voters, especially white racist women voters.
The danger of this policy is great. It tends to treat an appeal to racism as the key to rebuilding the Democratic Party—of the two major parties the relatively progressive party on issues of race. This would represent an important enlargement of the evils of the period of the New Jim Crow.
Under the old Jim Crow, the Democrats were, in the north, the party most black people came to vote for after the New Deal policies of the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the South, the Democrats were the very party of Jim Crow, the “Dixiecrats,” who stood for “segregation forever” and maintained the policies of white supremacy. During the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Democratic Party felt compelled to take up the legislative banner of civil rights, and many of the hardcore Dixiecrats deserted the party for the Republicans.
The Clinton project for her party has the danger of becoming a New Jim Crow version of the pre?Civil Rights situation. The idea is not to drive black, Latina/o, and other nonwhite voters out of the party. The assumption is that the Republicans will remain so much worse that these voters will have nowhere else to go. But the success of the Clinton project and the racist basis on which it was carried out during the primaries could marginalize black and Latina/o voters within the party that many see as their only possible political home.
51. This is not only a partisan question. The two?party system has been, through most of American history, an extra?Constitutional institution at least as fundamental to how the nation is run and how it is—or is not—united as anything in the Constitution. The two?party system tends to define and delimit the fundamental terrain of the terms of all political discussion and debate.
The Clinton project for the Democratic Party creates the real danger that in the next generation doing anything about the real issues of race and racism will be off the agenda of both parties and therefore off the agenda of American politics. Under these conditions, in reality, it would no longer be possible even to SPEAK THE PLAIN TRUTH about racism in a way that could influence American political life, because BOTH parties would be constituted on a racist basis, much as they were during the original Jim Crow era.
After Super-Tuesday, as the weeks of primary season went by, the Clinton campaign seemed to be less and less about the futile attempt to secure the presidential nomination for herself and more and more about presenting herself to white racist voters as a candidate who can “feel their [racist] pain”—that is, these white voters’ irrational fears of black Americans’ struggle for equality. Senator Clinton’s strange decision to remain in the primary contest to the end seemed less about conducting a campaign to get herself elected and more about a project to restructure her party on an increasingly racist basis, New Jim Crow-style.
52. In order to conduct this dangerous campaign, Senator Clinton and her advisers were obliged to develop a very “New Jim Crow”?style rhetoric of racist innuendoes that aren’t quite explicitly racist—of code words and phrases such as those we have listed above. By and large, both the news media and other politicians let her get away with the act. Overwhelmingly, however, black voters were not fooled.
It is worth reflecting somewhat further on the “racism without racists” in Senator Clinton’s primary campaign in order to bring out its real meaning and so also be in a better position to understand the inevitable use of similar New Jim Crow devices by the Republicans in the fall presidential campaign.
Efforts to use Senator Clinton’s longer tenure in Washington,D.C., as an argument for preferring her over Senator Obama were heard frequently in the course of the campaign. But, since the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Americans have tended to have little difficulty valuing other qualities more highly than experience alone. And the question of the actual quality of a given candidate’s experience can actually be a liability. In its own terms, the “experience” argument counted for little and seemed often an easy cover for some other concern—what a white voter would talk about in public rather than the voter’s actual anxiety about electing a black president.
From the beginning the Clinton campaign argued that she would be more electable than Obama in the November election. This “I’m more electable than you” argument is standard fare among candidates in primary elections. The problem with this argument in this case is that polls taken during the primaries repeatedly showed Senator Obama doing better than Senator Clinton in besting the Republicans in the fall election. Further,Clintonwas hard-pressed to present ANY PARTICULAR CREDIBLE REASON WHY Clinton was supposedly more electable than Obama—other than race.
As the primary contest wore on, the real meaning of the electability argument seemed to many of Senator Obama’s supporters to be merely the assertion than NO BLACK CANDIDATE could be electedUSPresident in 2008. This was, in fact, the explicit view stated inside the Clinton campaign by “chief strategist” Mark Penn in a cynical internal memo written in March 2007:
The right knows Obama is unelectable except perhaps against Attila the Hun, and a third party would come in then anyway.
Whatever Senator Clinton may have thought of her “chief strategist’s” sentiment herself, it was an unacceptable argument for Senator Clinton or her surrogates to offer publicly. However, on the ground, below most news-media radar, and on the endless unaccountable grapevine of the Internet, this was the message loud and clear. This message joined with a crazed avalanche of inane and scurrilous slanders of Senator Obama that flooded Internet users’ email accounts, nourishing paranoia with fat servings of racist spam. The orgy of anti-Obama spam was typically trivial, often patently stupid and false. What it revealed was not the cleverness or even the determination of the Obama-bashers—and certainly not any real political vulnerability on the part of Senator Obama—but the unsurprising fact that there was a certain segment of the white American public who were prepared to accept even the most ludicrous and irrelevant rumors as the pretext for prejudice against any prominent black political figure.
As Senator Obama racked up broad-based victories in the primaries and outshone his Democratic rivals in opinion polls on the fall elections, the “unelectability” argument lost any rational force it may seem to have had. But the temptation to appeal to that segment of the white American public that could be swayed by irrational appeals to racism seemed to have gained force.
In the end, Senator Clinton’s surrogates suggested, in carefully coded phrases, that, in comparison with Senator Clinton’s long list of official credentials, Senator Obama’s relative youth as a national figure meant that he had “nothing to offer” other than his race. This distasteful sort of innuendo seemed to resonate with sufficient numbers of white voters to put some wind into the sails of Senator Clinton’s lagging campaign. In other words, it was when racist innuendo was combined with the ineffective “experience” argument that the Clinton campaign seemed to gather strength. It was the tactical decision by theClintoncampaign to offer this innuendo to the primary electorate that ended up defining the political character and the historical significance of her campaign.
Along with this racist innuendo of the “nothing to offer [except his race]” argument against Barack Obama, the Clintoncampaign increasingly questioned the “Americanness” of Senator Obama. This line of attack had been urged in March 2007 by Clinton’s “chief strategist” Mark Penn in the “Attila the Hun” memo later leaked and published in the September 2008 Atlantic Monthly. Dripping with cynicism, the memo deals with the growing diversity ofAmerica as if it were merely a question of one candidate’s electoral tactics:
All of these articles about his [Barack Obama’s] boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting that in a new light.
Save it for 2050.
Penn argues for treating these patently positive qualities in Obama’s life as negatives.
It also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president in time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values….
Penn urges Senator Clinton to center her campaign on the supposed contrast of her “American” qualities to Barack Obama’s supposed lack of such
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