Three-hundred-ninety years after the arrival of the first 21 enslaved Africans to Jamestown, Virginia, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the first African-American president in U.S. history.
The vast majority of African Americans will see this as a defining moment. Within living memory, there was Jim Crow segregation in the South and black people died in the struggle to get the right to vote. Even 20 years ago, most Americans, black and white, would have seen an African-American president as almost inconceivable.
But many commentators in the mass media and many in the political establishment go further and claim that this is the fulfillment of the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the massive struggles of the civil rights movement.
The words, image, and iconic status of Dr. King have been skillfully used to punctuate Obama’s presidential campaign. He used the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to accept the Democratic Party nomination for president and he spoke at the King family church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta.
But was Dr. King’s dream simply or mainly about the election of the first black president to highest office in the land? With the election of Obama, is there still a need for a civil rights movement to struggle against racism? Or do we live in a post-racial society?
There has been a serious effort by big business, the two-party corporate establishment, the black leadership, and members of the King family to dilute the radical content of Dr. King’s ideas and legacy. At the time of Dr. King’s assassination, he was in complete opposition to the Vietnam War, planning a radical march on Washington demanding jobs and the abolition of poverty as part of his “Poor People’s Campaign,” and questioning capitalism.
This earned Dr. King the scorn and outright disdain of Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, the traditional civil rights leaders, and the media. Dr. King’s growing radicalism (especially linking and expanding the struggle for civil rights to labor) spoke to his growing realization about the need to challenge capitalism, the need for a total “redistribution of wealth,” a guaranteed annual income, the need to nationalize some industries, and a true “revolution of values.”
Barack Obama’s rise flows from a deep crisis of U.S. and global capitalism and the eight years of the most hated administration since Herbert Hoover, which forged a huge political groundswell for change in society. Obama’s rhetorical flair, oratorical skills, and universal themes of “one America, not red or blue, black or white” motivated middle- and working-class people and the poor, leading to a decisive victory over John McCain.
But while working people yearn and hope for change from the yoke of the Bush regime, Obama is already recycling the Clinton-era political machine that brought NAFTA, deregulation, attacks against workers, welfare “reform,” and war.
The economic crisis has forced the Obama transition team to introduce government intervention to stave off a total collapse of the system, providing a pittance for the working class and the poor in the stimulus package, but the real assistance to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars is being doled out to the biggest welfare recipients of all: Corporate America.
Obama’s acceptance of the so-called war on terror will continue the brutal wars of U.S. imperial domination and aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the possibility of expanding the war to the borders of Pakistan and adding 92,000 more troops to the U.S. military. The question must be posed again, was the dream of Dr. King the continuation of war, poverty, and militarism?
The election of Obama has given an emotional, psychological, and political uplift to working people and the poor, particularly people of color, representing a “transcending moment” for many especially on the question of race and racism.
But while the corporate mass media are preparing to all sing “Kumbaya,” the true racist character of capitalism continues to be revealed in the recent riots in Oakland after the murder of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by police, the not-guilty verdict of police in the Sean Bell murder, Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans, the ICE raids on the immigrant population, and the increase of xenophobia against Arabs and Muslims.
There is an enormous amount of media commentary about the economic crisis, but far less about how this has hit African Americans especially hard. Predatory lenders targeted working-class black areas with a vengeance to sell their subprime mortgages. Now foreclosure rates in many black communities are far in excess of the national average. This will significantly increase the already huge disparity in wealth between African Americans and whites.
Unemployment among African Americans in December reached 11.9%, compared to the national average of 7.2%. This does not include the “discouraged” who have given up looking for work or all the people who are working part-time but need and want a full-time job.
Unemployment for black teenagers is at 32% and according to Business Week could hit 60-70% (12/22/2008). They quoted Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute as saying, “We’re talking about communities that live in a recession at the best of times going into a deep depression.”
What is most striking about Obama’s campaign and the period since he was elected is how little he has said about the economic devastation facing black working-class communities as well the questions of police brutality and mass incarceration. He talks about transcending race but not the issues especially affecting black people. The reality is that there is no reason to believe that his administration will fundamentally alter the position of the black working class and poor.
The world capitalist economic crisis, poverty, racism, and endless wars that are unfolding before our eyes require a radical, independent mass movement of the working class and poor. This movement must be multi-ethnic, democratic, and politicized, learning the lessons of the black freedom movement.
The movement must be organized in our workplaces, communities, and schools around demands for free national healthcare, jobs for all at a living wage, against racism and poverty, for environmental justice, and to end militarism and imperialist wars. We need a system change to permanently uproot the seeds of racism, poverty, and war.
As Dr. King stated in 1966, “We are dealing with class issues. Something is wrong with capitalism. Maybe America must move towards democratic socialism.”