What Michelle Obama Gets Wrong About Racism

Succeeding While Black

Michelle Obama’s new book reduces racial inequality to a matter of psychological impairment that can be overcome through grit and grin. This is a dangerous proposition.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR

Becoming

Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama’s popularity is a remarkable political feat. Her ascent into the public spotlight, after all, began as a receptacle of rightwing misogynoir. From the suggestions that she was ill-tempered to the hideous portrayals of her as male or some kind of primatial hybrid, Obama endured scrutiny unprecedented in the history of the role of first lady. This was hardly surprising given that the pageantry and pomp of the office had become synonymous with white and wealthy “ladies.” Her opponents were quick to cast Obama—the dark skinned, Chicago native—as decidedly un-ladylike, characterizing her instead as an anti-American political militant.

Becoming is an exquisite lesson in creating political ideology—one that I find troubling.

Sensitive to these portrayals, Obama acquiesced when her staff asked her to soften her gestures and play down her political contributions to Barack’s first campaign run. In her new book, Becoming, Obama describes how campaign aids encouraged her to “play to my strengths and to remember the things I most enjoyed talking about, which was my love for my husband and kids, my connection with working mothers, and my proud Chicago roots.” Together, the Obamas became disciplined in responding to the racist attacks, in part due the desire not to confirm the stereotypes. As Obama has famously said, “when they go low, we go high.”

The strategy worked. A recent Gallup poll listed Obama as the most “admired” woman in the United States. Becoming sold a breathtaking 1.4 million copies in its first week, and its success is partly due to the perception that this is Obama’s response to the years of silence—her chance to finally break free from adherence to the public rituals of U.S. power. And, indeed, Obama’s book is her story in her own words—authentic and refreshingly un-ladylike. She endears herself to a broad audience as she freely recalls smoking marijuana with a boyfriend in her car, having pre-marital sex, living at home well into her thirties even after she was married, having troubles conceiving both of her children, yelling in arguments with Barack, and feeling bitter as she was expected to carry most of the burdens of her household after marriage. Free of the pretense often effused by those with wealth and power, Obama comes off as ordinary and relatable.

In Becoming, Obama describes the value of telling one’s story this way: “Even when it’s not pretty or perfect. Even when it’s more real than you want it to be. Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.” For Obama, a person’s story is an affirmation of their space in the world, the right to be and belong. “In sharing my story,” she says, “I hope to help create space for other stories and other voices, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why. . . . Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us.” The root of discrimination, Obama implies, including the ugly discrimination she faced as first lady, is misunderstanding. Sharing personal narratives, then, offers a way for people to fully see each other and to overcome our differences.

This message has resonated widely, but especially with black women, for whom Becoming has been a source of pride and celebration. Black women have paid hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to crowd into stadiums on her book tour, which speaks not only to the celebrity of Obama, but the depths of disrespect and invisibility that black women in the United States experience. Indeed, black women in this country are so debased and ignored that it often feels as if the success and public adoration of Obama can lift and make visible all black women—a process Obama herself encourages.

Her story is a celebration of personal fulfillment—the kind of self-involved, “live your truth”-inspired homilies that middle-class and rich women tell each other.

Yet despite all the optimism and goodwill that Obama embraces and inspires, I find Becoming troubling. Sticking to her strategy for success, Obama reassures her reader repeatedly that she is not a “political” person. Instead Obama describes herself as a “child of the mainstream” who “never stopped reading People magazine or let go of my love for a good sitcom. . . . And to this day nothing pleases me more than the tidy triumph delivered by a home-makeover show.” But as someone who has been around politics since she was a child (her father was a precinct captain in the Democratic Party) and is now, domestically and internationally, one of the most well-known ambassadors of the United States, this denial is not modesty, it is misleading. Indeed, far from being apolitical, Obama is politically sophisticated, and any reader of her book should treat her that way.

Becoming, after all, is an exquisite lesson in creating ideology. As a political insider with broad pop culture appeal, Obama wields enormous influence in shaping discourse and opinion on critical issues concerning race, gender, public policy, and how we define progress in general. Lauren Mims, a former assistant director for the White House project “Educational Excellence for African Americans,” has even undertaken an initiative to create a curriculum for Becoming that she says will “disrupt the traditional practice of talking about black girls in pejorative ways and center them and their unique experiences to study how we can support them.”

Obama, then, is not just telling stories; she is shaping our understanding of the world we live in, which is why it is so critical that we, as a public, interrogate her ideology. When we do, we might see that her story is not in search of the collective experience but is a celebration of personal fulfillment—the kind of self-involved, “live your truth”-inspired homilies that middle-class and rich women tell each other. Becoming normalizes power and the status quo while sending the message that the rest of us only need to find our place in the existing social hierarchy to be happy. This is unfortunate because personal narratives—including Obama’s—do have power. When stitched together and told honestly, they can create a map of shared experience that raises the possibility of collective action as a way to transform the individual circumstance. This is certainly true of poor and working-class black women whose personal stories expose the racism, sexism, and general inequality of U.S. society. These stories relentlessly pierce the treacherous idea that the United States is free, democratic, and just, and they prove the axiom of black feminism that the personal is political.

section separator

Born in 1964, Obama has no recollection of the political strife—including multiple uprisings in response to police violence and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—that unfolded in Chicago neighborhoods during her childhood. Instead, her memories revolve around her family’s cramped apartment on the Southside of Chicago, and her narration of her working-class family’s history perfectly captures the systematic way that African Americans were excluded from the vast bounty created in the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Indeed, as a child, Obama was palpably aware that her circumstances were vastly different from those of the adults around her. While their potential was truncated by rampant racial discrimination, Obama was able to attend a promising new magnet high school called Whitney Young. She then goes on to Princeton University and eventually Harvard Law School, and by the mid-1980s, Obama was earning a six-figure salary at one of the most highly regarded law firms in downtown Chicago. By any measure, she and her equally successful brother, Craig Robinson, overcame circumstances that many of their peers inevitably succumbed to.

Obama’s book reflects the diminished view of public programs and the power of the state as a vehicle to create meaningful opportunities for African Americans.

Racism does exist for Obama, but these two realities—the history of structural segregation that she and her brother emerged from and their subsequent black success—shape her perception of racism as less an institutional phenomenon and more an unfortunate residue from the past. This does not negate its realness, but she sees its manifestation largely as a “deep weariness . . . a cynicism bred from a thousand small disappointments over time.” She had seen it in both her grandfathers, “spawned by every goal they’d abandoned and every compromise they’d had to make.” It was why the neighbor had stopped mowing the lawn or even keeping track of where her kids went after school. And “it lived in every piece of trash tossed carelessly in the grass at our local park and every ounce of malt liquor drained before dark. It lived in every last thing we deemed unfixable, including ourselves.”

One of Obama’s best friends growing up was Santita Jackson, one of the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s daughters. In Becoming, Obama points to Reverend Jackson’s talking points in his 1984 presidential run as an inspiring message of racial uplift. She writes enthusiastically about how Jackson

toured the country, mesmerizing crowds with thundering calls for black people to shake off the undermining ghetto stereotypes and claim their long-denied political power. He preached a message of relentless, let’s-do-this self-empowerment. . . . He had school kids pledge to turn off the TV and devote two hours to their homework each night. He made parents promise to stay involved. He pushed against the feelings of failure that permeated so many African American communities, urging people to quit with the self-pity and take charge of their own destiny. “Nobody, but nobody,” he’d yell, “is too poor to turn off the TV two hours a night.”

Conversely, Obama saw how other “extraordinary and accomplished people”—including black women such as herself—had managed the skepticism they were surrounded by:

All of them had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium-sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals. . . . I’d never been someone who dwelled on the more demoralizing parts of being African American. I’d been raised to think positively. I’d absorbed my family’s love and parents’ commitment to seeing us succeed. . . . My purpose had always been to see past my neighborhood—to look ahead and overcome. And I had.

In Obama’s telling, then, racism is not the defining feature of black life, and her profound success is a testament to the ways that striving and self-motivation are the difference between those who succeed and those who do not.

The absence of materiality in Obama’s understanding of racism in contemporary life underlies her sharp rebuke of Reverend Jeremiah Wright in Becoming. Known for his fiery sermons condemning the racism, militarism, sexism, and oppression in U.S. society, Reverend Wright became a thorn in the side of the Obamas during the 2008 campaign when it was “discovered” that the Obamas were members of his church. The mainstream media delved into his sermons and described some of Wright’s incisive comments as “hate speech,” which worked to fuel the presumed radicalism or militancy of the Obamas. The most widely circulated of these sermons showed Wright at his incendiary best:

The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America—that’s in the Bible—for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.

In Becoming, Obama dismisses Wright’s experiences and viewpoints as him “careening through callous and inappropriate fits of rage and resentment at white America, as if white people were to blame for every woe.” She accuses him of viewing “race through a lens of cranky mistrust.” Wright and older African Americans, she says, became “cranky” because of legal strictures of segregation that gave rise to a “narrow mindedness” in matters regarding race. Obama goes on to conflate the bitterness of older African Americans with the racism of older white people, such as Barack Obama’s white grandmother who felt afraid of black men on the streets. That fear, she writes, “was a reminder of how our country’s distortions about race could be two-sided—that the suspicion and stereotyping ran both ways.”

It is a diplomatic reading—but ultimately a clumsy effort to reach across the profound racial division in the United States. Consider the political ramifications of such a reading. By treating them as two sides of the same coin, Obama is equating African American anger—which is rooted in material deprivation and human subjugation—with white fear, which is rooted in racial stereotypes. These two worldviews are not the product of the same generational experiences and reducing them to such forecloses the possibility that African Americans could ever find real redress to the inequality produced by centuries of slavery and legal discrimination.

Becoming normalizes power and the status quo while sending the message that the rest of us only need to find our place in the existing social hierarchy to be happy.

Moreover, Obama’s reading reinforces the perception that African Americans’ persistent demands against racism are not much more than “crankiness” or complaining. When combined with Obama’s own emphasis on striving as a way to overcome racial discrimination, this narrative reduces racial inequality to one of psychological impairment that can be overcome through sheer determination and a positive attitude. She fails to see how it was bitter struggle against real institutions that created the new world she was able to thrive in. Indeed, Whitney Young high school was built on an empty lot that had seen multiple uprisings over the course of the 1960s. Those uprisings eventually caused the political establishment to acquiesce and take concrete steps to create a black middle class. Elected officials invested in schools such as Whitney Young while also exerting enormous pressure on the private sector to end the racial enclosure of segregation that had slowly suffocated Obama’s parent’s social mobility. The crucible of the 1960s widely expanded access to homeownership, college education, white collar professions, and formal entry into electoral politics for African Americans.

Obama and a thin layer of others were beneficiaries of these transformations in the U.S. political economy. The short-lived reforms created by the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s lowered the rate of black poverty by expanding the federal bureaucracy and creating new job opportunities for black workers. But as the momentum from the political insurgency of the 1960s waned, political support for these programs evaporated. And as more time passed from the high point of the movement, the hardship experienced by most African Americans grew deeper. In 1964, the year Obama was born, black unemployment was 9.6 percent; by 1975, it had crept up to 15 percent; and while Obama was at Princeton University, in 1983, black unemployment inched up even further to a bewildering 20 percent—the highest ever recorded. Nevertheless, the successes of the few were held up as evidence that it was not the system that was broken; instead, black people simply weren’t taking advantage of all that the United States had to offer.

To make sense of the persistent low wages, housing instability, higher rates of poverty, and deepening social crisis that marred black communities, the political focus shifted violently to personal responsibility or a lack thereof. In doing so, the infrastructure of publicly funded institutions—including public housing and other forms of social welfare—that had been slowly chipping away at inequality and poverty were dismissed as unnecessary and financially gutted. The picture of success for some African Americans—whether they were lawyers or young elected officials—and continued hardship for others created a distorted picture of black America. Like a fun house mirror, it enlarged features such as personal persistence and responsibility while pushing others, such as the role of institutional racial discrimination, further to the margins.

The crises in this country cannot be resolved one person at a time, and recipes for self-fulfillment cannot create the social forces necessary to transform neighborhoods.

Obama’s book reflects this diminished view of public programs and the power of the state as a vehicle to create meaningful opportunities for African Americans. With the public sector out of view, her conception of social progression is freighted with “public-private partnership” ventures and mentorship steered by “gifted” individuals. Social change is thus based on the goodwill and interests of well-endowed funders and well-meaning individuals while inequality is essentially accepted as something to navigate rather than dismantle.

section separator

If this reading seems unfair, consider Obama’s 2013 visit to the Chicago high school, William R. Harper, and her recollection of it in Becoming. As an institution, Harper stands at the intersection of racism, poverty, and violence. In 2012, twenty-one of its students were injured and eight killed from persistent gun violence. Obama chose to visit Harper in 2013 as she became increasingly focused on gun violence in Chicago. Just weeks before, a fifteen-year-old black girl who had just performed at Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade was shot and killed in a Southside neighborhood approximately one mile from the Obama family home.

On the day of her visit, Obama met with twenty-two students who had all been psychologically scarred by their constant exposure to gun violence. They relayed with frightening detail walking down the middle of the street to avoid stray gunfire and their routines of clearly identifying escape routes in case they needed to run. In the course of the meeting, one of the Harper students remarked to Obama, “It’s nice that you are here and all . . . but what are you actually going to do about all of this?”

In her telling, Obama did not have much to say to them: “Honestly, I know you’re dealing with a lot here, but no one’s going to save you anytime soon. Most people in Washington aren’t even trying. A lot of them don’t even know you exist.” It was an honest statement—one we are expected to read as refreshingly honest and “real”—but one that betrayed the logical conclusions of seeing racism as a manifestation of psychology, bad intentions, or simple ignorance. When unmoored from the institutions of power and class domination, racism becomes impossible to address, combat, and dismantle.

In Becoming, Obama also recalls that Englewood (the neighborhood Harper is in) had been considered a “tough” area when she was growing up, but seeing the shuttered windows and dilapidated structures in 2013 showed how much more ingrained its problems had become. She blames white flight: “I thought back to my own childhood and my own neighborhood, and how the word ‘ghetto’ got thrown around like a threat. The mere suggestion of it . . . caused stable, middle-class families to bail preemptively for the suburbs, worried their property values would drop. ‘Ghetto’ signaled that a place was both black and hopeless.”

When unmoored from the institutions of power and class domination, racism becomes impossible to address, combat, and dismantle.

But while white flight was certainly part of Englewood’s history of decline, white people abandoned Englewood more than a half century ago. Englewood’s problems of today are both historical and contemporary. The neighborhood has continued to suffer because successive city administrations have starved it and other poor and working-class black communities of desperately needed resources, opting instead to redirect those funds to whiter and wealthier sections of the city. In 2012, just months before Obama’s visit to Englewood, Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago and Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, shuttered fifty-two public schools in Chicago—the largest simultaneous school closure in U.S. history. Meanwhile, Chicago has dedicated 40 percent of its budget towards policing.

Almost half of black Chicagoans, men and women, between the ages of twenty and twenty-four are both unemployed and out of school. It is an economic situation that produces crime while arrests and imprisonment reinforce the tight circuit of oppression and brutality. There are estimates that 29 percent of black women in Chicago’s Southside suffer from untreated PTSD. These are material manifestations of racism, but Obama’s telling treats them as sad but ultimately disconnected events that are the simple product of partisan politics, pessimism, bullying, even hate—nothing quite tangible enough to put one’s hands on and dismantle.

Obama, who avoids any analysis of the systemic or systematic feature of racial inequality, offered the children at Harper this lesson: “progress is slow . . . they couldn’t afford to simply sit and wait for change to come. Many Americans didn’t want their taxes raised, and Congress couldn’t even pass a budget, let alone rise above petty partisan bickering, so there weren’t going to be billion-dollar investments in education or magical turnarounds for their community.” In the end, she told them to “use school.”

There are estimates that 29 percent of black women in Chicago’s Southside suffer from untreated PTSD. These are material manifestations of racism.

While the first lady of the United States does not hold a legislative position and thus is not able to secure funding for a school in need, Obama’s normalizing gaze at inequality, almost accepting it as a fact of nature, reinforces the status quo for her largely black audience—and that is a dangerous proposition. Obama shows the extent to which she has given up on the idea that demands can be made of the state. These children don’t have the luxury to “simply wait” for change, so their only option is to turn to their underfunded, lightly resourced school and work hard amid stray gunfire to get themselves out.

This lesson—that personal striving is an important remedy to racial inequality—is given a sunny, optimistic sheen when Obama tells us that local “business owners” later donated funds so that those same twenty-two Harper kids could visit the White House, meet Barack Obama, and visit Howard University. Obama tells us that her hope was for the Harper students to see themselves as college students and use that as motivation to change their lives. As she triumphantly declares at the chapter’s end, “I was there to push back against the old and damning narrative about being a black urban kid in America, the one that foretold failure and hastened its arrival.”

section separator

It is important to distinguish Obama’s retreat to personal striving as not just the same old “respectability politics”—the belief that if African Americans just presented themselves as competent and upstanding citizens then they would be seen as entitled to the benefits of U.S. society. Even within the distorted framework of respectability politics, there was still an understanding of the materiality of racism, and there was a notion of collective endeavor—a “linked fate” among black Americans. In place of these politics, Obama concocts a kind of hybrid of middle-class feminism—with its focus on self-actualization, empowerment, and personal fulfillment—with wisps of J. D. Vance–style bootstrap uplift, which centers on hard work, education, and personal responsibility. By eschewing all “policy solutions,” she sends a profoundly dangerous political message: that individuals alone can change their circumstance.

The point is not to impose onto or require a more radical viewpoint from Obama when she does not have one, but rather to expose her ultimately conservative message.

Indeed, in Becoming, she details her endeavors to bring poor and working-class children into the White House so that she could personally encourage them. There are multiple examples of Obama using the power of her office to pluck up black and brown students here and there to, in her words, say, “You belong. You matter. I think very highly of you.” This is, without question, meaningful and valuable to the hundreds of young people who encountered Obama in person. Indeed, even the symbolic power of seeing a black president and first lady evokes the optimism that the Obamas often preach as antiseptic to the chaos of poverty. But, in reality, it also trivializes the enormity of the structural crisis and deprivation in communities such as Englewood. The crises in this country cannot be resolved one person at a time, and recipes for self-fulfillment cannot create the social forces necessary to transform neighborhoods.

In the period of struggle that bequeathed Obama the possibility of her improbable rise to the White House, Ella Baker, a radical black feminist and organizer within the civil rights movement, encouraged ordinary people to connect the dots of their oppression to a broader, unjust social order. Making these connections demonstrated the potential for an alliance of similarly aggrieved citizens and residents who don’t benefit from our social order but suffer from its disorder. As she said in 1969:

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning—getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.

The point is not to impose onto or require a more radical viewpoint from Obama when she does not have one, but rather to expose her ultimately conservative message. Obama served as an inspiring role model—her personal story is extraordinary by any measure. But it is crucial for both her and us to acknowledge that it was made possible by the confluence of institutional changes and her own talents. For the children of Harper High and their parents who live with PTSD and other scars of urban and suburban life in the twenty-first century, we must reaffirm our commitment to the same kinds of institutional interventions—and beyond—that made her ascent possible.

Another world is possible, but it can only be built through a collective struggle that Obama no longer sees as necessary.

Source: What Michelle Obama Gets Wrong About Racism

What Elijah Cummings Meant to Baltimore | The New Yorker I Jelani Cobb

U. S. Representative Elijah Cummings  1951- 2019

” . . . One other thing: democracy. Cummings, in his speeches, particularly those he gave in the past few years, insistently invoked it, and not in the inert way that elected officials tend to. He spoke of democracy as something vital and fragile and valuable, an inheritance that had to be safeguarded for future generations. When he spoke of HR-1, the exhaustive election-protection bill that the Democrats introduced in January, as their first piece of legislation of this Congress, he mentioned his ninety-two-year-old mother, who had died a year earlier. She was a former sharecropper, who implored him, “Do not let them take our votes away from us.” He viewed his chairmanship of the House Oversight and Reform Committee as part of the battle to protect voting rights. His death unleashes a flurry of speculation about whom the Democrats will choose to next lead the committee—Representative Carolyn Maloney, of New York, will serve as the acting chair—and how that person will oversee its portion of the impeachment inquiry. Those matters will be resolved at a future date. What remains clear is the void that Cummings’s absence leaves in his district and his country. This would have been the case at nearly any point in his quarter century in Congress. But it’s even more acute in this one. In a fiery bit of oratory delivered at the introduction of HR-1, he pledged to “fight to the death” in defense of voting and, thereby, democracy. It was a promise that he made good on.”

Source: What Elijah Cummings Meant to Baltimore | The New Yorker   

Rep. Cummings was a Baltimore native and attended Howard University, where he obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and served as student government president.

“Congressman Cummings has dedicated his life of service to uplifting and empowering the people he is sworn to represent,” his official biography says.

“He began his career of public service in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he served for 14 years and became the first African American in Maryland history to be named Speaker Pro Tem,” it says. “Since 1996, Congressman Cummings has proudly represented Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.” At the time of his death, he served as the Chair of the US House Oversight Committee.

He died on Oct.17,2019.

Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”

Women And People Of Color Were Elected At Same Rate As White Men In 2018: Report | HuffPost

“Specifically, women of color were 4% of 2018 candidates and 5% of winners; white women were 28% of candidates and 29% of winners; men of color were 6% of candidates and 7% of winners; and white men were 61% of candidates and 60% of winners.  “There’s a common assumption that white men are the more electable candidates ― but our research found the opposite,” Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, said on a press call. “We found women of color, white women and men of color win at essentially the same rate. There’s only one group that loses slightly more ― and that’s white men.”

Source: Women And People Of Color Were Elected At Same Rate As White Men In 2018: Report | HuffPost  

More:  https://www.huffpost.com/entry/women-of-color-candidates-increase-2018-midterm-elections_n_5bbe8a71e4b0c8fa1367e58e

The Problem | Prison Gerrymandering Project

“The Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the towns where they are confined, though they are barred from voting in 48 states and return to their homes after being released. The practice also defies most state constitutions and statutes, which explicitly state that incarceration does not change a residence.”

Source: The Problem | Prison Gerrymandering Project

The Ghosts of 1964: Race, Reagan, and the Neo-conservative Backlash to the Civil Rights Movement – Race, Racism and the Law

Excerpted from: Anthony Cook, The Ghosts of 1964: Race, Reagan, and the Neo-conservative Backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, 6 Alabama Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Law Review 81 (2015) (Footnotes) (Full Document)

 

AnthonyCook“American slavery was “officially” buried by our nation’s ratification of the 13 14 and 15 amendments to the constitution. But the ghosts of slavery soon inhabited new forms — political, economic, and cultural — intent on returning Blacks to a position of abject servitude and subordination. Jim Crow segregation embodied slavery’s spirit of White supremacy, allowing it to live on in a different form. The civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century was but another attempt to exorcise from American life the demonic spirit of slavery that had so horrifically deformed American institutions and culture. But by 1980 it was clear, yet again, that notwithstanding the “official” death and burial of old Jim Crow — a death certified by the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights, 1965 Voting Rights, and 1968 Fair Housing Acts — the past lived on. The ghosts of American slavery and its mutant offspring, Jim Crow, roamed the land of the free and haunted the home of the brave in search of new cultural, political, and economic practices to possess and infest. American slavery was “officially” buried by our nation’s ratification of the 13 14 and 15 amendments to the constitution. But the ghosts of slavery soon inhabited new forms — political, economic, and cultural — intent on returning Blacks to a position of abject servitude and subordination. Jim Crow segregation embodied slavery’s spirit of White supremacy, allowing it to live on in a different form. The civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century was but another attempt to exorcise from American life the demonic spirit of slavery that had so horrifically deformed American institutions and culture. But by 1980 it was clear, yet again, that notwithstanding the “official” death and burial of old Jim Crow — a death certified by the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights, 1965 Voting Rights, and 1968 Fair Housing Acts — the past lived on. The ghosts of American slavery and its mutant offspring, Jim Crow, roamed the land of the free and haunted the home of the brave in search of new cultural, political, and economic practices to possess and infest. ”

 

Source: The Ghosts of 1964: Race, Reagan, and the Neo-conservative Backlash to the Civil Rights Movement – Race, Racism and the Law

“A Black Political Future” with Pascal Robert, The Thought Merchant

OUR COMMON GROUND with Janice Graham

 “A Black Political Future”

 December 3, 2016 :: LIVE ::10 pm EST

Guest: Pascal Robert The Thought Merchant Blog, Contributor, The Black Agenda Report

12-03-16-robert
LISTEN LIVE and Join Our Chat: http://bit.ly/BLKFuture
Listen or Call-In to add your voice to the discussion (347) 838-9852 Press 1 to join the discussion
 This week we discuss the political future of Black Americans in the era of a imperialist Executive and Legislative government. The critical question is not how we react to the fascism that has embedded itself but how we plan to organize our resistance and survival. There are some who say we have been here before. No,THIS is very different AND WILL be totally destructive to any viable Black empowerment strategies . They are bent on a strategy that will destroy the vulnerable infrastructure that keeps us from drowning. We talk with Pascal about preservation and building.
 Pascal  Robert (pronounced Ro-Bear like Stephan Colbert) is a Blogger who loves all things politics. SHEER political independent; unafraid to slay the most sacred cows of ideological orthodoxy from the Left, or the Right and one who enjoys global affairs and aspects of pop culture. In all ways he is a child of the Haitian Revolution.
Pascal Robert has been known for years to the online world as THOUGHT MERCHANT.
Since 2007 he has been recognized for his hard hitting, blunt unvarnished style of bringing attention to current events and global affairs, especially those affecting communities of color. Join him in these social media outlets:

Black Nationalism and Liberation | Boston Review

 

Nation of Islam counter-demonstration at NAACP rally in Harlem, 1961 / Photograph: NAACP collection, Library of Congress

In a world where Donald Trump’s presidential nomination speech has been endorsed by a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan—yet Black Lives Matter activists are accused of reverse racism for asking to not be murdered by police—what constitutes hate speech has become increasingly convoluted. In the aftermath of police killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, gunmen Micah Johnson and Gavin Long were immediately linked by media outlets to black nationalist groups such as the Nation of Islam (NOI), New Black Panther Party, Black Riders Liberation Party, and Washitaw Nation, despite their professions to have been acting alone. Not only did these depictions draw misleading lines to organizations that do not prescribe such acts of violence, they also overshadowed both mens’ backgrounds in cultures of military violence (Johnson joined the Army Reserves immediately after high school and Long was a former Marine sergeant).

In a desperate attempt to drive home a link to black nationalism and direct attention away from these other troubling vectors, some news outlets began referring to Johnson as “Micah X” (NOI members use “X” to replace their “slave names”). In fact his middle name was simply Xavier. Even progressive groups, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, play a legitimating role by identifying black nationalist groups as “black separatist hate groups,” leaving little room for meaningful distinctions between white supremacy and black nationalism. While groups such as the Nation of Islam have historically advocated for the separation of black communities, to assert that this position is simply the obverse of white supremacy—that is, black supremacy—overlooks the nuance of black nationalism. More importantly, it fails to account for the dramatically different relationships to power that black nationalist and white supremacist groups possess. White nationalism reinscribes and exalts the privileges of whiteness. Black nationalists council separation as an anti-racist practice and a method of empowerment in the absence of alternative avenues of power. To many black nationalists, this is the difference between life and death: the black community must either do for itself or perish.

The conflation of black and white nationalism is not new. In 1963 the New York Herald Tribune satirized what it perceived as the ironic similarities between white supremacists and black nationalists in a story entitled “Integrated Segregation.” Things “seem a trifle confused on the racial front these days. The segregationists are getting integrated and the integrationists are getting segregated,” the Tribune remarked. The article imagined a scene in which staunch segregationist George Wallace was explaining why racial segregation benefitted black Americans when “a Black Muslim popped up from behind, tapped him on the back and agreed with him.” Soon, the article predicted, the Congress for Racial Equality would “start picketing the N.A.A.C.P., while the Black Muslims set up an all-Negro chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.”

To many black nationalists, separation from whites is the difference between life and death: the black community must either do for itself or perish.

Understanding black nationalism as simply the mirror image of white supremacy, rather than an anti-racist practice, has deep roots in American political discourse. And in our current moment of colorblind “post-racialism,” when race-specific remedies such as affirmative action or reparations are derided as reverse racism—and even modest demands from Black Lives Matter for criminal justice reform are decried as anti-white—black nationalism has been once again mischaracterized using a host of long-stale tropes. We would be better served, not by simply dismissing black nationalism as the underbelly of white supremacy, but by understanding it as a tradition that is both liberative and anti-racist; one that does not mirror white supremacy, but repudiates it.

section separator

W. D. Fard, the founder of the Nation of Islam, arrived in Detroit in 1930 and told black Detroiters that they “were not Americans but Asiatics.” This was part of a holistic alternative creation story that rejected the racist underpinnings of white American nationalism. Many of Fard’s followers were former followers of Marcus Garvey, left without an organization after the decline of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the late 1920s due to financial mismanagement and government infiltration. Garvey and the UNIA epitomized the goals of black nationalism, launching the most ambitious and successful Pan-Africanist vision in history. At its height, the UNIA had over 700 branches in 38 states, and its newspaper, Negro World, circulated throughout the African diaspora. Millions of black people were moved by Garvey’s message of racial pride embodied through the UNIA motto “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!” The NOI borrowed many of its black nationalist tenets from the UNIA, combining them with religious symbols, practices, and theologies drawn from the plethora of new northern, black, urban religious and racial-pride movements spawned by the Great Migration. This blending spoke to the diverse backgrounds of many early NOI members: in 1951 nineteen out of twenty-eight Muslims interviewed reported having previously been members in other movements such as black Masonry, the Israelite Movement, God’s Government on the Earth (dedicated to Liberian emigration), the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, Repatriation Movement to Liberia, and the Black Jews.

As historian Robin D. G. Kelley notes, many of these movements were influenced by a Black Zionist tradition that drew upon the narrative of the book of Exodus to imagine liberation and deliverance for black people around the world. These freedom dreams not only provided what he calls a “narrative of slavery, emancipation, and renewal,” but also a “language to critique America’s racist state since the biblical Israel represented a new beginning.” Beyond providing a framework for denouncing American racism, black nationalists addressed the racist power structures that governed their communities by creating jobs, businesses, schools, and places of worship. Racial separation was not simply about black communities’ physical relationship to white people; it was about changing the structures of power that governed those relationships through self-determination, community control, and new relationships to self and one another.

By 1959 the Nation of Islam was a burgeoning movement well known within urban black communities in the North but still largely unknown to white America. That summer, as Malcolm X traveled to Africa as a guest of Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mike Wallace (later of 60 Minutes fame) and black journalist Louis Lomax presented the NOI to white audiences for the first time. In their sensationalist documentary, The Hate That Hate Produced, NOI was compared to the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. Members of the Nation were referred to as “black racists” and “black supremacists.” Its cautionary message to a largely white audience was that white racism would inevitably produce its black variant. As Malcolm X later recalled in his Autobiography, the show was meant to shock viewers, like when “Orson Welles frightened America with a radio program describing . . . an invasion by ‘men from Mars.’”

The Hate That Hate Produced was critical in launching the Nation of Islam into the public eye. But it also offered white viewers a language for understanding black nationalism that both intensified and allayed their fears. While racism was a plague that undermined American democracy, it was not a distinctly white characteristic. As Charlie Keil, a young white civil rights organizer at Yale during the early 1960s explained to me recently: “The Hate that Hate Produced allowed [whites] to sort of categorize the Muslims—the Nation of Islam—and treat them a certain way. . . . [It was] some way of saying that this was not an autonomous self-starting movement, but a reaction, an overreaction to a history of oppression.”

Throughout the 1960s black nationalists were castigated as “supremacists” who promoted the very racism and racial segregation that liberals were fighting against. This was stoked by white nationalists who saw calls for black racial separation as consistent with their belief in the benefits of racial segregation. As George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party, told Alex Haley in a 1966 interview: “Malcolm X said the same thing I’m saying.”

Rockwell was not the only one confused about the difference between racial segregationand racial separation. In a highly-publicized Los Angeles trial in 1962 after police killed an unarmed member of the Los Angeles NOI mosque, the Los Angeles Times reported the “unusual problem in seating of spectators . . . when women members of the sect refused to accept seats alongside white persons.” The court eventually overturned this seating arrangement, and the press described this as “desegregation.” Los Angeles NAACP president Christopher Taylor joined the chorus of the aggrieved by arguing that he would be against any type of segregation, regardless of who initiated it. This decontextualized, colorblind insistence that any race demanding separation was calling for racial segregation was central to mischaracterizations of black nationalism during this period.

Malcolm X set about clarifying the Nation of Islam’s advocacy for racial separatism through dozens of debates with prominent civil rights figures on college campuses across the country in the early 1960s. He debated James Farmer at Cornell, Bayard Rustin at Howard, Louis Lomax at Yale, and the NAACP’s Walter Carrington at Harvard. Almost every debate was themed around the question: “Integration or Separation?” As Malcolm explained at Wesleyan University: “We are just as much against segregation as the most staunch integrationist.” But he added that black people did not “want to be free any more; they want integration. . . . They have confused their method with their objective.” In other words, black nationalists were not opposed to racial integration as an outcome of freedom struggles, or even as an organizing strategy, but they saw it as deeply flawed as the movement’s principal objective. More importantly, they pointed out the racist presumption of integration, which took for granted that white society and its values were more desirable. As Malcolm once sardonically asked, Who is the white man to be equal to?

More than simply critiquing integration, the Nation of Islam emphasized the importance of community control, an idea that flourished in upcoming years with the emergence of the Black Power movement. As Malcolm explained: “segregation means to regulate or control. . . . A segregated community is that forced upon inferiors by superiors. A separate community is done voluntarily by two equals.” Recognizing the pervasiveness of racial segregation, nationalists sought control over the businesses, healthcare, education, housing, and policing in their communities. Indeed, the Kerner Commission’s grim 1968 assessment that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” was something understood within black communities for decades. Amidst this backdrop, nationalists called for greater autonomy. The distinction between segregation and separation was not a semantic pivot. It was a deeper analysis of power, and an assertion of self-determination.

Over sixty years since the Supreme Court struck down the constitutionality of “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board, it would seem that calls for racial separatism are a relic of the past. But that might be too hopeful. A 2014 UCLA study revealed higher levels of school segregation in many regions than in 1968, the year the Supreme Court decreed a more proactive approach to desegregation. Schools with less than 1 percent white students are now being referred to as “apartheid schools.” And while the South is no longer governed by Jim Crow laws, cities outside the South such as Chicago and Baltimore continue to be described by demographers as “hypersegregated.”

The denial of race is a fixture of racism. Black nationalists have often exposed the “colorblind,” coded racism of liberals.

Black critiques of school integration during the 1950s and 1960s were often decried. In the words of scholar Andrew Delbanco, novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston “consigned herself to oblivion” when she responded to the Brown v. Board decision by saying that she could “see no tragedy in being too dark to be invited to a white school affair.” After James Meredith enrolled as the first black student in the University of Mississippi’s history, Malcolm X told a courtroom that anytime a man “needs [an] escort of 15,000 troops to go to a college where he will be among people whose viciousness toward him is so deadly that he needs the Army there to protect him . . . that Negro is foolish if he thinks that he is going to get an education.” Education, not integration, should be the goal, both Hurston and Malcolm agreed. As Malcolm explained, “token integration” was pointless as long as there were “a couple million Negroes in Mississippi who haven’t been allowed to go to the Kindergarten in a decent school.”

Meanwhile, integration today is often illustrated through the exceptional accomplishments of a handful of black elites, most notably President Barack Obama, rather than evidenced by a substantial redistribution of wealth or educational and housing opportunities. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor demonstrates, the role of “black faces in high places” is often to obscure the common conditions facing many African Americans. Instead, black elected officials serve as interlocutors speaking to—and on behalf of—black communities. Taylor writes poignantly of the 2015 Baltimore uprising after the death of Freddie Gray: “When a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a Black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle.” But this new period has unfortunately produced all-too-familiar outcomes for poor and working-class black people.

section separator

The long history of black nationalist leaders having official meetings with white supremacist leaders is another narrative often mobilized as proof of the essential symmetry of the two movements. In 1922 Marcus Garvey met with the Imperial Wizard of the Klan, Edward Clarke, earning him swift denunciation by the NAACP. In 1961 Malcolm X and other NOI officials secretly met with the KKK in Atlanta to negotiate a non-aggression pact surrounding the NOI’s purchase of southern farmland. The following year American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell even appeared as an invited guest at the NOI’s Saviour’s Day convention in Chicago. When police in Monroe, Louisiana, illegally targeted and raided the city’s mosque with tear gas, rifles, and riot sticks, the Nation of Islam secured an interracial defense team: local black attorney James Sharpe, Jr., and Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Klan, James Venable. As Venable explained when taking the case, “I hate to say it but a colored man doesn’t have a chance in a courtroom in the South.”

The decision by black nationalists to meet or coordinate with white supremacists was often driven by a combination of pragmatism and a deep cynicism about the authenticity of liberals. In the case of the UNIA, Garvey negotiated an agreement with Clarke to sell stock in black businesses such as newspapers, factories, and his Black Star shipping line, which ambitiously hoped to link a global black economy in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas before failing due to poor business management. And although Malcolm X would later denounce the Nation of Islam’s détente with the Klan, the organization’s motivation for doing so was plainly and only to secure the right to farm in the South without danger of violent reprisal. And in the case against eight members of the NOI in Monroe, Venable successfully won an appeal for several of those convicted.

Black nationalists were also not uncritical of the white supremacists with whom they interacted, a fact often downplayed or forgotten. After his meeting with the Klan, Garvey told a crowd: “Mr. Clark [sic] did not tell me anything new; he told me what I discovered seven years ago. He told me the thing that caused me to have organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association four and a half years ago.” When Rockwell, wearing full Nazi regalia, donated twenty dollars to a collection plate at Saviour’s Day, there was a smattering of reluctant applause. Malcolm X belittled him by adding: “You got the biggest hand you ever got.” Equally, black nationalists used white supremacists to draw attention to the hypocrisy of liberals. Following his 1922 meeting, Garvey claimed that Klan members were “better friends to my race, for telling us who they are, and what they mean.” Malcolm used a similar device in his folk metaphor of the liberal “fox” and the conservative “wolf.” When comparing John F. Kennedy to George Wallace, Malcolm said: “Neither one loves you. The only difference is that the fox will eat you with a smile instead of a scowl.” He even penned a 1964 editorial entitled “Why I Am for Goldwater” in which he drew upon the same fox/wolf metaphor and cynically suggested that with Goldwater, “black people at least know what they are dealing with.”

Critics on the left who see these as misguided political strategies have marginalized black nationalists by painting them as racial conservatives, and thereby emptied black nationalists’ critiques of their incisiveness. For example, Paul Gilroy accuses Garvey of “black fascism” and C. L. R. James even compared him to Hitler. Others have taken Malcolm’s cynical support for Goldwater at face value, rather than understanding his rhetorical move to draw parallels between openly racist politicians and ostensibly liberal ones whose policies nonetheless gut the black community.

Black nationalist groups such as the UNIA and the NOI have rightly been critiqued for their deep patriarchy, homophobia, and tendency to reproduce the other trappings of empire. As historian Michelle Ann Stephens notes of Garvey, his “vision of the sovereign state figured in the black male sovereign; the desire for home at a more affective level figured in the woman of color.” Likewise, anti-Semitic comments by Nation of Islam leaders such as Louis Farrakhan have certainly buttressed comparisons between white and black nationalists. Most recently, Farrakhan stoked this fire by praising Donald Trump’s refusal to take money from Jewish donors.

But although charismatic leaders are often the voices we hear most prominently, for many rank-and-file members of the Nation of Islam and other black nationalist groups, the lived experience of racial pride, religious rebirth, and doing for oneself is a redemptive, affirming, and even lifesaving practice. Many members joined the NOI after feeling alienated in integrated, more middle-class organizations such as the NAACP. As Lindsey X told an interviewer, what the NAACP “wanted never seemed real to me. I think Negroes should create jobs for themselves rather than going begging for them.” Malcolm X’s autobiography is only the best-known narrative of religious and political redemption. In a long-running feature in the NOI’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, entitled “What Islam Has Done For Me,” members offered their conversion narratives and testified to the transformative practice of Islam. Robert 24X of Paterson, New Jersey, contributed: “I was a young drug addict who had spent too much time in the hells of Harlem’s East Side . . . [before] everything came into focus for me. . . . I stopped smoking, using profanity, and eating improper foods. And I’ve passed my biggest acid test—no more needles in the arm.”

Instead of positioning black nationalism as a reactionary, conservative ideology that simply apes the violence and hate of white supremacy, we might learn from its lessons today. If asked about the xenophobia and dangerous comments of conservative firebrand Donald Trump in our current election, Malcolm X might well have pivoted us back to Hillary Clinton’s questionable record on race, one which Black Lives Matter activists have pointed out includes racist dog whistles such as her comments about “super-predators” lacking empathy, her steadfast support for the devastating 1994 Crime Bill, and campaign money taken from private prison corporations. And beyond the hollow political discourse of election cycles, we must avoid the pitfalls of incessant claims of post-racialism that insist that to see race is to participate in racism. As we have witnessed with the familiar “All Lives Matter” rejoinder to “Black Lives Matter,” we are living in a time when people’s humanity is so denigrated that the mere valuation of life is taken by some whites to be a zero-sum game. The denial of race is a central fixture in the perpetuation of racism, and black nationalists have routinely called attention to the importance of racial pride while exposing the coded racism of liberals. Rather than draw facile lines between black nationalism and white supremacy, we are better served by understanding black nationalism as an anti-racist political tradition seeking to envision black American freedom and citizenship in a nation that has rarely devoted much effort toward either end.

Source: Black Nationalism and Liberation | Boston Review