Introduction. The authors of these articles are both long-time revolutionary socialists in the United States. Malik Miah is a trade union activist at United Airlines, and a supporter of the US socialist group Solidarity. Barry Sheppard is the author of the new Socialist Voice pamphlet, Why Washington Hates Iran.
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The Elephant in the Room: Obama, The Left and the Race Question
By Malik Miah
(From Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. This article was written before the Democratic and Republican Party conventions.)
Much of the world is fascinated by the current US presidential election. The main reason is that the United States is ready to do something that most developed countries would never consider doing: electing a representative from an oppressed minority as head of state.
Could Australia ever elect an Aborigine as prime minister? An Australian of Asian descent? Could Germany ever elect a German-born Turk as chancellor? What about a black as head of state in the United Kingdom or France? Yet we in the United States are discussing the real possibility that a man with a father from Africa, representing a community of descendants of former slaves, could actually be elected president of the most powerful country in human history.
So it is not a surprise that Barack Obama’s skin colour and bi-racial origins are a subtle and not-so-subtle issue in the presidential race. During the Democratic Party primaries, for example, Hillary Clinton and the former president Bill Clinton and their supporters made references to the “fact” that Obama could not appeal to enough “blue-collar workers” — meaning white working-class Americans in the main — to defeat the Republican nominee (Bill Clinton is still very upset that some in the Black community thought he was playing the “race card” to help get his wife nominated. He hasn’t met with Obama yet.)
Now the expected Republican nominee, John McCain, is playing the same dirty race card to undermine support for Obama — the likely Democratic Party nominee. The most infamous ad involved the two young white female personalities (Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton) and Obama. There is a long history of race-baiting politics using the fear of a Black man with white women in US society.
Can the United States overcome its history of racial prejudice to elect the first Black president?
Race is the elephant in the room. But few will openly acknowledge its role in this unprecedented presidential race. Code words are used by the media to avoid the issue of racism and race prejudice.
Yet the fact is the Democratic Party expects to win big in the House of Representatives and Senate races because of the very low approval rating of the Republicans, especially President George W. Bush (some 20%) and his diabolical vice-president, Dick Cheney (even less).
But the polls show the presidential race too close to call. McCain is in a statistical dead heat with Obama.
There is only one reason for this: Obama’s skin colour. The Republican attack machine led by former Bush aides is running negative ads that tell angry white voters upset by high gas prices, fewer jobs and a dark future that Obama can’t be trusted.
While it is true that the racism and racial prejudice of most whites is at historic low levels, there is no doubt that the 23% of whites who openly state they will never vote for a Black can turn the 2008 elections to the Republican nominee. The Republicans know that several “swing states’’ are in play and race can make the difference.
(The US presidential election is not won by a national popular vote. It is based on who wins the most electoral votes, which are calculated state by state. In 2000 Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral college vote to Bush.)
What’s striking is that the Republicans have been able to attack Obama by playing the “race card,” then blame Obama for explaining how the race card will be used by the Republicans. Obama has repeatedly explained that his opponents will raise the fear of him to divert discussion of the issues of war and the economy because he doesn’t look like previous presidents on US currency.
The media falls for the lie as it did four years earlier when the same tactic was used to smear (“Swift boat”) Democrat John Kerry over his military record during the Vietnam War. Worse, the pundits have all accepted the false concept of “blue-collar workers” being only white workers, leaving out Black, Latino and Asian workers.
Obama’s campaign has played its hand too carefully on the race-baiting issue. The campaign has a strategic fear that any mention of race will agitate the “fear factor” among whites and may lead them to vote for the “safe” white candidate.
Race matters because racism is institutionalised throughout US society. The fact that an African American (bi-racial but Black, because skin colour is what defines you) could be elected to the most powerful office in the world is not a concern to the ruling class. It knows Obama will defend its interests.
But that truth is not enough to be elected. Political power has been in the hands of white men so long that a change of power won’t happen without a fight.
Many mainstream, journalists are now beginning to openly discuss this elephant in the campaign. EJ Dionne Jr., of the Washington Post, observed, “There is no doubt that two keys to this election are: How many white and Latino votes will Obama lose because of his race than a white Democrat would have won? And how much will African American turnout grow, given the opportunity to elect our nation’s first Black president?”
(Dionne notes that in 1960, when John F. Kennedy ran and won as the “first Catholic president”, his religion was an issue and he won 80% of the Catholic vote — about 30% greater than the Catholic share won four years earlier.)
Obama is fully aware of this history. It’s why he is shifting on issues like affirmative action and talking more about “class” as the basis for qualifications to enter higher education and other positions. The fact is skin colour is always a factor even for wealthier, more educated Blacks. Study after study shows — and proves — that when equally qualified whites and Blacks apply for jobs, nine times out of ten, whites will get the job first. Affirmative action is necessary to level the playing field and to ensure equal opportunity. (Obama has told white audiences his two daughters won’t need it to appeal to their false belief that there is such a thing as “Black skin privilege.”)
The problem for Obama and his supporters is the blatantly racist campaigns of the past (Richard Nixon’s infamous 1968 “Southern strategy” to get poor whites to change parties) are no longer viable. Today the campaigns are more subtle as the Spears-Hilton ad showed — and they tend to work.
The Republican attack machine uses “fear” of the Black man and Obama’s alleged “elitism” (he attended Columbia University in New York and Harvard Law School) as wedge issues for white workers looking for an excuse to vote against a Black candidate.
McCain’s charge that Obama is not qualified to be commander in chief is a red herring. So is the charge of elitism — Obama’s upbringing by a single white mother and a distant father is similar n to what most working-class whites face.
The “fear the Black man” machine is not just aimed at working-class whites, but at Latinos and Asians too. It is noteworthy that two-thirds of Latinos are polling for Obama, who they see as closer to their concerns, especially on the issue of immigration. The Asian community is more divided but a majority still favour the Democrats and Obama.
Some 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., now a national hero, and the fall of legal segregation, it is amazing that a Black man may be elected president.
If the Republican attack machine succeeds in turning the election into the “white guy versus the Black man” the outcome of the election could change with many anti-racists voting for Obama to express opposition to the race baiting of the Republican campaign.
There is no way today to predict what will happen in November. In the late 1960s after the victories of the civil rights movement that led to some important legal changes in law, the first Black candidates for higher office (big city mayors) faced vicious racial attacks. Whenever those elections were nominally labeled “non-partisan” many on the socialist left backed those candidacies as a rejection of racism and to support to the right of the Black community to have elected political representation. They knew that these candidates still identified themselves as Democrats.
The 2008 presidential election has some similarities. The difference of course is that Obama doesn’t pretend to be independent. He isn’t running against the old guard of his party. He is campaigning as a “centrist” new Democrat, as seen in his positions on major issues — from energy, the economy, health care and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
World tour in this context
Obama’s quickly organised and highly publicised international trip in July, in this context, was to show the world and the United States (his main audience) that he is “presidential”. What he said was mainstream and in line with the shift in US imperial policy that began under former president Bill Clinton and accelerated under Bush.
Obama’s trip to the Middle East was not a repudiation of Bush-Cheney policies but an argument that the Democrats have a better strategic plan to protect Israel and defend US interests. Obama supports US domination of the Arab world. He advocates a more aggressive war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (He even told his staff and reporters not to wear “green” while in Israel and Jordan because it symbolises Hamas!)
Obama also told the media that he sees generals as tacticians carrying out the president’s orders. Obama, like Bush, will pick generals who support or accept his polices.
When Obama spoke to hundreds of thousands of Germans in Berlin, he focused on the responsibility of the world (“I’m a citizen of the world,” he said) to defend the “free world” from terrorism.
While much of the left sees Obama as shifting positions on Iraq by proposing a long-term withdrawal, he strongly advocates a new “surge” into Afghanistan. He is also for a more aggressive policy toward Pakistan.
Obama simply believes he’s smarter than the Bush team and thus more capable of defending US interests while he rebuilds alliances with “Old Europe” and rising Asian powers.
Obama’s domestic programs are centre-right too. The “yes you” rhetoric taps the real desire for a change of leadership. While he will support some liberal positions on women’s rights and civil rights, his healthcare program is modest and does not guarantee healthcare as a right.
On energy policy he first opposed any new off-shore drilling. But as the Republican attack machine pushed back hard, he shifted his stance to allow it if “part of a comprehensive energy plan.”
The differences with McCain are sharper on social issues like affirmative action and abortion rights. But even on these issues he is fudging more and more to appeal to religious conservatives and white blue-collar workers. In the fine traditions of Bill Clinton, Obama is saying what his audiences of white, gun-carrying Americans want to hear.
The shift to the ”centre” assumes that minorities, particularly African Americans, will turn out in big numbers and vote for him anyway. It is likely that Blacks will do so because of the historic nature of electing a Black president. But for other groups, it’s not so clear. Obama will need a big turnout to overcome the white fear factor backlash.
Two contradictory realities
While socialists recognise that lesser-evil politics can never free workers, including white workers, from capitalist exploitation and domination, the issue of race could be decisive if the Republicans are successful in turning the election into a referendum vote for or against the candidate best able to protect whites. Under those circumstances, it may be justifiable to cast a vote against McCain’s race baiting. I say this knowing that most socialists and those in favour of an independent working-class party will vote for the independent Ralph Nader or the Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney.
The contradiction of the Obama phenomenon is that it reflects two realties. One is the possibility that the world’s sole superpower is okay with having a Black man as its president.
Second, is the polarisation and legacy of racism in the United States. The reality is the ruling class may be okay but the politicians seeking the job are not ready to give up their privileges and power.
For socialists the issue of Obama (the unique figure and capitalist politician) is conflicted. On the one hand, there is no doubt that backing a candidate of the most powerful military industrial complex in the world is impossible.
On the other hand, the issue of race and racism poses the question: Is the election of Obama as the first Black president a way to push back racist ideology as it was in the1960s-70s when the first “independent” Black candidates for big city mayors were elected did?
I’m of two minds. As a socialist I will either vote for Nader or McKinney to advance the need for class independence.
But as a supporter of nationalism of the oppressed, I’m inclined to vote against the de facto race-bating campaign of McCain and elect the first Black president.
During the great American Civil War in the 1860s, Marx and Engels wholeheartedly supported the North against the South. They urged their followers to join the Union Army and help bring about the defeat of the slave owners. Marx and Engels had no illusions of what that meant for capitalist development and consolidation. But the smashing of the slave labour system and development of a modern-day US capitalism was in their view in the long-term interests of the working class.
A new body blow to racist ideology by electing a Black man as president isn’t on that order of significance for many reasons. But it would send a message that citizenship and rights should not be based on the false construct called “race” or the shade of your skin.
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Obama Raises Hopes But Pledges More War
By Barry Sheppard
(From Direct Action)
The nomination of Barack Obama as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party is historic. He is the first African American presidential candidate of one of the two major capitalist parties. He may win the election and become the first black president, something inconceivable only two years ago. That a black man might become head of government in a society still marked by ingrained racism puts race at the centre of the election campaign — more on this below.
Obama gave his acceptance speech at the end of the Democratic Party convention to some 84,000 people. Such a turnout for a presidential candidate is itself unprecedented. During the Democratic Party primary campaign Obama regularly spoke to audiences of thousands. He has raised hopes in a nation weary of war and which is in a worsening economic downturn hitting workers and the middle class hard.
At the same time Obama is the candidate of a capitalist, imperialist party. If he is elected, he will carry out policies in the interests of the US capitalist class. One front will be foreign policy, the central question of which is what the US rulers will do about their military debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama has taken on the mantle of the anti-war candidate. He has promised to bring home the troops from Iraq in 16 months after he takes office, that is, by May 2010.
This was basically the proposal put forward by the Baker-Hamilton commission at the end of 2006. Congress had set up the Iraq Study Group with James Baker, the Republican co-chair with the Democrat Lee Hamilton. Baker was a leading figure in the Reagan and Bush senior administrations. The whole Study Group was composed of “blue ribbon” ruling-class politicians. Their proposal was to begin to bring the troops away from combat, slowly, and gradually redeploy them in bases in Iraq, Kuwait, and other neighbouring countries, ready to again intervene if necessary.
Bush rejected this proposal in favour of “staying the course” with a troop increase — the “surge”. This has put stress on the troops, many of whom were forced into doing two, three or four stints in Iraq. But the “surge” has failed to achieve President George Bush’s stated goal of stabilising a pro-US regime in Iraq that can stand on its own with minimal US military support.
The Baker-Hamilton proposal, while not openly saying so, recognised that the US occupation is a political failure. It proposed a way to largely extricate the US military from Iraq while minimising the international repercussions of this defeat. Obama echoes the Study Group, tacitly accepting the fact that Iraq will be left in shambles. The US-led invasion has destroyed Iraq, whose citizens in their increasing majority want the foreign troops to leave and let them begin to rebuild their country. Under this pressure, the puppet government of Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki is demanding a timetable for US withdrawal in negotiations for a new pact with Washington to allow its troops to stay in Iraq. Malcolm X said that “when the puppet talks back to the puppeteer, the puppeteer’s in trouble.”
The Bush administration has indicated that it may have to agree to a timetable, something which it said it would never agree to. Obama was thus able to say in his speech that even the Iraqi PM and Bush have come over, leaving Republican candidate John McCain high and dry sticking to the “stay the course” refrain. But Obama, in his speech, also said that he would increase the number of US troops in Afghanistan, that the mistake was to occupy Iraq instead of “securing” Afghanistan. Afghanistan is becoming another quagmire for the US. Sending more troops there will repeat the Iraq debacle.
Obama also promises to increase the size of the armed forces, another indication of the direction his administration will take if he is elected. He reiterated his unswerving support to Israel. Historically, the Democrats have been even more implacable in their backing of the garrison Zionist state than the Repubicans.
Obama also said that he will confront Russian “aggression,” meaning Moscow’s resistance to NATO encirclement. While it was not in his acceptance speech, Obama charges that the Bush administration has not countered the Venezuelan “threat” in Latin America. He wants to regain US dominance in the region, although his plans on how to do that are unclear.
Concerning Iran, Obama positions himself as more inclined to diplomacy than Bush and McCain. He would negotiate with Iran, but with “nothing off the table” — meaning the threat of invasion or the use of nuclear weapons. But whichever of the two major candidates become president, he will inherit Washington’s Iranian debacle.
Another indicator of the direction of foreign policy under Obama is his selection of Senator Joseph Biden as his vice-presidential candidate. Biden is billed as an “old hand” on foreign policy, which means he is in the mould of Bill Clinton. It was under Clinton that the failed attack on Somalia occurred, and the 12 years of sanctions and bombing of Iraq were imposed. Another person on Obama’s team is Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeline Albright, who, when asked in 1996 about the 500,000 Iraqi children who died as a result of the sanctions, said “It’s worth it.”
The US is in a recession as far as working people are concerned. Unemployment is up. Real wages are down. Millions of families are facing foreclosure on their homes. Ten million homes have mortgages that are higher than what the homes can be sold for, and prices continue to drop. The price of gasoline has jumped over two times in as many years. Home heating oil is up, which means increased hardship for millions this winter. No-one knows how deep the credit crisis will go. All loans are becoming more expensive and harder to get. Some banks have failed already and more will follow suit.
What does Obama propose? In his speech he said “I will set a clear goal as president: In ten years we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East”. (The US actually imports far more oil from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela than it does from the Middle East.) He said he will tap natural gas resources, invest in “clean coal” and “safe” nuclear power. He pledged to spend US$150 billion in the next decade on solar, wind and biofuels.
He says he will cut taxes for 95% of working people, while scrapping the tax cut for the rich Bush pushed through. He promised health care for all. But his proposal rests on keeping health insurance in the hands of private companies, the problem in the US healthcare system in the first place. He is opposed to government-provided “single payer” health insurance for all.
Obama referred to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his speech. But he is staying clear of proposing any programs and reforms of the type FDR was compelled to implement during the 1930’s Great Depression and labour radicalization. Obama has no plan to help families facing home foreclosures. He is silent on the burning need to launch a massive public works program to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and provide work for the unemployed. He is against raising the minimum wage to where it was in 1970 — $10 an hour in today’s dollars — from the present $6.25.
Such programs are well within the boundaries of capitalism. In fact they would strengthen the system. But the capitalist class is opposed for ideological reasons to anything that smacks of social intervention and responsibilities, fearing the spectre of socialism.
The race question, front and centre
The fact that an African American may become president places the race question front and centre in the election campaign. It indicates a change in attitudes among many whites, a move away from racism. It is a reflection of the great shift the victory of the civil rights movement of the 1960s caused. Nevertheless racism among many whites remains.
In a year when nearly 80% of the population believes the country is headed in the wrong direction, and the Bush Republican administration is greatly discredited, with Democrats set to win more local, state and congressional elections, polls show McCain and Obama in a dead heat. This cannot be explained by differences in the personalities of the two — if anything, Obama is far more capable, is a much better speaker, and so forth. The only explanation is racism. The fact is, a great many whites will simply never vote for a black, even if they agree with him or her.
Racism is the elephant in the room. Few openly acknowledge its role in this unprecedented presidential election. Code words are used by the media to avoid the issue. And innuendo, not crude racism, has been used to appeal to prejudice, and will become intensified for the rest of the campaign. Bill and Hillary Clinton used such subtle appeals during the Democratic primaries. Hillary Clinton even said that Obama couldn’t win the votes “of workers, white workers”.
McCain ran an advertisement ostensibly to ridicule Obama as a celebrity by counterposing a picture of him with pictures of Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton, two blondes. The real message was to appeal to deep sexual fears many white men have of black men with white women.
Another subtle ploy is the assertion that Obama is a Muslim, circulated by Republican operatives. Something like 10% of US voters believe the charge. The appeal is not only to prejudice against Muslims that is rampant in the US, but to the fact that most Muslims in the world are coloured. On some internet sites the race hatred against Obama is vicious and open, including calls for his assassination. McCain stays silent.
Obama’s acceptance speech was a sharp attack on Bush and McCain. The theme of “change” which has been his signature was concretized into one simple idea: reject the past eight years of the Bush administration and its continuance under McCain. This theme is very popular, especially among young people of all colours, and a great number of whites.
Obama’s nomination is seen by 95% of African Americans as a historic step forward for them. The election, for most blacks, is a referendum on race. Obama has raised hopes not only that the past eight years will be overcome, but that the war in Iraq will be ended and people of colour will step into a place in the sun. If he wins, his administration will fail to fulfill those hopes. Whether this will lead to demoralisation among his followers, or anger that leads to a new period of mass action, remains to be seen.