From the Marx and Coca-Cola blog:
Last week Barack Obama gave a big speech in Philly on race in America, mostly to distance himself from comments made by his former pastor (apparently when you run for president the opinions of people you know automatically become your own). At the risk of losing my ultra-leftist street cred, I have to say that some of his speech was not all together wrong. It will probably be the only thing intelligent this entire presidential campaign season.
Before I get into the speech I should talk about how race is treated in this country. America likes to think of itself as a classless society. Instead we have race, which has become a short-hand for class. Black equals poor, and white equals rich, and we ignore the other races. While it's true that black people make up a disproportionally percentage of the poor, we ignore the fact that 75% of black people live above the federal poverty line. We also ignore the fact that the majority of people below the poverty line are white. If you are black and have a job, or are white and have trouble paying your rent, you don't exist. And starting after the repeal of Jim Crow, and accelerating in the 80's, this view has been the consensus in politics and the media. It has turned public policy (and consciousness) away from important economic issues to one of trifling identity politics. And that brings me back to Barack's speech:
About 16 minutes into it he actually challenges the liberal consensus of race (the speech itself is 37 minutes long. About 36:30 longer than the typical campaign speech). He starts by doing something I've never seen a politician do, and probably never will again: he puts an issue in historical context.
"But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.
Legalized discrimination -- where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments -- meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations.
That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities....And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods -- parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement -- all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us."
This pretty much sums up where we are today. While slavery and Jim Crow where embodied in the legal code, and since the laws where changed are now gone forever. The problems today are economic. They are built into the capitalist system, and they can't be legislated away. And like all issues of class it's an issue of power and opportunities. That's why things are slow to get better. Liberals like to attack racism today like racism of old; through busing or affirmative action or other legislative programs. It rarely helps though. The hardships facing working class black people today are the same facing all people of the working class. Barack touches on this:
"But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.
Their experience is the immigrant experience -- as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor.
They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.
So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time."
He goes on to explain how this misplaced anger fueled the rise of Reaganism. And he is right. Since black equals poor concerns about closing factories, failing schools, and substandard health care aren't important to white voters. They only care about flag burning or gay marriage or whatever. That's why in the last four years we've seen Democrats move away from identity politics back to economic populism; they got tired of losing elections. Obama especially can't be seen as the "black candidate" if he wants to win. In the primary so far he's done really well with guilty upper class whites, and poorly with working class whites.
"Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze -- a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.
And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns -- this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding."
In this speech at least Barack seems to understand that the economic infrastructure is the root of the problems in America, though he characterizes capitalism-as-usual as some defect in an otherwise healthy system. Like most politicians he will only mention the "c-word" (that's "class" get your mind out of the gutter) if he talking about that mythical "middle-class" every likes to think they belong to. As long as the working class anger is directed at other races, and not at the capitalist system "a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many." will continue. Towards the end he gives this prescription for what ails us:
"This time we want to talk about how the lines in the emergency room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care, who don't have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.
This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life.
This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.
This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag.
We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should've been authorized and never should've been waged, and we want to talk about how we'll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned."
But talking is all he's going to do. Poking around his website it appears to me that his reforms are rather weak. He talks a lot about tax breaks. Tax breaks for "working families" (I guess us single people don't work. We just sit around in front of our laptops all day.), tax breaks for college students, tax breaks to strengthen marriages, blah blah blah tax breaks. His health care plan seems to consist of expanding medicaid, and putting a cap on private insurance premiums. He wants to make NAFTA friendlier not end it. He pays the typical Democratic lip service to labor unions and welfare programs. Nothing I would call "change".
I have the audacity of hoping that Barack's speech is part of a larger change in the way Americans are thinking about society. There seems to be a movement in thought towards a politics of class. Instead of looking at a world split up between races or genders or civilizations or whatever we need to look at a world divided between those who control the wealth and those that labor to create it. Only if we can unite for our economic interest can we have real change we can believe in.
But what do I know. I'm just a poor white dude. I don't really exist.
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