The late great community organizer and Martin Luther King advisor, Saul Alinsky, once quipped that the definition of a liberal is one who with righteous indignation stomps his foot down in thin air. He must have had Barak Obama in mind.
To Alinsky, like MLK, it was simply far too easy, if not meaningless, to weigh in against issues such as hunger, homelessness, and racism without tearing down the ugly institutional fabric and priorities that make these American mainstays very much a part of its crafted and accepted landscape.
Today, Alinsky and King must be growling as they watch the likes of governors, senators and Barak Obama fall all over each other in their race to win empty moral points and votes by tearing down the confederate flag, the rebel “stars and bars,” from government buildings all over the South in this readily transparent, cheap answer to the still breathing institutional reach of “badges and incidents of slavery.”
Slavery was more than the purchase and trade of human beings as so much chattel to feed the economic machinery of Southern white elite- it was a then statement of lawful institutional power, indeed absolute control, over the life and death of millions of people of color controlling every aspect of their existence, day in and out, from the cradle to the grave. No aspect of the slave experience in America was then the lawful province of a black man or woman: not their choice to come to America; who to partner with; whether to have children and what was to become of them; which religion, if any, to observe; what education to pursue; where to reside; what to own or sell; what to eat and when; where to travel and, of course, work; what to say or merely think out loud, to name but a few of the many essential aspects of life and individual freedom that we take for granted. Some things just don’t change.
The machinery of state that brought us slavery hundreds of years ago has never disappeared-it’s just been reconfigured, prettied up, so to speak. Today, wrapped in a new suit of red, white and blue and fueled by trite football stadium pledges, it perpetuates the same institutional control and misery over the lives of millions of people of color throughout the United States just as it first reigned supreme in the South 350 years ago and has continued unabated through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, ” separate but equal,” and the era of civil rights legislation and activism. It continues today, indeed rests comfortably, at the front door of the White House that serves as home to it’s first African American tenant.
Although the purchase of human beings is now illegal in the U.S., practically speaking, government ownership of human and political rights, aspirations and opportunity based upon color, class, and politics remains today every bit as routine and acceptable as it was in South Carolina 150 years ago. Some things just don’t change.
Today, the howl of the pandering political chorus is just so much noise. Although some elected officials may actually be willing to challenge the racist institutional beast in this country, in reality very little can be done by them in confronting the ugliness of its marrow- now in its third century. Of course, a representative can change a state flag, or allocate funds for revitalizing urban infrastructure, or truly end red-lining in the housing market. None, however, has the power of a willing President who from his bully-pulpit built on executive power can make meaningful changes like no other. Ask Lincoln or LBJ- a Southern president who broke the back of Jim Crow.
Barak Obama is a remarkable speaker, certainly among the most gifted and charismatic orators the White House has ever known. A week ago in a packed arena in downtown Charleston, he gave the eulogy at the funeral of nine African Americans of all ages and backgrounds who were murdered, apparently by a crazed 21 year old fueled by the seductive appeal of white supremacy and the stench of nationalism- of course armed with his Second Amendment rights. There Obama spoke with dramatic thunder from on high perched on a mountain top that he has never had to personally climb, let alone cared to traverse. Obama’s career is indeed a remarkable one built from his earliest days as a “community organizer” who helped evict poor and working class black families from inner city brownstones to make way for church sponsored development projects that would improve the plight of upper-middle class blacks.
In eulogizing Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the historic black church where the mayhem took place, the President praised his lifetime commitment to truth and applauded him for exposing and confronting the poison that is racism. In particular, the President noted that Pinckney felt ” strongly about equal justice, economic fairness, and universal access to healthcare and education.” Where have we heard these words before? Is this the same Obama who in his first run for president threw his African American pastor of 20 years, Rev. Wright, under the electoral college bus because of his similar, but then, ” intemperate” and “radical” sermons about two Americas- one white, the other black? What was there about Wright’s peaceful and consistent lifetime call to arms and struggle to confront the ugly pervasive reach of structural racism in this country that rendered his word “divisive,” but now, praiseworthy from Pinckney? How is Obama’s call for a “reckoning on race” any different today than Rev. Wright’s powerful and principled challenge to modern day slavery, found to be so offensive to Obama seemingly just yesterday? What has changed in this relatively short time since then candidate Obama banished Rev.Wright from the moral pulpit preaching out against racism and it’s deadly reach other than the President is now so much a lame duck preparing not for another term, but for the road and its speaking circuit that, like Bill Clinton, will earn him hundreds of millions of dollars in engagements. Can it be that as ex-president Obama will seek to promote himself as so much the traveling moral voice of justice and equality which he so carefully promoted throughout his lifetime campaigns for higher and higher office but, in practice, artfully avoided like the plague in his political life- be it on a local, state or national level?
Obama’s description of the confederate flag as a terrible legacy, a continuing symbol of “systematic oppression and racial subjugation” while apt was still yet another example of his Mandrake-like ability to exalt form over substance and in so doing make his apologists smile and feel warm and hopeful while he waves his magic wand. At days end, that flag, like the stars and stripes (indeed, like all flags) are so much about PR and little else- a chant, a promise, a feel-good moment to cover over the despair of the many for whom a flag has never meant solace or justice. Whether in the days of de jure slavery or the de facto institution of today, neither flag has spoken with honesty and truth about the many Americas that are this country: one white, one of color; one rich, one poor; one privileged, one powerless; one trapped by poverty, and the other which exploits it. Flags are mere symbols. Words verbal gestures. Nothing speaks louder than deeds – taking daring steps at the risk of personal pain and political failure in pursuit of essential, fundamental and necessary changes to a country stolen from Indians, built by slaves and now occupied by the sons and daughters of immigrants.
Obama is right: to remove the confederate stars and bars as a symbol of racial supremacy is “one step in an honest accounting” in American History. However, taking down that flag or raising the stars and stripes does not mean a draw-down is near to the police murders of young black men throughout this country that have become very much endemic to this administration’s reign. Nor does it mean an end to the destructive and record imprisonment of women and men of color that this administration continues to set each year under the watchful eyes of a black president and the obedient ones of his black Attorney General and black Director of the Bureau of Prisons. Ultimately, racial oppression is just that whether carried out under the watch of a black man or white woman.
No, Mr. President, it is not enough that we stop using the word nigger or demand that Jamal get a second call-back for a job interview the same way that Johnny does, not when your prisons are bursting at the seams with people of color imprisoned mostly for non-violent and complaintless drug offenses. And what of Tarik and Rula and Juan and Running Bear . . . Words about breaking down the historical walls of racial divide may be soothing and can surely inspire, but your administration has erected more walls of poverty, despair and rampant police violence in inner city communities across this country than George Bush and his likes ever dreamed of.
Just ask the millions of people of color who have been racially profiled, harassed and arrested throughout the United States these last seven years because of increased Obama funding of police departments- who see the so-called stop and frisk programs as an effective way in which to control inner cities at the expense of the constitutional rights and and personal dignity of those who live or are trapped there on the basis of race and class and little else. And what of the billons spent by this administration, essentially militarizing the same police with advanced high-tech weaponry, vehicles and military style uniforms that not only remind us of images from Middle East war zones, but embolden them to act not just as protectors of our laws but, rather, as soldiers in life and death combat, with every person of color that they encounter on our streets
considered to be suspicious or an enemy. Indeed, the massive proliferation of so-called JTTF’s (Joint Terrorist task Forces) from coast to coast from large cities to small has turned thousands of once traffic-cops into “special intelligence” agents with no particular intelligence or specialized training at that.
Indeed, the list of broken domestic dreams and lost opportunities runs on and on under an administration that was swept to power on the back of charisma and bold promises to make the kinds of essential structural changes necessary to remove race, class, and politics as a stepping stone for the “American dream.” With two terms of school and hospital closings, decaying infrastructure, soaring college costs in the face of lost scholarships and college loans, and meaningful employment opportunities largely limited to the sons and daughters of the white classes, Obama’s rhetoric has proven to be just that and little more.
Poetry can make people smile. The truth however can and should make us weep that the color of one’s skin remains more important today than the content of their character more than 50 years after Martin Luther King’s famous dream.
Now midway through our second continuous decade of war, expanding week by week in ferocity and venues, Barak Obama, our Nobel laureate of peace, has proven to be every bit as violent and deadly as George Bush when it comes to the murder of people of color abroad. The road map of peace is after-all covered with the bodies of thousands of civilians whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, armed with the name Mohammed, praying five times a day instead of once per week, when the killer drones struck. Can it be a stretch to argue that the foreign policies of this administration which include extrajudicial assassinations of U.S. citizens, race and religious based rhetoric and attacks, and which convert all “enemies”– real and imagined– into terrorists along with the militarization of our police, has helped to foster a domestic environment of fear and hatred in which madness seems not just possible but, to the disturbed among us, acceptable- indeed, noble? In these past seven years how many hundreds of our young and old of all color have been lost in schools, churches and workplaces to the mindless rage of rhetoric and a deranged call to arms?
To sermonize from on high about lofty goals, but yet, calculate them in terms of little more than votes and not in human costs with a face is the hallmark of a fraud; a label well-worn by Obama, and most of his predecessors. It is simply not enough to roar with the heart of a lion unless you have the soul of a sage and the integrity of a visionary. History will show that Barak Obama was little more than a gifted speech maker who froze when confronting the living reality of racism and the innate disease that is it’s public face and continuing reach.