Thursday, July 24, 2008

Being Barack Obama

Reams have been written about the historic significance of Barack Obama's amazing presidential bid. Much of the focus has been on whether or not this represents a radical transformation of the American political landscape. Those discussions place a tremendous amount of pressure and responsibility on Obama's motives and abilities: is he really an agent of change or merely a variation on the same old political theme? Is he "Black enough" to heal the nation's racial wounds? Can his very candidacy improve America's tarnished image around the world?

Following is a critique on the Obama campaign that appeared in "The Left Turn", a "national network of activists engaged in exposing and fighting the consequences of global capitalism and imperialism". It was part of a special issue entitled Turning Up the Heat: Ecology and the Left & Elections 2008. (GW)

Openings and Possibilities: The Meaning of Obama

By Kazembe Balagun and Hank Williams

Left Turn

June 14, 2008

How does the Black left engage and understand the historic presidential campaign of Barack Obama? This question is in the hearts and minds of African-American radicals around the country.

With the nomination of Barack Obama increasingly likely, there seems to be a significant block forming within the Black left community agreeing to lend a kind of “critical support” to his campaign. Activists Bill Fletcher and Danny Glover —two principal authors of the widely circulated Progressives for Obama (PFO) statement—as well as other notables such as Amiri Baraka see Obama’s candidacy as an opening to reinvigorate social movements and the see possibility of pushing him to the Left. The PFO call argues that the emerging movement, “even though it is candidate-centered…is a social movement, one greater than the candidate himself ever imagined.”

The PFO is certainly not the only perspective within Black activist circles. On the other side of the aisle are those such as the Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford who has written a series of sharp critiques on Obama’s foreign policy, his ties to traditional party politics, and his role within the machinery of capitalism. Ford and others point out that elections do not resolve the fundamental issue of power and that the US is based on a patriarchal, capitalist, racist framework. While many would agree with this critical framework put forward by Ford, they draw different conclusions on how to relate to the Obama campaign. To paraphrase historian Robin DG Kelly, political movements are not solely built on critiques or a laundry list of oppressions. One thing that is lacking in this particular critique of Obama has been acknowledgement of the very real excitement his campaign offers and the sense of agency that many are finding there. To dismiss this outright is to close the very doors we may want to open.

New openings

Obama’s campaign is a living force, bringing millions into political life for the first time. The question facing the Black Left is not only whether or not to engage with the campaign, but how does Obama’s popularity bring into focus the current political context? What is our current political moment? How do we define race, class, and gender in this time period? Can the campaign offer the opening for a radical transformation of society? How do we take advantage of what openings might be created and, more importantly, do we have the forces necessary to do the needed work to make this happen without being wholly consumed by the campaign itself? In other words, we have to ask how much of the “Obama movement” really can be said to be independent of the campaign and if there is enough people power being developed on the ground to make the uncoupling from the Obama campaign a reality after the elections?

As the primary election draws to a close, the challenge ahead will be developing an anti-racist response to the almost certain conservative White backlash, particularly if Obama is nominated. This doesn’t mean defending Obama, but using the opportunity to deepen the public’s understanding of the intersections of race, gender, and class oppression.

At the same time, given an Obama victory, the Black left must not be swept up in the initial euphoria, but rather seize the time and develop multiracial alliances to pressure Obama from the left.

Black enough?

Barack Obama is not the first major African-American leader of mixed heritage. WEB Dubois and Malcolm X had bi-racial ancestry, however where the latter were ambiguous about their relations to White ancestry, Obama has embraced his lineage as a symbol of multicultural identity and tied this to his packaging as a unifier who can bring the US together across lines of race, class, and political parties. While he has the right to embrace whatever identity he wants, much of his broad support is conditional on one premise, as Gary Younge aptly wrote in The Nation: “Don’t scare white people. At least not too many [of them] and not too much.” As Younge points out, questions of whether or not Obama is really “black enough” are really shorthand for more basic concerns of whether or not he will actually represent voters’ interests and not sell them out like so many other politicians have before.

Obama is walking a racial tightrope in his campaign. His lack of critical engagement with key issues affecting Black people in the country, such as the continuing legacy of Hurricane Katrina and the Jena 6, can’t be ignored or excused by the left.

After Obama’s idealizing moment in Iowa that suggested a post-racial future, the campaign’s racialization via the Clinton campaign’s suspected darkening of his pictures and the media uproar about Rev. Jeremiah Wright shows us that we are not in such a post-racial moment. “To think the idea that Obama’s candidacy, or presidency, will somehow move us beyond race or racism, is not only absurd, but dangerous,” says New York City-based writer and activist Kenyon Farrow.

At a time when legal racial constraints have been eliminated and people on both the right and liberal left look to a colorblind future, the Obama campaign offers an oasis of hope. For conservatives, the campaign is proof positive that inequality has been eliminated. Liberals and many on the left see an opportunity to get past the pesky demands of “identity politics,” which is usually code for sweeping demands to deal squarely with issues of gender, race, and sexuality under the rug; subsuming everything under ill-defined calls for change.

One of the major challenges for Obama’s left supporters is figuring out how to further the dialogue regarding the fundamentals of racism in the US. Rather than marginalize Wright’s comments it is imperative for left activists, particularly left intellectuals, to be able to contextualize and explain his position. The recent debate over Wright illustrates the mainstream media’s continued attempts to push issues of institutionalized racism off the agenda.

Shifting landscape

While Obama’s campaign has been able to root itself in the mass discontent with President Bush’s policies, it would be wrong to look at Obama in and of himself as the catalyst for change.

Indeed, Obama’s rise has taken place within the context of grassroots movements around the country like voter registration drives sparked by the hip-hop generation and the antiwar movement. Since the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, millions of people have taken to the streets in protest. The mass mobilizations have led to a major shift in public opinion: A clear majority of people in the US are opposed to the war, and many more are making connections between the trillions spent in military aid and the growing economic crunch at home.

The second major force has been the bookending of generations. Millions of baby boomers that grew up in the revolutionary 1960s are met with a new generation of “millennials” who are coming into political consciousness. Such a radical mix, aided by the renewed study of the civil rights/Black Power movements, has allowed for a re-articulation of left politics. Development of mass voter rights campaigns like the League of Young Voters has generated a new sensibility around issues of community involvement and empowerment, which could serve as a bridge for further radicalism.

In short, it has been this hot mix of protest, grassroots organizing, and generational shifts that has given Obama the opening to even run his campaign. Indeed, for the first time since the Reagan revolution, the presidential campaign has shifted to the left and toward populism, giving Obama the space to declare the return of troops by 2010.

The key question the Obama campaign raises is whether the Left can begin to break with the Democratic Party’s hegemony and develop democratic grassroots movements that actually build people’s power rather than subvert long-term strategy through corporatized electoral campaign politics. If we are going to talk about building a mass movement, the campaign itself is less important than whether or not it helps us develop a new praxis for organizing and struggle. Key questions we should ask are how to engage those who will emerge from the Obama experience with a politically advanced view, seeing that there are structural problems with capitalism that loom larger than the Obama campaign, or any other, can tackle. Equally important are those who may not fully realize the flaws of capitalism, but will be energized enough to want to continue some sort of political work beyond November. Large community forums like the one recently hosted in New York City by the Harlem Tenants’ Council, bringing together leaders, activists, and youth to begin critical discussion around long-term political strategy within the Black community, will play an important role as we move forward.

Further south, in the tradition of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, we saw thousands of students from the historically Black college, Prairie View A&M in Waller County, TX, march from their homes and campus to the voting booth. The demonstration was a protest against attempts by Texas to disenfranchise the students by placing the one and only polling station seven miles away. This is an example of the type of organic activity that the Obama campaign has sparked throughout the country, even as actions that are not directly tied to it. This country has long witnessed a history of Black people’s abilities to self-organize both at the margins of society as well as on the national political stage, sometimes in harmony with each other.

Two important tasks for the Left to confront are those of developing scenarios for dealing with mass demoralization if Obama loses or celebrating and pushing him to the Left if he wins. Left organizations and individuals need to continue the type of grassroots organizing work that created the critical moment for the Obama phenomenon to even exist. Grammy-award winning singer Lauryn Hill asks, “what does it mean to gain the world for the price of your soul?” History will only judge this political moment positively if a transformative vision takes root throughout the country, which means looking past November and tapping the energy that the Obama campaign has created for struggles in the future.

Much of the hope for the future is contained in the sense of possibility. The road map is being created with fire, breath, and desire. The question is no longer “What is to be Done” but rather, as Erykah Badu asks, with both boldness and trepidation, “What we going to do?”

    About the Authors

    Kazembe Balagun is Outreach Coordinator for the Brecht Forum in New York City ( Hank Williams is a PhD candidate at the City University of New York.


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