“Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America. … There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. … It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores.” — Barack Obama, July 27, 2004
Barack Obama, a state senator from Illinois and a candidate for the United States Senate, burst onto the scene at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 with a keynote address that attempted to bridge the divide between the “Blue States” and the “Red States,” or “liberal America” and “conservative America.”
Four years later, in 2008, Senator Barack Obama was the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party and was even more hopefully proclaiming “Yes We Can.” Well, yes, America could: it could elect Barack Obama and make him the first Black President. And, yes, America could reelect Barack Obama in 2012.
However, the question is: who is this “We” in “Yes We Can”? From the beginning of Barack Obama’s rise to power, his promise has been to bring people together. “We can disagree without being disagreeable” is one of Obama’s less inspiring lines– most of them have been very inspiring. That is, they’ve inspired about half the voters in the United States to love him and the other half to hate him.
From the beginning, Barack Obama seemed to be promising progress without pain, and with everybody getting along– even if some of the people (the colonized) were in a whole lot of pain already, and were suffering precisely because other people (the colonizers) were enjoying material benefits gained from the capitalist exploitation of the colonized.
Obama promised to erase these differences, and to help us move beyond all the bickering and divisiveness that come from our focus on these differences. This was comforting– to the colonizers, to bourgeois white liberals. It erased our discomfort about these differences by erasing our acknowledgement of the painful material reality experienced by the colonized: the reality of European imperialist capitalism’s six hundred years of ongoing genocide against Africans/Black people, Indigenous peoples, Latinxs, Palestinians, and the majority of humanity.
Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) was not aiming to make people comfortable, especially white liberals, when he said:
“Whenever articles are written, whenever political speeches are given, or whenever analysis are made about a situation, it is assumed that certain people of one group, either the left or the right, the rich or the poor, the whites or the blacks, are causing polarization. The fact is that conditions cause polarization, and that certain people can act as catalysts to speed up the polarization; for example, Rap Brown or Huey Newton can be a catalyst for speeding up the polarization of blacks against whites in the United States, but the conditions are already there. George Wallace can speed up the polarization of white against blacks in America, but again, the conditions are already there.”
Kwame Ture taught us that qualitative systemic change– or revolution–always requires that those who truly want an egalitarian system (or socialism) recognize the dialectic. Kwame Ture wasn’t seeking to erase the divisions between the oppressor and the oppressed. He was organizing with his people (not “us”) to gain power, and through this power to break free from white-controlled capitalist oppression. But this fight for actual power by oppressed Black people did not make European colonizers comfortable in the 1960s, and it still doesn’t make us comfortable fifty years later– which is probably one of the reasons Kwame Ture was completely omitted from the film Selma.
Of course, Kwame Ture wasn’t seeking to win a bourgeois election. Barack Obama was. And, as far as bourgeois politicians go, Barack Obama is one of the greatest ever. While Trump and his supporters are reminding us of what Germany may have looked like before Hitler took power, and “Bernie Bros” are attacking Black women on Twitter, here is the beautiful First Family– Barack, Michelle, and their two daughters– in the middle of the storm and frenzy, an eternal source of inspiration and pride that could have been celebrated in any other country that didn’t have such irresolvable contradictions.
Barack Obama symbolizes both the idealist hope and the material futility of attempting to resolve the contradiction of colonizer and colonized, oppressor and oppressed. Obama’s presidency demonstrates how race and class are forever linked in this settler colony called the “United States of America.”
President Obama has ordered bombs to be dropped on other countries, so that capitalism’s power could be sustained and expanded– for the benefit of whites. Obama has deported more humans than any other President in history, locking up transgender women of color with men in detention centers resembling concentration camps– and the main beneficiaries of these policies have been whites. Under the Obama administration, police brutality and mass incarceration targeting Black people has gone on pretty much the same as it has since Reagan and Clinton– and the main beneficiaries of this ongoing genocide are upwardly mobile whites who gentrify neighborhoods in Portland, Oakland and Brooklyn.
And how have whites responded to Obama’s efforts on our behalf? We nominated the most racist Republican imaginable and a Democratic ticket that looks like it belongs in the 1980s (with a promotion for the white woman up from a mere VP nominee). On some days it seems as if there is absolute chaos in the “United States of America.” The things coming out of Trump’s mouth are more bizarre than a scene from The Manchurian Candidate (the original starring Frank Sinatra, natch). The police murders of Black people, as well as the ignored murders of Black transgender women (that are rooted in the same systemic oppression), continue at a rate that would make any humane country weep at such evil and become agitated to change this evil at any cost.
Yet white people in the United States remain as comfortable, smug and arrogant as ever. Our main discomfort is getting home from work while these annoying protesters block the freeway, or having hurt feelings when a Black woman on Twitter won’t educate us about her oppression, or not being able to enjoy our brunch (again, those noisy, disrespectful protesters) in “our” gentrified neighborhood (with “our” new Whole Foods store nearby).
Barack Obama is blamed for everything else, but we certainly can’t blame him for the need of white people to have uninterrupted, oblivious comfort. No– that’s entirely on us. And “we” are the reason Obama has been elevated as a symbolic source of comfort to “us”– not “they” and not “them.” Not the colonized, but us: the colonizer.
President Obama likes to talk about the trajectory of history, and this trajectory or pattern that we recognize in the behavior of the colonizer (white people) goes back several decades– actually all the way back to the beginning of this country, and even before that to 1492, and to 1482 with the building of Elmina Castle in Ghana … but perhaps it would be helpful to narrow the scope to the past thirty or forty years in the United States.
The colonial and neocolonial domination of the globe by the U.S. following World War II was beginning to sputter and run out of gas (quite literally) in the 1970s. This was just in time for Reagan to create the myth of the “Welfare Queen” and the problem of crack cocaine, and to declare a War on Black People (unofficially of course), or at least a new plan of attack as part of the five hundred year war waged by European imperialist capitalism on Africans and Indigenous peoples.
Reagan was reelected for a fourth term after Bill Clinton had Ricky Ray Rector-ed and Sister Souljah-ed his way into office in 1992. This meant more Black people and more brown people rounded up by police departments– now more heavily armed than ever with deadlier weapons as well as Draconian laws. This meant more white kids (like me) would be going to college, while more Black kids went to prison, receiving third strike mandatory sentences for pot offenses that no white kid in my high school would ever be charged with even one time.
Fast forward to 2008, and one or two recessions later, and capitalism is still sputtering along, except this time the looming crisis is making white people seriously uncomfortable. These other recessions– and the permanent, uninterrupted recession plaguing inner cities called “globalization”– hadn’t hit us in the same way that these “downturns in the market” had left a path of destruction among Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities. The system that was “the hope of [white] immigrants setting out for distant shores [of Indigenous peoples],” the system that had refused to pay reparations to Africans who had built this empire for us, was falling apart. Whites were feeling very uncomfortable. Colonial exploitation, and the criminalization of Black lives, hadn’t been paying us like it once did in the good ol’ days.
So we turned to Barack Obama, who was running for Reagan’s eighth term. Obama was like a balm for white insecurity, a comforting ointment, a soothing cream of patriotic exceptionalism and sparkly diversity– a thick glop of “USA! USA!” that was spread on liberally in his famous Philadelphia “Race Speech”:
” … the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.”
Obama was capitalizing on this political moment by attempting to smooth over the fundamental contradiction of “America”: that it is a settler colony on stolen Indigenous land, built solely through genocide against the rightful inhabitants and enslaved Africans. In this speech, Obama seemed to equate the anger of Black people with the anger of whites (going back to the “Red States”-“Blue States” formula). This equation was a comfort to whites who now could– to use another Obama phrase— “kick the can down the road” when it comes to dealing with the dialectical and material reality they are the colonized and we are the colonizers.
Through the system of white power, European colonizers have wiped out most of the Indigenous population of this continent while living off the stolen labor, resources and lives of Africa and the world. And yet, miraculously enough, not one white person is to blame. Conservative whites aren’t to blame. Liberals whites aren’t to blame. Leftist whites aren’t to blame. Imagine that: six centuries, and counting, of genocide on a global scale, and if we ask a white person who is responsible, the (implied) answer is almost always going to be: “Not me.”
But who is this “We” in “Yes We Can”? White people sure can turn “us” and “them” into “we” in a hurry when capitalism is in crisis. It was not “we” when Detroit, Baltimore and other urban centers were destroyed by globalization and white flight. It was not “we” when Black people were being given inhumanely long sentences just for providing a source of income to their families with drug sales that are now turning white entrepreneurs into millionaires. Perhaps, deep down, “we”– as in white people– knew this difference to be true, knew how inhumane our behavior had been toward them, and we needed an Obama to soothe our consciences as the U.S. prepared to deal with yet another massive crisis of imperialism.
I would like to read a study– to write one is “above my pay grade”– that examines the material basis for the rising awareness of police and vigilante violence against Black people during the Obama years. Of course, this colonial genocide has continued without pause in the “New World” ever since Columbus’s terrorist attack that is still commemorated by a federal holiday. But there’s an interesting theory that a more qualified person could make that the greater scrutiny on police brutality, and the increase of protests against it, may be connected to the home foreclosure crisis, the stock market crash of 2008, and then the ensuing economic recovery that has primarily benefited whites– at the expense of Black people. That is, someone might look into statistics on how white people who lost homes and jobs in 2008 later bought homes in gentrified neighborhoods (the cost of these homes literally being “a steal”) and found new jobs while people of color continued to be devastated by capitalist oppression– and by the police whose job is to protect capitalism for the benefit of us. After all, someone who is more qualified certainly must have already said that the police are quite simply nothing more than a solution to the problem of poverty or economic inequality. It seems clear that the Black Lives Matter protests and uprisings taking place today are the immediate response to the many decades of racist policies that Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.”
Barack Obama’s brand of “Hope” and “Change” was a bright red-white-and-blue sticker that white people could slap over the contradictions of the New Jim Crow (and the New World) that we didn’t want to look at.
America wasn’t created to work for everybody– it was created to bring comfort and security to “us” at the expense of “them.” But the understandable pride and inspiration we experienced (that is, if we weren’t Republicans), and the joy we felt when we looked up on the stage and saw Barack Obama and family, weren’t meant to unify whites and Black people– these feelings were meant to erase five hundred years or more of colonial exploitation and terror.
In 2008 white people, and the system built by us and for us, were confronted with yet another imperialist crisis– this one threatening to be worse than the “Great Depression” (the entire history of Western capitalism has been a great depression for Africa and the world). This was a time when the ableist-term “racial colorblindness” became an ideological necessity designed to uphold a material necessity. By electing a Black President, who had ingenuously tapped into both our insecurity (white guilt) and our smug indifference, white people were able to gain the confidence we needed to proceed with even more violent neoliberal policies against people of color, our collective conscience now shielded from any accusation of racism.
President Obama continues to go out of his way to make white people comfortable. But that’s why he’s President Obama– whites would never elect a Black person who makes us feel uncomfortable.
In an era of “Black Lives Matter,” President Obama is still an “All Lives Matter” kind of guy. Red States matter, Blue States matter. Conservatives matter, liberals matter. People who support this imperialist war matter, and people who oppose that imperialist war matter. There’s no need to recognize the dialectic. The main thing is to make white people feel comfortable so capitalism can go about stealing even greater profits.
Barack Obama is my favorite President– as far as Presidents go. I like him on a personal level. I don’t know how he sleeps at night. But my view of him would put me at odds with some of my revolutionary friends. I still have a soft spot for him. I don’t feel negative about Barack Obama.
My criticism is directed toward the white population in the United States that used the political symbolism of Barack Obama as a way to comfort us and insulate us from our ongoing crimes against humanity– our crimes against Obama’s community, Black people.
White people refuse to be uncomfortable about any discussion of race (as if more discussions and conversations are what is necessary). We’re like living, breathing Starbucks cups: saying we want to “Race Together,” while misspelling and mispronouncing the names of “blacks” and “other minorities.” We’re more comfortable being oblivious about our mistakes than the fact that we continue to make them.
Whites are becoming less and less popular around the world– but then Obama soothes us with another speech that splits things right down the middle, and, oh well, that’s why pencils have erasers. Whites refuse to take responsibility for our complicity in colonial genocide. We refuse to pay reparations to Black people. Instead, we co-opt Obama’s Blackness as being an “American” thing, while the material reality of Obama’s imperialist policies is the only thing that is “American”– which is, by definition, anti-Black.
Barack Obama has been a comfort to liberal European colonizers for nearly eight years, but once he’s gone, watch out: things are about to get very uncomfortable for us, just like we’ve been been making things, during these six hundred years, for them.