Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Life after Race.

"The proof that one truly believes is in action." - Bayard Rustin

Since the election of Barack H Obama in 2008, the first African-American President, there has been much talk of the possibility of a post-racial America. Even Obama himself has said that his election has taken race out of the equation. The electoral victory of Barack Obama was met with an explosion of optimism in America, and the West in general. The optimism, widespread among the people, at the possibility of a black family entering the White House for the first time in history, was met with a reaction from the corporate world. This reaction consisted of optimism - not for change, but for more of the same - and an eagerness to hold racial issues at arm's length, along with issues of class and gender. This is why the electoral triumph of Barack Obama has been portrayed as evidence of America's successful transition, from a fragmented white supremacist state to a united post-racial society.

During the campaign, Barack Obama was put on the defensive as his association with the "anti-American" Reverend Jeremiah Wright was called into question. The sentiments expressed by Wright were misrepresented by the media. Wright is often quoted as saying "not God bless America, God damn America!" But the full quotation was never released by the mainstream media, which was "It's not God bless America, God damn America, that's in the Bible, for killing innocent people! God damn America for treating citizens as less than human!" Nevertheless, Barack Obama was put on the defensive as Wright was accused of being "anti-American". Though, terms like "anti-American" only exist in totalitarian states, in the Soviet Union there was the concept of "anti-Sovietism" used to vilify critics of the state. So it is very typical for the term to be applied to Reverend Wright for condemning the US government for violating human rights and killing innocents - as the US government has done for decades. The function of the term's use is clear, to shut up Wright and to make sure that Obama is not a radical.

Unfortunately, Barack Obama has reassured the "masters of the universe" that he is no radical and this is reflected by the fact that Obama's campaign received $700 million from corporations, the most funding in history and around $300 million more than John McCain raised. In his speeches, Obama has continuously referred to the "wounds" of racism as something people need to move on from. This is part of the rhetoric on unity his campaign team dished out - the idea of a United America existing beyond socio-economic and political divisions. In disguising this assertion, that racial issues are a thing of the past, as a way of unifying the nation the Obama campaign made it clear that solving America's race problem would not be the focus of the Obama Years. It is almost as if issues of race may be becoming a taboo subject, just like issues of class. However, between the two it is clear that the elites prefer to pay lip-service to fighting racism, while keeping their foot on the neck of "Black America".

America is a patriarchal society founded on slavery and violence. The suffering of the black woman and man has been tremendous over the last four centuries, let alone the suffering of Native Americans, the white working class and women. Countless Africans died in slavery, at the hands of the slave-masters who settled in America. But the abolition of slavery was just one battle won. Over the decades after abolition, the rights that people had died to see applied to black people were applied to property, as corporate lawyers sought to endow corporations with the rights of human beings. The KKK and Jim Crow Laws that brutalised African-Americans for decades. Segregation became a distinct part of society in America throughout the early 20th Century, it was only in the 1960s and 70s that desegregation finally took place. But that was down to the Black Civil Rights Movement, the struggle of young black women and men - many of whom died for basic human rights. It took the American political class nearly 20 years to dedicate a day to Martin Luther King Jr. and the ideals he fought for.

For instance, Ronald Reagan opposed the proposal of a Martin Luther King Day when it was first proposed in the 1970s and opposed it until Congress caved to a petition of 6 million signatures in the early 80s.
He had also voted against the Civil Rights act in the 1960s, as did many other politicians. In 1988, the Reagan administration added Nelson Mandela to a list of "terrorists" kept by the government - a list which does not include the KKK, who have murdered thousands of blacks, Jews and any whites who got in the way. Mandela was removed from the list in 2008 by the Bush administration. Crimes such as the Jackson state shootings, in which 2 black students were left dead along with 12 injured by state police, and the Orangeburg massacre, in which 4 black students were killed and 31 injured by police officers, are still relatively ignored in political discourse. Not only is it naive to assert that America is now a post-racial society, on the basis that there is a black family in the White House, it is insulting to assert such a monumental falsehood. It is true that the election of Obama is a sign of progress, from the horrors of lynchings and segregation, but it is only one battle won in the ongoing fight for equality and liberty.

"When an individual is protesting society's refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him." - Bayard Rustin

It was nearly 50 years ago, that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his most well known speech, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, calling for equal rights to transcend the so-called boundaries of "race". The poignant line "I have a dream..." was used recurrently throughout the speech by King, and in doing so he emphasised the idealism of the demonstration. The dream he spoke of, was a vision of equality in America, the dream came embossed with heavy religious overtones and patriotic rhetoric. The words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. that day have echoed through the decades since and are still remembered today. King's words are remembered as the definitive moment and expression of the ideals which the Black Civil Rights Movement fought for in those days.

Many have forgotten, or not even heard, of Bayard Rustin who helped organise the march with A Phillip Randolph. Partly because many other figures involved in the Civil Rights Movement, namely Roy Wilkins, did not want Rustin to receive any praise for his role in the march - because of his open homosexuality and his socialist beliefs. During the 1950s, the decade of anti-communist crusades, Martin Luther King Jr. and other African-American figures were attacked for their association with the perceived "anti-American" left-wing elements such as unionists, Marxists, socialists and anarchists. One function of the patriotic and religious language utilised by King in his speeches, was to distance himself from socialists like Bayard Rustin. This is even true of King's speech at the Washington March for Jobs and Freedom.

There are people who would rather remember the Civil Rights Movement as exemplified entirely by King's tearful eyes, grace and eloquence in the face of brutality by white supremacists and reactionaries. But not as a struggle fought by young men and women against a power structure. A power structure based on violence and tyranny, sanctioned and sponsored by the government and "Corporate America". This power structure could be described simply as rich, white and male - though, one could add heterosexual and Christian to that description. For the most part, this structure has remained entact and continues to function, despite the best efforts of radical activists representing ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals and the poor alike.

We are taught to remember King's brave fight against segregation, racism and oppression - which should not be ignored. But we are not taught to remember King for his pacifist opposition to the Vietnam War or his socialist leanings. Many aren't even aware of King's friendship with Bayard Rustin, who served as his adviser and introduced him to Gandhi's ideas of nonviolent resistance. At the time of his death, Martin Luther King Jr. was involved in a campaign, which was much broader than the African-American Civil Rights Movement and had goals of equal importance, and was aiming to construct a movement for poor people. At the time class issues were taboo in political discourse, and still is in many ways, as was race. But it seems as though there has been a return to the days when both were topics to avoid in order to succeed.

Many American journalists and pundits attempted to portray Jeremiah Wright as a racist and attempted to portray his sermons as separatist in nature, as a threat to the unity of the nation. This is reflective of the preference for Martin Luther King Jr. over Malcolm X that is common in predominantly white societies. King is remembered for his unconditional love and compassion, as informed by his religious conviction. Malcolm X is remembered more as an aggressive figure, even as a racist figure. Martin Luther King Jr. is commonly associated with peace, whereas Malcolm X is commonly associated with violence. King is associated with integration, Malcolm X is associated with the Nation of Islam and by extension separatism. Wright's aggressive tone and style of delivery is what has led to him being likened more to Malcolm X than to Martin Luther King.

The truth is that Malcolm X is a lot scarier to whites than Martin Luther King Jr. This is because of the aggressive style in which Malcolm X conveyed ideas of self-determination, independence and autonomy for African-Americans. On the other hand, King spoke with the style of a Baptist preacher and spoke with love about peace and unity. Malcolm X would not accept the surname "Little", which was probably passed onto his ancestors by a slave-master with the surname "Little", and instead chooses "X" as symbolic of the African name he will never know. The name Malcolm X is in itself is a distinct reminder of the nameless condition experienced by black people since the days of slavery. Unlike Martin X, Martin Luther King Jr. kept the name he had been given at birth - the name of Protestant theologian Martin Luther.

Despite what "White America" may want, think or feel, the words of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X had to be said and need to be heard. The uncompromising and "harsh" rhetoric of Malcolm X, and the Nation of Islam, had to be said because a firm condemnation of white supremacy had to be made. The horrific and immoral nature of the crimes committed by white men had to be addressed. The "Love thy Enemy" approach taken by King would not suffice in condemnation of such crimes.
Only Malcolm X had the bravery to indict "White America" for its criminal conduct in the "harshest" of terms, almost as a way of reciprocating the anger and mistreatment white men often "dished out" so eagerly.

"To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true." - Bayard Rustin

During the campaign months, Obama was able to capitalise on black solidarity as he made an effort to reassure the business class of his credibility and neutralise the anxieties prevalent among white voters. To "Corporate America" he proved his credibility by accepting hundreds of millions of dollars in backing, which will no doubt shape policy during his tenure. In accepting such corporate support, Obama confirmed his dedication to the same long-term plans and goals as the Republicans - to maintain the status quo. To "White America" he distanced himself from the rhetoric of Jeremiah Wright, and by extension the black liberation theology which was developed during the Civil Rights Movement. It could be argued that this was a necessary move to win the election. Nevertheless, it is a shame that the struggle for racial equality is now considered too radical for mainstream American politics. Though, if we're honest with ourselves, it always was.

History appears to have repeated itself, as Marx once said "first as tragedy, then as farce." The way in which the faces of the Black Civil Rights Movement distanced themselves from the gay leftist Bayard Rustin in 1963 was tragic, because it mimicked the kind of discrimination exercised by whites against blacks. But the way in which Obama, and the Democrats, distanced themselves from the black radical Jeremiah Wright seems farcical by comparison. In fact, some of the defenders of Jeremiah Wright have claimed that his words did not differ so greatly from the words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. But as Dr Cornel West pointed out, the big difference between Wright and King is that the latter delivered his message with love and compassion for the victims of oppression - but also for the oppressor who will inevitably reap what they sow. Rustin embodied that which was considered "un-American" in the backward days before desegregation. But today it is Wright, a preacher of liberation theology, who is considered "anti-American" in this supposedly post-racial age.

The facts are that race still matters in America, and in the West in general, despite the many years of struggle and the progress made. This was demonstrated perfectly by Hurricane Katrina and it's aftermath - thousands have yet to return to their homes. But it should not be surprising in this day and age that rich white men do not care, or even think about, the needs of poor black people. Just as the rich do not care about the needs of any minority, woman or working-class individual.
In the words of Howard Zinn: "I wish President Obama would listen carefully to Martin Luther King. I'm sure he pays verbal homage, as everyone does, to Martin Luther King. But he ought to think before he sends missiles over Pakistan, before he agrees to this bloated military budget, before he sends troops to Afghanistan, before he opposes the single-payer system. He ought to ask what would Martin Luther King do? and what Martin Luther King would say?"

From Protest to Politics - by Bayard Rustin (1965)

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