[Marxism] Race, class and Obama

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 29 07:54:24 MDT 2011

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Monday, August 29, 2011
Race, Class, and Obama

By Clarence Lang

In his latest book, The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on 
Race and Rage (Ecco), published in May, the journalist Ellis Cose 
argues that middle-class African-Americans are uniquely optimistic 
about the future. A few months later, however, the Pew Research 
Center disclosed that from 2005 to 2009, the racial wealth gap had 
reached a record high, with wealth falling by 53 percent among 
black households. That news arrived as President Obama and 
Congress brokered an end to the debt-ceiling standoff, laying the 
groundwork for deficit cuts that will disproportionately affect 
black Americans. Meanwhile, prominent voices in the black public 
sphere have been urging African-Americans to defend Obama against 
his detractors. How to reconcile Cose's optimism, Pew's findings, 
and the appeals of African-Americans to circle the wagons, even as 
Obama appeases Republicans by sacrificing black constituencies and 
interests? Simply put, you can't.

The dissonances of the past few months indicate how class 
complicates black politics. African-Americans have traditionally 
perceived their fates as linked, so for some, the thinking goes, 
public criticism of Obama undermines the collective interests of 
the black community. This view, expressed recently by the Rev. Al 
Sharpton and the radio personality Tom Joyner, reflects the 
anxiety and optimism of striving black professionals, many of whom 
regard the president as a symbol of black middle-class triumph. 
But their insistence on keeping quiet, however well-meaning, 
carries dangers that black-studies scholars are well positioned to 
highlight and critique.

To do so, we need to take a look at how race and class have shaped 
the Obama phenomenon from the beginning.

As the sociologist Jennifer F. Hamer suggests in Abandoned in the 
Heartland: Work, Family, and Living in East St. Louis (University 
of California Press, 2011), Obama's presidential campaign unfolded 
during a calamitous period for most African-Americans, beginning 
with the disenfranchisement of black voters in the 2000 elections; 
the deprivations exposed by Hurricane Katrina; and a staggering 
black jobless figure that is more than twice the rate for whites. 
According to "The State of America's Children," a 2011 report put 
out by the Children's Defense Fund, nearly 40 percent of black 
children in America lived in poverty in 2009. Predatory loans, 
turmoil in the housing market, and the scaling back of 
public-sector professions has now begun to erode the black middle 

Class and race provided a subtext to Obama's campaign. Projecting 
an image of black middle-class respectability, Obama understood 
that displays of emotion, especially anger, put him at risk of 
being framed as a thug. (Note how the Republican presidential 
hopeful Michele Bachmann has used this tactic, referring to his 
administration as "gangster government.") Paradoxically, Obama's 
opponents also used his Ivy League credentials, cerebral manner, 
and air of relaxed confidence to accuse him of being, in Georgia 
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland's words, "uppity"—a term historically used 
by whites to disparage African-Americans considered too smart or 
successful for their own good.

But Obama was not simply the object of race and class anxieties. 
He strategically employed them, too. As Thomas J. Sugrue notes in 
Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race (Princeton 
University Press, 2010), Obama admonished African-American 
audiences for their overreliance on government and their 
dysfunctional child-rearing. This rhetoric was aimed at white 
television viewers, who wanted proof that Obama could get "tough" 
with black people. Yet he was also drawing on a heritage of black 
"racial uplift," whereby black middle-class professionals assume 
stewardship of the poor masses—lifting them on their backs as they 
climb the ladder of racial progress. Those African-Americans who 
applauded Obama's words weren't castigating themselves; rather, 
they were making clear that they don't engage in backward 
behavior, while acknowledging that others in the community were in 
need of uplift. Obama's performances were, moreover, consistent 
with the Democratic Party's overall swing to the right.

The narrative of racial uplift was reinforced by the Black 
Enterprise magazine publisher, Earl G. Graves Sr. In a widely 
circulated essay, he asserted that Obama's victory proved that 
black youth had "no more excuses" for not succeeding. From Booker 
T. Washington's Up From Slavery to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 
faith in perseverance and victory over adversity have been 
mainstays of black narrative. Obama's election confirmed that 
belief, and Graves echoed it. Yet Graves's message, intended as 
motivation, nonetheless implied that poor blacks were to blame for 
an economic debacle they did not cause.

Since then, as the right has challenged Obama—sometimes with crude 
racist mockery, cultural "othering," and political caricature (as 
in the case of an Orange County Republican official who 
distributed an e-mail to party members depicting Obama's head on 
the body of an ape)—entreaties from within the black public to 
defend the president have grown more boisterous. When Mark 
Halperin, of Time magazine, used a vulgarism to describe the 
president, Tom Joyner published an open letter blaming Tavis 
Smiley and Cornel West—both outspoken critics of Obama—for 
contributing to an environment in which white journalists feel at 
ease slurring a black president. By throwing brickbats at Obama, 
Joyner suggested, Smiley and West effectively legitimized white 

Such denunciations capture what Ellis Cose—in an earlier 
book—characterized as the rage of a black privileged class. 
Scorned and marginalized in their own professional lives, they 
identify with Obama as a symbol of self-affirmation. Yet this 
attitude threatens to distort black discourse at a crucial moment. 
Emphasizing Obama's heroics prioritizes personal charisma over 
collective ability and wisdom. Why is the president more deserving 
of support than members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the 
Progressive Caucus, a number of whom have lobbied against Tea 
Party Republicanism, pressed for jobs programs and 
public-investment initiatives, and refused to vote for the 
draconian debt-ceiling compromise? Of what value is the 
president's virtuosity if it bolsters a longstanding liberal 
retreat from issues of racial and economic inequality? What good 
is his "cool" if it masks, as the entertainer and civil-rights 
veteran Harry Belafonte has claimed, Obama's lack of moral courage?

 From the black-convention movement of the 19th century to the 
freedom struggles of the 20th, the African-American public sphere 
has been the site of robust exchange about the state of black 
America. Neither black interests nor anyone else's are served by 
making the president an exception.

During the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's 1965 
Selma-to-Montgomery campaign for black voting rights, when Martin 
Luther King Jr. turned marchers back at the Edmund Pettus Bridge 
to avoid disobeying a court injunction, grass-roots activists 
regarded the act as a betrayal and took King to task. Their 
disapproval helped push King to higher planes of political 
consciousness. Likewise, Obama must be held accountable for his 
missteps. As class and similar intraracial dynamics continue to 
complicate black opinion, and as scholars of the black experience 
persist in seeking historical and interpretive meaning in Obama's 
presidency, the need for such engagement grows ever more acute.

Clarence Lang is an associate professor of African-American 
studies and history at the University of Illinois at 
Urbana-Champaign. He is author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class 
Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75 
(University of Michigan Press, 2009), and co-editor, with Robbie 
Lieberman, of Anticommunism and the African American Freedom 
Movement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

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