In March of this year, less than two months into Barack Obama’s presidency, I published a blog entry entitled, “I told you so.” As have others, I pointed out how Obama had betrayed not only Progressive hopes but any hopes of disenfranchised African-Americans. Drawing upon Malcolm X’s masterful speech, “Message to the Grassroots,” I said that Obama was playing a role of the “house negro.”
I take it back. Yes, I was wrong.
To call Obama a “house negro” is to imply that he was playing the role of a slave, just in a more comfortable position than the “field negros” to which Malcolm X referred in his allegory. In making this comparison, I was also drawing upon Paulo Freire, who in Pedagogy of the Oppressed wrote that it was the peasant who was elevated to a position to oversee his former colleagues would be crueler to them than the landowner ever thought of being. But there is a nuance between these two conditions, that of the “house negro” and of the overseer” that I overlooked.
The “house negro,” at least as portrayed by Malcolm X, exercises no oversight role. Obama is president; he answers to corporate masters, and like the “house negro,” he may live in a nice house (though I gather it has a nasty housefly problem), but he exercises power over others. Both Freire and Malcolm X referred largely to plantations, with oppressed workers and a very small aristocracy in command. But where Malcolm X was talking about slaves who are fortunate to be fed, Freire was talking about miserably paid workers.
It is possible to argue that in one crucial respect, African-American slaves (but not other slaves) in the United States were better off than today’s workers, for their owners had invested sums of money in them, and therefore had an interest in their health. It is not a strong argument; in Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington recounts how much of today’s medical science is based on extraordinarily cruel human experimentation, which often served no scientific purpose and which was certainly not beneficial for slaves’ health. But capitalists deem Freire’s plantation workers and most others of the working class to be infinitely replaceable.
Obama has now made his position clear. No, he is not a “house negro,” but an overseer.
Obama has reversed his campaign promise to renegotate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Workers in all three countries have an interest in renegotiation: U.S. workers cannot compete with those who labor under weaker environmental and labor protections. Mexican farmers are being ruined by a flood of U.S. agricultural products like those from the U.S. factory hog farm which may be the source of the H1N1 “swine flu” virus. Mexican woes have meant more desperate people flooding across the border to fuel a nativist image of immigrants stealing U.S. jobs. And as Laura Carlsen puts it, Canadian citizens would like “greater control over their natural resources. “
The only justification for the status quo is that major corporations like NAFTA the way it is. And that’s just how Barack Obama, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper intend to keep it.