Race and the privileging of corporations: the perversion of progressivism in the Obama era

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

There is absolutely no sign that reality is making any impression whatsoever within the Beltway. Here is Bob Herbert in the New York Times summing up the crisis more efficiently than I can:

The American economy is on its knees and the suffering has reached historic levels. Nearly 44 million people were living in poverty last year, which is more than 14 percent of the population. That is an increase of 4 million over the previous year, the highest percentage in 15 years, and the highest number in more than a half-century of record-keeping. Millions more are teetering on the edge, poised to fall into poverty.

More than a quarter of all blacks and a similar percentage of Hispanics are poor. More than 15 million children are poor.

The movers and shakers, including most of the mainstream media, have paid precious little attention to this wide-scale economic disaster.

Meanwhile, the middle class, hobbled for years with the stagnant incomes that accompany extreme employment insecurity, is now in retreat. Joblessness, home foreclosures, personal bankruptcy — pick your poison. Median family incomes were 5 percent lower in 2009 than they were a decade earlier. The Harvard economist Lawrence Katz told The Times, “This is the first time in memory that an entire decade has produced essentially no economic growth for the typical American household.”

Here is Barack Obama, speaking at a $30,000-per-plate fundraiser:

[A]fter being in this job for two years, I have never been more optimistic about America. I am optimistic partly because we did some really tough things that aren’t always popular but were the right things to do. … Democrats, just congenitally, tend to get — to see the glass as half empty. (Laughter.) If we get an historic health care bill passed — oh, well, the public option wasn’t there. If you get the financial reform bill passed — then, well, I don’t know about this particularly derivatives rule, I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with that. And gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace and — (laughter.) I thought that was going to happen quicker. (Laughter.) You know who you are. (Laughter.) We have had the most productive, progressive legislative session in at least a generation.

The problem isn’t just inside the Beltway. A couple months ago, Herbert wrote:

The hustlers and high rollers at Wall Street’s gaming tables are starting to feel lucky again.

Hiring is beginning to pick up in the very sector that led the country to the edge of a depression. An article on the front page of The Times on Sunday noted that this turnaround “underscores the remarkable recovery of the biggest banks and brokerage firms since Washington rescued them in the fall of 2008, and follows the huge rebound in profits for members of the New York Stock Exchange, which totaled $61.4 billion in 2009, the most ever.”

The hustlers and high rollers are always there to skim the cream, no matter what’s happening in the real world of ordinary American families.

But as Glenn Greenwald explains,

So, just as Robert Gibbs before him explained [see here] (albeit more harshly), if you’re one of those people dissatisfied with large parts of the Obama presidency, that’s only because you have something wrong with the way you think (you need drug testing/you “congenitally see the glass as half empty”), and because you are saddled with extremely unrealistic, child-like expectations (you’re angry that the Pentagon hasn’t closed yet/bitter that Obama “hasn’t yet brought about world peace: ‘I thought that was going to happen quicker’ (Laughter.)”). In other words, you’re just a petulant, unreasonable, unrealistic, fringe child who doesn’t appreciate the greatness and generosity he’s given you (h/t Jane Hamsher).

Here’s Firedoglake’s Jane Hamsher:

Yeah, we know who we are. We’re the people who supported Bill Halter’s primary challenge of Blanche Lincoln, the woman Obama campaigned for. Who only included that derivatives rule in the financial reform bill because she was afraid of losing to Halter.

We’re the people who fought for a year and a half to pass Audit the Fed, which Obama, the Fed, the Treasury and the banks all lobbied against and worked hard to weaken. It passed the Senate 94-0, and Chris Hayes called it “the single greatest act of bipartisanship since Obama took office” on MSNBC. It was part of the financial reg bill, which is the “only popular Democratic act” since the 2008 election, per Gallup.

Now here’s Zach Carter writing about Obama’s speech on BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill:

This response to BP’s malfeasance might be forgivable had it been Obama’s first capitulation in the name of political expediency—environmental disaster or no, he could credibly claim to be withholding political capital for other endeavors. But we’ve already watched Obama give away critical provisions on the economic stimulus package, health care reform, Wall Street reform, climate change and even subsequent legislative efforts to create jobs (he is now, timidly and belatedly trying to make the case for a jobs bill in small forums). There is no longer any reason to make excuses for him. Time and again, this president has simply refused to fight for any controversial legislative act.

So the corporations—even those that have caused the worst suffering in the United States since the Great Depression—are doing great and Obama thinks “we have had the most productive, progressive legislative session in at least a generation.”

In all of this, it is time for a discussion of race. I know it seems marginally relevant, even if people of color are disproportionately affected by the new depression. Early this year, I wrote,

In my Masters and undergraduate programs, I took a number of classes from Robert Terrell, a professor at CSU East Bay I retain enormous respect for. I’m more radical than he is, but he provided me with the information that led me to where I am. I owe him a lot.

Having looked at all Terrell presented, and being thereby duly horrified, I came to be surprised by his attitude. As just an example, he came to the conclusion that Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, “is a really nice lady.” He described politics as “the art of the possible” and retained a faith in the ability of the system to reform itself.

I was more skeptical. But Terrell perceived gradual progress in the simple fact he was permitted to teach. Because of his race, he believed, he would not have been permitted that in the 1960s.

Terrell has more recently accused me of being reluctant to speak about race. In fact, that’s not true. But it’s possible to suggest I do not speak of race in the way that Terrell would like me to. About a year ago, I wrote,

President Barack Obama’s post-racialism is reaching absurd proportions. In an interview, former President Jimmy Carter said, “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African American.”

Carter’s remarks are reasonable. One would have to dig pretty deep and reach pretty far to otherwise explain the sheer venom behind the birther movement which keeps resurrecting itself under new pseudonyms to go along with new excuses for bizarre and frankly dangerous behavior. Even Bill Cosby, whom I criticize harshly for blaming impoverished Blacks for their own condition, agrees (and sounds pretty reasonable in the process).

It isn’t like Obama doesn’t know there’s racism in the country. He admitted as much when first asked about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. . . .

But what’s really troubling is that they apparently expect to maintain credibility while issuing these denials [that race motivates opposition to the Obama presidency]. This is not the first time, by a rather long shot. Obama backed off on his entirely reasonable initial statement about the Gates arrest. After a masterful speech that still denied the significance of Reverend Jim Wright’s remarks, he repudiated his former pastor, of whom he had initially said he could “no more disown . . . than . . . my white grandmother.”

It’s starting to look seriously delusional. Perhaps even pathological. Obama’s been lying so much he doesn’t even see what surely the entire rest of the world must see. He’s been in office for less than eight months. He ran on a platform of “change,” but his term looks more and more like Bush’s third.

In that posting, I noted a tendency for upper and middle class Blacks to adopt a mythology of opportunity, which I more fully explain here, to blame poor Blacks for their misfortune. Of course, it isn’t just well-off Blacks who do this; it’s just all the more striking when it comes from the likes of Bill Cosby, Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Michael Steele. And I’ve struggled to understand it. After all, they, of all people, should know better.

I’m presently reading an autobiography of Cornel West, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud (New York: SmileyBooks, 2009). And in the first chapter I was struck by how he claims to “acknowledge . . . human struggle and suffering” and to “mak[e] pain and sorrow [his] constant companions” (p. 5) while spending all his time flying all around the world visiting his dearly beloved relations and thoroughly enjoying his life. In subsequent chapters, it becomes clear that he did indeed encounter a fairly vicious racism that still predominated in the 1960s and that his family had an experience of it from before.

I’m still reading the book and I’m inclined to give West the benefit of some doubt. The man hung with the Black Panthers and though he objects to their criticism of Christianity, I think that by and large, he gets it.

But West reveals how Blacks who lived through the brutality of the 1960s and before might feel an exclusive entitlement to claims of racism and suffering. As Obama himself said,

I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.

Obama is actually a little younger than myself, but such an attitude might explain how he can dismiss his former pastor’s remarks on race relations as

a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America . . .

And a man who can ignore the ongoing suffering of so many people in his own race will surely ignore it in the broader population. Even as he acknowledged historic and continuing discrimination and as he acknowledged the economic injustice in this country, he also said,

What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

Obama sees anger at racial injustice as stemming from the past, and echoing Bill Cosby, said,

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.

Obama in fact used a speech praised for confronting persistent racism to blame the victims. And when his former pastor, Reverend Jim Wright, insisted on talking about people who continue to suffer, Obama repudiated him.

I suppose it is understandable that those who have endured the long years of Democratic Party capitulation to the right and of neoconservative ascendance might grasp at any straws for hope and change, particularly when manifest in a man who draws credibility as a member of a long-oppressed race. But in so doing, white progressives have revealed their own racism and classism, expecting that despite the examples of so many upper and middle class Blacks, that Barack Obama would identify with the poor.

I remember once speaking of racism in the Southern states of the Old Confederacy and having an African American reproach me. Racism is everywhere, she said, and at least in the South, they have had to confront it. She was right, in a great many more ways than I suspect even she realized.