Sunday, November 30, 2008

Historic Moment! Historic Opportunity?...

Well I guess it is about time I respond to the historic Presidential election just passed. I guess three weeks is long enough to recover from election fatigue. Most of my free time in the past few months was devoted to the Omar Lopez campaign, a long time leader in the immigrant rights movement who ran for congress on the Green Party ticket here in Illinois’s 4th congressional district. The 4th encompasses Pilsen & La Vilita, as well has Humboldt Park and large stretches of the North side and west Suburbs. It is one of the countries most important Latino districts and has been represented by Luis Gutierrez for decades. Gutierrez’s support of anti-immigrant legislation such as the STRIVE Act and his less than principled stand on issues from relations with Cuba and Israel to de-regulation, finally created a backlash of which the Lopez campaign was one result. Sadly, the meager 8.3% of the vote that Omar received was quite disheartening as was the Green Party’s overall performance this year. It is a shame since there was definitely increased interest in the Green Party by Latinos who have felt demonized at worst and ignored at best by the Democrats & the Republicans (see Kari Lydersen’s article in the Chicago Reader for more… ).

This year also saw a record number of Illinois Green candidates in local races receiving union support, especially down state. Unfortunately, the Obama juggernaut encouraged straight party line voting this year like never before, in a city that is already infamous for party line voting in past elections. The reality is that the Green Party is in organizational disarray. Compare the thousands who attended the 2004 convention in Milwaukee to the hundreds that made it to Chicago this past Summer. Again, this is rather unfortunate, as the time is ripe for the party to benefit from disaffected Democrats from the anti-war, immigrant rights and labor movements. This may become more important in two years, when the Democrats fail to come through on many of their promises and voters start to look for an alternative. If the Greens can’t get their act together by than, a right wing turn in the electorate may be inevitable.

But enough on the failures of the Green Party, this entry is supposed to be about the historic election of Barack Obama. And for certain, the historic milestone represented by Obama’s victory can not be ignored. I felt this in a very personal way. My adorable little 8 year old Mexican-American nephew Andres is a big Obama fan. So much so that in his own way he became an Obama campaigner, asking everyone he knew who they were voting for and encouraging them to vote for Obama. His excitement literally brought me to tears at one point. Here is this Mexican-American kid, the child of immigrants, in a community not often known for having the best attitude toward African-Americans, and Obama is his hero. How many other Latino, White, Asian as well as African-American kids feel the same way as Andres. The power of this is incalculable. Even as I write this I feel the emotion welling up within me. I am reminded of when I was 13 years old and Harold Washington was running for Mayor for the first time. I let it slip out on the playground at my all white Catholic school on Chicago’s far Northwest side that I liked Washington and faced weeks of ridicule and persecution because of it. The people in my neighborhood at the time saw the election of a black man as armageddon for our city. What a sea change. That a kid in a Latino neighborhood, or a white neighborhood could openly declare with pride his support of an African-American candidate for the highest office in the land and find mostly sympathy and support – that is as whole new world than the one I experienced as a child. Fear of blacks, fear of Communism, and fear of the ever present possibility of nuclear annihilation dominated the world of my youth - what a different, and at least in some ways, better world we live in today.

The first thing I did upon hearing the announcement that the Obama had won the election was to call my dad. I had one question for him – did you ever dream that you would vote for a black man for president? I already knew the answer. My father has always been a reliable barometer of the temperament of the white, male working class in the United States. A natural Democrat, a huge fan of Kennedy, my dad, along with many other white, working class, males switched to the dark side during the Regan years. One of the primary reasons for this was their deep seated racism. They were turned off by the New Left who had for good reason privileged race and gender over class. They simply did not understand the reality of life as a person of color in our society and interpreted every advance made by women and racial minorities as some how an attack on them. Remembering back to that first Harold Washington election I remember my father’s fear of Washington. This man who was for the most part, a life long Democrat, who had rarely participated in politics in any active sense, campaigned door-to-door in our neighborhood for Bernie Epton, Washington’s white Republican challenger in the general election. But as the reality of the right-wings efforts to drive the American working class into poverty became every more transparent during the administrations of Bush 41 and Bush 43, and during the Republican domination of the Congress in the Clinton years, my father’s innate class consciousness increasingly rose to the surface. His anger at the American ruling class overwhelming his distrust of blacks (an anger almost reactionary in intensity – he loves to argue that all Republicans should be strung up from light posts). Actually he has developed a deeper appreciation of the realities of race in America in recent years and he now regularly expresses sentiments of solidarity that I would never have imagined him uttering in the 80’s when we frequently butted heads over the issue. To see him enthusiastic about our first African-American president, is therefore a personal milestone.

I am also anxious to gauge what I expect will be a dramatically different attitude toward America as I travel abroad next Summer. I have become quite used to the pleasant surprise I would find when I apologized for the actions of the American government to the Europeans and Latin Americans I would meet during my travels. They always assume that most American’s share their government’s short sighted, unilateral, imperialistic approach to foreign policy and warm up to me quite quickly when they find that I reject U.S. actions abroad just as much if not more vehemently than they do. I imagine the dynamic will be radically different this time around. Indeed most reports indicate that Obama’s popularity in Europe, Africa, and Latin America exceeds his rankings in the U.S. Perhaps no other symbolic phenomenon of the election of an African-American to the presidency is stronger than the effect it will have on the image of the United States abroad. However, if Obama makes good on some of the foreign policy plans he outlined in his campaign, especially in regards to Iran & Afghanistan, this good will might be short lived.

So yes, this is an historic event – an event of epic importance and significance in many ways. But let’s get past all the exuberant self-congratulations and face the reality of our situation. Beyond the tremendous symbolic importance of this election, what concrete gains can or will come of the Obama presidency? This is a much more difficult and complicated issue to address. In many ways Barack Obama’s election may offer as many possible pitfalls and dangers are it does opportunities. So much rides on what we make of this election and how we mobilize to take advantage of the space created.

Obama’s Election & Racism in America:

The number one danger we face in the wake of Barack Obama’s election is the claim that America has overcome it’s history of racial oppression. Already many in the main stream media are making this claim. In many ways the events of this election cycle prove quite the reverse. This election would not be viewed by nearly everyone as historic if racism did not persist within our society. It is a bit like quite literally having a concept of black without a concept of white (or in a philosophic sense making sense of existence minus the concept on non-existence). The power of the election of a black man presupposes the widely hide view that such an event is so unlikely. And what about Barack Obama’s classification as African-American in the first place. What makes Barack black? He is as white as he is black. Born of a white mother, raised by white grandparents in a primarily white community, Barack’s classification as black could only come out of a racialized society. It is the product of a nation which for centuries carefully protected the boundaries of “whiteness”. In the state of Virgina in 1866 you needed to be a “quarter black” to be considered African-American. By 1910 that dropped to 1/16 and by 1924 the Virginia Racial Purity Act defined anyone with one drop of black blood African-American. By those standards, with some diligent research, I bet we could prove the majority of the American population is black. It is all about who decides, who determines these completely arbitrary racial categories. The day that Barack Obama can declare himself white if he so chooses and be accepted as such we can start to talk about the end of racism.

I am also intrigued that the mainstream media has spent little time investigating just how much race was still a significant factor in the ultimate vote count. Every poll conducted in recent months found that at least two thirds of the country wants an end to the war in Iraq, thinks the Republican party does not offer a way out of our current economic crisis and disapproves of nearly everything associated with the Bush administration. So why didn’t Barack Obama receive a landslide victory in the popular vote? Why the relatively narrow 53% to 46% split? Clearly a significant factor is the sad fact that many white democratic leaning voters, most of them working class, especially in places like West Virginia, Missouri, the deep south and white ethnic suburbs outside northern cities, just could not bring themselves to vote for a black man. Where just lucky that more working class whites than not decided to place their economic interest above racial concerns this time around. The AFL-CIO was clear aware of this danger. Sectary-Treasurer Rich Trumka made a similar speech to working class audiences at least a half dozen times, extolling union members to confront the racism of their fellow workers head on, least the election be lost (for a video of one of Trumka’s speeches, check out this link… ). MSNBC reported on a University of Texas poll conducted in late October that found 23% of Texans still thought Obama was Muslim, the implied understanding being that if this was true it would some how disqualify him as a candidate. Even when McCain rebuked a racist at one of his campaign rallies who “accused” Obama of being a Muslim, his response was that Obama was a “decent family man”, so I guess being Muslim is by McCain’s definition indecent.

But all of this really just touches the surface of the issue. What is really important here is not individual prejudices, even if shared by millions of white Americans, but the deep structural, institutional, racism which in many ways was only minimal effected by the gains of the civil rights movement. Dealing with surface racism is relatively easy, it is the institutional, structural change that is much more difficult achieve. Martin Luther King Jr. found this out when he attempt to build on his successes in the South by moving his campaign into northern cities like Chicago. Ultimately his efforts proved much less successful at defeating the poverty and exploitation of the urban, industrialized North where class structures and economic institutions rather than legal segregation was the barrier. When we discuss racism in its most profound and persistent form in the United States, we should always remember this most important fact – The median net worth of the average White household is 10 times greater than the median net worth of the typical black household. According to a 2003 U.S. Census Bureau report… “In 2000, the household median net worth was $79,400 for households with a non-Hispanic White householder, $7,500 for households with a Black householder, and $9,750 for households with a Hispanic householder.” ( this seems to be the most current data available). Net worth is more than just income, it includes a family’s total assets, minus debts, including the value of their homes and their bank accounts. It is our best indicator of the product of a history of racism because net worth also signifies accumulated wealth. The fact that African-Americans for most of our post-emancipation history were restricted to low paying jobs is a part of the explanation for this net worth gap for instances. It also reveals current racial disparities. For example, the higher property value of homes in white neighborhoods as compared to those in communities of color. And it shapes the future. That net worth gap will continue to affect the future opportunities of both families like access to higher education and better paying jobs. When income disparities between white, black and Latino wage earners vanish, when unemployment rates among each of these groups is equal, when educational achievement is balanced across the board, but most of all, when the net worth gap disappears, only than can we talk about racism being transcended. All indications are that our society as currently structured will make this highly unlikely for generations to come.

Obama’s Continual Shift to the Right:

Obama’s reputation is that of a progressive, a member of the Democratic party’s “left wing” rather than the Clintonite Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), “centrist” wing that dominated in the 90’s (I won’t even address the issue of how much left, right and center in American politics has little relationship to the traditional meaning of these terms). Some of this reputation stems from his history as a community organizer. This is the aspect of Obama I find most hopeful. But Obama’s rhetoric during the campaign and his choice of cabinet appointments so far, indicates quite the reverse. On the foreign policy front, in order to appease those who associate a strong foreign policy stand with get tough hawkish rhetoric, Obama seemed all to willing to argue for increased saber rattling and expansion of the Pax Americana, just not in Iraq (or at least not in Iraq after some future date of withdrawl). Earlier on in the campaign Obama seemed happy to threaten Iran with a bombing campaign if they were not to abandon their interests in becoming a nuclear power. Obama was also fond of suggesting the extension of a Bush like pre-emptive action against Pakistan if need be. Of course the most concerning aspect of Obama’s foreign policy plan is his repeated comment to step up the war in Afghanistan. At a time when increasing numbers of experts on the region are suggesting that the occupation of that country by NATO is causing more problems than it is solving, Obama seems determined to intensify this mistaken approach to one of the must brutalized people on the face of the planet.

Some of my greatest concerns in regards to Obama’s rightward drift have to do with Obama’s domestic policy agenda, the area in which some may argue Obama’s progressive credentials are most prominent. The best of example of this is perhaps the most important domestic policy issue Obama has pledge to address – reform of the U.S. health care system. The moment has never been so ripe in the last 30 years for the establishment a single payer, non-profit universal health care system in the United States. The legislation to do this is already to go. The Conyers Bill, H.R. 676, the Medicare for All Act, would not only end the anomaly of the United States being the only Western industrial nation without a universal health care system, but would go a long way to resolving underlying causes of the current economic crisis and the collapsing U.S. manufacturing base (especially the auto industry). One would expect that the nation’s so called “most liberal Senator” would have jumped on board with this legislation long ago. Instead, Obama continues to back a Mickey Mouse, convoluted, patch work approach to health care reform that leaves the bloated insurance industry bureaucracy in power and fails to guarantee universal coverage. The Obama plan turns the problem on its head in a sense. Rather than addressing this gigantic hole in the nation’s social safety net with a collective solution that makes health care a right, Obama seeks to make health care an individual responsibility (“individual mandates”) with minimal regard for ones economic circumstances. Individuals will need to seek out their own health care plans and make difficult choices about costs and coverage. By leaving the insurance industry in place, the Obama plan will do little to address mushrooming health care costs. It is estimated that over 30% of health care costs in our current system stem from administrative costs, mostly a product of the HMO industry. My understanding is that this does not even include the billions spent in advertising dollars. The system of employer funded health care will also continue, providing no relief to the industries and small business burdened with increasingly expensive employee health care plans. My greatest fear is that the Obama plan passes, millions remain an uncovered, tens of millions find the new health care bureaucracy difficult to navigate, and the costs of the system explode, leading to a popular backlash against the whole idea of national health care.

The “New New Deal” & the Cabinet:

(To be continued)…


  1. Dropkick Murphy's - The Workers Song

  2. Thank you for the Youtube clip Doug. I think Worker's Song is everyones favorite part of Labor Express. I always get a lot of feedback about people liking the song.