How do we assess the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States in the context of the long struggle for people of African descent for equality and social justice within the United States? A proper investigation of this question requires that we comprehend both the unity and diversity of the Black Freedom Struggle and its very conscious self-conception of itself as a segment of oppressed strata within the United States and within the larger world-system. I thus argue that the foundation of the Obama coalition is the historical strength of Black Solidarity against systemic racism in the United States and in the larger world-system.
Systemic racism was the foundation of the new world formed with the European conquest of the Americas and the capture of Africans to serve as slave labor in the colonial societies. It was at this time that the concept of race was introduced into scientific and public discourse as a means of naturalizing the relationship between the conquerors and the conquered, and was generalized to the entire world-economy during the subsequent European conquest of the rest of the world ( see here).
The enslaved Africans, unlike the indigenous populations, were a part of the newly formed United States of America, and were living contradictions to the “land of the free” rhetoric of the nation’s propagandists. While there were constant appeals to an international audience against the barbarity of enslavement, it was Du Bois’s announcement at the Pan African Conference in 1900 that the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line that served notice of a rising arc of struggle against white world supremacy now joined by people of African descent within the United States.
Black Solidarity within the United States has taken a variety of political forms. This includes the liberal nationalism and anti-colonialism of the Pan African Conference and Dr. Du Bois at the turn of the century, the militant and assertive Black solidarity of the Niagara Movement of 1905, and the Race First nationalism of the New Negro radicals whose leaders included Marcus Garvey, Hubert Harrison, Cyril Briggs, Richard Moore, W.A. Domingo, and Claude McKay. Even the Class First radicals of the New Negro Movement (A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen) were firm practitioners of Black Solidarity. In the 1920s and 1930s W.E.B. Du Bois forcefully challenged the false universalism of both the Center and the Left within the U.S. American and Pan-European body politic while building alliances with Radical nationalist movements and independent governments in the Dark World, and beginning a dialogue with revolutionaries in the Soviet Union who were not quite white by the standards of that time. In the 1930s and 1940s many of these forces (Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, C.L.R. James, Angelo Herndon, Oliver Cromwell Cox, E. Franklin Frazier, Ralph Bunche, Abram Harris, George Padmore, Shirley Graham, Claude Lightfoot, John Henrik Clarke) constituted a Black Popular Front which stood in the forefront of the struggle for defining the Black Freedom Struggle as one against racism and imperialism, and for U.S. involvement in the construction of Henry Wallace’s Century of the Common Man (as opposed to the imperialist project of an American Century). During the 1950s and early 1960s the continuing influence of the race first radicals influenced the move to the Left within the Nation of Islam under the leadership of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ahmed and others. During this same period remnants of the Black Popular Front connected with Dr. King and the civil rights movement (including young militants in both SNCC and the Nation of Islam). (see here)
Though Black particularity has often been a specter haunting the imaginations of the dominant social strata within U.S. American society, it has for the most part been a search for a wider and broader definition of the “we,” an attempt to widen instead of narrow the circle of humanity. It has not for the most part been about simple integration into the mainstream of U.S. American society. That is why the notorious exceptionality of the Black population has been the target not only of the color blind discourse introduced by President Reagan in 1980, but of a much more antagonistic political strategy that we forget at our own peril.
Black intellectuals and activists who have challenged the false universalism of the U.S. American intelligentsia and public discourse have suffered exile, repression, ostracism, and assassination.
President Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism was nominally anti-imperialist, but his eye was on the threat posed by the radical, left-wing anti-colonialism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Despite Wilson’s rhetoric he failed to address colonial and minority questions in his own sphere and remained notoriously hostile to Blacks.
Wilson imposed rigid segregation in Washington, D.C. during his years in the White House. He regarded Black soldiers as an especially dangerous group, a fertile conduit for the spread of Bolshevism within the United States. This recalls the pronouncements about the threat of revolutionary internationalist politics and white racial degeneration by Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard in 1920s.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (The Disuniting of America) argues that race conscious Blacks, “nourishing prejudice, magnifying difference and stirring up antagonism” have come to represent a significant threat to what he views as the defining ethos of American nationhood. If this sounds suspiciously like the post-Reconstruction era attacks upon Blacks to achieve national reconciliation, this is by no means accidental.
It has not escaped the attention of U.S. American elites that the Black population in the United States has constituted the most consistent base and leadership of the U.S. Left since the time of the Great Migration (1910-1920). It should therefore not a surprise that as the nation moved to the Center Left, an African American politician would win the presidency. I learned this in part from Left leaning Black political leaders in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay area in the early 1980s, some of whom talked about how they were concerned with being able to be both Black and Red.
If we construe the “Red” in this formulation as being broadly inclusive we can see that this is a consistent strain in Black political thought. Even the liberal centrist in the NAACP who separated from the Black Left in the late 1940s could be characterized as social democrats who practiced Black solidarity in much of their work. Though I agree with some of Cruse’s critique of the CPUSA’S dogmatism on the “national question,” I disagree with the oversimplifications of his accusation that much of the Black Left were simply integrationist wannabees. (see here)
With the exception of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and the Nation of Islam, most of the major organizations of the Black Freedom Struggle worked in coalitions with whites: the NAACP, the African Blood Brotherhood, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Negro National Congress, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panther Party, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
When Barack Obama entered onto the national stage he struck me as similar to Jesse Jackson during his Rainbow Coalition phase, though he was more careful than Jackson to avoid being labeled as simply a Black politician. He also moved strategically to capture a significant section of the political center, unlike the Rainbow Coalition which was much more Left in its stance. To do so he played the “race neutral card” with deliberateness and consistency in an environment where accusation of playing the race card would be used by the “color blind racists” of the Republican Party to neutralize one’s ability to appeal to the white electorate.
And of course there are some who want to use Obama’s success as an indication that the nation is overcoming its racial divisions. This is of course nonsense. Racism is systemic. And it is part of our commonsense. But I do think that the southern strategy is dead. Has been dying since 2000, but voter suppression has been used effectively to give us a sense that it is still in power. People of color are becoming too large a demographic to simply dismiss by demonizing Blacks, especially when Huntington and that crew are crying about the Hispanic threat, the Muslim threat, and the Chinese threat. The pushback against white world supremacy has been integral to the rise of oppressed strata throughout the 20th century. It is not separate from the increased power of working people, women, and increased opposition (or at least a relaxation of) hetero-normativity. The relations of force between the dominant forces and the subordinate forces within the world-system have been altered in favor of subordinate forces over the longue duree of the world-system. (see here)
Within the United States Black solidarity is a consequence of the systemic nature of racism which during the 20th century imparted an internal colonial status to the Black population (see here) It is not a national question in the way that the Communist International and the CPUSA envisioned during the early half of the 20th century (here I agree with Cruse’s critique, at least 70%). It consists of a need for decolonization of the U.S. Empire both internally and externally. This thrust will continue, whatever Obama does. But his election is a consequence of the slow change in relations of force both internally as people of color increase their numbers within U.S. society, and their strength within the world-system.
While there is great concerned among some Leftist intellectuals and activists about what Obama will do, the people that I met while doing GOTV in North Philadelphia on November 4th were very clear that this election represented a potential change in the country that would require continued struggle by the people themselves to advance the agenda toward the change that we need.