Debating Obama’s Actions: Right, Left, or Centrist?

One refreshing thing about Obama’s election, regardless of how his term turns out, is that it has already generated progressive debates about the state of U.S. politics and policy, including in regard to racism and anti-racism. Instead of analysis of the latest neo-fascist actions of the Bush regime, we have roaring debates on whether the U.S. will now move in a progressive direction, or will only move modestly to a centrist position on critical policy issues.

For example, at a recent 2008 Association for Humanist Sociology meeting, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva gave a provocative Plenary Address titled, “The 2008 Elections and the Future of Anti-Racism in 21st Century Amerika or How We Got Drunk With Obama’s Hope Liquor and Failed to See Reality.” He raises questions that most progressives have been unwilling to face about Obama’s actions, so far:

So what do I think will happen in Obamerica? I believe the voices of those who contend that race fractures America profoundly may be silenced. In a deep sense, Obamerica may bring us closer to an argument I have been articulating for a while–the idea that the racial structure of the United States is becoming Latin America-like.

He is right about this, as we constantly see in the “end of racism” dialogues by white media commentators. Bonilla-Silva dissects numerous other problems with Obama’s approach to various policy issues:

Based on promises and remarks made by President Elect Obama during the campaign, he may increase the size of the military, wait longer than planned for withdrawing from Iraq, increase the scope of our military intervention in Afghanistan. . . . albeit many of you voted for Obama critically-as I did myself-you thought, “Well…at least he is likely to appoint progressives in various posts.” But this will not happen without pressure. If we want this to happen, we must begin making noise from NOW as he has surrounded himself with center-to-right people in economic matters such as Warren Buffet, Larry Summers, Bob Rubin, and his Chicago and Harvard economists.

This is indeed a disturbing part of Obama’s actions so far. Virtually no progressives have been appointed to top cabinet and other policy positions. Center-right folks, mostly white, have gotten top positions. “Real change?” is the question Bonilla-Silva is asking. He further asks

What will President Elect Obama do about race matters in America? What will he do about affirmative action, for example? During the campaign, he did not engage in a dialogue about the significance of race in America and discussed Affirmative Action only ONCE with George Stephanopoulos. As some of you recall, he took an accomodationist post-racial stance on the matter. And because he took such a post-racial posture during his campaign, I do not believe he can take a STRONG stance on race matters NOW. Neither Obama nor his mostly white advisers and post-civil right neo-mulatto associates will push hard on this fundamental issue. For that, he needs what he does not have: a real social movement behind!

So far, Obama has played into the white racial frame by not talking about racism, except for his one famous speech. Certainly he would not have been elected if he had not done this. The big question is whether he can now fight the white racist frame and systemic racism of the country, and thus turn on his white advisers. This will be very extraordinarily difficult. Throughout his address, Bonilla-Silva accents the need for grass-roots organization and efforts–“to radicalize the spaces we inhabit and the people we contact, engage in political discourse (we have become too passive and do not say much), criticize the new President no matter what (he is the representative of capital and of the racial order)…”

In a debate on the views of Bonilla-Silva and others making similar arguments critical of Obama, the ever savvy African American sociologist, Bob Newby, has replied by accenting the dramatic character of the change Obama represents, over against what we have had. On the Association of Black Sociologists listserv, Newby has also laid out a similar and more optimistic, pragmatic take on Obama’s actions:

When the question was asked about his appointments and that they did not look like much change, his response was “The change comes from me!” While it would be great to have Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky as the Secretary of State, or for Secretary of Human Services Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, such appointments would marginalize him from the get. He would be run out of office even BEFORE Jan 20th. . . . He is/was a mainstream candidate whose roots are progressive. Barack as an African American is controversial by definition, when it comes to white America. His first mission is to assure the American people that he is on their side. To do that he has surrounded himself with people who are hard to criticize, whose credentials are stellar in the eyes of everyday Americans.

Newby argues that Obama’s actions represent a longterm political strategy, one that has already had dramatic effects:

The great thing is that he has not and will not appoint fascists like we have had over the past 30 years!! 30 years of fascism and that includes the Clinton administration in which Newt Gingrich was House Speaker. The top law enforcement officer in the nation will be a black man…. Electoral politics and revolutionary, or movement politics, are a different breed of cat. A revolutionary (or someone the American people thought was a revolutionary) could not get elected President. . . . Surely, we are not expecting the revolution from electoral politics? If not the revolution, it is time struggle for decency. A decency as free as we can make it from the maintenance of racism, sexism, homophobia and most of all class inequality. . . . It is time to celebrate the historic victory!!! What were our options: 30 years of Reaganism.

Interestingly, Newby’s arguments are taken further by the white progressive activist (in his youth, a 1960s radical) Mark Rudd, who argues that Obama’s approach is what the right-wing is now apoplectic about, the “stealth strategy”:

He’ll be progressive on the environment because that has broad popular support; health care will be extended to children, then made universal, but the medical, pharmaceutical, and insurance corporations will stay in place, perhaps yielding some power; the economic agenda will stress stimulation from the bottom sometimes and handouts to the top at other times. . . . And never, never threaten the military budget. That will unite a huge majority of congress against him. And I agree with this strategy. Anything else will court sure defeat. Move on the stuff you can to a small but significant extent, gain support and confidence.

Rudd says to look beyond the first tier appointments to the progressives who will be just below them and actually running many of the government programs: “There’s a whole govt. in waiting that Podesta has at the Center for American Progress. They’re mostly progressives, I’m told (except in military and foreign policy).” And he adds too some insights into Obama’s understandings of racism, classism, and colonialism:

No other president has ever had such intimate experience with class and race. The final section is about his trip to Kenya. No other president has ever had an understanding of not only race, but colonialism and neo-colonialism, even using the terms. It’s the whole story he tells of his African family and especially his father, a victim of neo-colonialism. As was his step-father in Indonesia.

Like Bonilla-Silva and Newby, Rudd calls for grass-roots movements and organization to pressure Obama and the Democratic Congress to move in progressive directions on many policy matters, including racial and class issues. Interestingly, one of the signs that significantly progressive efforts may come in the next four years is that the U.S. and international right-wing is very worried about the things that Newby and Rudd are noting (see here, for example).