From civil rights to Barack Obama

Beyond Black & White
By Manning Marable
Verso Press, 2009, 319 pages

Review by Malik Miah

Manning Marable’s latest book is an update of a valuable critique of Black and US politics first issued in 1995. He revised it last year, adding new chapters covering the period from 1995 to 2008, including an analysis of the meaning of the election of the first African American president of the US, Barack Obama, in November 2008.

The closing chapter, “Barack Obama, the 2008 Presidential Election and the Prospects for a ‘Post Racial Politics’”, is a good place to begin reading the collection of articles and essays. Marable’s two prefaces — for the first and new edition — outline his views on the evolution of how race impacts the US political conversation and the failures of leadership in the Black community.

The meaning of Obama’s election as the first Black president, what’s happened since his election and its impact on the discussion of Black leadership and racial politics and racism, the US role in world affairs and the significance of the rapid rise of white racist tea party groups since Obama’s election and armed militias, can’t be separated from a general backlash that has a clear racial smell.

Marable’s book, in that context, offers some very useful background and insights. Many of his points, even those made 20 years ago, are completely relevant to current debates among Black leadership layers and in society as a whole.

As unique as it is that the country elected its first African American president, the bigotry among a sizeable layer of white Americans remains strong in parts of the country. The US is not a “post-racial society” as some like to proclaim. The contradiction of some saying “I’m not racist”, while promoting openly racist ideas or honouring slave-owners of the past, is more and more common since Obama’s election.

Marable looks back at the main events of the Black movement, focusing on the lessons of the civil rights movement. Many of the essays look at the issues from the “prism of race” and racism in the country.

As he explains in the preface to the first edition, “The main thesis of the book is that ‘race’ as it has been understood within American society is being rapidly redefined, along with the basic structure of the economy, with profound political consequences for all sectors and classes…

“Because this social transformation is occurring at a political conjuncture dominated by conservative ideology and a retreat from welfare state politics, race relations and racial discourse are reflected within an altered debate about the character of discrimination, the nature of prejudice, and invented notions about who the ‘real victims’ of inequality are.

“A new generation of white Americans, born largely after the civil rights movement, felt little or no historical responsibility or social guilt for being the beneficiaries of institutional racism.”

As true as that statement was in 1995, it is more so today. Marable points out in the second preface that he was too optimistic about the possibility of building a new, militant leadership and alliance to take on institutional racism. The full integration of the Black middle-class leadership into the government and corporate world still had not run its course — and still hasn’t. The result is a working-class and poor population without a viable leadership team on a national scale to play the role that old leadership did under legal segregation.

He explains in looking back nearly 15 years after the publication of the first edition, “Beyond Black and White was overly optimistic and strategically in error in its treatment of social class as a factor in the development of social protest movements. Despite my criticisms of the Black elite’s comprador tendencies, its support for gentrification, and its crass manipulation of racial rhetoric to occasionally mobilize Blacks against their real material interests, I overestimated the weight of historic racial solidarity and Black identity as positive forces in shaping new black protests.”

Marable indicates that the “bourgeoisification” of the Black elite and their integration into the political and economic system led them away from protest politics. What he and many others had hoped for was a vibrant left movement in the Black community that would create a new leadership. One such formation was the Black Radicals Congress that he helped found but which did not survive.

As he clearly articulates in the second preface, “The new leadership for democratic renewal would have to come from working class and low-income women involved in neighbourhood associations and networks, from former prisoners, inmates and their families who were fighting against the prison industrial complex, from liberal religious activists inside faith-based institutions, and from the hip-hop artistic community.”

That didn’t happen.

“What emerged instead”, he explains, “given the vacuum on the Left, was the Barack Obama mobilization, a movement led by an African-American race-neutral, post-Black campaign that rarely made references to the central American dilemma of race.”

The book was completed soon after Obama’s electoral victory and well before evidence came in during his first year of office that he was continuing the policies of the ruling elites and thus doing very little for the Black community.

In the closing chapter on the significance of the Obama victory Marable observes: “By the twenty-first century, hundreds of race-neutral, pragmatic Black officials had emerged, winning positions on city councils, state legislatures and in the House of Representatives.

“Frequently they distanced themselves from traditional liberal constituencies such as unions, promoted gentrification and corporate investment in poor urban neighborhoods, and favored funding charter schools as an alternative to the failures of public school systems.”

Yet these “pragmatic promotions” did not lead to vast improvements for the working poor. Less self-organisation and solidarity within the community took place than Marable and others had expected.

There was not a rise of new Black Power type leaders like that seen during the 1960s when the civil rights movement won legal gains and spawned left-wing radicalism in the Black community (e.g. the Black Panthers, League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and Black Nationalist and Pan African currents).

What occurred instead was the convergence of the very tiny, but ideologically driven, Black conservative layers with the new pragmatism of the liberal Black elite. Both groups reject old style street protests as a strategy to influence government or bring change. The policy of working within the system and seeking cross-over votes from whites is seen as the way forward to eradicate institutional discrimination and achieve full equality for Blacks.

Black conservatives go further by aligning themselves with the most right-wing views that oppose affirmative action and reject racial identity politics and solidarity. These elements pretend to deny their Blackness except when it can be used to attack liberalism or when it serves their own self-interests, such as when they themselves are under attack.

Obama does not deny his Blackness. Neither do any of the other Black officials (in the recent US census form, Obama self-identified himself as “Black” even though he is of mixed parentage).

The new generation of pragmatic leaders see the for-profit system as the solution to institutional racism — something the assassinated civil rights hero Martin Luther King himself began to reject before his murder in Memphis, Tennessee, while supporting striking sanitation workers in 1968.

As Marable explains in his closing chapter on Obama: “In fairness, Obama never claimed to be an ideologue of the left. He promoted a post-partisan government and a leadership style that incorporated the views of conservatives and liberals alike.”

The reality of Black politics in 2010 is that there is no serious left challenge to Obama and the Black elite’s perspectives. Only a few voices can be heard urging a return to past tactics to advance the interests of the oppressed in the era of Obama.

[Malik Miah is an editor of the Detroit-based Against the Current magazine , and a longtime activist in unions and for Black rights. Abridged from Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal: Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]