Race, financial crisis and Obama

The deepening financial calamity exposes how the "fundamentals" of the economy impact on working people in the US, particularly African Americans. The so-called unfettered free market system has been a failure.

The issue of the economy has given the presidential campaign of Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama, the first Black candidate for a major party, a big boost.

After eight years of Bush-Cheney, Obama should be a shoo-in. Democrats are expected to garner big majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Yet, as television pundits and print commentators have noted, Obama is in a close race with the Republican John McCain because of one reason: the colour of his skin.

While there are some differences on domestic and foreign policy, both men would forcefully defend the interests of the ruling class.

Obama has repeatedly gone out of his way to state his willingness to use pre-emptive military force in Pakistan or against Iran, as well as increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan.

Because the impact of the economic crisis and the presidential elections are so tied together, it is difficult to separate the two for African Americans. The blows to the economy are not new; the chance to have a Black person elected as president is.

No African-American leader thought this was possible or realistic even a year ago.

The race factor, or racism to be more precise, shows the contradictions of US society. The careful tone of Obama's Black supporters and his coolness under fire has a lot to do with the racist history of the country and how he and others have responded to charges of "elitism".

Blacks are very familiar with code words being used to put down or be condescending to Black men and women.

The constant charge of "inexperience" by Republicans, for example, is the latest of a long history of racial code words against capable Black men. (Obama is as experienced as Abraham Lincoln, who was also a senator from Illinois, when he was elected president and then led the US Civil War.)

Economy

The economy of course is a huge issue for African Americans. Not surprisingly there is general anger about the US$700 billion Wall Street bailout.

No such bailout occurred for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or for the permanently unemployed and underemployed in the Black community.

Most Black congressional representatives initially voted against the bailout. They changed their minds only after Barack Obama said it was necessary to vote "yes" for political reasons.

He "promised" a future bailout of the "middle class" after he wins the presidency.

In September, the official unemployment rate for African Americans was 11.4%; for the general population it was 6.1%; and for whites it was 5.4%.

In addition, Blacks are a big part of the some 6.1 million part-time workers want to work full time.

The rising health-care costs hit African Americans hardest, as many work in jobs with employers who don't provide health insurance. The need for universal health care is obvious.

As bad as the financial calamity is for all US workers, it is qualitatively worse for Blacks.

African Americans nevertheless see the economic crisis and the presidential election as connected. The possibility of the first Black president is inspiring and hopeful. Voting for Barack Obama is viewed as more than just voting for "Black pride" but as a possible firewall to limit the worse blows of the financial crisis.

The Republicans understand this too, which is why the first African-American presidential candidate for a major party is attacked on "cultural values" and his "character" — which as McCain and Palin's handlers fully understand means his skin colour — to mobilise the votes of bigots and those not fully conscious of their biased attitudes.

The racist campaign against Obama is barely hidden. The code words and phrases of "he's doesn't look like one of us", the emphasising of his middle name "Hussein" and accusations of "palling around with terrorists" are aimed at getting white voters to vote on "fear of the Black man" over economic self-interest.] and being an "alien" to blue-collar Americans.)

'Racism without racists'

A revealing survey was conducted by Stanford University with the Associated Press and Yahoo! in September. It showed that Obama would be at least 6 percentage points higher in every poll if he were white.

The steelworkers' union in Pennsylvania is going door to door in working-class neighbourhoods to win support for Obama. They've heard comments from white co-workers about not voting for "that boy", some saying outright they will never vote for a Black man.

These are workers who have lost their jobs or and are angry about the Wall Street bailout.

However, the economy is causing a majority of whites and other ethnic groups to put their own interests over any anti-Black biases.

I believe if that weren't true, the race factor of 6% would be larger and polls would not show that more and more white men are willing to say that they will vote for Obama for his economic positions, even if they don't see him as "Joe six-pack".

The fact that Obama won the nomination when a similar smear campaign was launched by the Clintons shows how the depth of racism among whites in 2008 is much weaker than it was in 1982.

Blatant bigotry

This is not to minimise the virulence of the hard-core racist minority. The extreme ultra-evangelist leaders of the Republican Party will play the race card as Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the vice-presidential nominee and the attack dog on the issue, continues to do in public.

She whips up the "base" that leads to shouts of "kill him" and "he's a terrorist". The crowd at one Florida event even began shouting epithets at an African-American member of a TV crew.

It shows the logic of racism among a mob-like crowd.

Ads claiming Obama is a "Muslim" are being circulated. Right-wing talk show hosts regularly refer to Obama as "a communist, socialist and terrorist" and that "he's not one of us".

The vast majority of African Americans who know and experience racism care about the outcome of this election. They see the virulent racism directed at Obama as being directed at them.

That's why in many ways the vote on November 4 is a referendum on race relations. Consider one point: if Obama is leading every major poll by 6-10 points yet loses even as the Democratic Party makes big gains in Congress, the impact and angry reaction could be huge in the African-American community.

While I believe that the changes since the victory of the civil rights revolution for Blacks is shown by the facts, a racist defeat of Obama could set back those gains — and open the door to encourage the bigots to push back on other programs that benefit minorities and women.

Few illusions

African Americans are quite aware of the racial contradictions of US society and history. That's why they see the current economic crisis and the presidential election tied together at least until the election is over.

They recognise that voting for Obama is not a solution to the lack of jobs and opportunities.

But Obama's victory would be seen as a confirmation of the progress since adoption of the civil rights laws in the 1960s.

The deepening economic calamity is causing more Blacks to lose their homes, be evicted from their apartments and lose their jobs.

And while the Black community leadership has no plan of action to help the population, the hope is that the first Black president in 232 years of the United States will put programs in place that are fairer.

There are few illusions but a great deal of hope — and pride.

[Malik Miah is an editor of the US socialist journal Against The Current. A longer version of this article can be found at Links.]

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