by Paul Street
President Obama offered the crowds at the March on Washington commemoration…nothing, except the fact of a Black presidency. That’s all he’s ever offered. The question is: “What good to black Americans is a first black president who brings them nothing more than the fleeting symbolic satisfaction of his technically black presence in the White House.”
“You Get a President… Nothing Else”
by Paul Street
“It's like, 'OK, you get a president, you get nothing else. You got him so you don't need to eat, you don't need education.' It's just almost worse…” – Judith Hawkins, Washington D.C.
I’m not a big fan of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). It’s a conservative, power-friendly communications entity that can be counted on to serve elites more often than not – not all that different from the dominant, mass consent-manufacturing corporate media in the U.S.
Still, I’ve got to hand it to the BBC for providing some decent reportage on race in the United States at the 50thanniversary mark of Martin Luther King’s magisterial “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Mall in Washington DC.
Watching television two nights ago, I was taken aback even more than usual by the vapidity of the “P”BS Newshour’s take on that topic. The Newshour’s segment on American race relations a half century after the 1963 March on Washington (MOW) was lightweight white bait. So what if the Newshour co-anchor in charge of the segment was a black American – Gwen Ifill, who tells viewers in a “P”BS advertisement that her job as a journalist permits her to “ask not only all of my own questions but also and more importantly all of your questions”? Her segment was remarkable for the extent to which it avoided difficult and painful questions about the persistence of steep racial inequality in the U.S. and the reasons for that persistence. 
Things were different in the half-hour “BBC News US and Canada” on Iowa Public Television (Channel 3) after the Newshour. In a segment titled “Martin Luther King’s Dream Yet to Become a Reality in the U.S.,” white male BBC reporter Mark Mardell, went out into the streets of Washington DC to examine how race looks on the ground of the city that is home to the nation’s first black president. Mardell noted that “the river that runs through the US capital city can still feel like a sharp dividing line. On one side” Mardell observed, you find “the White House, Capitol Hill and an increasingly prosperous city where areas that were once ghettos are now gentrified, full of smart restaurants and bars….But over the river in south-east Washington, where more than 90% of the population is African American, it's a very different story…To many whites, it is a no-go area. I have lost count of the times I have been warned to stay away. Despite some determined efforts, improvements and a fierce resilience, it remains rundown and poor.”
“It seems like everything is going backwards.”
Mardell then reported sharply disparate official unemployment rates by race in Washington DC: 3.5% for whites and 22% for blacks (“although some say [the black rate] is really much higher”). He also observed stark economic inequalities in the U.S. as a whole: average U.S unemployment of 7.4% vs. black U.S. unemployment of 12.5%; overall median income of $50,502 vs. median black income of $33,460; a national poverty rate of 15% vs. a black poverty rate of 27.4%. Mardell added that blacks make up 40 percent of the remarkable number of Americans in jail even though they comprise 13% of the U.S. population.
Like all good journalists, Mark Mardell knows that statistics only go so far when it comes to reaching viewers and readers. You’ve got to talk to some real people to put a human face on the story.
So Mardell went to a food distribution center in a black Washington D.C. ghetto, where the destitute rub shoulders with the working poor in search of adequate nutrition. There he met an 80-year old black woman named Evelyn Brown, a former nurse who “has worked all her life but finds it hard to make ends meet.” A veteran of the 1963 MOW, Ms. Brown told Mardell that "It seems like everything is going backwards, 'cause…I came up the ranks, the hard times, so therefore I can see what's going on now…Really it is a struggle, it's a terrible struggle."
Mardell also interviewed a younger black woman named Judith Hawkins, who told him that “not enough has changed since King marched…We can sit in the front of the bus and we don't have to go to the outside water fountains,” Ms. Hawkins said. "And people would say we've come a long way because Barack Obama is president. It's almost like he's the panacea, but I mean with the recession it's really real here…It's like, 'OK, you get a president, you get nothing else. You got him so you don't need to eat, you don't need education.' It's just almost worse, it almost made it worse because of the backlash."
This raises a disturbing question. What good to black Americans is a first black president who brings them nothing more than the fleeting symbolic satisfaction of his technically black presence in the White House – this while provoking white backlash experienced primarily by blacks without the protections of wealth and power?
Mardell said something quite remarkable in his piece on race in the U.S., which reported more about that topic than “P”Bs and Gwen Ifill have had to offer over multiple days of pretending to discuss the same topic in coordination with the MOW anniversary. “While many whites might see Mr. Obama's election as the final, triumphant chapter in the civil rights story,” Mardell observed, “here [in Washington D,C.’s black ghetto] it is sourly noted that he hasn't visited this part of the city just a few miles from where he lives.” [1A]
“He could have noted the first technically black president’s repeatedly stated hostility to the notion that blacks deserve any special programs or compensation for the powerful role racism has played in producing the nation’s persistent stark racial disparities.”
There’s a lot more that Mardell could have said about the sorry state of U.S. race relations today. Mardell underestimated the size of the incarcerated population. He should have provided data on the wealth/net worth race-gap. (The New York Times reported last spring that ”by the most recent data, the average white family had about $632,000 in wealth, versus $98,000 for black families and $110,000 for Hispanic families”) He could have noted the first technically black president’s repeatedly stated hostility to the notion that blacks deserve any special programs or compensation for the powerful role racism has played in producing the nation’s persistent stark racial disparities – along with Obama’s nasty habit of lecturing poor blacks on the their own supposed personal and cultural responsibility for their disadvantage.
Mardell might have politely challenged Ms. Hawkins notion that black Americans “got a president” or at least made it explicit that they only got one of a symbolic kind. The Harvard-educated and elite white-vetted half-white president has been Wall Street and corporate America’s president more than anything else.
Mardell might have added that, in economic terms, the Obama years have in fact been worse for black Americans (consistent with Evelyn Brown’s comment that “everything is going backwards”) – no “just almost worse” about it. And he might have dug deeper to learn that a number of left U.S. anti-racist intellectuals and activists warned from the very beginning that the “vacuous to repressive neoliberal” President Obama (I quote Dr. Adolph Reed Jr.) was going to be a big problem for the black equality struggle in America. This was my position early on, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the expectation that Obama’s rise to the White House would prove the last nail in the coffin of white America’s willingness to admit that racism still poses serious barriers to black advancement and racial equality.
Still, Mardell and BBC deserve credit for telling some very basic truths that seem beyond the reach of U.S. “mainstream” media. The numbers and real-world testimony they provide are honest and harsh enough to suggest serious problems with the dominant progress narrative, richly fed by Obama’s dangerous ascendancy.
It is easier, of course, to tell difficult truths about social conditions and disparities in nations other than your own. (I am skeptical about whether BBC is as incisive and candid when it comes to racial inequality inside the United Kingdom). That said, it is good to see on BBC a rare bit of honest and serious reporting about racial oppression and the real lives of black Americans in the endlessly deceptive and mendacious Age of Obama.
Paul Street is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis(Rowman&Littlefield, 2007) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power(Paradigm, 2010).
Read a transcript of the BBC report I saw at 10:15 pm CST on IPTV 3 on August 27, 2013 athttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23859773
1 The following day, Ms. Ifill would be positioned in the White House alongside her Newshour colleague Judy Woodruff to lob softball questions at that president about his transparently mendacious claims and war plans regarding Syria and the Middle East – more evidence for my longstanding sense that the “P” in PBS really stands for “Presidential,” not “Public.” I find Ms.Ifill’s statement that she “asks all of your questions” (akin to "All The News That's Fit to Print" and NPR’s "All Things Considered") to be one of the most obnoxious things ever uttered in reigning so-called mainstream media.
1A. Maybe that will change if the city school board opens up a nice corporate-run charter school in that ghetto. That should garner a visit from the president and his neoliberal Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
2. Anne Lowery, “Wealth Gap Among Races Has Widened Since Recession,” New York Times, April 28, 2013. “Many experts,” Lowery noted, “consider the wealth gap to be more pernicious than the income gap, as it perpetuates from generation to generation and has a powerful effect on economic security and mobility. Young black people are much less likely than young white people to receive a large sum from their parents or other relatives to pay for college, start a business or make a down payment on a home, for instance. That, in turn, makes their wealth-building prospects shakier as they move into adulthood.”
3. I was interviewed on this topic by CNN reporter John Blake in the summer of 2008. See John Blake, “Could an Obama Presidency Hurt Black Americans?” CNN (July 22, 2008),http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/07/22/obama.hurt.blacks/ See aso Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), third chapter, titled “How ‘Black’ is Obama? Color, Class, Generation and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era,” pp. 73-122. A forgotten classic essay is Juan Santos, “Barack Obama and the ‘End’ of Racism,” Dissident Voice (February 13, 2008),http://dissidentvoice.org/2008/02/barack-obama-and-the-%E2%80%9Cend%E2%80%9D-of-racism/