by Paul Street
Frederick Harris’ very useful book on the “high price” – to Black folks – of the nation’s First Black President has been reissued in paperback. However, Harris gives Obama too much credit as a president of all the people. “Like the great majority of U.S. presidents,” writes Paul Street, “Obama has been first and foremost a representative of the American white ruling class.”
Obama Ticket Prices and the Invisible Ruling Class
by Paul Street
Frederick C. Harris, The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014 )
Academic specialization can be a harsh mistress. Look at the recently re-issued and paperback version of Columbia University political scientist Frederick C. Harris’ important and engaging book The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics. Harris’ academic turf is modern U.S. black politics. He covers key parts of that turf with keen historical understanding in Price of the Ticket, usefully situating the Obama phenomenon and presidency in the context of the longstanding intra-black debate about “whether black voters should organize into a cohesive, independent bloc to promote both targeted and universal policies, or pursue a more race-neutral approach, working together with other racial minorities as well as like-minded whites.” At the same time, Harris leaves out much from beyond his place in the academic division of labor – much that matters to understanding the nature and prices of the Obama “ticket.”
Racial Justice Off the Table
As Harris shows, Obama’s ascendancy represents the triumph of the “race-neutral” argument in the post-Civil Rights era. Obama has been careful to distance himself from the considerably more race-conscious black activists and politicians whose past struggles paved the way for his success. In doing so, he has embraced a “de-racialized” white-pleasing political and policy rhetoric that “surrenders to the false notion of a color-blind society where race no longer matters” and to the related “idea that policies that help everyone – what is described by policymakers as universalism – will trickle down to meet the systematic needs of black communities and that targeted policies toward minorities – which lack the political will of the majority – should be taken off the table” (Harris, Price of the Ticket, p. x).
Ironically, yet fittingly enough given these surrenders, the nation’s first technically black president has “spoke[n] less on issues of race than any other Democratic president since 1961” (Harris, xii). By Harris’s account, “Obama’s ascendancy to the White House actually signals a decline of a politics aimed at challenging racial equality head-on”(Harris, xviii) – this even as Obama has taken risks to support minority constituencies on issues like LGBT and immigrant rights.
“Obama has embraced a ‘de-racialized’ white-pleasing political and policy rhetoric that ‘surrenders to the false notion of a color-blind society where race no longer matters.’”
Obama’s race-neutral presidency has been consistent with his first and historic presidential campaign. As Jesse Jackson, Sr., observed at the height of the primary season, none of the Democratic Party contenders other than John Edwards raised issues of importance to minorities and the poor – a criticism that brought Jackson a public rebuke from his son, a post-Civil Rights Congressman in the race-neutral mode (Harris, 33). As Harris notes, “The housing foreclosure crisis that disproportionately hit communities of color, growing levels of black unemployment, the persistence of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the black population, and the War on Drugs that sends large numbers of blacks to prison for nonviolent offenses. These issues would not be substantially engaged by Obama or any of the other Democratic candidates, except John Edwards, whose campaign focused on economic inequality and racial justice” (Harris, 140).
A “Price Not Yet Worth its Sacrifice”
Harris is critical of race-neutral “universalism’s” claim to benefit black communities. “Policies that help everyone – what can be described as a trickle-down approach to eradicating poverty and social inequality – are not,” Harris argues (correctly by my estimation), “enough to correct the deep-rooted persistence of racial inequality”(Harris, x, xviii, xx).
He is unimpressed also with the black political class, which has accepted the president’s silence on race as a price worth paying in return for the symbolic gratification granted by a black family’s presence in the White House. Harris disagrees. “One day,” his book concludes, “the question will be asked – years if not decades from now – whether the sacrifices of previous generations were worth the rise of a ‘race-neutral’ black president, whose ascendancy was made possible by their efforts. As it stands now, the price has not yet proved worth its sacrifice, to the memory of those lost in battle, nor for those who still sit at the very bottom of society, still believing and hoping in the possibilities of change.” (Harris, 192)
Those who remain most woefully uncompensated are precisely those Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. refused to leave behind in his dedication to “a continuous struggle to pursue equality” (Harris, 192) that challenged “the ‘triple evils’ of racism, poverty, and militarism” (191). Harris therefore finds that “the monument to Martin Luther King, Jr., on the National Mall – and the many comparisons of President Obama to the civil rights leader – disturbs memory [even as it]…makes great history” (190).
The Historical Road to BarAxelrod Obama
Harris tries to explain Obama’s race-neutral ascendency through an interpretive description of U.S. black politics over the last half-century. His first chapter demonstrates how the evolution of his two historically contending black political strategies – (A) multi-racial coalition politics and policy “universalism” vs. (B) independent politics for policies that directly target racial disparities –cleared a path for Obama’s ascendancy.
It is no mistake, Harris argues in his second chapter, that Obama’s road to the White House passed through Chicago, “the political capital of black America” since at least the late 1920s, when the city’s black South Side voters sent the first black Congressman since Reconstruction to Washington.
Harris’s third chapter tries to link Obama’s silence on racism to the rising popularity within black American Christianity of “the prosperity gospel” – a conservative, market-friendly religious world view that tells blacks to pursue and embrace economic success on the basis of personal effort, dropping supposedly “dysfunctional” concerns with racism and structural and societal problems.
Harris’s fourth chapter connects Obama’s color-blindness to the black middle and upper classes’ timeworn “politics of [racial] respectability,” which preach “tough love,” “proper behavior” and “good values” for the black poor, downplaying the problem of racial oppression.
“Obama’s Axelrodian politics have furthered encouraged the ‘marginalization of blacks’ community interests.’”
Harris’s fifth chapter recounts the success enjoyed by black politicians who have pursued race-neutral strategies (e.g. former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder and current Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick) to win favor from white voters – along with “wink and nod” backing from blacks – since the 1980s. A key figure in this story is Obama’s white media guru David Axelrod, white former advisor to Chicago’s first black mayor Harold Washington. Before he helped Obama craft a candidate brand that soothed white fears even as it “signal[ed] to persuadable white voters that they had an opportunity to make history by electing the nation’s first black president” (Harris, 151), Axelrod did color-blinding/race-neutralizing media work for white-friendly black politicians like Michael White (Cleveland mayor), John Street (Philadelphia mayor), Dennis Archer (Detroit), and Deval Patrick.
Harris’s sixth and final chapter shows how Obama’s Axelrodian politics have furthered encouraged the “marginalization of blacks’ community interests” – something made all the more perturbing by “the Obama administration’s attention to other constituencies such as the gay and lesbian movement and the Tea Party” (Harris, xxii). It is even more troubling in light of steady worsening of black America’s already dire economic straits over the last five years.
No Ruling Class
This is all very well and good, as far as it goes. But there’s a great deal missing from Harris’s account of the Obama phenomenon and presidency. Especially conspicuous in their absence are the predominantly white corporate, financial, and imperial establishment elements that seized on Obama as a perfect vehicle for carrying out their selfish and authoritarian agenda under the guise of progressive change and democratic hope in the wake of the long national Cheney-Bush nightmare. Ruling class members and operatives provided the money, connections, celebrity, and media attention and approval without which Obama’s rise was unimaginable. They did so only after subjecting Obama to a thorough vetting in which they found him highly amenable to the task of serving their narrow, undemocratic interests.i Assured of his deeply conservative, privilege-friendly, and “market”- (really corporate-) friendly essence, they found Obama’s technical blackness, his brief stint as a “community organizer,” and his technically Muslim ethnic nomenclature nicely suited to the project of giving the American System a fake-democratic “brand makeover” at home and abroad. The re-branding was urgently required following George Dubya Bush’s all too transparently plutocratic, racist, and imperialist performance, scarred by the club-footed invasion of Iraq and the Katrina atrocity among other clumsy blunders.ii
“Especially conspicuous in their absence are the predominantly white corporate, financial, and imperial establishment elements that seized on Obama as a perfect vehicle.”
Along the way, the U.S. power elite has certainly derived no small degree of “divide-and-rule” satisfaction from the ways in which the existence of a first technically black president has fed identity-based fissures in majority working class America and fueled racial and related partisan deadlock. The “deep state” financial and corporate elite continues to pillage society and the commons behind the scenes of the big business-financed and highly identity-politicized major party “marionette theater” that passes for democratic politics in Washington and across the nation’s fifty state capitols.iii
Capitalist Ideology Missing
Another thing missing in The Price of the Ticket is the ascendancy in the dominant public discourse of a corporate neoliberal ideology in which the nation’s “pervasive racial hierarchies collapse,” in the words of Henry Giroux, “into power-evasive strategies such as blaming minorities of class and color for not working hard enough” and “refusing to exercise individual initiative.” Even as an insidious, increasingly invisible racism “functions” as “one of the deep and abiding currents in everyday [American] life,” Giroux notes, this discourse works “to erase the social from the language of public life as to reduce all racial problems to private issues [of]…individual character and cultural depravity.”
Neoliberal ideology “can imagine public issues only as private concerns.” It sees “human agency as simply a matter of individualized choices, the only obstacle to effective citizenship being the lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility” on the part of those most victimized by structural oppression and super-empowered actors atop the nation’s steep and interrelated hierarchies of class, race, gender, nationality, and empire.
“The more they weaken the left, social hand of the state the more they call into being and strengthen the right, authoritarian hand of the state.”
Under the rule of this neoliberal pseudo-color-blind racism/classism, “human misery is largely defined as a function of personal choices” and “all problems are private rather than social in nature.” Government efforts to meaningfully address societal disparities of race and class are deemed futile, counterproductive, and inappropriate.iv Government’s functions are progressively concentrated, in Adolph Reed, Jr.’s words, on “making war,” “enhancing opportunities for the investor class,” “suppressing wages for everyone else,”v repressing dissent, and incarcerating people, particularly poor folks of color. And the more they weaken the left, social hand of the state the more they call into being and strengthen the right, authoritarian hand of the state, which offers its false solutions (i.e., racially disparate mass incarceration) to problems like poverty that only deepen with the evisceration of social protections and regulation. All of this is richly bipartisan and continues whichever political party is in nominal power and regardless of the president’s technical racial or gender identity.
I find it hard to believe that professor Harris seriously believes that Obama’s pronounced tendency to “privilege the logic of market institutions and private enterprise over the ability of government to solve social problems” (p. 105) is rooted primarily in his “the politics of respectability”– or in the prosperity gospel. After years of close observation of the Obama phenomenon, I can assure him that tendency is based mainly in the neoliberal world view Obama soaked up from his business class, academic, and foundation world sponsors over years of immersion in elite, corporate-funded, corporation-serving, and predominantly white institutions like Columbia University, Harvard Law, the University of Chicago, the Hamilton Project, the Joyce Foundation, and a Democratic Party that has been moving far and ever further to the “market”- (and corporate- and Wall Street-) friendly right since the 1970s. Obama took to that ideology early on, well before his emergence on the national stage. This is how Reed described the 30-something Obama in early 1996, soon after the future president first won election to the Illinois state legislature:
“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substances. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway. ”vi
Dollar Obomber, President of Plutocrats
Harris seems to think that Obama rose straight to the White House out of the inner dynamism of black politics and the perverse machinations of race-neutral candidate-marketing, aided by the president’s “bi-racial heritage and light skin-color” (Harris, 153). There’s no reference in The Price of the Ticket to the plutocratic political cash and the many sided corporate-imperial establishment – to the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire – that pre-select “viable” presidential candidates for popular “choice” in the first place.
Anyone who thinks that Obama pursues policies that “help everyone” should research the president’s behind-the-scenes advance of the Transpacific Partnership agreement – a militantly corporatist “free trade” accord that would further insulate multinational corporations from basic popular control and regulation.vii
“Obama has kept the U.S. global military ‘machine set on kill.’”
This great omission and the related absence of any serious discussion of the neoliberal ideology that Obama internalized at the outset of his political career is part of why Harris too easily links the president to a “universalism” that seeks to “help everyone” and makes Obama try to be “the president for ‘all people,’ not just black Americans” (p.xiii). Like the great majority of U.S. presidents from the nation’s blood-soaked chattel-slave origins, Obama has been first and foremost a representative of the American white ruling class. As beneficiaries of his record-setting “too-big-to-fail bank bailouts, of a “health reform” that only the big insurance and drug companies could really love, and of much more that has been documented by myself and other chroniclers of Barack “I love the free market” Obama’s “pragmatic” presidential corporatism, the elite “1%” (more like the .01 percent in reality) has found the nation’s first half-white president (aptly described by the muckraking filmmaker Charles Ferguson as “just another oligarch’s president”viii) very much to their bought-and-paid-for liking, however much some of them like to preposterously complain about his “socialism.” Along the way, Obama has kept the U.S. global military “machine set on kill” (as journalist Alan Nairn put itix), announcing early on that “there is no such thing as a peace dividend,”x much to the bottom-line glee of the nation’s opulent high-tech “defense” contractors– including the early Obama sponsor and General Dynamics mogul Lester Crown.xi
Another Price of the Ticket
A final and big piece missing in Harris’s useful book is another and related cost of the Obama presidency for the cause of racial equality. I am referring to the significant extent to which Obama’s ascendancy has reinforced the false majority white sentiment holding that racism no longer poses any serious barriers to black advancement and equality in the U.S. today – and that the only remaining obstacles to black progress are internal to black communities, black culture, and black individuals. (It’s a sentiment the president has shown himself more than willing to reinforce with comments shaming poor blacks for their failure to take advantage of the great opportunities supposedly afforded them in “this magical place called America,” where Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s racial anger is supposedly now inappropriate and ungrateful.)
What greater symbol could our political culture grant to the white-pleasing myths of post-racialism and post-racism than the election (twice) of a “first black president?” Obama’s presidency has all too predictably been a last nail in the coffin of many white Americans’ already well-withered willingness to acknowledge their country’s continuing, cumulative crimes of savage racial oppression.
That ugly nail also deserves mention as a “price of the [Obama] ticket.”
i See Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006); David Mendell, Obama: The Promise of Power (New York: HarperCollin, 2007), 247-48; Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), xix-xxiv…..
ii Street, Barack Obama and the Future, xxiv-xxxi; Liza Mundy, “A Series of Fortunate Events: Barack Obama Needed More Than Talent and Ambition to Rocket From Obscure State Senator to Presidential Contender in Three Years,” Washington Post Magazine,, August 12, 2007.
iii Mike Lofgren, “Anatomy of the Deep State,” Moyers & Company, February 21, 2014, http://billmoyers.com/2014/02/21/anatomy-of-the-deep-state/; Paul Street, “The Deep State and Beyond,” ZNet, March 1, 2014, http://zcomm.org/znetarticle/the-deep-state-and-beyond/
iv Among Giroux’s many publications: The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004).
v Adolph. Reed, Jr., “New Orleans – Undone by Neoliberalism,” The Nation, August 31, 2006.
vi See Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, 2000), 10-13.
viii Charles Ferguson, Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America (New York: Crown Business, 2012), 300. See also in Ron Suskind, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (New York: Harper Collins, 2011); Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); Rodger Hodge, The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism (New York: Harper, 2010).
ix “‘Obama Has Kept the Machine Set on Kill’ –Journalist and Activist Allan Nairn Reviews Obama’s First Year in Office,” Democracy Now! (January 6, 2010), read at http://www.democracynow.org/2010/1/6/obama_has_kept_the_machine_set. For the machine’s killing operations under Obama, there’s no better place to start than Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (New York: Nation Books, 2013).