“Electing Obama is an important blow against racism and white supremacy”

The following was originally posted as a comment from LS on my post, Revolutionary reflections on the election: we are the wind and the rain. I think this comment by LS is a significant contribution to a larger discussion on the Left about electoral politics, strategy and tactics. It also raises some interesting questions to think about in terms of the national-democratic aspects of the larger Black Liberation struggle for full equality and national self-determination. It deals with other questions as well, such as the war against Iraq, but the African American national question is central to what LS is talking about. There is a lot here to think about and digest, so I’m reposting it here for further discussion.


I appreciate you bringing up this topic, and grounding it in some key Marxist writings dealing with issues that have some similarities historically. This election is obviously an important topic of discussion for everyone on the U.S. left today. I think all the reasons you talk about for voting to defeat McCain in this election are solid. I’d just like to elaborate a bit more on my thinking about it.

I have three main reason for voting for Obama in this election. The first is that the election has become seen by the masses of people as a referendum on racism and on whether a Black person is capable of being president. Understanding the centrality of white supremacy and the oppression of Black people in all of U.S. history up to the current moment, I think we must strike a decisive blow to McCain/Palin’s shameful whipping up of racism and to the groundswell of fear of Black people (and Black political power) that McCain/Palin are tapping into and in fact fanning (i.e. Palin saying Obama ‘palls around with terrorists’, etc). Given the reality that Cynthia McKinney (the excellent and very progressive African American candidate of the Green Party) has no chance of getting even 1% of the vote in this election, the best way to deliver a decisive anti-racist message in 2008 is for Obama to win a decisive victory over McCain.

The second reason I think it’s important to defeat McCain is the war. The election is also seen as a referendum on the war in Iraq. As anti-imperialists we know that Obama does not really support a ‘troops out now’ position on Iraq, and he supports continued U.S. domination of Iraq. He is not an anti-imperialist, and he also says he supports increasing troops in Afghanistan, possibly waging war on Iran and Pakistan, etc. For good measure he has also taken very belligerent and quite bad positions against Cuba and Venezuela, while his position on Israel is just awful. He is very clearly positioning himself well within (and even on the rightward side of) pro-imperial foreign policy. We could expect a little better, but we frankly shouldn’t be shocked about this from a candidate of one of the two imperialist parties.

All that said, we need to face the reality that the left in the U.S. does not have a viable anti-imperialist candidate contending in this presidential election that even has a shot at getting 1% of the vote nationally. So the decision to vote for Obama to defeat McCain must be seen in that context. The vast majority of people who want the war in Iraq to end have decided that Obama is the vehicle to make that happen. If McCain wins the election, he will take it as a mandate to continue the Iraq war indefinitely. That would be terrible for the Iraqi people and the people of the U.S. and the people of the whole world. If Obama wins, he may in fact also continue the war indefinitely but the masses of people will feel that they gave him a mandate to end the war. If he doesn’t end the war, he will be going directly against the mandate that got him into the White House, and then we as anti-imperialists will have a much larger base of people to try to mobilize to pressure the ruling class to end the war in Iraq.

Also, I’d like to say something in regard to the feebleness of Obama’s “withdrawal plan” from Iraq. For anti-imperialists it is feeble and in fact unacceptable. It would leave U.S. bases and thousands — probably tens of thousands — of U.S. troops indefinitely. It would just withdraw combat troops to Iraq’s borders (or move them to combat in Afghanistan), not send them home to the U.S. It would leave U.S. domination of Iraq’s economy and politics intact. All that said, it must be said that even the partial withdrawal of U.S. troops could give the Iraqi resistance the space they need to surge forward. This is not Obama’s reason for advocating withdrawal — on the contrary, he has counterinsurgency in mind. But objectively even a hesitating, partial withdrawal has the potential to greatly help the Iraqi people and the Iraqi resistance. It would not be liberation, but it could give a bit more space for the liberation movement. Recall that President Carter’s temporary yanking of aid to Nicaraguan dictator Somoza gave the Sandinistas the space they needed to overthrow Somoza and win state power in 1979. That wasn’t Carter’s intention — the U.S. ruling class would have preferred a ‘kinder, gentler’ U.S. client state without the embarrassing excesses and human rights abuses. But Carter’s action in even haltingly and temporarily pulling support from a U.S.-backed dictator gave the liberation forces the space they needed to win.

The third reason I think voting for Obama is correct is the profound fact in and of itself that a Black man is poised to be elected president of the U.S. Lets step back for a second and look at how profound this is. Nearly all Black people in the U.S grasp this and rightfully see this as a historic and proud moment — a turning point in U.S. history. A very real old-school white supremacist veneer could be about to fall. That is a good thing, a victory, and should be unequivocally celebrated by all progressive people. While Obama is clearly pro-imperialist, the fact that it is someone like him, who is ‘progressive’, ‘anti-war’, comes from a community organizing background, etc., as opposed to a right-winger like Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice, is all the better. Many people thought the first ‘viable’ Black candidate would pretty much have to be a right winger like Colin Powell. Lets be clear — Obama is not a Malcolm X, MLK, or even a Jesse Jackson politically. Jackson at least called for cutting the military budget; there’s no such talk from Obama. Obama did not come up through the Black freedom movement. He answers directly to the power structure, not to the Black community or any other community for his rise.

But still, to me it is obviously better to be talking about the first Black president being Obama than Powell or Rice. The fact that Obama is a young “progressive” Democrat and not a right winger like Powell or Rice also has an effect on the mass expression and mass cultural and political motion generated around Obama’s candidacy. Lets face it, if it was a Colin Powell candidacy, you wouldn’t see the Black cultural movement that you see supporting Obama, with folks from Wyclef to Ludacris to Big Boi & Mary J Blige to LL Cool J to Nas, etc etc etc writing songs about or reflecting on the fact that Obama may become president. I mean, if LL Cool J is writing political songs, something important is going on!

And aside from the cultural expressions of support for Obama and his “change” message, the fact that he puts forward a vaguely progressive message using imagery from ‘the movement’ has emboldened Black and other progressive young people to take initiative. These initiatives have so far generally stayed comfortably within the bounds of acceptable political activity (voting for a Democrat). But it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the possibility of more independent and more radical action in response to possible future events, such as for example a Republican attempt to steal the election, or ongoing racist smear campaigns against Obama if he wins.

If Obama wins does that mean that racism is over and that the U.S. is no longer a white supremacist country? Not at all. It just means that one huge, important barrier is being overcome, and new lines of struggle against white supremacy will be drawn moving forward.

While no analogy is perfect, there are some parallels to the first wave of Black mayors in major U.S. cities in the 1970s and 80s. By electing Black mayors to govern major U.S. cities a huge barrier was overcome, and black political power became a reality in cities across the country that were formerly governed plantation-style by white men, many of them outspoken white supremacists. The election of Black mayors didn’t end racism (Black people in the inner cities still live in poverty, suffer high unemployment, police brutality, imprisonment, and all kinds of oppression). And the forces of reaction mostly scurried to the suburbs, regrouped and counterattacked fiercely (for one example see the excellent book about Atlanta – “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism”). And some whites who stayed in the cities counterattacked from there, dividing Black forces to reassert power within the Black-dominated cities themselves (this dynamic was artfully portrayed in the HBO series “The Wire”.) Some (but not all) of the Black mayors who had come directly out of the Black freedom movement and catapulted into mayor’s offices from there got mired in business-as-usual bourgeois politics (becoming shills for developers and corporate interests – one of the more egregious examples being former MLK associate and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young flacking for the likes of WalMart!) or getting attacked for scandals, personal vices, or corruption (such as former SNCC leader Marion Barry who became Mayor of Washington DC). The black community became more divided, and the fight against racism and white supremacy continued under new conditions, definitely more complex, but definitely an advance over than the old school white supremacy where Black people were totally excluded from political power and were governed over directly by open white supremacists.

That barrier that was knocked down on the city-level in the 1970s could be about to be knocked down on the national level. Institutionalized white supremacy is still very real in the U.S. — reams of statistics prove that (life expectancy, unemployment rates, hiring discrimination, home ownership rates, incarceration rates, infant mortality rates, etc.) But in addition to those material facts of life, there is still are also still very real racist ideas among white people that belittle Black peoples’ capacities, that say Black people aren’t capable of holding and shouldn’t be allowed to hold positions of power, that they should in fact be feared. Aside from the outright racist attacks on Obama from the right, the more concealed racism of fear and questioning Black people’s basic capacities is being expressed in many different ways all around us. It’s come out recently very clearly at McCain events when audience members say they “fear” an Obama presidency. Tim Wise’s article ‘This is Your Nation on White Privilege’ made a number of sharp points in this regard (see http://www.redroom.com/blog/tim-wise/this-your-nation-white-privilege-updated ) Decisively defeating this type of more insidious racist attitude is important. The only real way to do that in this situation is to decisively defeat McCain in this election.

Many revolutionary left groups have said little to nothing about these aspects of the elections this year (the huge significance of the majority of people in the U.S. possibly voting to elect a Black president, running on an ‘anti-war’, ‘change’ platform). I think that left groups are basically missing the boat on a key moment in U.S. history this year if they are supporting Nader this round, are advocating abstention, or are insisting doggedly that Obama and McCain are the same because they’re both pro-capitalist and pro-system (which is of course true), without paying proper attention to the particularities of the dynamics at play in this election. I understand more those that are supporting Cynthia McKinney. She is an African American woman, much more progressive than Obama, a former Democratic member of Congress from Georgia who left the Democrats and is running as the Green Party presidential candidate on a “Power to the People” theme. In solidly “blue states” I think a vote for McKinney might make sense (that is, if we can assume any states are solidly blue when the Democratic candidate is Black, making the polling data likely somewhat less reliable than usual).

I think support for McKinney is understandable – she’s personally and politically compelling, as is her running-mate Rosa Clemente; McKinney is very progressive and outspoken on many progressive and even radical causes; she has been elected to the U.S. Congress so you can’t say she is “unelectable” (though obviously she’s not gonna win this election and won’t even come close to the magic 5%); she got shafted by the Dems for speaking out on Palestine (and other controversial topics), so she left the Dems and joined the Greens, etc. For those who see the elections as a moral question and think they’ve committed a sin if they vote for a Democrat, or for those who just want to make a statement with their vote, McKinney is the best option. She is actually helping to build a more progressive Third Party (the Greens), unlike Nader who again is running lone ranger-style, stubbornly refusing to build a party that can sustain a movement beyond his campaign.

While I understand supporting McKinney, I still think forces supporting her are making a political error in this election, though from what I’ve seen McKinney supporters generally have shown a strong grasp of the importance of confronting white supremacy and national oppression in the U.S. They are making the error of separating themselves from the masses of progressive people in the U.S. at a key historical moment when a key blow will be struck against racism. By way of analogy (again all analogies are imperfect), it seems to me like refusing to have participated in civil rights protests in the U.S. South in the early 60s because the leaders of the protest appealed to U.S. patriotism, echoed anti-communism and used explicit religious appeals in their talking points. It would be like rather than participating in the mass SNCC lunch counter sit-ins in 1960, organizing a separate protest instead with better slogans and politics, purer politically but smaller and isolated. The above-stated things were very true of the civil rights movement including SNCC at the beginning of the 1960s — the leaders were anti-communist, deeply religious, appealed to U.S. patriotism, and portrayed themselves as ‘normal’ middle-class, even conservative Americans. But focusing one-sidedly on those things misses the revolutionary essence of what what actually going on, the radical direct challenge to the entire white supremacist power structure in the U.S. South (and in the whole country). Refusing to participate would have missed the motion that led a large part of the base and many leaders of the Black freedom movement to turn toward revolutionary politics in short order. Will voting for Obama today turn people into revolutionaries tomorrow? Of course not, not most of them, not automatically. But we need to understand the a large number of Obama’s supporters are further to the left than him and are voting for him for progressive reasons (anti-war, anti-racism, anti-Bush). Revolutionaries need to be supportive of the progressive thrust of Obama’s base, and work to move them to more radical conclusions about the kind of change we need.

There may actually be a Black man elected president of the U.S. in November. That is profound. If he wins will you be celebrating that victory on election night as an important blow against racism and white supremacy? I will — without apology. Then we continue the struggle, under new conditions. But to not stop and recognize the significance of a possible Obama presidential victory is to miss out on a key moment in the struggle against racism in the U.S.


4 responses to ““Electing Obama is an important blow against racism and white supremacy”

  1. Amen to LS, he or she ‘Gets it.’

    I would only add that he or she is too rigid about Obama and too soft on the left.

    Obama’s effort to carve out a niche for himself, opposing both McCain’s neloliberalism and Hilary’s old-style corporate liberal will still be within the bounds of capitalism, but it may contain elements, like ‘Green Jobs’ industrial policy, that will surprise you.

    As for the left, at this point, it is mainly ‘oppositional’ and not united around a platform of deep structural reform that could be used to wage battle in the wider Obama coalition, to both defend the working class and the oppressed peoples, and to grow the left in secured strongholds in the base communities of the working class.

    For those who sat it out, it’s way late in the day. But these things will soon be front and center, one way or another. Unfortunately, those who sat it out will have fewer seats and less voices among those on the left who didn’t.

    There’s deep lessons here, a number of them, to ponder for some time…

    Carl Davidson
    ‘Progressives for Obama’

  2. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-villa_park_signoct17,0,1501910.story

    This news from a Chicago suburb reinforces the point: the racists know that electing Obama is a blow against white supremacy. A co-worker of mine received one of these death threats.

  3. well, this has been a difficult election to figure out. a friend of mine from left turn came up with the formula: “i hope obama does not lose – but i don’t hope he wins!”

    the important difference between the obama campaign and the early civil rights era is that the second one is a social movement and the first is not (although it is of course a mass phenomenon). i do think all the voter registration, early voting, and so on is important – but an actual political direction beyond november is lacking. at this point, making predictions is futile but i can see contradictory impact of an obama presidency. the fact that many white workers have come around recently is encouraging; at the same time, his incredible popularity among african americans and young people will likely preserve illusions in him for much longer than normal.

    ricardo levins morales had a very thoughtful piece on the elections and left strategy at his website called “tecumseh’s fist” – it’s around 50 pages.

    by the way, we ended up endorsing mckinney only narrowly. for many of the reasons you list, a large minority was against an endorsement this year when we voted prior to mckinney or obama getting their parties’ nominations. (i was for mckinney.) i realize that the mckinney campaign is also not a social movement! it is worth supporting to lay the ground work for the years to come, though. i think the political impact of the mckinney campaign probably has about as much political reality as “independent” left wing efforts to impact the obama campaign.

  4. As a member of your political opposition, I must admit and say publicly that I am impressed both with the thoughtfulness and intellectual honesty of this posting. I have more respect for someone with whom I disagree who has clearly thought through the difficulties facing us as a result of our engagement in the techno-capitalist world than I have for any ham-fisted supporter of democracy.

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