As a result of his complexion, Obama was given a pass for his racial demagoguery, similar to conservatives forgiving Richard Nixon for his entreaties to China. In a sense, only the impeccably anti-communist Nixon could go to China and, in that same sense, only the phenotypically black Obama could safely disrespect blacks with such vitriol.
There was the time the president scolded black parents in Texas:
Y’all have Popeyes out in Beaumont? I know some of y’all you got that cold Popeyes out for breakfast. I know. That’s why y’all laughing. … You can’t do that. Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school.”
And then there was the time he condescendingly lectured black men on Father’s Day:
We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child — it’s the courage to raise one. . . .don’t just sit in the house and watch “Sports Center” all weekend long. That’s why so many children are growing up in front of the television. As fathers and parents, we’ve got to spend more time with them, and help them with their homework, and replace the video game or the remote control with a book once in a while.”
And at an event to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington, he blamed the victim:
Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if [they] had no agency in [their] own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.“
Instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”
The speaker at Bowie State University’s 2013 commencement was none other than Michelle Obama, not Melania Trump, and the other utterances were attributed not to Donald Trump but to his predecessor, the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama. And yet, the Obamas’ racially-insensitive and polarizing language was met with virtually none of the opprobrium that social media, politicians and pundits have rained down on Trump following revelations that he privately described as “shitholes” a raft of countries with majority black and mestizo populations in Africa and the Caribbean, comparing their immigrants unfavorably to immigrants from heavily white countries like Norway.
In fact, a year into the Trump administration, you can make a credible argument that Obama was more heavily invested in both racist narratives and racist policies than any president since at least Ronald Reagan. Yet, outside of the left-leaning Black Agenda Report, no media outlets in the U.S. have made a fuss about it.
Was Obama an avatar of white supremacy?
To be sure, Trump is the quintessential “creepy cracker,” a throwback to white-supremacist demagogues of the Jim Crow era like “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman. But in his eight years in the White House, Obama clearly made a conscious effort to depict blacks as a thing apart, and the children of a lesser God, who were deserving of their material misfortune at the hands of banks — and police.
It’s unfathomable, for instance, that the famously smart Obama was unaware of a 2007 study by sociologist Rebekah Levine Coley that found that black fathers who don’t live in the same home as their children are more involved in their children’s lives than those of any other racial group. Nor is it likely that Obama was unaware of FBI crime statistics that indicate that whites commit violent crimes at a rate that is significantly higher than that of blacks on a per capita basis.
And in terms of policies, there is, as of yet anyway, no comparison to be made between Obama and Trump. In destroying the continent’s most prosperous country and toppling the wildly popular pan-Africanist leader, Muammar Gaddafi, Obama recruited Arab insurgents who tortured, lynched, and decapitated the darker-skinned Africans living in Libya who were supporters of the Gaddafi regime. In Brazil — a country with more African-descended people than any other save Nigeria — the Obama administration endorsed a coup orchestrated by a cabal of wealthy white business executives who ginned up allegations of corruption against the country’s first black woman president.
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In Honduras, Obama helped white coup-plotters consolidate power after they ousted the Central American country’s democratically-elected moderate president, who had raised the country’s minimum wage. Later, assassins with ties to the business-friendly government would be charged with the murder of Berta Caceres, a woman of color who led a grassroots campaign to oppose the construction of a dam.
In Venezuela, Obama sided with the white opposition in its efforts to unseat the socialist government supported by the country’s black and mestizo majority. And, in his final year in office, Obama handed the illegal Israeli occupation — described by a contingent of former South African dissidents as “worse than apartheid”– with the largest foreign aid package in history.
So what explains the disparate reactions to Trump and Obama’s racial rhetoric?
The answer can be discerned by following the money.
Who better to drive the eternal wedges through working class solidarity?
Unlike their counterparts in Canada, France, Germany, or Japan, the richest one percent in the United States has staved off anything resembling a social democracy by consistently using racist tropes to drive a wedge through working class solidarity. From the standpoint of the one percenters, the threat posed by such rainbow coalitions, is existential: even a soft rapprochement between black and white workers has produced redistributive achievements as spectacular as public education, open admissions at the City University of New York, or the New Deal-era organizing that led to the most prosperous middle class of the Industrial Age.
The financial crisis of 2008 is typically compared to the Great Depression but the better analogue is really the economic slowdown that began in September of 1873. While the 1929 crash was more of a classical capitalist contraction grounded in overproduction at American factories and mills, the 1873 Panic was the pre-industrial counterpart to 2008’s post-industrial recession — with both being triggered by speculators’ irrational investments in real estate and tech stocks, represented in the late 19th century by the intercontinental railroad.
Of the scores of financial institutions fearing bank-runs from nervous depositors, Freedman’s Savings and Loan was especially at-risk due in large measure to the mismanagement and outright financial fraud of its top executives and board of directors, virtually all-white. Hoping to reassure black depositors — many of whom had stashed everything they had accumulated since Emancipation in the bank — Freedman’s top management hit on a master stroke: what if they hired the most high-profile freed slave as the bank president?
Misled about the bank’s true financial position, Frederick Douglass exhorted Freedmen’s depositors to stay the course. They did for the most part, and when the bank inevitably folded in June of 1874, Freedmen’s black depositors lost nearly everything they owned.
When Obama emerged as the frontrunner for the presidency, the United States was in the midst of a similar banking crisis. A 2009 FBI report estimated the total of losses due to mortgage fraud at $14 billion, and according to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “[b]orrowers in upper-income black neighborhoods were twice as likely as homeowners in low-income white neighborhoods to refinance with a subprime loan.”
Similar to Douglass more than a century earlier, Obama was tasked with reassuring blacks that everything would be fine if they only continued to believe in a system that was, at that very moment, robbing them blind. But Obama was also charged with isolating a radical polity that has a track record of inspiring working-class revolutions when exposed to a wider white world that is also in crisis. To bolster his refusal to prosecute bankers for fraud or provide homeowners with any kind of relief, and to justify his insistence on shoveling low-interest loans at institutions his administration deemed “too big to fail,” Obama, as much as any of his predecessors, needed a scapegoat.
And yet, as a result of his complexion, Obama was given a pass for his racial demagoguery, similar to conservatives forgiving Richard Nixon for his entreaties to China. In a sense, only the impeccably anti-communist Nixon could go to China and, in that same sense, only the phenotypically black Obama could hang blacks in effigy in such a manner.
The result of his efforts is that African-Americans have scarcely had it so bad. A 2016 report by the National Association of Real Estate Brokers states that 41.7 percent of black households own their home, a rate lower than it was during the Great Depression. Half of all black households in the U.S. have a total net worth of less than $1,700; for the median white household the figure is nearly $100,000; and even for whites living near the poverty line, median household wealth exceeds $10,000.
Nothing in the scientific world can explain these kinds of disparities; only pernicious and persistent racial discrimination does. Obama’s racial demagoguery, like Trump’s, represents a remapping of the known world to ensure that America’s working class continues to travel in circles, never reaching the promised land.
Top Photo |President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks during the Morehouse College 129th Commencement ceremony, May 19, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)