Does the election of a black president mean that the US is now a society that has moved beyond bigotry? Certainly the election delivered racism a tremendous blow.
The first 16 US presidents, living in the era of slavery, could have owned Barack Obama as a piece of their personal property. Yet now a black man will lead the world’s most powerful nation state.
The election also helped prove that the racial divide in the US is not the result of popular and unchanging attitudes. Exit polls reveal that Obama won large votes among white and Latino voters. In both cases, the Democrats won over large numbers of those who had voted Republican in the previous presidential election.
The weakening of the racial divide in the US should be a source of hope to socialists everywhere. However, some interpretations of the election result are deliberately misleading.
Greeting Obama’s victory, Australia’s Labour prime minister Kevin Rudd referred to US civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s landmark “I have a dream” speech, saying, “Today what America has done is turn that dream into a reality.”
Yet King’s dream was never restricted to the idea that eventually a single black man would make it to the top. King in fact used the same speech to reject this limitation of the aims of the struggle, saying:
“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality… We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.”
Today a cursory glance at the statistics of black America tell us that while some things have changed, others stubbornly persist. The
US continues to be a society with a vicious racial divide – one largely imposed by its rulers.
On average black Americans earn less, are more likely to be unemployed and have higher rates of infant mortality and a lower life expectancy, than whites.
They are more likely to be arrested and jailed and serve longer sentences than all other racial groups.
Today some 60 percent of black males who leave high school without a diploma can expect to find themselves in jail before they are 30 years old.
Would King really regard this as “mission accomplished”?
Many black activists in the US are rightly alarmed at attempts to claim the election is the fundamental defeat of racism.
Rapper Chuck D, of the politically conscious hip-hop group Public Enemy, greeted Obama’s election by saying he hoped it would radically change the debate about race in the US. But he also cautioned that in some ways it could be unhealthy.
“People will say, ‘You guys have got a black president so it’s cool. It’s straight.’ But it does not erase the discussion [about race] that you need to have.”
He warned against the election of Obama being used as “a weapon of mass distraction” from an attempt to tackle problems facing African-Americans.
I’d guess few of the millions of working class black people whose celebrations were beamed around the world believe that the struggle is now completed.
What many will feel is that a space has opened up in which they can start to put their demands, and that maybe this time they will be heard.
Whether that happens or not will depend largely on whether they will be prepared to return to the streets when the US’s rulers decree that tearing down the ghettos and providing people decent jobs is more than the system can afford.