Has Obama Backed Off of a Big Opportunity to Heal America's Racial Divide?
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Americans began the summer still celebrating the dawn of a "post-racial" era. They are ending it under no such illusion. The summer of 2009 was all about race, beginning with Republican claims that Sonia Sotomayor, Barack Obama's nominee to the US Supreme Court, was "racist" against whites. Then, just as that scandal was dying down, up popped "the Gates controversy", the furore over the president's response to the arrest of African American academic Henry Louis Gates Jr in his own home. Obama's remark that the police had acted "stupidly" was evidence, according to massively popular Fox News host Glenn Beck, that the president "has a deep-seated hatred for white people".
Obama's supposed racism gave a jolt of energy to the fringe movement that claims he has been carrying out a lifelong conspiracy to cover up his (fictional) African birth. Then Fox News gleefully discovered Van Jones, White House special adviser on green jobs. After weeks of being denounced as "a black nationalist who is also an avowed communist", Jones resigned last Sunday.
The undercurrent of all these attacks was that Obama, far from being the colour-blind moderate he posed as during the presidential campaign, is actually obsessed with race, in particular with redistributing white wealth into the hands of African Americans and undocumented Mexican workers. At town hall meetings across the US in August, these bizarre claims coalesced into something resembling an uprising to "take our country back". Henry D Rose, chair of Blacks For Social Justice, recently compared the overwhelmingly white, often armed, anti-Obama crowds to the campaign of "massive resistance" launched in the late 50s – a last-ditch attempt by white southerners to block the racial integration of their schools and protect other Jim Crow laws. Today's "new era of 'massive resistance'," writes Rose, "is also a white racial project."
There is at least one significant difference, however. In the late 50s and early 60s, angry white mobs were reacting to life-changing victories won by the civil rights movement. Today's mobs, on the other hand, are reacting to the symbolic victory of an African American winning the presidency. Yet they are rising up at a time when non-elite blacks and Latinos are losing significant ground, with their homes and jobs slipping away from them at a much higher rate than from whites. So far, Obama has been unwilling to adopt policies specifically geared towards closing this ever-widening divide. The result may well leave minorities with the worst of all worlds: the pain of a full-scale racist backlash without the benefits of policies that alleviate daily hardships. Meanwhile, with Obama constantly painted by the radical right as a cross between Malcolm X and Karl Marx, most progressives feel it is their job to defend him – not to point out that, when it comes to tackling the economic crisis ravaging minority communities, the president is not doing nearly enough.
For many antiracist campaigners, the realisation that Obama might not be the leader they had hoped for came when he announced his administration would be boycotting the UN Durban Review Conference on racism, widely known as "Durban II". Almost all of the public debate about the conference focused on its supposed anti-Israel bias. When it actually took place in April in Geneva, virtually all we heard about was Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inflammatory speech, which was met with rowdy disruptions, from the EU delegates who walked out, to the French Jewish students who put on clown wigs and red noses, and tried to shout him down.
Lost in the circus atmosphere was the enormous importance of the conference to people of African descent, and nowhere more so than among Obama's most loyal base. The US civil rights movement had embraced the first Durban conference, held in summer 2001, with great enthusiasm, viewing it as the start of the final stage of Martin Luther King's dream for full equality. Though most black leaders offered only timid public criticism of the president's Durban II boycott, the decision was discussed privately as his most explicit betrayal of the civil rights struggle since taking office.