Would Obama make race inequality worse?

Barack Obama is the first presidential candidate since Ralph Nader in 2000 to generate real popular excitement. Like Nader, Obama is drawing huge crowds on the order of 15,000-20,000 people to his campaign events. Obama has received campaign donations from far more people than his rivals - 104,000 in the last reporting period compared with Clinton's 60,000 and Edwards's 40,000. How can we explain this excitement? It's definitely not that Obama is offering a concrete alternative - in policy terms, he is almost indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton. (His recently released health care plan may be an exception - Clinton has yet to produce her own.) What does distinguish Obama is his image and his race.

Obama has successfully cultivated the image of an outsider, an anti-establishment candidate and a fresh face. How he has managed this I'm not entirely sure, since everything about the campaign is very much of the establishment. Half of Obama's campaign money comes from extremely rich people who can afford to send more than $2300 to a political candidate. Only 21 percent comes from those donating $200 or less (see Opensecrets.org for these numbers). He relies on the same sectors for donations as Clinton does - finance capital, lawyers, Hollywood (a good article on Obama's fundraising operation and his corporate patrons is here). Many of his top fundraisers, in fact, worked in the Clinton administration or were Clinton donors close enough to the president to be invited to the White House. Obama has deep connections to the Daley machine in Chicago. His campaign is staffed by veteran Democratic operatives. To the extent there is a difference between Clinton and Obama's political connections, it's one of region: Obama draws from Chicago capitalists, Clinton from New York capitalists.

Almost no one is talking about it, but I think Obama's race is at least as important in generating this popular excitement as his image is. There's something truly gratifying to many liberals about throwing support behind the first black man with a good chance at winning the White House - especially when his main opponent is such a staunchly establishment figure as Hillary Clinton.

However, we need to be very careful about this kind of approach. Would an Obama presidency help reduce America's stunning racial inequality? There are no clear answers, but it seems at least as likely that race inequality could be made worse under Obama.

To be fair, Obama has given some attention to the structural causes of the problem. He has spoken about how unequal school funding leads to a wide gap in education opportunities between whites and blacks. He has drawn attention to underinvestment in public goods like hospitals and infrastructure. However, in a now-familiar theme, Obama has not followed this recognition with ideas on how to address it. As The Los Angeles Times noted, "Obama did not offer specific proposals to solve the problems he described. His approach has more often relied on lofty rhetoric than real-world prescriptions."

If Obama were to someday champion policies to address the structural problems he points out, then some progress might be made. But there is another side to Obama's approach to race. In addition to speaking vaguely about the ways our society is designed to reproduce racial inequality, Obama also frequently reproaches black people for causing their own problems. Drawing on the rich language that white conservatives and black professionals have developed to fix blame for racial inequality on poor blacks themselves, Obama regularly chastises blacks to put greater value on education and stop listening to rap. According to The Washington Post,
"In Chicago, sometimes when I talk to the black chambers of commerce, I say, 'You know what would be a good economic development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks weren't throwing their garbage out of their cars,' " Obama told a group of black state legislators in a speech in South Carolina last month.
This kind of rhetoric is employed with two goals in mind. First, it is directed at whites in an effort to reassure them that Obama will not pursue radical policies to address racial inequality. Second, it is directed at the black bourgeoisie - a major source of campaign funds for Obama - to affirm members' condescending attitudes and draw them into the Obama camp for the key Democratic primaries in which they exercise great influence. Whatever the motives, the outcome is to reinforce an already strong urge within our culture to blame the victims of racism and capitalism for their own plight.

Aside from this kind of pandering, an Obama election victory might also aggravate racial inequality for reasons totally outside Obama's control. For years many whites have pointed to successful black public figures like Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, or Colin Powell to back their claim that racism is no longer an important part of society. Electing a black man to the presidency would immeasurably strengthen the rhetorical power of this claim, while doing nothing to undo the very real structural inequalities and popular prejudices that still make race one of the most important factors in the distribution of wealth and power.

Despite these dangers, I would still rather see Obama in the presidency than Clinton (Edwards, of course, is far preferable to both). We have to evaluate candidates on their policies, not on their image and not on their race. And we have to be prepared, no matter who wins, to mobilize against the many reactionary policies he or she will pursue. Falling in love with a candidate is worst possible thing to do.


kyle said...

FYI: The Black Agenda Report has been posting a lot of interesting opinion pieces on Obama and the Black community over the past few months. Check most of them out here.

naureen said...

ok. i'll buy that obama wouldn't make things better - you are essentially calling him an uncle tom. i'm not sure that's worse. except you can look at clarence thomas' affirmative action, equal protection jurisprudence and see just how negative impact the pandering to whites/in-group upper class african american mentality can have.

but what i'm so much more interested in: how about what impact having a woman president this time, or senator clinton in particular, would have on women in this country and in the world?

Jake said...

hm, i haven't given it any thought because i can't believe that anyone progressive would actually support someone so conservative. my off-the-cuff answer would be that a woman president wouldn't have much of any impact on women one way or the other, sort of along the lines of tansu çiller in türkiye/turkey or benazir bhutto in pakistan or margaret thatcher in the uk. but that idea is as unconsidered as my knowledge about the prime ministerships of bhutto, çiller, and thatcher are uninformed. what do you think? would you actually vote for her?