Dear Prof. Harris – Op Ed Response

On the NYTimes’ Op Ed page, The Price of a Black President, by Professor Fredrick C. Harris of Columbia University—I was moved to write him in response (slightly edited to improve the focus)…

Prof. Harris,

Thanks for your piece in the NYT today.  I too will vote for Obama next week, but I believe we have been poorly served and have served ourselves poorly during his first administration.

Of course, any kind of “post-racial” politics is a complete myth.  It seems to me that the advent of a “black” president has, among other things, enabled all the crackers left in the barrel (and I’m a barrel-half-full kind of guy) to come out as racists in public, by encoding their effusions as “political” discourse.  There has never been as overt a level of racism in national politics as there is now, though it is mainly masquerading as anti-Obama “politics”.

There will always be, at least across the lifetimes of our grandchildren and maybe beyond, a reason in this nation of ex-slaveholders for black Americans to focus on a specific black life, including intellectual life.  But I would suggest that as a matter of current tactics, the only way forward must be implemented more broadly.  I don’t know if class-analysis is universal, but I think at the present moment it is a fundamental.  You indicate as much, in a way, when you allude to the replacement of the moral exhortations of the older generation of black leadership with the individualist, materialist goals of black super-church preaching.

There is a war on poor people.  Poor people are disproportionately black, as you point out.  But if blackness is a proxy in this war, an easy handle on Otherness that helps powerful reactionaries and their ideologically brain-washed supporters cast their attack as a defense of their rights against the Other, then a response that is a black response risks co-optation.  We need a defense of the impoverished—we need black leaders who speak to the issue of human poverty, not just black poverty, as egregious as the origins of black poverty are.

This is where I think both Obama and the democratic left have failed together.  The fact that as bad a candidate as Romney can get so much popular traction is evidence of this—I mean, this guy has millions in off-shore accounts and hasn’t been pushed into revealing the no doubt embarrassingly opulent and rapacious details of this finances, just for a start.  How can this guy have made it this far?  How can he not have been absolutely flayed in this era of unemployment and depression?

The official Democratic party, which has been at least one of the primary political homes of black mainstream intellectuals since the New Deal, is hopelessly compromised.  Obama, were he interested in confrontatory politics (and I don’t believe he is), would have far less than enough to lean on in the current Democratic Caucus.  The political left in this country must organize itself to extend into and gather up the vast sufferings of poor people, black and otherwise, imprisoned and ‘free’, women and men, straight and gay, young and old.  Numerically this population, organized, could put the fear into any politician—it could dominate the urban Democratic party and alter the balance of power in Congress.  If we want Obama to do the right thing, we have to push him like hell from the Left.  If this movement is clearly pan-racial, and pan-everything-else, the fact that Obama is “black” won’t matter.

I put his race in quotations here and above because I think it is easy to forget that Obama is the child of what racists still see as ‘miscegenation’.  This point has been really ignored—he is not black, and he is not white.  (I mean, we are all not white, I know, but I’m speaking in the language of popular imagery.)  I believe Obama embodies to himself all the contradictions this brings, at a personal level.  At the risk of being contentious, I would say that Obama is not the first black president—he is the first president who unites in his person black and white—African American (quite literally Kenyan-American) and white Kansas.

Obama is amazingly free of political corruption, and seems genuinely to desire the best outcome for the most citizens.  We can get him to use the bully pulpit, which he has so far neglected to do at the risk of all he has worked to achieve, and to fulfill the potential of his presidency, if we can show him that it is his blackness *and* his whiteness that inspires us.  And we can only do this as a pan-racial movement.  And we can get beyond race only by calling out the underlying (at least at this point in history) class nature of the issue: the war on the poor.  Just as blacks are disproportionately poor, a politics that addresses poverty effectively, besides producing hugely positive social and economic outcomes overall, will also help black citizens disproportionately—which is what ethics calls for in a land still largely unregenerate and unreconciled to its history of black slavery.

Thanks for an opportunity to rant a bit…

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