Saturday, March 08, 2008

Barack Obama's problem --And ours

Barack Obama's Problem -- And Ours
Along the Color Line

By Dr. Manning Marable, PhD, Editorial Board

["Along The Color Line", written by Manning Marable,
PhD and distributed, is a
public educational and information service dedicated
to fostering political dialogue and discussion,
inspired by the great tradition for political event
columns written by W. E. B. Du Bois nearly a century
ago. Re-prints are permitted by any Black-owned or
Black-oriented publications (print or electronic)
without charge as long as they are printed in their
entirety including this paragraph and, for
electronic media, a link to]

Several years ago, I was walking home to my Manhattan
apartment from Columbia University, just having
delivered a lecture on New York State's notorious
"Rockefeller Drug Laws." The state's mandatory-minimum
sentencing laws had thrown tens of thousands of
nonviolent drug offenders into state prisons with
violent convicts. In my lecture I had called for more
generous prisoner reentry programs, the restoration of
felons' voting rights, increased educational programs
inside prisons, and a restoration of judges' sentencing

A white administrator from another local university, a
woman, who I had always judged to be fairly conservative
and probably a Republican, had attended my lecture and
was walking along with me to go to the subway. She told
me that my lecture about the "prison industrial complex"
had been a real "eye opener." The fact that two million
Americans were imprisoned, she expressed, was a "real

Then this college administrator blurted out, in a
hurried manner, "You know, my son is also in prison . a
victim of the drug laws."

In a split second, I had to make a hard decision:
whether to engage this white conservative administrator
in a serious conversation about America's gulags and
political economy of mass incarceration that had
collaterally ensnared her son, or to pretend that I had
not heard her last sentence, and to continue our
conversation as if she had said nothing at all. Perhaps
this is a sign of generational weakness on my part, but
the overwhelming feeling I had at that precise moment
was that, one day, the white administrator would deeply
regret revealing such an intimate secret with a black
person. I might tell the entire world about it. Instead
of proceeding on the basis of mutual trust and common
ground, transcending the boundaries of color, it would
be better to ignore what was said in haste.

All of this occurred to me in the span of one heartbeat.
I decided to say nothing. Two seconds later, I could
visually detect the signs of relief on the woman's face.
African Americans have survived in the United States for
over four hundred years because, at least up to the most
recent generation of black people, we have made it our
business to study white Americans generally, and
especially those who exercise power. This explains why
so many African Americans, at the very core of their
being, express fears that millions of white Americans
will be unable to cast ballots for Obama for president
solely due to his racial identity. Of course, the
majority of them would deny this, even to themselves.

Among the remaining Democratic presidential candidates,
former Senator John Edwards (albeit with a "suspended"
campaign) has been consistently the most progressive on
most policy issues, in my view. On issues such as health
care and poverty, Edwards has been clearly to the left
of both Obama and Hillary Clinton. But since Edwards
probably cannot win the Democratic nomination the real
choice is between Clinton and Obama.

We've all heard the arguments explaining why Obama's
"not qualified" to be president. Chief among them is
that he "doesn't have enough experience in government."
As a historian, I think it may be instructive to observe
that three of the twentieth century's most influential
presidents had shorter careers in electoral politics
than Obama. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, served as
New York's governor for only two years, and was William
McKinley's Vice President for barely six months. Woodrow
Wilson served as New Jersey's governor for only two
years before being elected president. And Franklin D.
Roosevelt, our only four-term president, had served in
Albany as New York's governor for four years. None of
these leaders was ever elected to Congress.

Obama's seven years in the Illinois State Senate,
according to the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, show
that "he scored significant achievements there: a law to
videotape police interrogations in capital cases; an
earned income tax credit to fight poverty; an expansion
of early childhood education." To be perfectly honest,
there are some public policy issues where I sharply
disagree with Obama, such as health care. Obama's
approach is not to use "mandates" to force millions of
healthy twenty-somethings into the national health
insurance pool. He claims that you won't need mandates,
just lower the price of private health insurance and
young adults will buy it on their own. Obama's children
are still small, so maybe he can be excused for such an
irrational argument. Obama's reluctance to embrace
health mandates is about his desire to appeal to
"centrists" and moderate Republicans.

Not getting email from BC?

That brings us back to Barack's unspoken problem: white
denial and voter flight. It's instructive to remember
what happened to David Dinkins, the first (and still
only) African American elected mayor of New York City.
According to Andrew Kohul, the current president of the
Pew Research Center, the Gallup organization's polling
research on New York City's voters in 1989 indicated
that Dinkins would defeat his Republican opponent,
Rudolph Giuliani, by 15 percent. Instead, Dinkins only
narrowly won by 2 percent. Kohul, who worked as a Gallup
pollster in that election, concluded that "poorer, less
well-educated [white] voters were less likely to answer
our questions;" so the poll didn't have the opportunity
to factor in their views. As Kohul admits, "Here's the
problem - these whites who do not respond to surveys
tend to have more unfavorable views of blacks than
respondents who do the interviews."

So I return to the white college administrator whose son
is in prison on drug charges. I made a mistake. People
of color must break through the mental racial barricades
that divide America into parallel racial universes. We
need to mobilize and support the election of Barack
Obama not only because he is progressive and fully
qualified to be president, but also because only his
campaign can force all Americans to overcome the
centuries-old silences about race that still create a
deep chasm across this nation's democratic life. In the
end, we must force our fellow citizens who happen to be
white, to come to terms with their own whiteness, their
guilt and fears about America's terrible racial past.

If there is any hope for meaningful change inside U.S.
electoral system in the future, it lies with progressive
leaders like Barack Obama. If we can dare to dream
politically, let us dream of the world as it should be. Editorial Board member, Manning
Marable, PhD is one of America's most influential and
widely read scholars. Since 1993, Dr. Marable has been
Professor of Public Affairs, Political Science, History
and African-American Studies at Columbia University in
New York City. For ten years, Dr. Marable was founding
director of the Institute for Research in African-
American Studies at Columbia University, from 1993 to
2003. Dr. Marable is an author or editor of over 20
books, including Living Black History: How Reimagining
the African-American Past Can Remake America's Racial
Future (2006); The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A
Hero's Life And Legacy Revealed Through His Writings,
Letters, And Speeches (2005); Freedom: A Photographic
History of the African American Struggle (2002); Black
Leadership: Four Great American Leaders and the Struggle
for Civil Rights (1998); Beyond Black and White:
Transforming African-American Politics (1995); and How
Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in
Race, Political Economy, and Society (South End Press
Classics Series) (1983). His current project is a major
biography of Malcolm X, entitled Malcolm X: A Life of
Reinvention, to be published by Viking Press in 2009.

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