Dreams of Radical Democracy: Obama and the Crisis of Race in America

2 May


by Professor Peniel Joseph, Tufts University 

On Wednesday, April 27, 2011 the world witnessed a spectacle at once historic and humiliating: a sitting American president forced to preside over a press conference where he reasserted his citizenship. President Barack Obama’s release of his “long-form” birth certificate in the wake of withering criticism from conspiracy theorists, Tea Party activists, and Donald Trump cast a strobe light on the nation’s persistent and tortured racial history.

As a historian and public intellectual who comments frequently on national issues concerning race, democracy, and civil rights I watched Obama’s news conference with an eye toward the long struggle for black citizenship in America. When a reporter from Yahoo news asked me for my reactions to this stunning turn of events, I informed her that the entire affair revealed not only the nation’s “deep seated and vicious racism” but illustrated a “white supremacist vision of American democracy” intent on delegitimizing America’s first black president. My comments also reflected an over two decades long study of American history, race, social movements, and democracy. Historically, race relations in America has progressed in fits and starts, with each significant advancement inevitably accompanied by bouts of backlash, violence, and setbacks that cause many to turn inward.

That same day I also conducted a radio interview with Chicago’s WVON hosted by Cliff Kelley, the legendary “governor” of the Windy City’s black airwaves. Black folk reacted to the unfolding events with a mixture of anger and sadness, painfully aware that their deepest fears had been confirmed with this latest assault on the leader of the free world’s very humanity.

The hate e-mails began shortly after the story posted on line, with critics accusing me of race baiting, fear mongering, and publicity seeking. One of this story’s biggest tragedies is the continued and persistent gulf in racial perceptions between blacks and whites. In many ways, as a nation we remain mired in a stagnant monologue, rather than dialogue, over race a relation that lacks the creative imagination, collective goodwill, and intellectual courage to confront difficult historical truths. Reading the responses, which included supportive missives as well, highlighted the necessity for a national dialogue on race relations.

Key to this will be the courage to address painful truths about American history that go beyond the superficial eloquence of Obama’s celebrated March 18, 2008 “race speech.” Then, Senator Obama sketched out a narrative of racial resentment based on the false assumption that black anger and white resentment rested on a foundation of moral equivalence. The far more sobering reality is that America is a nation founded on racial slavery, a fundamental and enduring paradox that endured long past the civil war and subsequent period of Jim Crow into our contemporary present. That we still live in an era where the origins of the Civil War (slavery) remain contested in certain quarters is living proof of a collective inability to face racial ghosts that continue to haunt America.

Black Americans are the group of citizens who have lived in the United States for the longest amount of time, yet have enjoyed the unfettered right to vote for less than a half-century. Despite an at times massive gulf between democratic rhetoric and reality, blacks have been at the forefront of an expansive vision of radical democracy led by figures such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Long past the “bullwhip days” of antebellum slavery, black radicals such as Malcolm X remained skeptical of the promises of American democracy. “Whenever a Negro fights for ‘democracy,’” noted Malcolm in 1964, “he’s fighting for something he has not got, never had and never will have.” The majority of blacks embraced a more optimistic vision of American democracy, inspired by the resilience, courage, and quiet dignity of black sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama black belt, young college students including Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) bled for a radical notion of democracy during the Civil Rights Movement’s heroic period between the 1954 Supreme Court Brown desegregation decision and 1965’s Voting Rights Act. The subsequent call for Black Power amplified these freedom dreams and introduced Black Panthers, welfare rights and anti-poverty activists, and Black Arts icons like Sonia Sanchez into the local, national, and global political arena—all committed to the fundamental transformation of democratic institutions in service of a human rights revolution.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sounded radical democracy’s clarion call during this epoch. From a dingy jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 (the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation) King extolled the “great wells of democracy dug deep by the founding fathers” as a living historical bridge between 18th century American revolutionaries and 20th century black women, children, and men. That same year he touted democracy’s redemptive powers at the August 28 March On Washington, even as he reminded the nation that blacks were intent on reclaiming social, political, and economic reparations for centuries of racial oppression. By 1967 King, in the words of one of his biographers, became a “pillar of fire” unafraid to expose harsh truths about American racial, political, and economic violence. He wrote of the “fierce urgency of now,” citing materialism, racism, and militarism as triple threats to humanity’s very existence.

As a nation we collectively choose to ignore this King. And no wonder. Senator Barack Obama often invoked King’s name, memory, and words at the start of his presidential campaign, citing “the fierce urgency of now” as the reason behind his audacious bid for the presidency. Obama stopped short of acknowledging King’s revolutionary criticism of American democracy. Similarly, he failed to mention King’s comparison to racism as a cancer on the body politic or the civil rights icon’s repeated declaration that America was a “sick” society infected by the disease of racism.

For many, Barack Obama’s presidential election on November 4, 2008 offered a collective cure for past historic sins and contemporary inequality. This period of post-racial America lasted from Election Day to Obama’s January 20, 2009 inauguration.

America, indeed the world, basked in a period of unearned congratulations in the elections aftermath, reassured in the fact that they could regale children and grandchildren with tales of the nation’s remarkable political evolution from the dark night of slavery to a 21st century post-racial Nirvana. Now, these same grandchildren must learn that the America that elected a black president forced him, within two years and three months of his presidency, to prove his citizenship in order to continue to govern. While blacks feel a special level of indignation, all Americans should be ashamed of this abysmal and race based spectacle. The entire world feels the echoes of “show me your papers,” from South Africans during apartheid to Jews during the holocaust, and antebellum era Northern Negroes forced to prove their standing as free citizens.

The positives of this spectacle, is the stripping away of some our most precious illusions about race, democracy, and social justice in 2011.

The fact that blacks are over-represented in every negative social economic indicator in the nation reflects the current depths of institutional racism. Mass incarceration, skyrocketing unemployment, healthcare, income, and wealth disparities, residential and public school segregation are all hallmarks of the New Jim Crow and not examples of black pathology, laziness, or a culture of urban poverty reflected in the behavior of an unassimilated black underclass.

Despite the stark reality of our contemporary times, I remain defiantly optimistic. It’s the kind of defiance that made Frederick Douglass, in the words of his biographer, “love to expose American lies.” It is a vision of American democracy embodied in the activism of Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, stalwart and robust genius organizers who risked their lives and bodies in hopes that the nation might one day, finally, live up to its democratic creed. The same feelings animated a nineteen-year old Stokely Carmichael as he languished in Parchman Penitentiary (Mississippi’s worst prison farm) for over a month in the aftermath of the 1961 Freedom Rides. Harold Washington’s long-shot 1983 mayoral campaign (cited by President Obama as influencing his own decision to enter politics), Jesse Jackson’s two campaigns in 1984 and 1988, and yes, Obama’s own presidential run sought to tap into a long, at times ill-fated, vision of a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-class, and multi-generational democracy that represents the best of what the nation can aspire to.

In 1968 the presidential authorized Kerner Commission traced the roots behind urban rebellions and racial strife to unemployment, institutional racism, and the politics and practices of white supremacy that presided over the flourishing of urban ghettoes across the United States. The president responded by refusing to meet with his own commission. Over four decades later this silencing remains deafening.

“Fighters fight. Writers write,” proclaimed the novelist Chester Himes. I plan on continuing to write and fight for a vision of radical democracy that remains more urgently needed now than ever. In May, America commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, a time where heroic bands of white and black volunteers defied Jim Crow in order to create their own democratic visions. Like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) the Freedom Riders attempted to will a world they imagined into being through collective action. This anniversary coincides with the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War and in truth both retain a kind of poetic symmetry in the nation’s arduous, often times halting efforts, to advance beyond racial slavery and Jim Crow into a new era of social, political, racial, and economic justice.

The current moment represents both a crisis and an opportunity. I hope that readers will join me as I organize an effort, one that will connect the local, national, and global, to establish a dialogue on race relations that will allow for constructive engagement the pressing issues of social, political, racial, and economic justice that we face in the 21st century.

Dr. Peniel Joseph is a Professor of History at Tufts University.  To join the Your Black World Coalition, please click here. 

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