Denver 2008: Hope Is for the Weak

You know you're addicted to a drug when you need it just to feel normal. By that standard, African Americans have been addicted to hope for a long, long time. Nothing wrong with that. As Robert Jensen of the University of Texas, from whom the title of this piece is borrowed points out, hope is seductive, it's attractive, and when times are hard, hope is absolutely necessary. We're all quite naturally attracted to those full of hope, while we pity or shun those without it. But if hope is much like a drug, it's also a lot like capital. Hope can be invested, wisely based on facts and a sober analysis of the forces in play, or it can be squandered foolishly, based on wishful thinking and outright lies. The air in Denver the last week of August will be full of hope. And full of lies.

Since hope is a limited thing, and sometimes all that we have, Jensen suggests that we ought to be realistic and tough-minded about where we invest it and how. The nomination of the Democratic party's first black candidate is an historic occasion, to be sure. But what is there in Denver to invest our hopes in?

The political conventions bill themselves as glittering spectacles of participatory democracy. But those days, if they ever existed, are long gone. Today's political conventions are week-long staged-for-TV marketing spectacles, in which the permanent party of corporations and wealthy individuals publicly crown their champions, frame the issues and present the package to voters.

True to the core marketing principal of avoiding fact-based arguments and comparisons, striving instead to establish powerful, reason-proof emotional connections to their brands, convention planners often choose their dates to coincide with "historical" themes. Thus the 2004 Republican convention was held in New York City on the anniversary of 9-11, to facilitate the kind of fearmongering warlike campaign in which Republicans excel. And this year's Democratic extravaganza is scheduled to conclude with the acceptance speech of Senator Obama at Mile High Stadium on the 45th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and King's "I Have A Dream" speech, a tenuous connection which we confidently predict will be recycled and stressed endlessly.

No less an historical authority than Oprah Winfrey herself has declared Obama's career to be "the fulfillment of Dr. King's Dream," as if the 20th century Freedom Movement was exclusively about overcoming prejudice without challenging America's empire overseas or her inequalities at home. As usual, Oprah has the establishment message dead-on. For more than forty years, the media have taught and sold an eviscerated history of the Freedom Movement which they have branded as "Dr. King's Dream." According to the authorities, "Dr. King's Dream" was about individual worth, about judging people by "the content of their character" and affording an equal opportunity for all to rise.

Even though Dr. King died supporting a black union in the midst of a militant citywide strike, the media-endorsed versions of his life, of the Freedom Movement, and of "the Dream" (probably trademarked) which the election of Barack Obama will supposedly "fulfill" are never about collective action, or democracy in workplaces. They never mention the right - won and held by people in most other nations around the world -- to organize and strike without being fired or penalized. Despite Dr. King's prescient warnings that if we did not swiftly end the war in Vietnam and turn our energies to peace abroad and justice at home we would be marching against US wars here, there and everywhere, we will be told in Denver, on the 45th anniversary of "I Have A Dream" that his legacy is being satisfied by the elevation of a black candidate who celebrates empire, who endorses the so-called worldwide "war on terror," who has assured us he will not end the war in Iraq while he co-signs the Bush threats to Iran and escalates the conflict in Afghanistan, perhaps extending it to nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Despite his African heritage, Obama shows no signs of ending, or even publicly acknowledging the fact that the US has furnished arms and military aid to more than 50 of 54 African nations, making it the most war-torn continent on earth. Thanks in large part to US policies, AK-47s are manufactured nowhere in Africa, but are cheaper there than anywhere else on earth.

The crowning of Barack Obama in Denver, and the linking of his brand to King's "I Have A Dream" speech on its 45th anniversary are the cynical triumphs of this limited, truncated version of anti-racist struggle. The hollowness for ordinary people, and the usefulness, for elites, of anti-racist struggle divorced from any challenges to empire and inequality could have been, and were seen clearly a long way off. But not by anybody on our side.

Vijay Prashad reminds us that when the University of Michigan was litigating its affirmative action lawsuit in the late 90s, DuPont, Steelcase, Abbott Laboratories, Intel, Microsoft, Texaco, Lucent and a raft of other Fortune 500 companies filed a brief in support of affirmative action.

Racial and ethnic diversity in institutions of higher education is vital to amici's efforts to hire and maintain a diverse workforce, and to employ individuals of all backgrounds who have been educated in a diverse environment. Such a talented workforce is important to amici's continued success in the global marketplace.

In other words, without highly placed minority executives they could not hope to penetrate minority markets, or influence the politics of those communities to corporate advantage. The Pentagon filed similar objections in support of affirmative action. With more than 800 military bases around the world in nearly a hundred countries, they argued, the US military also needed a critical number of minority officers to influence the politics of minority communities, and to effectively make war in Africa, Asia and all the places Dr. King predicted decades before.

When the struggle against racism is shorn of its living connections to the fights against American empire abroad and structural inequality at home, it's just a way of promoting a few black faces into high places with no positive effect on the rest of us. The Denver co-branding of Obama with "I Have A Dream Day" (probably trademarked too) is the triumph of America's official and elite movement against racism, which was never a mass movement at all. It was a survival strategy to superficially integrate the elite.

America's structural inequalities, the vast eleven to one wealth gap between white and black families, the staggering imprisonment rate of young African Americans, the dispossession of hundreds of thousands from the Gulf Coast -- all these and other racially disproportionate structural elements of American life will remain as they have been. Parasitic insurance companies will continue to eat a third of every American health care dollar. And the pointless, predatory so-called "war on terror" will continue, as Bush and Cheney intended under a black Democrat, should he be elected, indefinitely.

The air in Denver the last week of August will definitely be full of hope. And full of something else too.

Bruce Dixon managing editor at Black Agenda Report is based in Atlanta and can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)