Obama's Big Silence: The Race Question

Americans began the summer still celebrating the dawn of a
"post-racial" era. They are ending it under no such illusion. The
summer of 2009 was all about race, beginning with Republican claims
that Sonia Sotomayor, Barack Obama's nominee to the US Supreme Court,
was "racist" against whites. Then, just as that scandal was dying down,
up popped "the Gates controversy", the furore over the president's
response to the arrest of African American academic Henry Louis Gates
Jr in his own home.

Americans began the summer still celebrating the dawn of a
"post-racial" era. They are ending it under no such illusion. The
summer of 2009 was all about race, beginning with Republican claims
that Sonia Sotomayor, Barack Obama's nominee to the US Supreme Court,
was "racist" against whites. Then, just as that scandal was dying down,
up popped "the Gates controversy", the furore over the president's
response to the arrest of African American academic Henry Louis Gates
Jr in his own home. Obama's remark that the police had acted "stupidly"
was evidence, according to massively popular Fox News host Glenn Beck,
that the president "has a deep-seated hatred for white people".

supposed racism gave a jolt of energy to the fringe movement that
claims he has been carrying out a lifelong conspiracy to cover up his
(fictional) African birth. Then Fox News gleefully discovered Van
Jones, White House special adviser on green jobs. After weeks of being
denounced as "a black nationalist who is also an avowed communist",
Jones resigned last Sunday.

The undercurrent of all these attacks
was that Obama, far from being the colour-blind moderate he posed as
during the presidential campaign, is actually obsessed with race, in
particular with redistributing white wealth into the hands of African
Americans and undocumented Mexican workers. At town hall meetings
across the US in August, these bizarre claims coalesced into something
resembling an uprising to "take our country back". Henry D Rose, chair
of Blacks For Social Justice, recently compared the overwhelmingly
white, often armed, anti-Obama crowds to the campaign of "massive
resistance" launched in the late 50s - a last-ditch attempt by white
southerners to block the racial integration of their schools and
protect other Jim Crow laws. Today's "new era of 'massive resistance',"
writes Rose, "is also a white racial project."

There is at least
one significant difference, however. In the late 50s and early 60s,
angry white mobs were reacting to life-changing victories won by the
civil rights movement. Today's mobs, on the other hand, are reacting to
the symbolic victory of an African American winning the presidency. Yet
they are rising up at a time when non-elite blacks and Latinos are
losing significant ground, with their homes and jobs slipping away from
them at a much higher rate than from whites. So far, Obama has been
unwilling to adopt policies specifically geared towards closing this
ever-widening divide. The result may well leave minorities with the
worst of all worlds: the pain of a full-scale racist backlash without
the benefits of policies that alleviate daily hardships. Meanwhile,
with Obama constantly painted by the radical right as a cross between
Malcolm X and Karl Marx, most progressives feel it is their job to
defend him - not to point out that, when it comes to tackling the
economic crisis ravaging minority communities, the president is not
doing nearly enough.

For many antiracist campaigners, the
realisation that Obama might not be the leader they had hoped for came
when he announced his administration would be boycotting the UN Durban
Review Conference on racism, widely known as "Durban II". Almost all of
the public debate about the conference focused on its supposed
anti-Israel bias. When it actually took place in April in Geneva,
virtually all we heard about was Iranian president Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad's inflammatory speech, which was met with rowdy
disruptions, from the EU delegates who walked out, to the French Jewish
students who put on clown wigs and red noses, and tried to shout him

Lost in the circus atmosphere was the enormous importance
of the conference to people of African descent, and nowhere more so
than among Obama's most loyal base. The US civil rights movement had
embraced the first Durban conference, held in summer 2001, with great
enthusiasm, viewing it as the start of the final stage of Martin Luther
King's dream for full equality. Though most black leaders offered only
timid public criticism of the president's Durban II boycott, the
decision was discussed privately as his most explicit betrayal of the
civil rights struggle since taking office.

The original 2001
gathering was not all about Israelis v Palestinians, or antisemitism,
as so many have claimed (though all certainly played a role). The
conference was overwhelmingly about Africa, the ongoing legacy of
slavery and the huge unpaid debts that the rich owe the poor.

the 2001 World Conference against Racism in what was still being called
"the New South Africa" had seemed a terrific idea. World leaders would
gather to congratulate themselves on having slain the scourge of
apartheid, then pledge to defeat the world's few remaining vestiges of
discrimination - things such as police violence, unequal access to
certain jobs, lack of adequate healthcare for minorities and
intolerance towards immigrants. Appropriate disapproval would be
expressed for such failures of equality, and a well-meaning document
pledging change would be signed to much fanfare. That, at least, is
what western governments expected to happen.

They were mistaken.
When the conference arrived in Durban, many delegates were shocked by
the angry mood in the streets: tens of thousands of South Africans
joined protests outside the conference centre, holding signs that said
"Landlessness = racism" and "New apartheid: rich and poor". Many
denounced the conference as a sham, and demanded concrete reparations
for the crimes of apartheid. South Africa's disillusionment, though
particularly striking given its recent democratic victory, was part of
a much broader global trend, one that would define the conference, in
both the streets and the assembly halls. Around the world, developing
countries were increasingly identifying the so-called Washington
Consensus economic policies as little more than a clever rebranding
effort, a way for former northern colonial powers to continue to drain
the southern countries of their wealth without being inconvenienced by
the heavy lifting of colonialism. Roughly two years before Durban, a
coalition of developing countries had refused further to liberalise
their economies, leading to the collapse of World Trade Organisation
talks in Seattle. A few months later, a newly militant movement calling
for a debt jubilee disrupted the annual meetings of the World Bank and
the International Monetary Fund. Durban was a continuation of this
mounting southern rebellion, but it added something else to the mix: an
invoice for past thefts.

Although it was true that southern
countries owed debts to foreign banks and lending institutions, it was
also true that in the colonial period - the first wave of globalisation
- the wealth of the north was built, in large part, on stolen
indigenous land and free labour provided by the slave trade. Many in
Durban argued that when these two debts were included in the calculus,
it was actually the poorest regions of the world - especially Africa
and the Caribbean - that turned out to be the creditors and the rich
world that owed a debt. All big UN conferences tend to coalesce around
a theme, and in Durban 2001 the clear theme was the call for
reparations. The overriding message was that even though the most
visible signs of racism had largely disappeared - colonial rule,
apartheid, Jim Crow-style segregation - profound racial divides will
persist and even widen until the states and corporations that profited
from centuries of state-sanctioned racism pay back some of what they

African and Caribbean governments came to Durban with two
key demands. The first was for an acknowledgment that slavery and even
colonialism itself constituted "crimes against humanity" under
international law; the second was for the countries that perpetrated
and profited from these crimes to begin to repair the damage. Most
everyone agreed that reparations should include a clear and unequivocal
apology for slavery, as well as a commitment to returning stolen
artefacts and to educating the public about the scale and impact of the
slave trade. Above and beyond these more symbolic acts, there was a
great deal of debate. Dudley Thompson, former Jamaican foreign minister
and a longtime leader in the Pan-African movement, was opposed to any
attempt to assign a number to the debt: "It is impossible to put a
figure to killing millions of people, our ancestors," he said. The
leading reparations voices instead spoke of a "moral debt" that could
be used as leverage to reorder international relations in multiple
ways, from cancelling Africa's foreign debts to launching a huge
develop ment programme for Africa on a par with Europe's Marshall
Plan. What was emerging was a demand for a radical New Deal for the
global south.

African and Caribbean countries had been holding
high-level summits on reparations for a decade, with little effect.
What prompted the Durban breakthrough was that a similar debate had
taken off inside the US. The facts are familiar, if commonly ignored.
Even as individual blacks break the colour barrier in virtually every
field, the correlation between race and poverty remains deeply
entrenched. Blacks in the US consistently have dramatically higher
rates of infant mortality, HIV infection, incarceration and
unemployment, as well as lower salaries, life expectancy and rates of
home ownership. The biggest gap, however, is in net worth. By the end
of the 90s, the average black family had a net worth one eighth the
national average. Low net worth means less access to traditional credit
(and, as we'd later learn, more sub-prime mortgages). It also means
families have little besides debt to pass from one generation to the
next, preventing the wealth gap closing on its own.

In 2000,
Randall Robinson published The Debt: What America Owes To Blacks, which
argued that "white society... must own up to slavery and acknowledge its
debt to slavery's contemporary victims". The book became a national
bestseller, and within months the call for reparations was starting to
look like a new anti-apartheid struggle. Students demanded universities
disclose their historical ties to the slave trade, city councils began
holding public hearings on reparations, chapters of the National
Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America had sprung up across the
country and Charles Ogletree, the celebrated Harvard law professor (and
one of Obama's closest mentors), put together a team of all-star
lawyers to try to win reparations lawsuits in US courts.

spring 2001, reparations had become the hot-button topic on US
talkshows and op-ed pages. And though opponents consistently portrayed
the demand as blacks wanting individual handouts from the government,
most reparations advocates were clear they were seeking group
solutions: mass scholarship funds, for instance, or major investments
in preventive healthcare, inner cities and crumbling schools. By the
time Durban rolled around in late August, the conference had taken on
the air of a black Woodstock. Angela Davis was coming. So were Jesse
Jackson and Danny Glover. Small radical groups such as the National
Black United Front spent months raising money to buy hundreds of plane
tickets to South Africa. Activists travelled to Durban from 168
countries, but the largest delegation by far came from the US:
approximately 3,000 people, roughly 2,000 of them African Americans.
Ogletree pumped up the crowds with an energetic address: "This is a
movement that cannot be stopped... I promise we will see reparations in
our lifetime."

The call for reparations took many forms, but one
thing was certain: antiracism was transformed in Durban from something
safe and comfortable for elites to embrace into something explosive and
potentially very, very costly. North American and European governments,
the debtors in this new accounting, tried desperately to steer the
negotiations on to safe terrain. "We are better to look forward and not
point fingers backward," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice
said. It was a losing battle. Durban, according to Amina Mohamed, chief
negotiator for the Africa bloc, was Africa's "rendezvous with history".

everyone was willing to show up for the encounter, however, and that is
where the Israel controversies come in. Durban, it should be
remembered, took place in the aftermath of the collapse of the Oslo
Accords, and there were those who hoped the conference could somehow
fill the political vacuum. Six months before the meeting in Durban, at
an Asian preparatory conference in Tehran, a few Islamic countries
requested language in their draft of the Durban Declaration that
described Israeli policies in the occupied territories as "a new kind
of apartheid" and a "form of genocide". Then, a month before the
conference, there was a new push for changes: references to the
Holocaust were paired with the "ethnic cleansing of the Arab population
in historic Palestine", while references to "the increase in
antisemitism and hostile acts against Jews" were twinned with phrases
about "the increase of racist practices of Zionism", and Zionism was
described as a movement "based on racism and discriminatory ideas".

were cases to be made for all of it, but this was language sure to tear
the meeting apart (just as "Zionism equals racism" resolutions had torn
apart UN gatherings before). Meanwhile, as soon as the conference
began, the parallel forum for non-governmental organisations began to
spiral out of control. With more than 8,000 participants and no ground
rules to speak of, the NGO forum turned into a free-for-all, with,
among other incidents, the Arab Lawyers Union passing out a booklet
that contained Der Sturmer-style cartoons of hook-nosed Jews with
bloody fangs.

High-profile NGO and civil rights leaders roundly
condemned the antisemitic incidents, as did Mary Robinson, then UN high
commissioner for human rights. None of the controversial language about
Israel and Zionism made it into the final Durban Declaration. But for
the newly elected administration of George W Bush, that was besides the
point. Already testing the boundaries of what would become a new era of
US unilateralism, Bush latched on to the gathering's alleged
anti-Israel bias as the perfect excuse to flee the scene, neatly
avoiding the debates over Israel and reparations. Early in the
conference, the US and Israel walked out.

Despite the
disruptions, Africa was not denied its rendezvous with history. The
final Durban Declaration became the first document with international
legal standing to state that "slavery and the slave trade are a crime
against humanity and should always have been so, especially the
transatlantic slave trade". This language was more than symbolic. When
lawyers had sought to win slavery reparations in US courts, the biggest
barrier was always the statute of limitations, which had long since
expired. But if slavery was "a crime against humanity", it was not
restricted by any statute.

On the final day of the conference,
after Canada tried to minimise the significance of the declaration,
Amina Mohamed, now a top official in the Kenyan government, took the
floor in what many remember as the most dramatic moment of the
gathering. "Madame President," Mohamed said, "it is not a crime against
humanity just for today, nor just for tomorrow, but for always and for
all time. Nuremberg made it clear that crimes against humanity are not
time-bound." Any acts that take responsibility for these crimes,
therefore, "are expected and are in order". The assembly hall erupted
in cheers and a long standing ovation.

Groups of African American
activists spent their last day at the conference planning a "Millions
for Reparations" march on Washington. Attorney Roger Wareham,
co-counsel on a high-profile reparations lawsuit and one of the
organisers, recalled that as they left South Africa, "people were on a
real rolling high" - ready to take their movement to the next level.

was 9 September 2001. Two days later, Africa's "rendezvous with
history" was all but forgotten. The profound demands that rose up from
Durban during that first week of September 2001 - for debt
cancellation, for reparations for slavery and apartheid, for land
redistribution and indigenous land rights, for compensation, not
charity - have never again managed to command international attention.
At various World Bank meetings and G8 summits there is talk, of course,
of graciously providing aid to Africa and perhaps "forgiving" its
debts. But there is no suggestion that it might be the G8 countries
that are the debtors and Africa the creditor. Or that it is we, in the
west, who should be asking forgiveness.

Because Durban
disappeared before it had ever fully appeared, it's sometimes hard to
believe it happened at all. As Bill Fletcher, author and long-time
advocate for African rights, puts it: "It was as if someone had pressed
a giant delete button."

When news came that the Durban follow-up
conference would take place three months into Obama's presidency, many
veterans of the first gathering were convinced the time had finally
come to restart that interrupted conversation. And at first the Obama administration
seemed to be readying to attend, even sending a small delegation to one
of the preparatory conferences. So when Obama announced that he, like
Bush before him, would be boycotting, it came as a blow. Especially
because the state department's official excuse was that the declaration
for the new conference was biased against Israel. The evidence? That
the document - which does not reference Israel once - "reaffirms" the
2001 Durban Declaration. Never mind that that was so watered
down that Shimon Peres, then Israel's foreign minister, praised it at
the time as "an accomplishment of the first order for Israel" and "a
painful comedown for the Arab League".

When disappointed
activists reconvened for the Durban Review Conference this April, talk
in the corridors often turned to the unprecedented sums governments
were putting on the line to save the banks. Roger Wareham, for
instance, pointed out that if Washington can find billions to bail out
AIG, it can also say, "We're going to bail out people of African
descent because this is what's happened historically." It's true that,
at least on the surface, the economic crisis has handed the reparations
movement some powerful new arguments. The hardest part of selling
reparations in the US has always been the perception that something
would have to be taken away from whites in order for it to be given to
blacks and other minorities. But because of the broad support for large
stimulus spending, there is a staggering amount of new money floating
around - money that does not yet belong to any one group.

approach to stimulus spending has been rightly criticised for lacking a
big idea - the $787bn package he unveiled shortly after taking office
is a messy grab bag, with little ambition actually to fix any one of
the problems on which it nibbles. Listening to Wareham in Geneva, it
occurred to me that a serious attempt to close the economic gaps left
by slavery and Jim Crow is as good a big stimulus idea as any.

is tantalising (and maddening) about Obama is that he has the skills to
persuade a great many Americans of the justice of such an endeavour.
The one time he gave a major campaign address on race, prompted by
controversy over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, he told a story about
the historical legacies of slavery and legalised discrimination that
have structurally prevented African Americans from achieving full
equality, a story not so different from the one activists such as
Wareham tell in arguing for reparations. Obama's speech was delivered
six months before Wall Street collapsed, but the same forces he
described go a long way toward explaining why the crash happened in the
first place: "Legalised discrimination... meant that black families could
not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations,"
Obama said, which is precisely why many turned to risky sub-prime
mortgages. In Obama's home city of Chicago, black families were four
times more likely than whites to get a sub-prime mortgage.

crisis in African American wealth has only been deepened by the larger
economic crisis. In New York City, for instance, the unemployment rate
has increased four times faster among blacks than among whites.
According to the New York Times, home "defaults occur three times as
often in mostly minority census tracts as in mostly white ones". If
Obama traced the Wall Street collapse back to the policies of redlining
and Jim Crow, all the way to the betrayed promise of 40 acres and a
mule for freed slaves, a broad sector of the American public might well
be convinced that finally eliminating the structural barriers to full
equality is in the interests not just of minorities but of everyone who
wants a more stable economy.

Since the economic crisis hit, John
A Powell and his team at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and
Ethnicity at Ohio State University have been engaged in a project they
call "Fair Recovery". It lays out exactly what an economic stimulus
programme would look like if eliminating the barriers to equality were
its overarching idea. Powell's plan covers everything from access to
technology to community redevelopment. A few examples: rather than
simply rebuilding the road system by emphasising "shovel ready"
projects (as Obama's current plan does), a "fair recovery" approach
would include massive investments in public transport to address the
fact that African Americans live farther away than any other group from
where the jobs are. Similarly, a plan targeting inequality would focus
on energy-efficient home improvements in low-income neighbourhoods and,
most importantly, require that contractors hire locally. Combine all of
these targeted programmes with real health and education reform and,
whether or not you call it "reparations", you have something
approaching what Randall Robinson called for in The Debt: "A virtual
Marshall Plan of federal resources" to close the racial divide.

his Philadelphia "race speech", Obama was emphatic that race was
something "this nation cannot afford to ignore"; that "if we simply
retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come
together and solve challenges like healthcare, or education, or the
need to find good jobs for every American". Yet as soon as the speech
had served its purpose (saving Obama's campaign from being engulfed by
the Wright scandal), he did simply retreat. And his administration has
been retreating from race ever since.

Public policy activists
report that the White House is interested in hearing only about
projects that are "race neutral" - nothing that specifically targets
historically disadvantaged constituencies. Its housing and education
programmes do not tackle the need for desegregation; indeed
Obama's enthusiasm for privately-run "charter" schools may well deepen
segregation, since charters are some of the most homogenous schools in
the country. When asked specific questions about what his
administration is doing to address the financial crisis's wildly
disproportionate impact on African Americans and Latinos, Obama has
consistently offered a variation on the line that, by fixing the
economy and extending benefits, everyone will be helped, "black, brown
and white", and the vulnerable most of all.

All this is being met
with mounting despair among inequality experts. Extending unemployment
benefits and job retraining mainly help people who've just lost their
jobs. Reaching those who have never had formal employment - many of
whom have criminal records - requires a far more complex strategy that
takes down multiple barriers simultaneously. "Treating people who are
situated differently as if they were the same can result in much
greater inequalities," Powell warns. It will be difficult to measure
whether this is the case because the White House's budget office is so
far refusing even to keep statistics on how its programmes affect women
and minorities.

There were those who saw this coming. The late
Latino activist Juan Santos wrote a much-circulated essay during the
presidential campaign in which he argued that Obama's unwillingness to
talk about race (except when his campaign depended upon it) was a
triumph not of post-racialism but of racism, period. Obama's silence,
he argued, was the same silence every person of colour in America lives
with, understanding that they can be accepted in white society only if
they agree not to be angry about racism. "We stay silent, as a rule, on
the job. We stay silent, as a rule, in the white world. Barack Obama is
the living symbol of our silence. He is our silence writ large. He is
our Silence running for president." Santos predicted that "with respect
to Black interests, Obama would be a silenced Black ruler: A muzzled
Black emperor."

Many of Obama's defenders responded angrily: his
silence was a mere electoral strategy, they said. He was doing what it
took to make racist white people comfortable voting for a black man.
All that would change, of course, when Obama took office. What Obama's
decision to boycott Durban demonstrated definitively was that the
campaign strategy is also the governing strategy.

Two weeks after
the close of the Durban Review Conference, Rush Limbaugh sprang a new
theory on his estimated 14 million listeners. Obama, Limbaugh claimed,
was deliberately trashing the economy so he could give more handouts to
black people. "The objective is more food stamp benefits. The objective
is more unemployment benefits. The objective is an expanding welfare
state. The objective is to take the nation's wealth and return it to
the nation's 'rightful owners'. Think reparations. Think forced
reparations here, if you want to understand what actually is going on."

was nonsense, of course, but the outburst was instructive. No matter
how race-neutral Obama tries to be, his actions will be viewed by
a large part of the country through the lens of its racial obsessions.
So, since even his most modest, Band-Aid measures are going to be
greeted as if he is waging a full-on race war, Obama has little to lose
by using this brief political window actually to heal a few of the
country's racial wounds.

* A longer version of this article appears in the September issue of Harper's Magazine.

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