On July 19, an item popped up on the email listserv of SNCC veterans and supporters.
Like anything on these kinds of mailing lists, it was the opinion of whoever posted it, no more and no less. But it pretty much summed up the current strategic thinking of a lot of what passes for African American political leadership, our black intelligensia and a lot of self-identified activists. It was bright red and in bold typeface several times normal size, and before going out to the triple digit number of subscribers to the SNCC list, it had obviously been forwarded to hundreds more. It went like this, (only much larger):
We call on ALL who support President Obama to take action. On August 4th, the President's birthday, we ask those who support him to wear any campaign item from the Presidential election as a demonstration of our ongoing support. Bring out your old campaign paraphernalia.
If you don't have caps, buttons or tee shirts, wear a red, white, and blue tri-color ribbon or clothing on August 4th. If nothing else, this simple demonstration of support for our President will provide a counteraction to the negativity that spews forth daily. We can do this. YES WE CAN. YES WE WILL.
Mark Your Calendar for August 4th! Pass the word on...
As far as most of the black leadership class --- most of our pastors, politicians, professors and such tell it, those are our marching orders. On the president's birthday, we're all supposed to break out those old Obama stickers, shirts and hats, and like the citizens of Oz in The Wiz, we'll flaunt red, white and blue on the president's birthday. Thus we will show our united opposition to the flood of racist invective against the president. We will demonstrate that we are Thus black America will demonstrate that we are the president's millions strong shield against the torrents of "negativity" that issue forth daily from the likes of Fox News and the tea party. That'll show 'em.
Am I the only one who thinks this is just plain dumb? Are the number one problems of black America really the insults and negativity directed at the president by a bunch of crazy people who are not even in power? Are these the times of Shakespeare's Richard III, when the only political yardstick that mattered was whether and how much you did or didn't love the king? Why should Fox News, the tea party, and insults and negativity directed at the president even rank among black America's top ten or twenty problems? And if black America is called upon to make some kind of united political statement in this season of unprecedented joblessness, homelessness, family debt, privatizations and mass incarceration, is flying the red, white and blue to support the president really the most useful thing we can do?
Does "negativity" against the president keep him from addressing mass black incarceration, unemployment, crushing family and student debt, homelessness & ending US imperial wars abroad?
The short answer is no. A longer answer is that we have other matters which are real problems with far greater effect upon the lives of millions of families than the torrent of "negativity" directed at the president.
At the top of any list of black America's real problems is the nation's policy of black mass incarceration, described most thoroughly and eloquently by Michelle Alexander, and a recurring topic in BAR and its predecessors since 2005. The carceral state has been government's main channel of interaction with young blacks for a generation now, despite the fact that their rates of drug use are statistically indistinguishable from those of white youth. African Americans have been locked up and criminalized in such vast numbers that the integrity of millions of our families have been undermined, and the economic futures of entire communities devastated. We are an eighth the nation's population and just under half its prisoners. Why don't our leaders tell us how to make a united political statement about that?
This is the kind of real problem millions of black Americans expected the Obama administration to address.
Does "negativity" against the president keep his administration from addressing black mass incarceration? Of course it doesn't.
Congressional Democrats or the White House could propose tomorrow to sunset all the two strikes, three strikes and mandatory sentencing legislation. It's just a matter of leadership. But instead of calling all Americans together to re-assess the nation's policy of mass incarceration, we have a president and a class of black political misleaders who would just rather not go there.
What about unemployment? Is "negativity" from Fox News, Republicans and the cartoonish tea party the roadblock to creating those millions green jobs that are just over the horizon. Again, the answer is no.
Unemployment is at a six decade high, and the gap between black and white employment is also at a similar high and widening daily. President Roosevelt and the Democratic congresses of the 1930s simply signed checks to put millions of Americans to work. They created public wealth by building bridges and dams, digging new subway lines in cities like Chicago, and constructing thousands of state of the art new schools. The Roosevelt administration even put teaches in local school districts directly on the federal payroll to keep the schools open, the communities viable and the quality of life acceptable.
Does this "negativity" against the president keep him signing the checks to put millions of Americans into new, green, wealth creating jobs? Again, the answer is no.
What keeps the Obama administration from going there is its blind loyalty to Wall Street bankers and their bipartisan neoliberal trickle-down ideology. The economic vision of Barack Obama and congressional Democratis is far closer to Ronald Reagan than to Franklin Roosevelt, even though Republicans have been out of power in Congress since the end of 2006.
Does "negativity" against the president keep him from cutting the military budget?
Does it prevent him from closing a few hundred of America's thousand or so overseas military bases, and ending our direct and proxy wars in places from Iraq and Afghanistan to Colombia, Somalia and Yemen? We know the history and we know the answer.
Early in his campaign Obama pledged withdrawal of one brigade a month from Iraq, and vowed to erase what he called "the mindset" that produced America's unjust wars. By the time he wrapped up the nomination, he had endorsed Bush-Cheney's phony "surge" in Iraq, forgotten his withdrawal pledges, and promised to double the troops in Afghanistan. In his first 36 hours as president, Obama launched drones and cruise missiles against civilians and children in Afghanistan, and soon afterward, in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, as had his predecessor. Did the tea party make him do that? Was it the relentless negativity of Fox News? Was it those naysaying Republicans?
From doubling down on Bush's original Wall Street bailout, to stepping up the Bush-Cheney policies of kidnapping, torture and secret imprisonment, to reversing his opposition to offshore drilling once he secured the Democratic nomination and more, not one of the Obama administration's failures to redeem the promises black America imagined it heard can be laid at the feet of Republicans, Fox News or the tea party. Not one.
In a real sense, the lunatic tea party, cartoonish Republicans, and the outrageous lies of Fox News provide our lazy class of black misleaders in the administration and Congress, and the class of politicians, preachers, professors, business people, self-described activists and wannabes around them a fine distraction from what they can and ought to be doing. The energy and creativity devoted to endlessly circling the wagons around the president sucks the air from every room in the house of black politics. It excuses inaction on matters like black mass incarceration and unemployment, runaway privatizations, and the ever-expanding national security state. It keeps our black misleadership class from having to openly oppose the wars and bailouts that suck up the resources which should be creating jobs and opportunities at home. It's almost God's gift to the administration.
The president doesn't need our protection. He's got the secret service, the armed forces, the CIA and FBI and agencies we don't even know the names of. Our families, our communities and our permanent interests, not the career of one man or the racist insults directed against him, ought to be our chief concern.
What would it look like if the folks on the SNCC listserv, and if our black misleadership class and their acolytes today truly possessed the spirit SNCC had half a century ago? Where would a spirit well grounded in the realities of black America, a spirit impatient with injustice, a spirit reaching through the present for a better world tomorrow lead us? Not to reanimating the tired corpse of the 2008 presidential campaign. Just as SNCC fifty years ago reached well outside and beyond what the wise old political heads believed possible, a spirit of creative struggle would take aim at targets the old political heads of today think are impossible.
If the spirit of SNCC fifty years ago where alive today, it might tell us we ought to wear black and green ribbons, black for the 1.2 million African Americans in prison, and green for those millions of green jobs that are somewhere just over the rainbow.
And we wouldn't be wearing them for just a day. This would not be about the president or his birthday, which matters little to most black families. We could wear them till the administration created 8 million new green jobs, the number vice president Biden admitted have been lost in what he called the Great Recession. We could wear them till the number of African Americans in prison had been reduced by at least half. That wouldn't be a perfect world, but who's asking for perfection. We'd just be asking for progress. Halving the black prison population would not be a perfect world either. It would only bring us down to the level of the Latino prison population, and Latinos are severely over-incarcerated too. But it would be undeniable progress. Is that too much to reach for?
So we won't be wearing red white and blue on the 4th of August. Bet on that. But what about those black and green ribbons? There's an idea....