Labor and U.S. Politics

The New Black Politics: All We Want Is A Black Royal Family, Not Jobs, Peace, or Justice

By Bruce A. Dixon

Black America, our leaders tell us, should just shut up and be proud that we have a black president and a pretty black family in that big White House.

The once expansive horizons of black America’s political universe have shrunk and withered. Our class of black political misleaders abandoned long ago the internationalism and Pan-Africanism of Robeson and DuBois. Black America’s self-proclaimed best and brightest have traded the “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” refrain of the King era away. For themselves, they reap perceived access to power, or possible contracts or appointments, or just the thrill of basking in reflected glory. For the black masses they offer hollow excuses and the uncritical worship of a black royal family.

It’s no exaggeration. Black political discussions in this age of Obama have assumed an almost feudal tone. Scarcely any black political discussion can be heard over mainstream airwaves or print that is not ended, begun and punctuated with avowals of love for the handsome brown president and his beautiful family. Once the vigilant advocates of fairness, decent wages and peace, our political talking-heads fill hours of air time and reams of print obsessing over perceived and real slights to the dignity of the first family, while ignoring the president’s vicious assaults on public workers, his unwillingness to halt the wave of foreclosures, his continued prosecution of unjust wars, and his vacuous prescriptions of “competition” and tax-cuts for the rich as answers to record black joblessness.

For generations, Black America has been where the left lived, the reliable left anchor of the American polity. Whether the issue was fair wages or decent housing, retirement security, or opposition to unjust war, black America could be counted on to stand and to lead in its own interest, and everyone else’s. That left anchor was cut loose in the early spring of 2007, with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and the 2008 presidential campaign in full swing. As Black Agenda Report Executive Editor Glen Ford put it:

“...We had a unilateral shutdown of all black political activity not concerned directly with turning out votes for Barack Obama. That caused great confusion among the white left, which frankly takes its cues from black folks... ‘What do the black folks do? I think we ought to do that too...’ Black folks weren’t doing anything except saying rah, rah for Obama, and that led to a shutdown of the white left....”

In early 2007, Detroit’s Rep. John Conyers became the first black chair of the House Judiciary Committee, the man with the legal power to begin impeachment proceedings against George Bush and Dick Cheney. In the previous two sessions, Conyers had introduced impeachment bills, and spoke at scores of public meetings in favor of impeachment. But with the power at last in his hand, he balked and retreated. Conyers was not alone.

Across the country that season black political leaders muffled themselves and their constituents. Stifling the demands of African American communities, our leaders explained, was the smart move. Black silence on the issues while registering and turning out a record vote, we were told, would strengthen the hand of a black presidential candidate, and of Democrats in Congress to accomplish all the goals of jobs, peace and justice that we would not be allowed to talk much about till some time after the election. We can pretty much see how that turned out.

Two full years into the Obama presidency, black incomes are falling at record levels. The black president has declared the salaries and pensions of public workers, the largest stable sector of the black working class, to be a public menace. The unprecedented wave of home foreclosures, which the White House does nothing to stop, are disproportionately concentrated in black and brown America. While libraries and home healthcare are cut, nukes are fully funded, “clean coal” is unleashed, and the White House funds multiple imperial wars, tortures and imprisons without the bother of trials or even charges, invades the private email and phone communications of millions, and threatening activists, journalists and whistleblowers with indefinite detention.

In the light of day, four years after declaring himself “Joshua” to Dr. King’s “Moses,” our first black president resembles Pharoah more than anybody else, and like the Egyptians who delighted in his worship, black America, our leaders tell us, should just shut up and be proud that we have a black president and a pretty black family in that big White House.

There’s something deeply wrong with this. When black Americans used to identify with the world’s oppressed and downtrodden, they were at least identifying with people like themselves. Now we are more likely to see ourselves in Michelle Obama, who takes six or eight vacations a year in some of the world’s most expensive resorts, than in a poor grieving Palestinian or Congolese mother. Many of us, if we’re lucky enough to have a week or two a year of paid vacation, are too broke to go anywhere. And millions of us haven’t seen a paid vacation in a while.

Too many of us are too busy vicariously worshipping that beautiful black family in that big White House and not focusing on the lineup of economic actors and political forces that shape the lives of our own families and communities and neighborhoods. But that’s what royalty has always been for, a circus and diversion.

For the time being, black America remains in a delusional state, with African Americans expressing more confidence in and satisfaction with the direction of the nation and its economy than whites, while the gap between white and black employment, wealth, and rates of incarceration are at near record levels. Black support for the president remains strong, though not at the record levels experienced in 2008. Till things change, this appearance of overwhelming black support is an impenetrable wall around President Obama, insulating him from any effective challenge from his left.

From our historic stature as leaders of the American polity, we have now become a brake. Egyptians in Egypt may have begun to throw off their authoritarian and tyrannical rulers. But in black America, we are, metaphorically speaking, not out of Egypt yet. As long as pharoah is black, we seem unwilling to let him go.

Black Agenda Report, February 16, 2011