United States

Symbols vs. Substance

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

Our national politics is largely the stuff of illusion.

It is the stuff of spin. It is the manipulation of images to pluck the heartstrings, or to stoke the furnaces of emotion.

Any emotion will do: love, hate, fear, all are but instruments upon which politicians will play to move people to the polls, to get them either to vote for them, or against their opponents.

What all of this really means in the day-to-day lives of many of the voters is actually quite minimal, for politicians don’t really care about what voters want; they care about those who can afford them—those who pay them well for their services.

In essence, politics is a business, and voters are merely bare necessities.

We see this in the vast, obscene amounts of money raised for virtually all political offices.

At bottom, politics is the elevation of symbol over substance, for it seeks to create the illusion of change, while leaving unchanged the essential power relations at the lower levels of society.

Politics is great for changing forms, but it stumbles at changing essentials.

We’ve seen that in South Africa, where the faces of those in political power have changed dramatically—in its starkest sense, from palest white to darkest black—and yet those who hold financial power, immense wealth, and thus, those who control politicians, remain predominantly white—and remain in ultimate control.

Conversely, for the Black urban and rural poor, their lives are almost as hopeless as before, for what has changed is that a Black middle class has arisen into their political ascendancy.

Here in the U.S. we often boast about Blacks having more and more political offices in local, state and federal government posts. Yet, if this is so (and it is) why are our lives so miserable, so threatened, so endangered? Why are our communities so dysfunctional?

Why are Black urban schools so under-performing?

Why are Black and Latino homeowners the bulk of folks losing their homes to foreclosures?

Why are so many of our lives nightmares of survival in the midst of plenty?

How is it that more Black politicians ultimately means less Black political power?

It’s because black-faced politicians can best advance the aims of white economic supremacy for they are but employees of white wealth who do the duty of those who can afford them. That great French observer of American politics, Alexis de Tocqueville, aptly noted, “Than politics the American citizen knows no higher profession—for it is the most lucrative.”

Black politicians confuse us with their presence—not their power.

For power is the ability to make change in the conditions of people’s lives (for the better), to represent their interests, and to gain resources for the betterment of Black people and their communities.

Presence is merely being there, being there in the place of a white politician, doing essentially nothing differently., April 12, 2008