Barack Obama’s speech on race, the greatest speech by a major American political figure in decades, elevates the discussion of race in America to a new level. What makes this speech so powerful is not only what he said, but also what it requires us to ask and what it demands that we reply. With this speech Obama has challenged himself, the Democratic Party, and the country to pursue a discussion of racial justice which leads us inevitably into equally challenging issues of economic and political power. The social and cultural questions of race are entwined with economic issues and political problems in this country in such a complicated way that one cannot be tackled without also handling the other. And they can all be solved for all of us only by taking on corporate power.
The problem of race in America is also an economic issue that will require a change in the balance of forces between capital and labor. Racial issues are not only matters of communication, understanding, and mutual respect — though those are important — they are also questions of economic wealth and political power whose resolution will require a reconstruction of America. Obama said in his speech, this is not a zero sum game. But it is a contest in which working people, black and white, in order to win the game, will have to build a movement that can take wealth and power away from corporate interests at the top of this society.
No mainstream American politician in the last hundred years has had the courage to discuss so frankly issues of race as Obama has, dealing with both the African American experience of white racism and discrimination and white anxieties and resentment toward blacks. Obama’s speech, simultaneously personal and down-to-earth, intellectually sophisticated and politically challenging, represented a new high watermark for American politics.
Obama, not shying away from the issues but looking the American people directly in the eye, discussed the experience of black discrimination in education, in housing, in employment, by labor unions and in business, as well as discussing sympathetically white workers’ anxieties at being laid off from a job, white women’s frustration with hitting the glass ceiling, and immigrants’ concerns about feeding their families. He explained to whites how African Americans who have suffered such economic discrimination have never been able to accrue the same assets and therefore never had the same opportunities as whites. And he explained to blacks that working-class and middle-class whites often don’t feel very privileged in this society themselves, facing as they do difficulties with employment, with health care, and with the costs of education.
A Common Fight for a Better Future
Obama encouraged black and white Americans to turn away from the nation’s troubled racial past, work together, and fight for their common economic and social interests such as health care. He even suggested that this would be to some degree a fight against corporate power: “corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.” Such an aside, however, hardly begins to probe the issue of entrenched corporate power and altogether avoids its direct relationship to institutional racism. Obama’s brilliant popular elucidation of our country’s race issues was not matched with an equally frank examination of the nature of corporate economic power, and that is where he and we must go next.
How Obama, with his liberal political record and his moderate economic views, can dare to confront these issues remains to be seen. Certainly the Democratic Party with its embrace of neoliberal economics and globalization, must be wary of any discussion which would lead Americans into an examination of the role of corporate power. Yet, having gone this far, Obama invites us to go a little farther, and leads us to ask the question of how, while making racial peace, we also solve the problem of economic justice and political fairness, issues we know to be so absolutely inextricable.
Capitalism and Race in America
The reconsideration of black and white relations in America, which Obama’s speech suggests, leads us to rethink the roles played by capitalism and the corporation in constructing contemporary American society’s race issues. At every stage of American history, businessmen and the corporations played powerful parts in the creation, maintenance, and reinforcement of racism. African Americans chains were literally and figuratively manufactured in the capitalist iron foundries of North and South; black labor on the slave plantation grew out of the textile industry in England and New England; black relegation to the role of janitor was the policy of U.S. corporations for a hundred years; black ghettos were created by banks and real estate agents; and white employers played off racist white labor unions against black workers in such a way that both groups lost out — but blacks lost most in jobs and wages. Today, in the corporate world and in society, African Americans confront a system of what some sociologists have called “color blind racism,” more subtle but tenacious and persistent.
Obama reminded the American people of the black experience of slavery and of the long history of discrimination, yet he did not dwell on the crucial period of the foundation of the modern African American experience, namely Reconstruction and its aftermath. At the end of the Civil War, Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania proposed that the southern planters’ land be confiscated and distributed to former slave families in forty-acre plots together with enough money for each family to build a house. But northern industrial interests as well as southern planters opposed such confiscation since it suggested that labor had some vested interest in property and it raised the fear that a popular government that expropriated land today might expropriate factories tomorrow. The idea of agrarian reform on behalf of former black slaves was rejected in part because it raised the specter of socialism on behalf of white workers.
Instead, northern capital flowed into the South, northern businessmen literally and figuratively marrying into the planter ruling class, buying up coal and iron mines, and supporting the great reaction of 1890 that resulted in black crucifixion by debt peonage, disfranchisement, and segregation. Capitalism did not bring democracy to the South; rather it brought instead a combination of Bourbon political domination at the highest levels, the control of planters and southern textile mill owners at the regional level, and populist white power at the local level. All of this was enforced by the lynching of thousands of blacks in the period from 1890 to 1940.
Capitalism, the Corporation, and African Americans
Family capitalism in the North, transformed by the Civil War, mutated into the great industrial corporations of the coal, iron, and railroad era, giving rise to the finance capital of J.P. Morgan. The corporations treated African Americans as a reserve army of labor, workers who could be called forth during the industrial expansions of World War I and World War II, and then laid off when the depression came. Blacks, perpetually at the bottom of the economic ladder, became the last hired and the first fired, the expendable, the disposable. At the same time, the AFL craft unions, the junior partners of capital, excluded African Americans from skilled jobs, so that few blacks before 1916 ever had the opportunity to even work at a machine, much less become a machinist. In the North, the subordination of blacks was enforced by periodic white race riots, violent attacks on the black ghettos in which dozens were murdered.
During the entire twentieth century, as African American sociologists and historians have pointed out, black capitalism amounted to little. The combination of corporate power and white power meant that black businesses, usually serving only the black community, remained small business, marginal, fragile, and perishable. Only a few black banks and insurance companies and a handful of publishing companies and other businesses ever reached any significant size. African American business did not become large enough to be a significant factor in black employment and could not command black consumers who went for cheaper goods produced by white-owned corporations.
Black Gains with the CIO and with the Civil Rights Movement
Where blacks did make economic gains was through the organization of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. African American workers joined strikes that built powerful unions in the mining, auto, and steel industries; tens of thousands of black workers won union contracts, higher wages, and later pension and health benefits. The rise of the CIO during the 1930s represented the most important factor in the improvement of black life during the period before the coming of the Civil Rights movement. African Americans not only became members, but also leaders in the CIO, and consequently a factor in the Democratic Party — but there they were blocked by the Solid South, white power and black disfranchisement below the Mason-Dixon Line.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s, culminating in the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights of 1965, overturned de jure segregation in the South, a tremendous victory, but left untouched de facto segregation throughout the country, a system largely enforced by banks, insurance companies, and realtors in the neighborhoods and by the corporations at work. Ironically, the political advance was accompanied by an economic retreat. The long decline of industry which had already begun in the 1920s and accelerated in the 1950s culminated in the deindustrialization of the 1980s taking away from African Americans the higher paying industrial jobs they had finally broken into in the 1940s. Globalization has only accelerated these tendencies as well as introducing new immigrant competitors. The combination of the historic burden of racial oppression, the persistence of segregation and discrimination, and the reconfiguration of the economy through deindustrialization and globalization have resulted in a society where African American workers have been pushed once again to the bottom of the social ladder.
Obama, the Democrats, the System, and the Crisis
African Americans find themselves both deeply integrated into and at the same time profoundly excluded from the capitalist system. Today 35 percent of white families but only 16 percent of black families make over $75,000 a year. White unemployment is 5 percent, but for blacks it is 11 percent. The poverty rate for whites is 8 percent, while for blacks it is 23 percent. Given this situation, Obama’s speech leads us to ask: How can African Americans be raised out of poverty without jeopardizing the economic position of the white middle class? To do so one must pry money and power away from the corporations and put it in the hands of working people. How can Obama and the Democratic party, with their corporate obligations and their capitalist commitments, possibly address the historic situation in which African Americans find themselves in such a way that both black and white workers benefit?
Today, as we enter a recession that threatens to become a crisis, African Americans stand to be the big losers. Black workers never fully enjoyed the periods of prosperity in the 1920s, 1950s, and 1960s, or the 1990s, and they were the first and biggest losers in the depressions and recessions of 1929-1939, 1974-75, and 1981-82. They will also be the most affected by the current crisis into which we are entering now. African American unemployment historically runs at double that of whites, so if this recession give us 10 percent white unemployment, blacks’ will be 20 percent; if it becomes another Great Depression where white unemployment reaches 25 percent, then black joblessness will be 50 percent. What will be the chances of overcoming racism then?
Given the situation of American capitalism today, what will it take to improve the situation of the African American, to provide economic security and racial justice, while at the same time stabilizing the situation for white working people? How can we secure a decent life for all of these working people, who usually call themselves middle class, and who make up the great majority of our population?
President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society with its War on Poverty, both failed to fundamentally change the situation of blacks and did not end poverty among whites, largely because they did not end corporate domination of American society. Under President Bill Clinton, the Democrats turned away from even those liberal programs and adopted the conservative (or neoliberal) policies long identified with the Republicans. Democrats have not proposed, beyond their health care plans, any fundamental changes in the social programs of the country. Today, there is a real question of whether or not the American capitalist system — faced with problems of competitiveness, productivity, and profitability — has the capacity to construct a liberal or social democratic system which would ameliorate, without ending, the race and class systems of the country.
Obama’s speech leads us to these reconsiderations of American history and of the contemporary situation of black and white which suggest that he and his party cannot solve the racial issues he has so brilliantly begun to elucidate. We need a new social movement to create and drive forward a new American politics. American working people, black and white, need to join together to fight not only for health care, but also to take on the corporations whose power and wealth impede a solution of racial problems. The greatness of Obama’s speech may ultimately lie in the fact that it led Americans to reconsider the problems he has addressed and led us, black and white, native-born and immigrant, to begin to solve them by ourselves and from below.
Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer, and activist. He is the author of Rank-and-File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union (1990), Mask of Democracy: Labor Suppression in Mexico Today (1992), and Democracy in Mexico: Peasant Rebellion and Political Reform (1995), Made in Indonesia: Indonesian Workers Since Suharto (2001) and the editor of Mexican Labor News & Analysis, a monthly collaboration of the Mexico City-based Authentic Labor Front (FAT), the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical Workers (UE), and the Resource Center of the Americas. His writing has also appeared in Against the Current, Labor Notes, and Monthly Review among other publications.