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Obama, King and Kennedy: Empire and the “End” of Racism - An interview with Juan Santos
Wednesday, 21 January 2009 23:04
by Andrea Luchetta

“King spoke Truth to Power, while Obama spoke Lies to get in Power. One might say that other than that, and other than the fact that King stood up to end Black people’s suffering while Obama stood silent in the face of it, they’re just alike.”
- Juan Santos is a member of the Aztlan Mexica Nation Harmony Keepers/American Indian Movement, and author of the essays Barack Obama and the “End” of Racism, and Obama's Denial: The Fear of a Black Messiah.

Andrea Luchetta interviewed him for a feature piece on Obama’s inauguration for the Italian daily Il Manifesto. The following is the full text of that interview.

Luchetta: I‘ve interviewed Ms. Makeeba Lloyd, of the "Harlem4Obama Committee". According to her, racism is nowadays a minor problem. The main conflict, for her, is of a class nature, rather than racial in nature. The social dividing line, she says, is now between the rich and the poor, not between the white and the black. What do you think of this position?

Santos: This is nonsense, Lloyd’s claim is in line with Barack Obama’s utterly false claim that peoples of color are “90% of the way to equality” with whites in the US.

Ms. Lloyd is wrong. The poverty line is a race line. Race determines who is poor and who is not. Roughly a quarter of black and brown people in the US live in poverty, while less than 1/10th of Euro-Americans live in poverty. A black person in the US is 3 times more likely to be poor than a white person.

That’s 90% of the way to “equality”?

No. The very best thing I can say about the idea that peoples of color are approaching equality with whites in the US is that it is an example of extremely bad math, or of people promoting an illusion in hopes that it will come true.

Black unemployment in the US is currently at 11.1% - almost double the average for white people, whose rate of unemployment is 5.9%. Among the general population, - by which I mean those outside of the reservation system that imprisons Native Americans on the remnants of their lands - Blacks have the highest rate of unemployment in the US, followed by Latinos, at 8.8%. Among Black youth unemployment reaches a stunning 32.3 %. From 1976 through today, a new study shows, Latino unemployment rates typically exceeded that of the white population by some 65%. The absolute rate of unemployment for Native Americans on the reservations is, however, roughly SEVENTY PER CENT.

50% of Native American reservation homes have no phones and 1/5 of the homes lack complete kitchen facilities.

It might be interesting to show these figures to Ms. Lloyd to see if, reading them, she is still willing to claim a distinction between a race divide and a class divide in the US.

But economics is by no means the only measure of equality.

Race also determines who is imprisoned and who is not.

Black people in the US are 8.5 times more likely than whites to be imprisoned.

On any given day 1 in 9 young Black men are in prison.

Latinos are 4 times more likely to go to prison than white people.

68% of all U.S. prisoners are people of color, although Black, Latinos and officially recognized Native Americans together make up slightly less than 25% of the overall population of the U.S.

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The US has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. It is a system of mass imprisonment aimed at the control of people of color, who, the elites fear, have the potential to violently and politically rebel again as they did in the 1960s. People in other parts of the world simply cannot begin to imagine the conditions that exist here; the US holds 25% of the world’s prisoners – a Gulag comprised mostly of prisoners from the minority populations of African and Native American descent – Blacks and Latinos.

This is no “minor problem,” contrary to what Ms. Lloyd suggests. It is a form of mass social control of potentially dissident and rebellious populations based on race and class status. Ms. Lloyd has missed the point entirely.

It’s not a matter of race versus class – race and class are in many ways one thing here in the US.

Usually that kind of system is called a caste system. Despite a few exceptions, like Obama himself, that’s exactly what exists in the US: a caste system.

What the white ruling class did here was this: following the mass rebellions and the burning of major US cities in the 1960s, the white ruling class decided on a strategy of divide and conquer. They created a Black middle class almost overnight, largely using government employment to do so, while at the same time they found another way to deal with the millions of people of color who could not fit into the system; mass imprisonment. These developments are 2 sides of the same coin. Ms. Lloyd’s failure to see this is why she can make the kind of mistakes of analysis she’s making. See this link.

Luchetta: You wrote that the price for Obama's election was silence about the racial question. Yet, don't you think, as many participants to the "Great Harlem Debate" have suggested, that his silence was rather tactical?

Santos: Yes it was tactical, but the question is this; what strategy did the tactic serve?

And: Who did that strategy serve? And: Who did that strategy harm?

As someone put it, “Hope is not a strategy.” Hope is nothing but a slogan.

And here’s another question.

If, as Obama claimed, Blacks in the US are “90%” of the way to equality with whites, then why was the tactic of silence necessary in the first place?

If this claim were the truth and not a lie, anyone could talk openly about race and discrimination, openly celebrate the reality that there is only 1/10th of the way left to go, and put forward plans to quickly eliminate the remaining 10% of the problem. If this were true, such a campaign would draw millions upon millions forward as volunteers, people who would be thankful with all of their hearts, joyful to be part of the push to bring racism in this former Apartheid state to its complete end.

If racism were 90% eradicated in the US, if Blacks and other peoples of color were 90% of the way to equality, there would be absolutely no reason or need for silence.

If 9 out of 10 former racists were no longer racists, the tiny number which remained would already be isolated and powerless. There would be no need for a tactic of silence about racial oppression, because the racists who remained would be so small a group that they could not change the outcome of an election – not against a population that was 90% anti-racist or non-racist. But Obama’s claim was a conscious lie, as I demonstrated in answer 1. There I dealt with the quantifiable measures – the facts of social inequality which disprove Obama’s claim. The verifiable, statistical facts disprove Obama’s claim, and they are widely available for anyone to see who cares.

Obama’s silence showed one thing - that he knew his claim about equality was false, that he knew that to dare to talk openly about race and oppression would alienate the millions of white center-right voters whose support he needed to win the election.

So, Obama’s strategy was to give those voters what they wanted to hear, and to give them silence on what they didn’t want to hear. The tactic he used to give them what they wanted to hear was to offer the lie about “90% equality.” This erased any need on the part of his white audience, the white electorate, to deal honestly with the actual conditions of people of color here in the US. They could believe the lie of racial progress, and never have to think about the millions in poverty and the millions more in prison. That worked just fine for Obama.

Instead of blaming the system and white racism for the conditions of Black people, he could blame Black youth for a lack of “personal responsibility” – that’s exactly the tactic of white racists, and it looks like that is what Obama means by creating “unity” between peoples of color and white people – to unite with white racists in their tactic of blaming the victim of racism for the impacts of racism.

That’s the same kind of logic wife beaters use to justify their brutality.

In effect, Obama filled the silence about the actual conditions of peoples of color with the lie about an “equality” that clearly does not exist, and with a tactic of blaming the victim. So, looking back, it wasn’t really silence at all. It wasn’t wrong to say that this silence was the price of Obamas’ election, but more basically, the price of his election was a price now being paid by Gazans, and by the hungry, incarcerated and unemployed people of color in the US.

A lie filled the silence and took the place of the truths that demanded to be spoken and dealt with. Obama’s strategy and tactics served white racism and served to deeply harm peoples of color by erasing our conditions of life from the imagination of the majority here.

Claiming that Gazans have “almost achieved equality” with Israelis would not make it so, and remaining silent about the rain of bombs will not make them stop exploding. Obama has remained silent about the literal bombs in Gaza, and he has remained silent about the explosively unjust social conditions for people here. In both cases, the bombs keep falling, people keep going hungry, and here, the US Gulag continues to devour the lives of millions of imprisoned people of color.

Along with the wealthy Anglo ruling elite, that’s who his strategy served, and that’s who his strategy harmed.

Yes, Obama’s Black supporters you interviewed in Harlem were correct.

The silence was, in fact, a tactic.

Luchetta: Why don't you seem to believe in the possibility of a change coming from within the institutional framework? What is then the possible alternative?

Santos: Change won’t come from within the system because the wealthy profit from the mass impoverishment of peoples of color here and around the world – wherever their money can penetrate to get the cheapest labor for the most work. Having a color- based caste who you can discriminate against increases the rate of profit. They also profit at the expense of the Earth; they profit from the Earth’s destruction – actually, and in practice, they profit at the expense of all life. They’re not going to give that up because someone votes for them to give it up. They have police and military power at their disposal, and the bullet always trumps the ballot.

Racism rewards the powerful. They have no reason to stop racism unless its continuance results in a level of resistance that endangers the system of profit itself.

To put it in plain words, the system rewards the rich for hurting people. So, from their emotionally deadened standpoint, and given their control of the bullet, why should anything change?
For me, the most important example of an alternative is the EZLN; the Zapatistas and the Mayan people of Chiapas in Mexico are a shining example. They have found a striking balance between autonomy and resistance, and between self determination and the nurturing of their culture and the Earth. The Mayan people have a profound sense of the meaning and potentials of our times. I’m an indigenist and associated with the American Indian Movement.
I’m also enamored of Evo Morales and his MAS party in Bolivia, and I have an intellectual and moral admiration for Hugo Chavez, for his willingness to confront the US and Israel, and to unite other oppressed nations in a bloc of opposition to imperial hegemony, but not for his personal style of management or emotional tone.

And at this juncture in history anyone with a heart has to admire Hamas; I do, even though I don’t view them as a viable alternative… but, then, I don’t have to; it’s not my place to make that determination. I’m not Palestinian.

But, finally, the all-but undeniable reality is that the Empire cultures like the US and the European powers are quickly heading toward “the trash bin of history.”

Their systems are completely irrational, and tend to eat themselves – and the Earth – and us – alive. They have no future.

Increasingly, it seems, the writing is on the wall, and in the hearts of people around the world. I think the alternative is to begin to build a new way and a new culture, establishing autonomy and independence and sustainability for ourselves as communities, even as these Empires collapse as flat as the two skyscrapers in New York a few years ago. One good collapse deserves another, I always say.

Luchetta: You seem quite skeptical toward Obama's rhetoric. What is the "Change" that Harlem's people would really need? Which actions would be needed to tackle the racial question?

Santos: Well, we’ve seen plenty of “change” since the 1960s. But what people forget right now is the common folk wisdom that “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Really, the only thing the system can do for us is collapse, go away, and get out of our lives. I’m a big fan of the American Indian Movement slogan that says, “U.S. out of North America!”

Really, the system can’t do anything to change the caste system that it’s founded on and that it relies on for its continued profit and its continued existence.

As far as tackling the race question goes, they can never tackle it from our perspective and for our good. Just like in the 60s and 70s, they can only tackle the race problem – their race problem, not ours.

We are their race problem, and I’ve never been one to ask bullies to tackle me. It’s not a sound or productive strategy.

Luchetta: Don't you think that, if compared with the situation of the Civil Rights Movement era, a lot of progress has been made on the racial question?

Santos: Again, the old folk saying; “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

My answer?

Sure, if you count a new Black middle class, on one hand, combined with the mass incarceration of peoples of color on the other, and a day to day war in our neighborhoods called the “War on Drugs” - which is really a “War on Us” - if you want to count that as “progress” …then yes, there’s been “progress.” But anyone who actually believes that that is “progress” is lying to themselves.

At the systemic level, there’s been no qualitative, fundamental “change” at all, really. But at the cultural level, yes, there’s been change, and that change - with all of its dramatic difference and all of its dramatic limits, is what Barack Obama represents at his best - as a cultural symbol, not as a champion of the People.

But, yes there has been a limited but very welcome change in people’s attitudes, ethics and their emotional and cultural open-ness. That much has changed. The system, though, hasn’t changed at all.

Luchetta: Why, in your opinion, is Barack Obama often compared with JFK?

Santos: It’s a kind of obvious comparison in terms of their charisma, their intelligence, and their ages. But, it’s not just their personalities or spirits. January 2009 is very much like the period of JFK’s reign. Then - looking back on it now, it’s plain to see that there were two major trajectories the world could take – toward Nuclear Holocaust or toward a Cultural Renaissance. As it turned out, the cultural Renaissance, an effort toward Cultural Revolution, was the path taken from the bottom-up.

The Ecological Holocaust we face today is very similar in it’s meaning to Nuclear Holocaust, and, according to Michael Oritz Hill, the author of a book called Dreaming the End of the World – which is focused on people’s dreams about Nuclear Holocaust and Ecological Holocaust, there are even deep correspondences and similarities between the symbols in these kinds of dreams. By the same token, the feeling is thick in the air today, at least here in California, that another cultural Renaissance is being primed; A Green Renaissance – no, not a “green economic stimulus” – something more profound, and from the bottom-up is coming; that’s how it feels now. I’m sure that if you were in San Francisco or Greenwich Village in the early 60’s, it felt pretty similar.

In the early 60s, Kennedy embodied both potentials, for renewal and destruction. Obama is like that, too – a mix of contradictory elements and psychological, cultural and political trends embodied in a single, charismatic leader. Neither of them brought any focus whatsoever on paths to liberation.

Kennedy was an imperialist and a Cold Warrior. Obama is the 21st century equivalent of Kennedy – a smart Hawk whose basic commitment is to the existence and furtherance of capitalist imperialism.

As a fine essay in Revolution points out, Kennedy sent the young and hopeful he’d inspired to die and carry out imperial genocide in Viet Nam.

Obama will do the same in Afghanistan, and, perhaps, Iran.

Beyond that; moving out of the Bush era is not unlike moving out of the 50’s and the McCarthy era here, out of a time of a deep grey repression into open air and sunlight. Just getting finished with the Bush years is enough to give people “hope.” Obama just stepped up and rode that wave; he didn’t inspire it; he was just the one to ride it –he was a “fit.”

There are lots of little correspondences; John McCain, Obama’s rival, was almost as stiff and bad on television as Richard Nixon, Kennedy’s rival.

History and Time run in circles and spirals and cycles, not in straight lines. Things come back around. The world is a complete circle. In fact, the Aztec (Mexica) name for the world was Cem Anahautl – “Complete Circle.”

Luchetta: Why did most black people vote for Obama? And why did the US choose a black president just now?

Santos: Because he’s Black. Because Black people are routinely and systematically excluded from full participation and any kind of empowerment in US society, Because they dared to “hope” he might actually turn out to be one of their own, to actually turn the tide for them, despite the political evidence to the contrary. It was largely a symbolic vote, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t truly important at the level of culture. In fact, symbols are, in many ways, the substance of culture.

Look, the guy’s smart, charismatic, and his game is really complex. There is no way that it would be right to “blame” most black people for not seeing through the complex political game, and there is no way that one could fail to love Black people when you take even a second to see it through their eyes; to so many the election of Barack Obama looked exactly like the fulfillment of the Dream - Martin Luther King’s Dream. In one way, in terms of what it said about the changing culture, it had an element of truth, at least in part. At the level of the system, it has no truth at all.

Nor is it the case that Obama represents anything like the values King held to his heart – quite the opposite.

King spoke Truth to Power, while Obama spoke Lies to get in Power.

One might say that other than that, and other than the fact that King stood up to end Black people’s suffering while Obama stood silent in the face of it, they’re just alike.

Juan Rafael Santos is a Los Angeles based writer and editor. His essays can be found at: http://the-fourth-world.blogspot.com /. He can be reached at: Juan_Santos@Mexica.net.

Andrea Luchetta is a dog-provided student in international history and politics, in Geneva. He comes from Trieste, which is for sure the most windy town in the world. He can be reached at: andrealuchetta@hotmail.it
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