In the second of a three-part series Ronan Burtenshaw asks Gary Younge, Guardian journalist and author of ‘The Speech‘, about what the legacy of Martin Luther King means for the Obama presidency.
What do you think Martin Luther King, had he survived, would think of the first African-American President?
Younge: I can’t answer that question without first saying that it would be invidious to pretend that I can channel Martin Luther King forty-five years after his death. I think it would be consistent with the way he spoke during his life to say that Obama highlights some of the contradictions of the post-Civil Rights era. Some people are allowed to get on. Racism is a system – it is not about individuals, it is about groups. While King generally took pleasure in the empowerment of black individuals that was never his primary concern. He looked to those who made it for money when he needed it, but he didn’t look to them for solace or for political support. Actually, quite a lot of the time he was flying in the face of what they wanted him to do. When he goes to Birmingham in 1963 black businessmen and preachers say stay away.
There would be no reason for him not to be delighted with the fact there is an African-American president. And with the symbolic resonance of Obama’s election. But when black men have a lower life expectancy in Washington D.C. than men do in the Gaza strip, when one in three black boys born today is destined for jail, he’s not going to say my work here is done. There is no evidence of him in political life revelling in the advance of individuals at the expense of a group. So I don’t see any reason why that would change.
The discourse in African-American politics about Obama is becoming more polarised. Cornel West came out recently and was very critical of his presidency for abandoning the values of people like MLK. But Cornel has been hit hard for questioning Barack Obama by the African-American mainstream. There has been a closing of ranks. Why do you think that is? Especially since the economic conditions for African-Americans are so bad.
Younge: It’s a paradox. Some of it is about the way that those critiques are framed – questioning whether he’s black enough or raising the fact that he is mixed race. That kind of essentialist rhetoric that Cornel has used at times does not go down well. The notion that his racial composition or his parentage is informing his politics doesn’t strike me as a smart critique. I know that isn’t all that Cornel is saying. But when the criticism is couched in those terms – Obama is afraid of free black men – that’s not where I’m at.
You have to make it about systemic racism. If you talk about the system he inherited, in a way that doesn’t absolve him, it’s more productive. If you say he didn’t stand for president on a platform of getting rid of American racism, he stood as a centrist Democrat talking about how he could manage the system better, then the problem is clearer. The system is racist. To the degree there is disappointment with Obama I also think it has to be weighed against the fact that he never said he was going to do anything. You could talk about Guantanamo, sure. Maybe one or two other things. But there has to be some self-interrogation as to why people thought he was going to be more than he ever said he was going to be.
Do you think that speaks to the vacuity of post-racial politics? I remember Obama appearing on the international stage at the 2004 Democratic national convention with his “there isn’t a white America or a black America” speech. It seemed that he was trying to wipe the slate clean of historical conflict. People then went on to use him as a blank slate – to project their aspirations onto his presidency.
Younge: He was a Rorschach test and, to some degree, he was happy to be that. But all the same he had a record and it was decidedly sketchy. I favoured him over Hilary Clinton because he opposed the Iraq War and wasn’t associated with the Bill Clinton ‘new Democrat’ nonsense. But I never had any illusions as to what he might do.
But we should ask why Americans of colour circled around him. The biggest reason is his opposition, the Republicans, and the extent of the racist onslaught he faced. They start off with who he is – he’s not American, he wasn’t born here, he’s a Muslim – and that becomes interlinked with what he does. He favours people who aren’t American. Barack Obama becomes emblematic of all of the fears of the Republican Right: demographic decline, immigration, Islam. He is a target who epitomises everything they fear, even though he doesn’t really do much. That’s another reason why African-Americans rally around him.
They rallied around Marion Barry too – a former Mayor in D.C. who was caught smoking crack with a prostitute. His response was, “the bitch set me up”. He goes to jail, comes out and is re-elected by African-Americans in D.C. Black America will rally around a certain kind of black leader. They’re not going to rally around Condoleezza Rice or Herman Cain, it’s not simply about race. But Obama wouldn’t be the first African-American who hasn’t delivered a huge amount to the community but receives this kind of loyalty. And it isn’t even just African-Americans. They love Clinton. Clinton introduced welfare reform and locked up more black people than George Bush, Snr! So if they love Clinton then of course they are going to love Obama.
I think another important part of the narrative around Obama and black America, in terms of their affection for him despite his not delivering anything, is that they never expected much in the first place. African-Americans know it isn’t a genuinely democratic process, so their expectations when they vote for someone who wins are really low. They arguably have a more sophisticated view of his symbolic value than people give them credit for: of course nothing has changed. Where the hell have you been? We’re not going to elect a black person who is going to change anything but isn’t it nice to see a black president?
There are a number of explanations but it is a paradox. There is certainly a squeamishness too with a constituency of black leadership, like the Black Congressional Caucus, who say, we can’t go after Obama because if we do people will come for us. Rather than taking him on and challenging him by saying, if you’re here to represent a group of people then represent them.
People talk about the symbolic importance of having an African-American president, even in terms of the subliminal value to anti-racism of him being seen in that position. But, on the other hand, he does some pretty damaging things for the anti-racist cause. For instance, as an African-American president, he talks about ‘welfare culture’ and lectures black people about getting off the couch and going out to work. Martin Luther King began a poor people’s campaign to fight injustice on the economic front, Obama seems to be reinforcing a moralising narrative that blames black people for their situation in a way that gives credence to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and co. What do you make of that?
Younge: Martin Luther King also did that. He conceded, yeah, sure, our people should maybe be more hygenic. There’s a line in one of his books where he talks about people investing in a bar of soap once in a while. He basically concedes most of the point and then goes on to say that still doesn’t excuse racism. This is just one of the things that they do. So long as it is an internal conversation within the black community there is an authenticity to that. If you go into black churches preachers will be saying: men, stay at home with your kids; parents talk to your kids about sex education; pull your pants up. Most communities have those internal conversations. There are jokes that Jewish people can tell each other that non-Jews can’t. I’m sure in London there were internal conversations in the Irish community about alcoholism. Of course, they’d know what would happen if the Daily Mail got hold of it! I think every besieged community has internal conversations that become easily bastardised and exploited when they are taken outside the community.
The thing about Obama is that he’s the President. So when he goes the NAACP and says, ‘your kids have to do more homework’, I feel like, ‘if I want advice about raising my kids I’ll ask supernanny. I don’t need you telling me that. Why don’t you go and do something so that my kid doesn’t die? Why don’t you do something about the War on Drugs?’ I have always found whomever has been doing it in a public way – whether it be Obama or Bill Cosby – offensive. Especially when they ignore the structural and systemic reasons for what is going on. If every young, black man pulled up his pants there would still be more than $10,000 between the median income for blacks and whites. It ain’t because we’re wearing saggy pants.
I wrote a piece that came out just before the election in 2008 because my son was born on the weekend when he declared he was running. People keep saying, ‘this will be great for your son’. I don’t see it, frankly. If he can change my son’s odds of getting murdered, of flunking school, of being arrested, of being incarcerated, of being executed, then great. If he can’t, then he’s no use to me.
When he was thinking of standing Michelle Obama pulled him aside and said, ‘they will look at us differently now and we will look at ourselves differently too.’ If you apply that to the George Zimmerman / Trayvon Martin case you really see its limits. Who knows what Trayvon Martin was thinking? But if it was, ‘I too can be the future President of America’ then he was wrong because he was shot dead by a guy on his way home from the store because he looked like a ‘punk’. I don’t think George Zimmerman looked at him and thought, ‘there goes the future President of America’. He thought, ‘there goes a punk’. Obama makes some people feel better about themselves but he has done relatively little to change the conditions that made them feel badly about themselves in the first place. He produces an emotional response to a political problem.
Part one of this series is available here. Part three will look at how Martin Luther King’s legacy can be applied to today’s America.
Gary Younge’s ‘The Speech’ can be bought in paperback for under €10 here.