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  November 19, 2013

Obama and the "Post Racial Society" - James Early on Reality Asserts Itself pt2

On Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay, James Early says the economic indices of the black community are worse at the mass level than they were before Obama became president
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James Early is the former director of cultural heritage policy at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Prior to his work with the Smithsonian, Mr. Early was an administrator at the National Endowment for Humanities in Washington. He was host of Ten Minutes Left, a weekly radio segment of cultural, educational, and political interviews and commentary at Howard University's radio station. He is a former member of the board of TransAfrica, and currently on the board of the U.S.-Cuba Cultural Exchange. He is also a board member at the Institute for Policy Studies and also at The Real News Network.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to Reality Asserts Itself.

We're continuing our series of interviews with James Early, who now joins us the studio.

Thanks for joining us again, James.


JAY: So James works at the Smithsonian and he works at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He's a former member of the board of TransAfrica. He's on the board of the U.S.-Cuba Cultural Exchange. And we're going to get into your views on Cuba, which you've visited many times.

But I wanted to pick up from part one. And if you haven't watched part one, you should, 'cause that's the biographical section. It's the way into all these interviews.

But I want to now jump ahead to some of the more current issues and pick up President Obama's fight with Reverend Wright and the whole idea that that speech, first of all, was billed as a speech on race. And, first of all, I think it needs to be said it wasn't primarily actually a speech about race. It was primarily a speech about is there blowback in foreign policy, and he attacked Reverend Wright for saying there was, which is crazy given--I mean, nobody that analyzes foreign policy doesn't think U.S. policy has had blowback. But let's set that aside and deal with the race part. More or less, he accused, the president accused Reverend Wright of living in the past and this idea that we're in a racist society and framing things in terms of white and black is an archaic way and we've moved past that. What do you make of that?

EARLY: Well, first of all, President Obama's policies have demonstrated, post the controversy around Reverend Wright, that the social indices, the economic indices of the black community are worse at the mass level than they were before. That's not a total result of the policies of President Obama. It's the crisis of capitalism, which they like to pretty up and call the financial crisis.

But the fact of the matter is that the history of racism is a living legacy. We have made much, much progress, but our jails are filled with young black men, increasingly young black women, brown young men, brown women. Our health situation, even for those in the upper class, the accumulative legacy of the things that we were fed, the communities that we were forced to live in, the racism against Obama and his family itself is evident that we are not in a post-racial society and that Obama did not look reality in the face and help the American people to grapple with that complex reality.

And grappling with that complex reality first and foremost means that his election is an advance not only for the black community, but it's in advance for justice-seeking, fair-minded people people in the United States, all of those young white kids of voting age who stepped forward who wanted to see a new humanity, new world. It is a disappointment that he has come up with the theatrics to satisfy some kind of mass perspective that we are beyond race. And we certainly are not.

JAY: Some people argue--some people, for example, Glen Ford, who we've interviewed on The Real News a bunch of times, that in some ways his election was almost a setback, in kind of two ways. One, it kind of strengthened this idea that this new black elite, that you can make it, and, you know, if you work hard and you're smart and you follow the American dream, it doesn't matter if you're black anymore. You can make it. So it kind of gives this idea of being in a post-racial society. But I think Glen's argument's even more that it's kind of taken the wind out of any mass movement, that it's--that--and he's--kind of does things that a white president couldn't get away with the same way amongst African-Americans.

EARLY: Yeah, I don't think that's a sound argument at all. You know, there is a construct called bourgeois democracy. And when you break it down--and I like to go to the Greeks to break it down--democracy, the demos, the ordinary people, /ˈkwɑːʃɚ/, the power of ordinary people, the power of ordinary people to imagine that they can do better in whatever ideological, political, or economic circumstance they're in.

And Obama is a product of the black community thinking and actually setting the circumstances to do better, notwithstanding his contradictions. But I think we have to see that as an advance. And with advance, other contradictions are revealed. And that is class interests, elite interests, in contrast to mass interests, so that when you look at what Obama administration policy is about, first of all, who did he bring in as his team? They're all Clintonites, save one or two black people here or there. But it was not a real vision of how to advance American democracy. And I think it was a very ego-driven kind of that I, Obama, this articulate, well-dressed black men, and then he does not bring a team with him. He does not bring a team that sounded anything like he sounded in the election. It is an advance that has brought new contradictions. I think it is a real mistake to see it as having pushed us back and having undermined mass movements.

Now, it is true, I think, that Obama demobilized his base. That's both black people and all of those young white people and Latinos and Asian-Pacific Americans and gay and lesbian people, and they all have been beating on his door. And Cornel West and Tavis Smiley were the first to come out and say, let's look in the mirror of reality here. I think they made some tactical errors and they allowed the debate to become over-personified in their names, and they did not build a broad enough network of folk who, within less than a year, all began to come and beat on his door as individual [incompr.] saying, but you are not meeting the policy promises for which you voted us in, for which you asked us to vote you in. So it is a complex situation, but it is an advance in the context of this system.

JAY: I would think there's another way in a sense you could call it an advance is that--at least in my point of view, if you overemphasize the race question, you can obviously also deemphasize it. But if you use that prism of race otoo much, then I can understand that having a black president can kind of diminish how people would understand. But it should have had the other thing: it should make class that much clearer, that this black elite is now part of the elite and the real issue is is the elite.

EARLY: Well, this is an analytical problem that progressives and leftists have had from time immemorial. When you look at the history of American republics, from Canada to Argentina, including of all the Caribbean, the development of the modern nation state was never a pure class question. It was always a racialized and genderized class question.

But the racial dimensions of that question were drawn to extraordinary extreme proportions. And the great philosophers of the world, sometimes who were very progressive on a lot of things, went to great ends to rationalize the dehumanization of these enslaved Africans, that they were chattel, that they were less than human beings, that the Bible, the sons and daughters of Ham, and so forth and so on. So the class question was always deeply racialized.

And we are seeing the continuing legacy, notwithstanding advances, not only here in the United States, but in a country like Brazil, where over half the population identifies itself is black, and well beyond half of the population is African in culture, that is, ways of knowing and doing, blonde, green/blue-eyed people who know nothing but those African religions, those African comportments. That's not a biologically driven issue. It's a socially learned behavior. So it is a complex issue that we still have not come to grips with.

Even in Cuba today, this debate of not wanting to avow the historical evolution of racial identity in a positive sense--now, racial identity can end up in ultranationalism, ultraracial perspectives, ['kwAkoUb] and the devil theory of the Nation of Islam that white people were really coming from the devil, and the implication being that we were the pristine, divine people. So they can go to extremes.

But we still need to grapple with the fact that racism is still very much the ethos, notwithstanding advances, as I would see it, of what goes on in America today, indexed by jails, indexed by poverty, indexed by health circumstances, indexed by the popular cultural perspectives, including black people sometimes being complicit in these behaviors. But that all evolves from the period of slavery.

JAY: And we're in Baltimore, where the majority of the city council's black, the mayor's black. Most, I would think, of the ownership class in Baltimore is white when you're talking real estate and businesses, but there's a significant black ownership class here too. I think part of the argument is that it's this--and I know Glen makes this argument, which I think has a lot of merit to it, that this stratum is who really reap the benefits of the civil rights movement [incompr.] able to break through this wall, except now it's reinforced, in many ways, the class relations. And you can see it in a city like Baltimore. If this was an entirely white city council and a white mayor, you know, it would be a different class struggle in this city.

EARLY: It indeed would be. I mean, race is an optic in there. But I think we learn something about human nature in general anyplace on the history of the planet for as long as we've had recorded history. You are going to have class distinctions. And the question is: which class wins out? There is nothing inherently good about being black. There is nothing inherently good about being a woman. There is nothing inherently good about being gay, transgender. We have tended to think that because of the nature of the oppression against these people, that we could flip it on its head. And among black nationalists, narrow black nationalists, as we used to describe them, they would come up with the slogan, but we were Kings and Queens in Africa. Well, Kings and Queens come from a social relationship, a feudal social relationship of serfs and enslaved people. But that was the flipside of the absolutism of white supremacy, that being white was divine and being nonwhite was less than human. It's a lot more complex than that. And so we do have to grapple with these class questions.

It's not a problem that we have unequal abilities. It's--the problem is unequal access, so that even with equal ability, even with fairness and justice, we will end up with a society that some people can do math better than others and some can play baseball. It will just not be in these large black racial categories that we have. Each according to his or her ability, each according to his or her need. If one works very, very hard and honestly to produce beans and rice on the table but can't produce enough, she or he should be praised as an outstanding, noble, hard-working human being. If someone over here makes a surplus, their outstanding nature comes from sharing the common good.

JAY: Well, we're going to get into this whole idea of from each and to each, because we're going to talk about Cuba, and they're having a big problem sorting out from--

EARLY: They're having a big problem.

JAY: --how you get from and who you give to. So in the next segment--.

But let me back up one step within this. See, when you talk about race and then you talk about class, race is kind of straightforward. You can get race and racism. You know, you can get prejudice. You can't go to this school, you can't get in this restaurant, you're not going to get that job. Class seems a little more abstract. And it seems to me it's actually--there's a very simple way to talk about class, even though it's more complex. But you almost never hear it talked about this way. And it's about who owns stuff. I mean, if--you know, political transformation's going to change who owns stuff, not just about higher taxation and fair distribution, which is all good, but that isn't going to change much. And, in fact, you probably won't get to fairer distribution if you don't change who owns stuff. And I know in Baltimore, when we're talking to--you know, we're interacting--a lot of young black activists in town, and they're--you know, many of them are actually going to be having offices in our new building here, which we're going to show you more, the new building, soon. This is not at the center of anyone's discourse, this issue of ownership and how concentration of ownership leads to concentration of power.

EARLY: Well, to some extent it is about monopoly corporations, monopolies who own the politicians, who buy on both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans. The distribution issue, within the context of the system in which we live, the gradual tax issues, these are little things that move us towards a notion that there are owners and there are people who don't own.

Now, I probably will not--I know I will not see a society in which everyone will own the means of production. So one of the things we have to look at is progressive reforms. That is, is it bad to be an owner? Or is it bad to be a owner who does not distribute in fair and just ways with the people who have actually produced that wealth? I say to young people, someone's got to be a banker. I don't want to keep my money in a mattress.

JAY: Well, let me back up, 'cause I'm trying to phrase this in terms of race, and some of the debate that goes on here in Baltimore, but lots of places, which is this idea that, you know, black entrepreneurship is, like, something to be aimed for. The idea that some individual black person will wind up running or owning a big company, or a small business, even, like, that's the model for change. The idea of, like, collective action and a mass movement for change, it seems secondary now to this idea of, you know, building businesses, successful businesses.

EARLY: I think you are right in terms of what people are being asked to consider as success. But I don't think owning something in and of itself in the context of the system we live in, because it's not a revolutionary moment, where we're going to get a new system.

So what do we do in the interim? That is, we need good entrepreneurs who will provide wholesome food within black communities where there is unwholesome food, who will provide it at fair prices with a humane vantage point. We need socially responsible people who have skills to do that. To live in the ideal and wait for the moment in which we have a revolution and we all may own the means of production is probably eons out into the future, unfortunately.

JAY: Well, see, I think that's not the choice. You know, it's not some way off in the day when there's some of this, you know, magic moment and all of a sudden there's some revolution. I mean, there's a fight right now over defense of what is already in the public sector. There's a fight right now over privatization. There's issues even at the municipal level, you know, like, is the bus service going to be private or public, is the water going to be pirate or public, are you going to lay off public servants and outsource stuff to private consultants.

EARLY: Right. And there are discussions about workers owning businesses--

JAY: And developing co-ops and things.

EARLY: --and developing co-ops. But even in that structure, there is going to be someone who has to make ultimate decisions. It's not going to be 5,000 people sitting down every time just saying, we're going to vote on the next thousand decisions that we have to make. That's going to be vested into someone. And you have those natural divisions of labor, if you will. And there are going to be rubs and tension in that.

How can we reduce it and have that basically characterized by a productive tension that really moves towards what is the socially responsible and just thing to do? But it's not going to be a clear through of workers simply having public control over transportation system and everything is going to be [crosstalk]

JAY: Well, it's going to wind up--.

EARLY: Human greed also. I mean, there's--you know, humans, [incompr.] have a tendency towards wanting to take surplus, wanting to commit violence against other. So there's going to be official violence, for example, of a fair and just police force who is going to say, we cannot have that kind of behavior of men treating women that way or parents treating children, slapping children on buses and public transportation. It's--that's the sociology, the complexity of the sociology. But how to put it on a fair and just basis, on a human basis, rather than on a basis of surplus and ownership and monopoly and raw crude power I think is the challenge before us.

JAY: Okay. Well, much longer discussion and debate, which we'll get into. But now we're going to--in the next segment, we're going to talk about a place which is trying to grapple with all this in what is supposed to be a socialist system, and that's Cuba, which James has been to many times.

EARLY: Dear to my heart.

JAY: So join us for the next segment of our interview with James Early on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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