Kevin Alexander Gray joins Paul Jay to discuss the President’s lack of interest in the desperate conditions faced by most
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. On Tuesday night, in his State of the Union speech, President Obama repeated a often-said theme of his from the time he’s been elected, or even from before that, when he was running, which essentially is, we’re all in the same boat. Here is a clip from the speech. ~~~ BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America or a conservative America; a black America or a white America–but a United States of America. I said this because I had seen it in my own life, in a nation that gave someone like me a chance; because I grew up in Hawaii, the melting pot of races and customs; because I made Illinois my home–a state of small towns, rich farmland, and one of the world’s great cities; a microcosm of the country where Democrats and Republicans and Independents, good people of every ethnicity and every faith, share certain bedrock values. … The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong. ~~~ JAY: So we’re all in it together and the state of the union is strong. Well, is it? Well, now joining us from Columbia, South Carolina, is Kevin Alexander Gray. Mr. Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina, coeditor of Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence from Counterpunch Books, and also the author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics. Thanks very much for joining us, Kevin. KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY, AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST: Thank you. JAY: So what did you make of the speech? I mean, he talked about the middle class as a driver of the economy and raise the minimum wage and so on. But he always repeats the same theme, that, like, we’re all in this together, we’re all facing it like a tightknit family, I think is how he ended the speech. GRAY: You know, the state of the union might be fine for the 1 percent or those at the upper end of the income scale. For a whole lot of people it is still a recession–and a depression in some communities. In the black community, most people didn’t pay any attention to–or in the country at large, most people didn’t pay any attention to the last unemployment report, where it showed that blacks still suffer from double-digit unemployment rate at 10.4 percent. For black youth, the unemployment rate is probably 30-plus percent. And then, of course, in the last two years, the median wealth of black households has dropped by 34 percent from 2010 to 2013. So there’s a whole lot of people out here in the country struggling. The state of the union might be fine, it might be great for the powerbrokers, but for the working class, for black people in America, it’s still tough. JAY: I actually was struck with the fact that I understand in terms of the electoral politics and the coalition that reelects him and all that, for much of his administration he didn’t want to appear, quote-unquote, favoring poor black people and so on. But he doesn’t have to run again, which is something he said in the speech. You’d think–and this whole speech is mostly posturing anyway, given none of this is going to pass. The Republicans are not going to pass a single one of his proposals, in all likelihood. GRAY: You know what? The thing I worry about with Obama–. JAY: Yeah, go ahead. GRAY: The thing I worry about with Obama is that he is a young man, and the system has used him to anesthetize a whole lot of people into accepting policies that, if it were a Republican president, they wouldn’t buy it. They wouldn’t buy the transpacific pipeline, they wouldn’t buy this assassination program. They certainly wouldn’t buy that in the face of double-digit unemployment, that the union is strong. They wouldn’t buy this idea that criminal justice reform is just a bunch of platitudes. They would demand an end to the war on drugs and dealing with the–really dealing with the mandatory minimum sentence, really dealing with releasing nonviolent drug offenders and having some kind of conversation in the black community in particular about drug legalization. So I worry that not only is it the setup to help Hillary Clinton reach the so-called Democratic left; it’s to set up so that we have a kind of soft milquetoast leadership leading the black community the way that this president who has said he is not the president of black America has still been embraced by so many black folks into accepting the policies of the empire. JAY: Well, this is what I was leading towards is that at least in this speech he could have finally actually addressed the mass incarceration, chronic black poverty. We’re in Baltimore. The official poverty rate in Baltimore City is around 23 percent. If you make living wage the issue of poverty rate, it’s probably closer to 50 percent. And that’s not unique. There’s situations like this across the country. And, again, not really a word about it. GRAY: No. And as he told the young demonstrators that came to visit him from Ferguson, go slow and that whole kind of gradualism, that whole kind of–what is it?–the last six years of chastising black people and running a bootstrap argument or it’s your own fault argument. Obama’s made it clear that he is the president of all the United States. So now, toward the end of his term, he wants to feign liberalism and triangulate the same way Bill Clinton did, come back to the black community the same way Bill Clinton did. You could say he’s kind of pulling a Clinton. There’s talking about free community college. Well, who really funds community college? And if you look at when people go to community college or they go after they get out and they’ve worked on a job for a little while to say that you’ve got to go straight through school, what is the federal government going to do to help kids and community college? What’s the federal government going to do to help black kids, when under the Obama administration the credit criteria for the Parent PLUS Loan program was tightened so that we had hundreds of thousands of black kids that didn’t return to school this fall or last fall? So a lot of it is smoke and mirrors to set up for Hillary. A lot of it is trying to varnish up or polish up his legacy because he’s been a weak president who has vacillated as it relates to issues of the left and progressives and for blacks, who has kowtowed to the right-wing in his party, who has carried out the powers of empire. To talk about we don’t assassinate–I mean, we don’t torture, yet he advanced an assassination program, for me it’s a president that has no moral authority, moral authority. And I’m really afraid that if he becomes the new face of black leadership once he leaves office, then that’s going to set us back even further. JAY: What sort of role might you imagine? ‘Cause I always thought he probably becomes–gets on about a dozen corporate boards. GRAY: Well, I mean, look, he’s set for life and he’s going to be on those corporate boards. And that’s the kind of leadership that he’ll offer. Let’s join the corporation. Let’s be entrepreneurs. Let’s compete. We’re America. We need to all pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. I mean, that’s the message that he’ll deliver. That’s the message that the people around him delivered, people like Opera, the people that he promotes, like he promoted that movie Selma tonight. So he promotes that kind of American exceptionalism, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can do anything in America, racism is skin privilege notwithstanding. JAY: Now, as center, center-right as he’s governed–really center-right, not even centrist–Republicans would have been far, far more brutal in how they handled the effects, the consequences of the crisis over the last ten years. Here in South Carolina, I assume that’s a Republican state. GRAY: With a black Republican senator. JAY: But, like, if you look at Maryland, for example, where the Democratic Party machine controls it now, there’s massive chronic problems. And as I was giving some of the stats of Baltimore, this all happens under a Democratic Party administration. But that being said, there actually are some small things in Maryland that are better than some of the Republican states. For example, they had a kind of health care exchange here, a health care program here for people that couldn’t get insured because of pre-existing conditions. There are certain things that you could say are a little bit better in terms of social safety net in places where the Democrats have state power. And at the national level, the Republicans are off into psycho loony territory. What do you make of that problem? GRAY: I mean, look, the politics, as Tip O’Neill once said famously, all politics are local and action’s going to be local. And if we really want to change was happening on the national level, we’ll continue to do as people are doing around the country: organizing locally, changing local government, changing state government. And I’m in the South, and it’s a heavily Republican area that I’m in. The Southern strategy’s still in effect. A lot of things are based on race. But that does not preclude us from taking on the fight and organizing. We haven’t really done any grassroots organizing in the last 20 years, except to organize from campaign to campaign. And now, with what you see that came out of Occupy, matched with what’s coming of the Black Lives Matter movement, I think–and looking at growing wealth inequality in the country, that’s something that people have to take on locally. If we’re talking about, if Obama’s talking about changing the community college system so that more people can go to community college for free, that’s really a local issue, because a lot of those community colleges are funded by the state. But we ought to be talking about free public education across the board in this country. Now, if Obama had have said that, he’d have been saying something. But I think the fight has to happen on the local level and put upward pressure on those in power, and not–we can’t wait for some kind of trickle-down saviors or trickle-down policies from Washington, D.C., because a lot of those people are getting money from the same sources, and it says something about going to Washington, where people become so enamored with the power and so enamored with their environment that they forget the people that they go there to serve. JAY: Right. Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Kevin. GRAY: Thank you. JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.