Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Quote of the Week #8, or, Obama "Ain't Got Time to Sit Down With Your Monkey Behind"

I found the following quote in a recent article by Jonathan Capehart in The Washington Post and it was originally from a recent radio segment by Steve Harvey on The Steve Harvey Morning Show (reproduced above by way of YouTube video).

The really important nugget here is "and just plug yourself into the already existing system — which ain’t gonna change just ‘cause you want it to". That is the telltale sign of a negro accommodationist ethical framework. It assumes that black people's critique of those leaders who are recognized within the white supremacist electoral system is less effective toward black freedom than would be our support for the policies of those leaders. Something is better than nothing. One of our guys (usually, it seems) got in the door, so let's support him. It is a salvage mentality-- the idea that black people have anything to lose-- the sine qua non of the black middle class. Check it out.

"He is not the President of The Hood. He is the President of the United States. But if you look at what he’s pushing, no one could benefit greater than our community. Healthcare? Who is lacking in healthcare overwhelmingly than anybody else? Who is that? Who is lacking in education overwhelmingly than anybody else? And who—who do you know could stand a tax break above anybody else? So all you gotta do is fit yourself into the equation and you’ll see that he’s doing everything he can. But, it’s not for us. It’s for the American people. And the moment we quit saying, 'Us,' 'Gimme gimme gimme,' and just plug yourself into the already existing system — which ain’t gonna change just ‘cause you want it to — then we can move on with this thing. The man is doing a great job."
--Steve Harvey

The debate started by the above comments appears to be descending quickly into a kind of measuring contest-- a contest measuring the practical outcomes for black people from all of these highly important people driving around on buses. After receiving a critical letter from Smiley, Capehart backed off of his blanket concurrence with some of Harvey's name calling, but then quickly turned to a five-city jobs fair by the Congressional Black Caucus and said that West and Smiley showed no similar concrete outcomes for their poverty bus tour. Why Capehart seems to think that Smiley and West have a beef against the CBC's job fair seems to me like a diversion.

I want to take a detour, and look at the battle lines here. Steve Harvey is an important voice and presence for millions of black people, and, before his above-quoted segment descends into faux-churchy Amos-and-Andyism, he is making some points of which black folk who are interested in struggle should take note. Let's listen closely to him and break down what he's saying:

1) Obama's political leadership is "pushing" health care, education, and tax increases on the wealthy-- all things that can benefit the poor.
2) Black people, being disproportionately poor, can benefit from such pushes.
3) Black people should therefore support Obama's political leadership.

See if you think I have fairly stated Harvey's argument, but if I have done so, then check this: The conclusion does not follow from the premises.

For one thing, where is the "push" in the "pushing" that Harvey says Obama is doing? Obama has failed to hold the line-- let alone push it-- for the poor on those very things Harvey says that Obama is "pushing." There is no public option in the health care plan, although the health care plan requires that people purchase health care from wealthy private sector firms. So I guess in a sense, there has been a push, but, in an ironic sort of judo-like reversal, the energy from that initial push by Obama has been absorbed and transformed into the ability of massive corporations like Kaiser and Cigna to pull funds from the pockets of a now downwardly mobile black middle class, and the black poor are still being pushed into the emergency room health care plan. The privatization of education continues apace and the increasing inequality of the wealth needed for a good education is accelerating under Obama. Black parents are being arrested for lying to get their children a better education than they would otherwise have received. Harvey mentioned nothing about jobs programs (a job fair is not a jobs program) and neither does Obama mention one in any serious way. We shall have to see to what extent Obama pushes to raise taxes on the wealthy, although his allegiance to corporate interests thus far does not make for promising prospects on that count.

The Devil in the Details
But Harvey is also failing to acknowledge a number of things that should lead us to doubt the idea that black folks benefit when issues of poverty are addressed. The first thing he forgets is history. Within the United States alone, we have many historical examples of policies that were ostensibly for the benefit of black people and that marshaled the support of black people but that turned out to be written in such a way that they excluded black people. The devil is always in the details. One such policy is known to us as Jim Crow. A number of historians have remarked how, in the wake of Reconstruction, blacks voted for white populist politicians throughout the South who, upon election, then proceeded to disenfranchise the very blacks whose votes helped assure their victory. Howard Rabinowitz's Jim Crow in the Urban South shows how the collection of policies known as segregation itself was pushed on black people as something that would be of mutual benefit to blacks and whites. (For whites, the benefit was a public sphere largely cleansed of the presence of socially equal black people in schools, hospitals, dining establishments. For blacks the benefit was that they would have access to civil society at all. The sense one gets is that black people faced a genocidal non-choice: "Take these amenities of civil society on the degrading, segregated terms on which they are offered, or don't take them at all." There's that salvage mentality again, and, of course, that's not much of a choice.) Segregation was not what black people believed it would be initially. We are led to think of segregation as purely a function of the force of white supremacy over an outnumbered and outgunned black population. It was that fundamentally, but it was also more than that. Black people actually voted for leaders who turned on them. The "existing system" of which Harvey speaks has been-- and remains-- much more treacherous than Harvey is prepared to admit.

Repeatedly, and in various ways, the USA has attended to its poor while excluding black people, and black leaders have resisted in ways that did not fundamentally call the "existing system" into question. For example, the Social Security Act of 1935 passed Congress by excluding, at the behest of southern legislators, several disproportionately black groups like agricultural and domestic workers. These exclusions remained in place until the 1960s. Another thing that has never really been made right is the exclusion of blacks by trade unions. The Democrats built a coalition based on organized labor, but have never seen fit to make those unions equitable places for the vast majority of black people. In fact, many blacks are, to this day, ambivalent about unions because unions have been ambivalent about or hostile towards blacks. The so-called Treaty of Detroit in the 1950s, the set of agreements that guaranteed union members living wages and benefits and served as the foundation of much of the modern white middle class, won concessions for union workers that were shared only with those blacks who could get union jobs. It wasn't until the federal government stepped in and forced the hiring of blacks, through short-lived policies like affirmative action, that blacks began to share in the concessions that unionism won. And by that time, the late 1970s and early 1980s, unions were being shut down and many whites (even union members!) were voting to severely restrict the scope and force of unions, and capital was withdrawing jobs of any kind (union or not) from predominately black areas.

And so it seems we have been here before. Harvey is disingenuous not to acknowledge that Smiley and West are attending to this sense of betrayal that black people feel, even if one thinks that they are also pimping poverty. Pimping black suffering and pushing for black people are both possible and popular pastimes for black leaders, just as it is possible that Harvey has something intelligent to say about black life even as he himself pimps black people's humor (our desperate need to laugh) to buy our allegiance to the state.

In a way, perhaps this incident is a microcosm of the crisis of black leadership-- all too many pimps critiquing each other as pimps-- ambassadors to the lap of white desire, brokers who calibrate the amount of black suffering, without ever really attempting to end it. The finger-pointing internecine Battle Royal for the title of HNIC itself also caters to white genocidal desire.

Harvey needs to be reminded that blackness is not a subset of class. Fitting ourselves into "the existing system" is impossible because blackness is not inside of the existing system; it is its own thing. So just because leaders claim to push policies that advance the interests of the poor does not mean that they are advancing the interests of black people.

Harvey is right that black people should not expect to have a monopoly on Obama's attentions. In fact, we probably shouldn't expect to hear from Obama at all. Obama cannot afford to be seen as too close to us because the rest of America feels so far from us. Obama is not a leader of black people in anything except a symbolic and perhaps an ethical sense. He is a symbol of black people's ability to succeed within a white supremacist paradigm, if and when the nation (or the world) has use for him in such a symbolic role. In this sense, his leadership is to serve as an ethical role model for a certain idea of how black people, and especially black leaders, ought to behave. (This symbolic role-- similar to that of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Clarence Thomas-- is meaningful for some black people, although it really should not give black people nearly the amount of comfort that folk are wont to take from it, cuz it really only means that there is yet another way in which we can remain slaves without chains.)

Obama's function for the USA is different from his function for black people. Obama answers to the USA, and, especially, to capitalist white supremacy. We, on the other hand, are property of the USA, and, especially, of capitalist white supremacy. Harvey is right to say that Obama's hands are tied by his being the leader of the USA. This indeed is the price black people pay for Obama's symbolic value. Once he becomes the symbol of the USA, he cannot be the symbol of black people. Black people can tack some of our own affective investment onto that role that Obama plays for the USA, cheering him on even as his energies are deployed to sap our will to resist a systematic and often subtle genocide, but he's not playing the role for us. He does not answer to us. He will not stop playing the role if we tell him that it is hurting us. And he certainly will not bite the hands that feed him. Black consent is irrelevant not to him specifically but to the USA and its genocidal project. Obama serves on the terms that the USA project needs. He has bigger fish to fry. In Harvey's words, black people, Obama doesn't have "time to sit down with your monkey behind," so "just plug yourself into the already existing system — which ain’t gonna change just ‘cause you want it to." Sounds like The Matrix. In other words, be content with framing your black interests as those of the poor. Don't try to get a black president to assert the interests of black people. After all, as one of the hosts on The Steve Harvey Morning Show says, if he acceded to your demands for a black agenda, even black people would be "disappointed" because that would damage his legitimacy (with white people). You can't win. It's "utterly ridiculous."

Framing the Problem: Toward a Black Agenda
This type of accommodationist thinking is very common in our churches, mosques and other institutions like the world of policy makers and academics. But why should we settle for it? Is this really the best deal we can get? What would it mean to formulate a politics around black people's interests as black people (rather than as poor people), or even simply our consent? This is not to say that black people would be the only politically enfranchised interests. But it is to say that black consent has never been an essential component of the USA, has always been irrelevant to the USA-- except when we have taken to organized campaigns of struggle that have posed the same ontological threat to the USA as it poses to us. The deeper problem Harvey faces is a problem of thought. He is not thinking hard-core. This is also a problem that Smiley and West have: a failure of the kind of radical imagination that was the hallmark of Harriett Tubman, George Jackson, Nat Turner, and Assata Shakur. We have to think beyond what Harvey, Smiley, West, Capehart, and Obama are thinking and want us to think. The grip that the black middle class has on the mantle of black leadership has to be humiliated and ended because they cannot handle the truth of black life and stay black middle class. This critique is not personal. It is structural. Despite their best intentions, the black middle class as such will fail black people every time because its members will always succumb to the salvage mentality that makes them middle class. They will always feel that they have something to lose, and, as long as they do, they are acting as middle-class black leaders, not as black leaders. They will not be fit to lead the kind of revolution that black people need. They cannot be the historical agents of their own liberation.

It is clear that the radical potential of the phrase "All people are created equal" cannot be fulfilled within the current order. And yet how would the political order look if, rather than being written by slaveholders who were appropriating their slaves' complaints for freedom, the founding document of modern nationhood had been written by the slaves themselves? Would the notion of a right to health care as a synonymous with the right to life be such a radical or counterintuitive idea? Would taxation arouse such ire as a forced gift from the "hardworking" to the "undeserving poor"?

Black leaders critiquing themselves could be a healthy thing. When Harvey calls for Smiley and West to explain why they haven't had a poverty tour before Obama's re-election campaign, Harvey could be asking a good question: How do we explain the ongoing structural poverty forced on black folks and the sporadic interest the black middle class takes in truly addressing it? If we explored this question unflinchingly, we might be able to figure out what black life means, and what it would take to change the meaning of blackness and Africa in the modern world. This could be a healthy debate, that is, if it were not being done within such predictable parameters as we see in the Harvey & Capehart versus Smiley & West thing. The teasing and name calling. The remarkable inability to question the role that modern slavery and neoslavery play as one of the premises of black privation. The refusal to think in terms of a slave rebellion and the tendency to think in terms of reforms (however radical or conservative). What Smiley and West share with Harvey, Obama, and others is a desire to fit into the "existing system" without radically interrogating what that system is and why black privation seems to be so central to it. It is called antiblackness. And what is that? A lot more attention needs to be paid to that question, and to why fitting into that "existing system" is impossible for black people. Thinking of the opposite of Harvey's "existing system" is not the same thing as counseling hopelessness. It is thinking of the end of the world, something black people do everyday when we imagine what freedom would be like. And it is something for which we should all find time, before it's too late.

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