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Barack Obama’s Community Organizing as New Black Politics

November 23, 2011 Leave a comment

My new article “Barack Obama’s Community Organizing as New Black Politics” has recently been published in a special issue of Political Power and Social Theory titled “Rethinking Obama,” edited by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Louise Seamster.

Abstract:

This chapter explores how discourse about Barack Obama’s community organizing background underscores his new Black politics. Whereas new Black politics is associated with a minimization of race, centrist and neoliberal policies, and an unwillingness to “speak truth to power,” Obama has been characterized as “different” due to his community organizing experience. As I show, Obama’s community organizing background is invoked by him and others in ways that amplify an opposition to Black racial solidarity associated with the tradition of old Black politics. The first section examines how Obama’s community organizing is depicted as a quest for racial acceptance from old guard Black activists but translates into a story of his political maturation. The second section considers how Obama’s relationship with his (now) former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright is symbolized as a struggle between old and new Black politics and thus serves as a commentary on the presumed ineffectiveness of racial solidarity for addressing the plight of working-class Blacks.

Why Obama’s ‘Black Job Plan’ Won’t Resolve Black Unemployment

September 25, 2011 4 comments

Why Obama’s ‘Black Job Plan’ Won’t Resolve Black Unemployment

Tamara K. Nopper

September 25, 2011

Recently, President Barack Obama addressed the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and concerns that he was ignoring the disproportionately high unemployment rate among African Americans.  Defending his American Jobs Act, Obama emphasized the measure that would provide tax cuts to businesses–and specifically mentioned 100,000 Black-owned firms–if they hired a new worker or gave workers a raise.  One CBC member was quoted as saying that Obama’s speech “showed he’s going to fight.”

Obama’s jobs act will not make a dent in Black unemployment, which is now at a staggering 16.7%.  And despite emphasizing in his  CBC speech Black unemployment and  Black-owned firms, his proposal demonstrates more his capitulation to white supremacy than a willingness to challenge it.

Here’s why:

Tax cuts will not address the financial disparities that already exist among firms by race.  Indeed, Obama’s proposed measures for helping all (and not just Black) business owners in his jobs act privilege those firms with more money, that are more likely to be considered “innovative,” (hence the plan’s emphasis on patents and going global), who have a significant number of employees, and who are in the overall financial position to take advantage of a tax plan.  Black-owned firms already trail behind most other firms in most indicators.  Shown in the  most recent (2007) Survey of Business Owners, which is administered by the United States Census Bureau every five years, Black-owned firms make up only 7% of all U.S.-located firms.  Whites are over-represented  as business owners with 83% of all firms. The amount of receipts differs among racial groups, with Blacks only having $135 billion, which comprises less than 1% (.005% to be exact) of the $30 trillion in receipts for all firms.  The disparity in receipts does not necessarily reflect the number of business owned among racial groups.  For example, at an estimated 1.9 million, Black-owned firms outnumber Asian-owned firms by about 400,000, but the latter have over three times the receipts at $506 billion.  And while Blacks have about 300,000 less firms than Hispanics–the majority (91%) of business owners who identify as white, by the way–Black firms have only 40% of the  former’s receipts.  As a racial group, Blacks even lag behind  some ethnic groups.  Mexican American-owned firms, for instance, total about 1 million–a little under half of the firms for all Hispanics, regardless of race–a figure that is about 900,000 less than the number of Black firms, yet their receipts are higher at $154 billion.

These disparities are underscored when considering businesses that have employees, with the ability to have employees often related to the finances of a firm.  Black-owned employer firms make up 2% of all firms with employees, and whites own 81%.  Numbering only a little over 100,000, Black employer firms have receipts of $97 billion, which, like their receipts for all firms, make up 0% of all employer firms.  Asian American-owned employer firms have almost four times the total number and almost five times the receipts than Black employer firms, despite Asians comprising only one third of the population size of African Americans.  Controlling for the race of the business owner, Black employer firms, employing a total of about 900,000 people, pay the smallest average pay per employee among all employer firms.  Given this data, it is highly unlikely that tax cuts will alleviate Black unemployment as Black employer firms are already lagging financially behind those among most other racial groups. Even if Black employer firms, again totaling around 100,000, were all to hire one Black person, it is unlikely to decrease Black unemployment.   Given that an overwhelming majority of Black businesses are non-employer firms, it is highly unlikely that they will be in the financial position to grow their businesses by hiring workers–or to get the capital to do so–and thus “take advantage” of the proposed tax cuts.

One of the reasons why these statistics are so alarming is that a plethora of research, both from social scientists as well as just day to day observation and experience on the job market, demonstrates that African Americans are the least likely to be hired by non-Black firms.  And Black firms are already more likely to hire African Americans than non-Black firms.  Given the small number of Black employer firms, it is not surprising that unemployment rates for Black have generally surpassed all other racial groups, even when the economy was not in a financial crisis.   Non-Black firms, then, are not likely to hire a significant number of Blacks just to take advantage of tax measures (especially when there are growing numbers of non-Black unemployed to choose from) and Black firms, already lagging behind other racial groups by most indicators, cannot possibly be expected to resolve Black unemployment.  Nor could they if they wanted to as they don’t have the resources.

Some will say Obama did specifically deal with discrimination and Black unemployment in both his jobs act and his speech to the CBC.  For example, the proposal calls for challenging hiring discrimination against the unemployed.  However, how will he measure the unemployed in this policy?  Will it include the many Black people who are not even included in the Department of Labor statistic for unemployment?  Whatever the case, Obama’s jobs plan does not talk about racial discrimination.  Some may think it unnecessary for an act to do so given affirmative action policies.  Yet affirmative action policies have often been more commonly applied to corporate jobs and even then, corporate powers have largely determined what politically gets defined as affirmative action these days.  As the major source of new jobs, the overwhelming majority of small businesses are not subject to affirmative action policies due to the small number of people each firm employs.  And even if they were, the federal government has tended to be purposefully lax in enforcement and firms have also found ways to use what law professor Tanya K. Hernandez calls “the diversity defense” to hire non-whites but avoid having to account for discriminatory racial hiring practices.  In terms of talking about Black unemployment in his jobs act, the fact sheet–as well as his CBC speech–does cite the aforementioned Black unemployment rate.  More, the act mentions how Black youth are particularly affected so as propose a summer youth job program.  One purpose of the initiative, according to the jobs plan, is to help young people develop employment skills.  But many of these Black youth likely won’t be  hired  by non-Black businesses  so as to use and be paid for these skills, and again, Black firms  do not have the capacity to hire all of them.  Further, youth should not be in the position of financially supporting their communities and cannot be used to measure the financial health of their racial groups.  We would not expect whites dismayed about the financial crisis and their unemployment rate to focus simply on the employment prospects or summer job programs for white youth–indeed white youth are not even expected to work in the way Black youth are (nor  is employment promoted as an anti-incarceration initiative for white youth in the way it is for Black youth, but that’s another article). And summer programs are of course seasonal.  Finally,  summer youth programs do not resolve the fact that way too many Black adults cannot get jobs during any season.

Similar to some of his political predecessors, including Richard M. Nixon, Obama’s explicitly refers to Black unemployment and Black business in his CBC speech while promoting a Jim Crow economy–where Black people are largely left to their own devices to resolve a structural economic crisis with a little government support–in this case with the aid of a proposed tax plan for all firms that will  purportedly help 100,00 Black firms resolve Black unemployment or a summer jobs program in which Black youth can participate.  And similar to Nixon, who championed “Black capitalism” as a containment strategy to repress Black protest or criticism, Obama’s speech to a CBC increasingly and publicly frustrated with Obama’s response to Black unemployment, champions, albeit in a subtle way,  Black business owners as important social actors who he suggests will be “supported” (but not in a targeted way) through his proposed tax plan.  Like Nixon, Obama doesn’t challenge or address the larger political economy and anti-Black racism that is largely responsible for Black unemployment nor does he  purpose that non-Blacks have any responsibility in the economic life of African Americans, either in causing or resolving it.  Overall, an unwillingness to challenge racist hiring practices  towards Blacks among firms owned by non-Blacks–again 98% of all employer firms–can co-exist with Obama’s championing of Black firms in the name of addressing Black unemployment.

Overall, Obama’s jobs act and his speech to the CBC are examples of what sociologist Charles Gallagher terms “new colorblind racism,” meaning, unlike traditional colorblind racism, the approach minimally acknowledges racial inequality, and in this case, Black unemployment, without addressing racial hierarchies.  Although openly discussing the issue of Black unemployment and proposing a tax measure that will “benefit” all firms–and presumably 100,000 Black businesses as noted in his CBC speech–Obama does not challenge the existing financial disparities among businesses–or the role of  government programs and the financial institutions he perversely protects in shaping these disparities.  Rather, Obama’s CBC speech, in a Nixonian gesture that “recognizes”–some could even say celebrates–Black-owned firms, speaks simultaneously to both Black  middle-class (pro-)capitalists and working-class Black nationalists who value Black business as a sign of community health.  And despite his acknowledgment of the high Black unemployment rate and Black businesses, he also, like Nixon, simultaneously reassures non-Blacks that we will not be affected by his jobs act or by his  directed overtures, at least in speech, to the Black community.  In the end, Obama expects African Americans, in this case Black business owners and Black youth, to  largely shoulder the burden of resolving the Black unemployment crisis.

What Obama’s speech to the CBC demonstrates is not only his neoliberal tendencies but also his clever strategy of appearing race-specific in his policies.  Obama is an expert at racial double-speak and has found a way to promote a white supremacist agenda while still acknowledging race at certain moments.  And he has also found a way to appear as if he is championing African Americans, in the case of his CBC speech, Black business owners, while still permitting business as usual, which includes an unwillingness of non-Black firms to hire African Americans, a lack of government intervention into these hiring practices, an over-emphasis on developing Black human capital, and a capitulation to the white supremacist claim that the state cannot legislate hearts and minds and thus cannot force (job) integration.  While Obama may not win hearts and minds, he doesn’t have to let Blacks suffer just because non-Blacks are racist and are unlikely to stop being so anytime soon.  Instead, he can work towards another version of truly race-specific policies or adopt those that have  already been proposed by African American advocates.  Such initiatives are more likely to address Blacks’ economic status by creating economic programs that specifically target African Americans as a whole instead of simply shifting the burden of resolving Black unemployment on to the Black community.

Obama and Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders

December 13, 2008 1 comment

December 13, 2008

There has been little discussion among mainstream media about Obama’s election and Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders (AAPIs).  While I can’t provide a detailed analysis of AAPI party politics or voting patterns, I want to provide an account of a community forum held in Philadelphia’s Chinatown that I attended in mid-October.  Sponsored by Pennsylvania Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders for Obama, the event featured NYC Councilman John Liu and two Asian American politicians from California: Congressman Mike Honda, Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee and Chair of the Asian American Congressional Caucus, and Dr. Judy Chu.  In attendance were several of the old guard Chinatown “community leaders” and a diverse group of AAPIs involved in local and regional politics, with translation provided for the former.

Three issues stood out.  First, despite the tendency to perceive AAPIs as unconcerned or unwilling to talk about race, the topic was addressed many times at the event.  This was unsurprising since the event was held to bring together a specific racial group.  Also unsurprising but nevertheless troubling was how race was talked about.  The rhetoric was consistent with most AAPI’s uneasiness dealing with racial hierarchies as well as Obama’s emphasis on being “NJB.” As described to me by one of my African American students at the University of Pennsylvania, some Black students there categorize other Black students as either “JB” or “NJB”: “just Black” or “not just Black,” with the latter being those who identify as African or Caribbean.

Such an approach to race was part of the sales pitch to AAPIs.  For example, at the event people could pick up a brochure targeted at AAPIs (complete with a cover picture of an Asian American man talking to Obama).  On the first page, above a photo of Obama sitting with Asian American school children, there is the following quote from Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope: “[I am] the child of a Black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half Indonesian. . . America’s genius has always been its ability to absorb newcomers, to forge a national identity out of the disparate lot that arrived on our shores.”

Obama’s half-sister Maya Soetoro, along with her husband Konrad Ng, was repeatedly referenced during the forum.  Indeed, they were not just mentioned, their ethnicities were cited.  We were reminded several times that Soetoro is Indonesian and that Ng is Chinese.  At one point, Dr. Chu said that if elected, Obama would be the first president to have Asian “blood” relatives.  At another point in the speeches, someone (and I forget who—my notes from the meeting are unclear on this matter), actually said that Obama would be the “first Asian president.”  What was revealed in these appeals was the belief that to win over the crowd, Obama had to be “NJB,” and more explicitly, had to be related (literally and figuratively) to Asian Americans “by blood.”  Whether this was an effective strategy among the people in the room was unclear but it was a noticeable effort nevertheless.

The second and related issue was the attention given to Obama’s Hawaiian roots.  At one point in his comments, Congressman Honda mentioned that Obama was a “native son of Hawaii” and had the appropriate “aloha” spirit to lead.  According to Congressman Honda, the “aloha” spirit is characterized by openness and is exemplified in Obama’s willingness to work with and listen to others.  Such comments are consistent with sound bites that Soetoro has given to newspapers.  For example, an AP story has Soetoro saying about her brother: “Hawaii is the place that gave him the ability to. . . understand people from a wide array of backgrounds. . . People see themselves in him. . . because he himself contains multitudes.”

Such depictions of Hawaii are disturbing for a few reasons.  First, while Asian Americans have a long history in Hawaii, that a Japanese-American congressman was able to claim Hawaii—to the point where he could determine who was a “native” son of the state—made me think of Native Hawaiians who don’t embrace Asians as fellow Hawaiians.  As some Native Hawaiian critics point out, Asian national interests and labor have contributed to the trajectory of Native Hawaiians, which is marked by high incarceration and poverty rates and territorial and political disempowerment.  Second, the notion that Hawaiians are an “open people” also reproduces sexualized racial fantasies of an open territory with happy natives warmly “receiving” outsiders—a perception that requires non-Hawaiians to imagine native Hawaiians as eager to provide visual, edible, and sexual pleasure to newcomers (think dancing, food, and sex here).  In other words, colonialism is rearticulated as amalgamation.

The third and final issue was how AAPI ”concerns” were defined.  Both in the brochures and speeches, AAPI issues were characterized as education, small business ownership, health care, and immigration.  Along with these points, the issue of racial profiling was listed, noticeably at the bottom of different materials.  The topic of immigration was discussed by many speakers.  Immigration was always referenced in relationship to family ties.  While the (not overwhelming) majority of AAPIs are foreign-born, unsurprisingly absent—at least for the hour that I was present—was how concerns regarding immigration may also be shaped by economic interests.  Some of the people in the room were either business owners in Chinatown or part of organizations that worked with and benefitted from companies in the neighborhood.  Given that many such businesses rely on immigrant labor, the issue of immigration reform is not simply driven by familial concerns (and this is not to say familial concerns are outside of the logic of capitalism).

Along with these three issues, the event had a few awkward moments.  One that stands out is Congressman Honda leading the crowd in singing “This little light of mine,” presumably prompted by the name of Reverend Dr. Robert P. Shine, a well known member of the Black clergy in Philadelphia, who had opened up the forum with a prayer.  Or at least this is what the politician said when he burst into song.  Looking at Dr. Shine, Congressman Honda said that he loved his name “Shine” because it reminded him of a tune. . . and so began the singing.

Obama’s ‘race speech’ as neoslave narrative

October 16, 2008 3 comments

Obama’s ‘race speech’ as neoslave narrative

By Tamara K. Nopper

October 15, 2008

This presentation was given at the panel “No country for old white men: A panel discussion on race and the election” sponsored by the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and held at the Temple University Law School on October 15, 2008.

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In a phone interview with Anna Deavere Smith and Thulani Davis, scholar, activist, and former political prisoner Angela Y. Davis remarks: “I was saying to my students just the other day that if in 1970, when I was in jail…I don’t think it would have been possible at that time to convince me that I would be absolutely opposed to a Black candidate.”  The specific candidate that Davis was referring to was Clarence Thomas and her comments would be published in the book based on the 1992 play Fires in the Mirror.  Referring to the spectacle of the 1991 Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, she concludes, “This is a very complicated situation, but I have no problems aligning myself politically against Clarence Thomas.  I am very passionate about that.  But at the same time, we have to think about the racism that made the Thomas-Hill hearings possible.”

Although both the ideological diversity among, and the unparalleled scrutiny of Black political figures is as old as Callie House’s struggle for ex-slave reparations, the relevance of Davis’s comment for the current presidential election is nevertheless striking.  It shows that we’ve been here before: the vexing situation of condemning the racist and sexist tactics overwhelmingly unleashed on Black candidates by a white court of public appeal while simultaneously attempting to raise criticisms about, and perhaps even absolute opposition to Black candidates.  And yet, this “here” is somewhat different because for the first time in U.S. history we may actually have, despite Toni Morrison’s quip about Bill Clinton, our first Black president.

The enthusiasm for a first Black president has made it difficult to publicly raise critical questions about Obama’s political investments without appearing unsympathetic to the grand legacy of Black striving and political mobilization and the very real concerns people have about the state of current affairs.  At the risk of appearing insensitive, I want to critically interrogate Obama’s famous “race speech” “A More Perfect Union.” Specifically, I want to briefly discuss how Obama’s speech is an example of a neoslave narrative and consider the political implications of his rhetoric.

Read more…

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