Much of what passes for the Left, and for traditional African American leadership, agreed with the New York Times’ assessment that Barack Obama’s second inaugural address represented a firm embrace of “a progressive agenda centered on equality and opportunity.” Significantly, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell echoed the sentiment: ”The era of liberalism is back…the speech certainly brings back memories of the Democratic Party in ages past.”
It is in the mutual interest of corporate media and rightwing Republicans to move the bar of “progressive” politics ever rightward. However, for African Americans and white progressives, it amounts to erasing their own political legacies from history.
If we look at the last two Democratic presidents (you know, the ones who have held office since the start of the Reagan Revolution) we essentially see two mid-20th century conservatives. The “bar of ‘progressive’ politics” has indeed moved “ever rightward.”
Can we imagine Lyndon Johnson, on the eve of the 1964 election, ending “welfare as we know it” like Clinton did in 1996? Instead, LBJ laid the full Johnson Treatment on Congress to get them to pass the first meaningful civil rights law since the Reconstruction Era. Clinton tacked to the right because he knew that was where the votes were. LBJ tacked to the left even though he knew it would cost him the “solid south” that helped deliver the White House to every Democratic president since Andrew Jackson, which is to say every Democratic president ever.
In contrast, how have black Americans fared under the first Obama Administration?
“An economic recovery has begun,” said Obama. Not for Blacks, whose official 14 percent unemployment rate is more than twice that of whites (6.9 percent), and whose median household wealth has fallen to one-twentieth that of white families – a catastrophe of historical proportions.
It took the Old Democratic policies of LBJ to help foster the growth of a black middle class. It took the New Democrat policies of Barack Obama to destroy it.
Yet Obama does have something in common with LBJ: the ability to skirt Congressional oversight to pursue long, bloody wars:
According to his unique doctrine, the U.S. cannot be in a state of war, or even “hostilities” with another people or country, unless Americans are killed in the process. Thus, Obama refused to report to the U.S. Congress under the War Powers Act following eight months of bombardment of Libya, claiming no state of war had existed since no Americans had died. By this logic, the U.S. is empowered to bomb anyone, anywhere on the planet at will, without the constraints of national or international law, as long as care is taken to protect the lives of U.S. personnel.
We are still fighting Vietnam. The only difference is that the modern-day version of Vietnam is diffused across the globe in a bunch of limited wars rather than being concentrated in one massive conflict.
Ford goes on to describe a litany of regressive Obama policies. In Obama’s defense, he did promise “change” back in 2008 and delivered in spades. Obama served the same purpose as Clinton in that they both solidified and extended the gains of the Reagan Revolution. No Republican could have ever destroyed welfare and get rewarded for it the way Clinton did. No Republican could have ever seriously put Medicaid or Social Security on the bargaining table the way Obama did and still save face.
The New Democrats are handmaidens of the Reagan Revolution.
Obama has earned one truly progressive stripe according to Ford:
It is true: Obama is the most gay-friendly president to date. I don’t think U.S. imperialism and Wall Street hegemons have a fundamental problem with that, either
Apparently, being gay-friendly is all it takes to be considered a champion of a “progressive agenda” in 2013.
I am all for the rights of gay people to get married, to be free from employment discrimination, to be protected from hate crime (and from Mitt Romney), to join the military and to generally have access to the same opportunities and respect as anyone else. However, as Ford points out here, it seems as if that is all one has to do in this day and age to earn the “progressive” label. This is dangerous because, as Ford again points out, it merely tinkers around the edges of progress without addressing the fundamental problems within our society that make all types of inequality possible.
The political climate of 2013 is conservative at its core with a progressive husk. The core has names like Reagan, Bush, Gingrich and Buchanan. The husk has names like Clinton, Obama, Schumer and Cuomo.
One thing that Ford did not mention in his otherwise brilliant analysis is Obama’s education policy. It is ironic (or is it tragic?) that our first black president gave his inaugural speech on Martin Luther King Day 50 years after that great man stood on the very same spot and exclaimed I Have A Dream and yet did not once mention education in any meaningful way nor address the resegregation of our school system at all.
Resegregation predates the first Obama Administration. It is one of the many vicious outgrowths of the Reagan Revolution. Yet, Obama has faithfully played his New Democrat role by solidifying and exacerbating this regression. He has done this by pushing the very same education policies that originated in right-wing think tanks. He has pushed them further than any other president before him.
The most recent nationwide study on the issue of resegregation was done by the Civil Rights Project whose findings were a scathing indictment of Obama’s Race to the Top initiative:
In spite of declining residential segregation for black families and large-scale movement to the suburbs in most parts of the country, school segregation remains very high for black students. It is also double segregation by both race and poverty. Nationwide, the typical black student is now in a school where almost two out of every three classmates (64%) are low-income, nearly double the level in schools of the typical white or Asian student (37% and 39%, respectively). New York, Illinois, and Michigan consistently top the list of the most segregated states for black students. Among the states with significant black enrollments, blacks are least likely to attend intensely segregated schools in Washington, Nebraska, and Kansas…..
The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration, has taken no significant action to increase school integration or to help stabilize diverse schools as racial change occurs in urban and suburban housing markets and schools. Small positive steps in civil rights enforcement have been undermined by the Obama Administration’s strong pressure on states to expand charter schools – the most segregated sector of schools for black students. Though segregation is powerfully related to many dimensions of unequal education, neither candidate has discussed it in the current presidential race.
These findings should be alarming to anyone who considers themselves a friend of justice and democracy. Yet Obama has never acknowledged these disturbing trends. Not even standing on the spot where Dr. King articulated his vision for a truly inclusive society 50 years ago inspired our president to at least grant it a passing mention. It is safe to say then that Obama has no intention of ever mentioning it.
The type of school segregation that exists now is more insidious, more dangerous, more sinister than the type of segregation that defined the Jim Crow era. Jim Crow segregation was implemented and supported by traditional snarling racists who firmly believed the black race was inferior and should be treated as such. Today people like Orval Faubus, George Wallace and Bull Connor are seen as almost pitiable creatures because they ignorantly and hatefully clung to Jim Crow when it was clear the rest of the country would stand for it no longer. Those segregationists of yesteryear made no bones about who they were and what they believed. It was easy to spot them and fight them head-on.
The segregationists of today perversely wrap themselves in the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement to push for policies that have turned back the civil rights clock five decades. They smile, they bite their lower lip, they bemoan the “achievement gap” and speak of expanding opportunity. They are not the easily identifiable snarling white racists of the 20th century. Not only are they not snarling, many of them are not even white. President Obama and Al Sharpton (who would like to claim Martin Luther King’s mantle) lend their legitimacy, influence and skin color to education “reform” programs that have led to the hyper-segregation of today. As the Civil Rights Project study points out, it is a segregation of both race and class. It is a double-betrayal of everything for which Martin Luther King stood.
It is hard to accuse reformers of racism when the most prominent black leaders in the country have signed on to their programs. It is hard to make people believe that reformers who only wish to “close the achievement gap” are elitists of a very similar stripe to Orval Faubus, probably even sharing some of his condescending racial views. It is hard to accuse people who brandish their “liberal” credentials at every turn of being some of the most retrograde entities in the nation today.
And yet the damage done by both the snarling racists of the 20th century and the darling racists of the 21st century is essentially the same. Segregation has been making its comeback with a vengeance. Minorities are mired in poverty now to a degree not seen since the pre-Reagan era. The type of education provided by the charter schools so highly esteemed by today’s darling racists betray a white paternalism that reminds one of slavery.
For charter schools only seem to be necessary in poor and/or minority neighborhoods. Much like the segregated black schools in the south during Jim Crow, teachers at these charters get paid a fraction of what other teachers pull in. These teachers have been trained to believe that they are doing charity work. Their job seems not so much to educate or enlighten or challenge as it is to civilize. The most important lessons for their students seem to involve sitting quietly, walking in straight lines and deferring to the enlightened wisdom of their elders. Instead of requiring their students to take stock of the world around them, charters prepare their children to be taken stock of by a ruling class that demands unquestioning obedience. One can’t help but be reminded of some of the more clever justifications for slavery in the antebellum era. Back then it was argued that the African race benefited from slavery since it “taught” them habits of industriousness, obedience, honesty and, of course, Christianity. Much like charter schools, slave owners believed a little corporal punishment was necessary from time to time to instill these good morals.
At the head of it all is the nation’s first black president. A brilliant man to be sure but a man whose moral compass points due opposite of Martin Luther King’s. The fact that he stood on the same spot 50 years after King’s I Have A Dream speech, the one speech in American history that repudiated the worst injustices this nation has ever visited on its most vulnerable people, is one of the most sinister ironies I have ever witnessed.
Rather than a tribute to what the great Reverend stood for Obama’s Second Inaugural Speech, a speech which failed to even acknowledge the erosion of many gains of the Civil Rights Movement, let alone the president’s role in it, was a mockery.
The fact that Obama couched his rhetoric in progressive platitudes was tantamount to whistling through the graveyard, a graveyard that expands with the help of the president himself. As the graveyard continues to expand over the next four years, we should expect the whistling to get progressively louder.