Getting the “Change We Need”

Issue: 126

Brian Richardson

Manning Marable, Beyond Black and White: Transforming AfricanAmerican Politics (Verso, 2009), £12.99

“Although it seems heaven-sent we ain’t ready to see a black President.” Tupac Shakur, the author of these lines, was one of the most iconic and outspoken representatives of what the black American historian and commentator Manning Marable characterises as the “hip hop generation”. The sense of political disenfranchisement felt by this generation was one of the key starting points for Marable’s 1995 book Beyond Black and White, which has now been republished in an updated edition. This anger exploded in a rage against racism on the streets of Los Angeles in 1992 when two police officers were acquitted of assaulting a black petty criminal, Rodney Glen King. This was despite the fact that the entire incident was captured on film and broadcast repeatedly across the world. The court’s verdict seemed to send a very clear message; a quarter of a century after the landmark achievements of the civil rights movement, black people could still be mistreated with impunity by those with power and authority.

This was the same year that Bill Clinton was elected to national office. The novelist Toni Morrison half jokingly suggested that he was America’s first black president. The basis for this would appear to have been Clinton’s apparent ease around black people. He was happy to be photographed blowing a saxophone, he had been brought up by a poor single mother and his gargantuan appetite included a fondness for the soul food of his southern upbringing. More importantly perhaps he also appointed a couple of black faces to his administration. Marable acidly records, however, that:

“Clinton’s greatest legacies towards the African American population were the 1995 Crime Act and the 1996 Welfare Act. They devastated the lives of millions of poor people. Between 1989 and 2001 the number of Americans behind bars more than doubled from one to two million. Under Clinton alone, the prison population soared by 700,000 in only eight years; nearly half of those inmates were black” (pxxvi).

In such circumstances it is little wonder that the hip hop generation looked for more radical solutions. Instead of electoral politics and integration within the system which had been the primary goals of the civil rights movement, there was a turn towards radical black separatist ideas including a renewed interest in the Nation of Islam (NoI) and in Malcolm X.

Marable’s antipathy towards the NoI’s leader Louis Farrakhan is indicated by the fact that he spends surprisingly little time discussing Farrakhan’s 1995 Million Man March on Washington, despite acknowledging that it was “the largest mass mobilisation of African-Americans in US history”. Farrakhan was arguably the only national black figure who could convene such a mobilisation. It should also be conceded that there was a genuine sense of brotherhood and camaraderie among the participants. It was noticeable, however, that by the time Farrakhan himself came to deliver his own lacklustre speech, many of the marchers had already drifted away from the Lincoln Memorial. Clearly the symbolism and sense of togetherness rather than the specific message of the march was what had attracted many demonstrators. Marable rightly suggests that there were very real problems with the “official” themes of the march. The exclusion of women was the most obvious shortcoming but in addition it was billed as a “Day of Atonement” as if the issues faced by African Americans stemmed from within the community itself.

The first edition of Beyond Black and White was also inspired by a parallel development that concerned Marable, namely the “uncertainty among African-American political elites”. He argues there was a lack of clarity about how to take the stalled progress of the civil rights era forward. This, in turn, had led to a sharp divergence in African-American communities. In stark contrast to the hip hop generation, a layer of middle class and aspirant blacks—lawyers, corporate executives, city administrators and others—did pursue electoral politics and sought representative office. However, Marable suggests, in so doing “they rhetorically offered a race-neutral language” which set them apart from their younger and less affluent brethren.

Marable himself has always been more than just a neutral observer. He is an activist who has sought to intervene and influence events. That first edition of Beyond Black and White, its title carefully chosen, was a contribution to that process. It captured his attempt to argue that African-Americans needed to forge new alliances to fight future battles. Thus a key chapter is entitled “Beyond Racial Identity Politics: Toward a Liberation Theory for Multicultural Democracy”. It advocates a radically different programme to the that of “race-neutral black officials” who “distanced themselves from traditional liberal constituencies such as unions, promoted gentrification and corporate investment in poor urban neighbourhoods, and favoured funding charter schools as an alternative to the failures of public school systems” (p301).

This revised edition includes an assessment of how, in Marable’s opinion, Hurricane Katrina highlighted the “racial chasm that continues to fracture the foundations of democratic life and a truly civil society in America”. He has also added a final chapter which assesses the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. Shakur’s wish had come true but sadly he never lived to see that day. Like too many of his contemporaries he ultimately focused his lyrical anger on rival rappers rather than the system he so despised. Consequently his life ended prematurely in a self-destructive blaze of bullets in 1996.

Barack Obama was one of those aspirant blacks who had emerged at the turn of the millennium. Marable notes, “All…proudly self-identified as African-Americans. But strategically, none of them pursue what could be called race-based politics.” The great merit of Obama’s campaign team was that they quickly realised that, while “most white Americans would never vote for a black presidential candidate, they were convinced that most whites would embrace, and vote for, a remarkable, qualified presidential candidate who happened to be black”(pp301-302). They were proved right, and so it was that Obama was elected to widespread acclaim and much astonishment on 4 November 2008.

One of the most poignant images of that momentous night was the sight of Jesse Jackson in tears among the crowd in Grant Park Chicago that greeted Obama when he came out to deliver his victory speech. Jackson was, of course, the man who had cradled Martin Luther King’s head as the civil rights leader lay dying in Memphis in April 1968. He subsequently appeared on television hours later wearing the same bloodstained sweater in a defiant gesture. And he it was who launched presidential campaigns of his own in 1984 and 1988. His presence among the jubilant throng therefore appeared to symbolise a passing of the baton to a new generation and a new phase of struggle.

A year after his inauguration Obama’s administration offers persuasive evidence of the maxim that, as Hillary Clinton put it, politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Obama’s presidential campaign was genuinely electrifying. He is clearly a charismatic public speaker who skilfully deployed the renowned call and response oratory of the black church to mobilise support. Today, however, the euphoric rallying cry of “Yes we can!” is somewhat muted. The hopes and expectations placed in the young senator have been severely dented as President Obama has reneged on a number of campaign pledges.

It is widely accepted that the economic collapse at the end of George W Bush’s second term was the decisive factor in the election. Having taken office on the strength of voters’ anger, Obama’s primary response has been to continue Bush’s $700 billon rescue package, the Troubled Asset Relief Programme, which has simply rehabilitated the thieves who brought Wall Street to its knees in the first place. A belated attempt to rein these bankers in was launched in the aftermath of the disastrous loss of the late Ted Kennedy’s previously rock solid Senate seat in Massachusetts. Elsewhere Obama has failed to close Guantanamo Bay and ordered a troop “surge” in Afghanistan. Meanwhile environmental activists will have been demoralised by the lukewarm pledges made at the Copenhagen climate change summit.

What little has been achieved has been heavily diluted in the search for bipartisan consensus. For example, healthcare reform was a central plank of his legislative programme. As he reached his first anniversary it was becoming increasingly clear however that Obama’s proposals would not survive in their original form.

To be fair to Obama, as a rookie politician he was refreshingly candid about the limitations of elected office. After his election to the Senate in 2004, he acknowledged:

“I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.”1

What was true of him as a senator is surely multiplied as the head of state. Moreover, Marable says of his presidential campaign that Obama “never claimed to be an ideologue of the left. He promised a post-partisan government and a leadership style that incorporated the views of conservatives and liberals alike. This political pragmatism…is a rejection of radical change, in favour of incremental reform” (p309).

Obama’s honesty notwithstanding, there is an obvious conclusion to be drawn from this. We should take him at his word and accept that, whatever his intentions, he alone will not deliver the “Change We Need”, to borrow another of his campaign phrases. Within minutes of his election victory he himself sent a message to hundreds of thousands of his supporters encouraging them to stay on board as the tough work of rebuilding the USA began. The key question is whether this involvement is simply as cheerleaders and salespeople for Obama’s agenda or as more active advisors, critics and—where necessary—opponents.

Marable’s prescription is clear, concise and eloquent:”A new anti-racist leadership must be constructed to the left of the Obama government that draws upon representatives of the most oppressed and marginalised social groups within our communities… Change must occur not from the top down, as some Obama proponents would have it, but from the bottom up.” He concludes that: “for millions of minorities, race and class inequality continue to define their lives, and only collective resistance will lead to their empowerment” (p310).


1: Obama, Barack, 2008, The Audacity of Hope (Canongate), p11.