Yes We Can

November 7, 2008

Not sure who wrote this message below, but I found it on an anti-racist activist list. It matches a lot of my own thoughts, so I’m posting it in full.

Yes, We Can and No, He Can’t:

Why I Cannot Rejoice at Obama’s Victory

Words can scarcely express the way it feels to see an African-American elected President. For a member of a group that has been marginalized and oppressed throughout the entire history of this country to suddenly emerge in its highest office is a powerful image, one that reverberates with waves of emotion. It is a feeling of awe, of deliverance, and of triumph. Today, those who voted for this man — many themselves members of disenfranchised minorities — are feeling something else as well: the feeling of being powerful, a feeling being experienced by many of them for the first time in their lives.

At the same time, people of color, students, workers, immigrants, and others whose votes proved decisive in this election, comprise the majority of this country’s population. Among them, most perform functions without which the infrastructure of the United States would undergo immediate and total collapse. There is not a force in this country, nor in the world, that could stop them from achieving their objectives were they to band together. This is real power, and it is power that exists with or without Barack Obama.

There is a reason that the essential message of the Obama campaign has resonated with this electorate unlike any other. This message — that it is the struggling masses, rather than the self-appointed elites of this country, who bear the ultimate control over its destiny – rings true. But for too long, this control has been willingly surrendered.

Barack Obama wants the masses to feel powerful, to feel that our voices are heard and acted upon. But he wants us to place our ultimate faith not in ourselves, but in the institutions of the state, the very institutions that have brought us more than two centuries of war, exploitation, bigotry, colonialism, and an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. Doing so would allow our hopes and dreams for a brighter future to be blunted, deflected, and diverted through channels that reduce their potential threat to the established order to the barest minimum.

The election of Barack Obama will not stop the next innocent black man from being gunned down by police in cold blood. It will not make it more likely that a black man will go to college than to prison. It will not put an end to wars of economic conquest. It will not stop the wealthy CEOs responsible for the country’s financial collapse from being rewarded for their recklessness while the rest of us bear the tragic consequences. These phenomena are caused by the very structure, by the very foundations of American power itself. These are forces that Barack Obama is powerless to stop.

Throughout history, elites have sought to mute resistance and dissent by ruling subject populations through proxies drawn from their own ranks. These have included the caciques of colonial Latin America, the maharajas and nawabs of the British Raj in India, and arguably, the current government of Iraq. Such proxy rulers, while frequently motivated by power and material gain, have sometimes acted, as they have seen it, in furtherance of a different agenda: a genuine desire to improve the lives of their constituents by assuming limited control over the mechanisms of their own oppression. That such motivations did occasionally exist is illustrated by the example of Tupac Amaru II, an Incan cacique of colonial Peru who abandoned the trappings of limited rule as a proxy of the Spanish governor to ignite a massive indigenous uprising in 1780, ultimately paying with his life.

While the true motivations of Barack Obama may never be known with certainty, his impact upon the popular imagination, and in turn, upon social movements guided by that imagination, is obvious. The overwhelming majority of progressive-minded individuals and organizations in the United States, whose ranks had been swelled and momentum profoundly enhanced by eight years of repressive rule by the increasingly unpopular George W. Bush, have granted their unqualified support to Obama. This unprecedented level of emotional investment in presidential politics on the part of progressives has come at the expense of a declining interest in other programs of the left, such as activism in opposition to the Iraq war. Under the Obama administration, there is a very real danger that the proactive efforts of social justice movements to bring about real and lasting change – the kind that governments cannot and will not deliver – will all but grind to a halt.

Further, while the election of the first African-American to the presidency will undoubtedly bolster the self-esteem of people of color, consistently eroded by four centuries of oppression, this benefit comes at the risk of reinforcing the dangerous myth of an American meritocracy. The vast disparities of income, of access to essential services, and indeed, of access to the means to achieve social mobility, remain firmly in place. Obama’s election will even be used by some to argue that race has ceased to be an issue in this country, throwing up new barriers to the civil rights movement that is every bit as necessary today as it was in the 1960s.

Among the factors paving the way for Obama’s meteoric rise were the deep psychological need for most Americans to elect a candidate as nearly opposite George W. Bush as possible, and the fact that John McCain clearly represented a continuation of the same disastrous policies. Scholars will debate the exact combination of deciding factors for years to come, but most will agree that this was the first election in American history in which there was even a remote possibility that a black man could win the presidency.

Notably, much of Obama’s support has come from affluent whites. With a nation clamoring for change with increasing fervor, ruling class elites have found their dominance serious threatened for the first time since the 1960s. The old order could not ensure its long-term survival without presenting the public with the appearance of change. The more dramatic this apparent change, the more dissent would be quelled and the teeming masses pacified. The more new and different a face the ruling elite could present to the world, the more the energy of its opposition could be redirected through channels that leave the fundamental structures of an unjust system wholly intact. Utilization of such state-sanctioned avenues for voicing dissent results in mere token reforms which deceive the masses with the illusion of genuine progress. At this unique historical moment, nothing could better serve the long-term interests of the white ruling class elite than the election of a black man to the presidency. Willingly or not, Barack Obama has become the new face of the very system he claims to oppose.

For countless African-Americans, to see Obama elected is to possess, for the first time, the feeling that their country’s chief executive — despite being, like most other candidates past and present, an Ivy League-educated millionaire — can actually relate to their unique experience as a constituency that arrived here in chains, and for whom, four centuries later, true equality remains elusive. There is an underlying assumption that this shared experience will play a major role in the President’s forthcoming policy decisions, that as a black man, he would do everything in his power to finally end the ongoing systematic oppression of other African-Americans. For many of his non-black supporters, the implication is similar: that as a man who, by virtue of his skin color, is personally subject to the most longstanding and pervasive form of bigotry in this country, he will be inclined to not only seek justice for his own, but for all the marginalized people of the country. Supporters of all races likewise tend to assume that this benevolence will extend to the foreign sphere, despite many sharp indicators to the contrary. There will be no administration in American history of which progressives will be more forgiving.

As Condoleeza Rice demonstrated by publicly shopping for thousand-dollar-plus shoes while bodies were still floating in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a shared experience is no guarantee of solidarity. Like Tupac Amaru II, we must recognize that no form of participation in a system that is explicitly designed to perpetuate social, political, and economic inequality can ever be an instrument for meaningful change. These institutions cannot be reformed from without or from within; they can only be constructed anew, with justice, equality, and direct democracy as their cornerstones. It was only a mass civil rights movement that opened the doors to the limited penetration of African-Americans into the ruling class and institutions of power in this country, and it will require another mass movement, even more powerful than the last, to fundamentally alter the dynamics of power for the betterment of all people.

Barack Obama is not the embodiment of our hopes and dreams. He is a man who, irrespective of his intentions, will serve only to present the same injustices to the world, at home and abroad, with a smiling new face. We cannot allow our new President and his administration, nor any other, to serve as the vehicle for our pursuit of justice, regardless of what breadcrumbs of justice they may deliver to us. We must not allow our righteous anger to be diverted through channels that leave the institutions of our oppression intact, and those who profit from it unaccountable. We must not relent in our struggle.

Barack Obama is right about one thing: Yes, we can. We can change this country, and we can change this world. This change will not be ushered in through the ballot box, and it will not come from superimposing a new face on the old order. It is time to stop celebrating, and start organizing. Barack Obama will not bring change for us; we must bring it for ourselves. Yes, we can.

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