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With The Obama Presidency. . .Has the “Dream” Been Realized?

by Revolution Newspaper (revolution.sfbureau [at]
Many people celebrated Obama’s inauguration as a great step in the realization of “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.” Many of those who oppose the oppression of Black people, deep in their heart and their guts, see his presidency as paving the way to the day when Black people can fully participate in society as equals. Some say the election is a big step in changing the hearts and minds of white people so that they will see Black people as people, as human beings. Others, meanwhile, go so far as to claim that the election proves that America now only judges people not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (to quote King’s “I Have a Dream” speech)...and that any more talk about oppression is “just an excuse.”

And all those celebrating—including, of course, Obama himself—claim this shows the superiority of the American Constitution. King himself cast his dream as a dream that America “live out the true meaning of its creed” as spelled out in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

So, does Obama’s election signal a major step toward realizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream? We’re going to analyze that. And to really get into that, we are going to have to raise a further question: is the dream that King laid out 45 years ago one that can lead to emancipation? Or is it in fact a snare, or worse—one that people should reject, and take up something -different?
The American Nightmare

First, let’s get into the circumstances that led into the Civil Rights Movement and then the Black Liberation struggle. Not so long ago, this country denied even the most basic rights to Black people. In the South, Black people were not allowed to vote—and in many cases were murdered for the mere act of attempting to register. They were not even allowed to drink from water fountains that white people used, or to eat at the same lunch counters. And all this was backed up by law—and not only by the notorious “cracker sheriffs” and racist cops, but by the Supreme Court itself! When “legal violence” was not enough, there were lynch mobs—South and, yes, North—that would drag people from their homes and gleefully and shamelessly hang and burn them. In the North, gangs and mobs of “decent citizens” would drive out any Black person who dared to buy a home in the “wrong neighborhood” or even go to a “white” park or swimming pool. The fabled “New Deal” of Franklin D. Roosevelt—now invoked by many as someone that Obama should emulate—reinforced that structure of white supremacy, all over the country.1

People, especially and overwhelmingly Black people, always fought this. But in the ’50s and ’60s, this never-ending battle was able to blossom into tumultuous and heroic upsurges of struggle on the part of the Black masses. People faced down fire hoses, dogs and police batons, as well as Klan terror and the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of people. They were determined to be free, to “not be turned around.” This came at a time of great international challenges to the U.S. system and of major economic changes, especially in the South; and as a result of all that coming together, basic rights were won.

Black people now have the right to vote. It is no longer illegal for Black people to go to the same schools as whites. In all parts of the country, some employment and educational opportunities opened up, and some Black people obtained better paying factory jobs and entered colleges in much greater numbers. Today, there are more Black professionals, educators, scientists and academics than ever before, and the number of Black elected officials has grown dramatically. And Barack Obama has been sworn in as President.

In other words, the system was forced to allow a section of Black people to “move on up.” This is what people point to when people say that Obama caps the realization of the dream. But let’s look a little closer.

Despite the battles of the ’60s, the workings of this system—and the conscious policy of those who run the system—has actually made things worse for many millions of Black people over the past few decades. Today, millions of Black people still exist on the bottom of society...scraping by on low paying jobs if they can get work at all. In New York City alone, the unemployment rate for Black men is 48%. And Black president or no Black president, who do you really think is going to be hit hardest by the terrible wave of joblessness that has only just begun?

Or take housing. Laws were passed to make discrimination a crime—yet still we see Black people crowded into ghettos (or else dispersed into far-flung but still segregated “enclaves” when their ghettos suddenly become “attractive real estate”). Take health care. The infant mortality rate for Black children is almost 2 1/2 times the infant mortality rate for whites; life expectancy for African American men is 6.3 years lower than that of white men; and report after report documents inferior medical care even when Black people are covered by insurance (and one-third of Black adults were uninsured at some point in 2005, while 20% of working age whites had no insurance coverage during the same period).2 Take segregation. Segregation in the city schools is as intense as it was 40 years ago; and the gap between the school funding in the mainly white suburbs and the mainly Black cities has continued to widen.

And then there is the criminalization of several generations, now, of Black youth. Rather than find jobs for Black youth, the system actually de-industrialized the cities. Factories were moved out, either to suburbs or else overseas. The drug trade was allowed to flourish—and then used in turn to drive Black youth into the prison system and to promote the reactionary models of “pimp” and “thug.” At the time of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, which brought Martin Luther King to national attention, the number of African-American prisoners stood at less than 90,000. Today? Over 900,000—and still climbing. In other words, more than ten times as many. The lynch mob was replaced by the police—and for any who think that we are in post-racial America, note well the cases of Oscar Grant, Adolph Grimes, and Robbie Tolan—outrageous cases of police murder and brutality that went down in the first days of 2009.

Even for that not insubstantial number of Black people who did get a little bit ahead, oppression has not ceased. There is still the reality of “driving while Black”—and the chance that every African-American takes of being killed in any encounter with police. There is the reality of discrimination in employment, in housing, in credit. And there is the fact that the majority of children of Black middle class people are today downwardly mobile.3

A dream come true? Today, for millions, the words of Malcolm X much more accurately describe the reality faced by the masses: “I don’t see any American dream, I see an American nightmare.”

A Deeper Question

Here an even deeper question must be asked. Can the dream put forth by King actually end the oppression of Black -people?

Let’s start where King did—with the U.S. Constitution. At the heart of the Constitution is the protection of property rights. As its main author, James Madison, put it: “Government is instituted no less for the protection of the property, than of the persons of individuals.” When Madison speaks of the right of property, he is speaking first and foremost of protecting the right of capitalist property, which means the right of the capitalist to put that capital to work to make a profit. That profit comes from—and can only come from—hiring other people to work for him, and keeping the value of anything that the workers produce above and beyond what they need to keep going.

Thus, on the surface, it appears to be an equal exchange—the capitalist pays wages, the worker gives over her ability to work in exchange for that. But in fact, this “equal exchange” can only happen on the basis of profound inequality. The capitalist owns the means to produce and the worker owns nothing, and must find someone to hire her. Even if she can get work, the very ways in which her labor results in ever greater wealth for the capitalist and mere survival for herself reproduces and reinforces that inequality.

This is the reality: bitter exploitation, leading to ever-deepening inequality and spirit-killing oppression, masked by the appearance of equality. This contradiction between appearance and essence—between the fine-sounding words and where the words really lead—finds expression in every sphere of society. Equality before the law becomes the justice we see when big capitalists hire batteries of lawyers to enable them to stick a toxic dump in a poor neighborhood; while the masses in that neighborhood, if they even know about it, may have the “equal right” to the legal representation by poorly staffed, beleaguered public defenders. The supposed equal right to a good education, or to health care, resolves into radically different quality of education and health care according to real-world wealth and resources. So long as there is exploiter and exploited... so long as capital and its restless drive for profit dominate all of society... this will be the only equality that people get. This is in fact the crushingly narrow limits of the equality that is promised in—and realizable on the basis of—the Constitution.

But this is still not the whole picture. The original Constitution of course did not just protect capitalist property; it also protected the right of the slave owners to own and exploit their human property. And far from the ideal taught in the schools, capitalism did not arise on the basis of some people just working harder, sacrificing more and using their ingenuity to build up their capital. Capitalism arose first in Europe on the basis of violently separating the producers from any means of production, as people were forcibly driven from their land and into the cities to work hour after hour in factories to survive. On the world level it arose, as Marx said, on the basis of “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, [and] the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins.” (Karl Marx, Capital)

In other words, capitalism does not even fully uproot other forms of exploitation, which exist as outright, admitted inequality; it clears the ground of just enough for its own expansion, and then incorporates and even deepens these other forms. It did this with slavery in the American South for 250 years, and it continues this with outright slavery in other parts of the world today.4 This has been a vital part of how capitalist America has grown and attained its global economic, political and military position as a world power.

The reality is this: you cannot talk about the rise of capital, especially in the U.S., without talking about the oppression and exploitation of Black people. Slavery not only enriched the southern slave owners, it was essential to the expansion and development of manufacturing and trade in the North. By the time slavery was ended, the blood of Black people, as a people, had already been poured into the very foundations of American wealth; and their oppression had been deeply knit into the very fabric of American society and the psyche of the people. In discussing the central importance of slavery to the growth of the U.S., Bob Avakian has made the point that, “There would be no United States as we now know it today without slavery. That is a simple and basic truth.”5

Two Bitter Betrayals

With the Civil War—which came about due to a conflict between the capitalist North and the slave-holding South over the ability of capital to further expand—slavery was abolished. One-third of African Americans who fought in the Union Army lost their lives in the war, a percentage far higher than that for white soldiers. At that moment, a choice was posed to the victors in the North: to fully integrate the former slaves into society, giving them land and political rights (including the right to suppress those who would attack them).

But in fact, the rulers of the system refused to do that. They denied equality to the former slaves. Instead, they put into place a system little better than slavery. Former slaves were exploited as sharecroppers, chained to the land and forced to labor in brutally oppressive conditions. Vicious Jim Crow segregation ruled in every aspect of life—and was deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. And all this was backed up and enforced by the terror of the Klan as the dark cloud of the racist mob knocking on the door and being dragged out and lynched hung over every Black person in the South.

Why did they not at that point grant equality to Black people, instead of installing this horrible, anti-human system? Because such equality would have required even further tearing up the social fabric, precisely in order to re-weave it on a more just basis. And, in the view of the northern capitalists, that would have been too disruptive and would have cut against what these capitalists saw as their need to consolidate their rule and expand westward—that is, to complete their genocide against the Native American Indians and fully rob them of their lands.

Indeed, this exact same logic came into play at the end of the 1960s when, as we have described, tumultuous social upheaval again presented the rulers of the system with a choice—and the rulers chose to concede some rights to some people, while chaining many more into conditions that were the same or even worse. As Bob Avakian has written, “The question was sharply, directly, and decisively posed: will the system give everybody equal rights? And the system answered NO! It was not simply a matter that the ruling class would not do this, but more profoundly it was the fact that they could not. They could not because it would have torn up their whole system, it would have undermined their whole economic base and their whole superstructure to do this.”6
What It Really Means To “Be an American”

Throughout this whole history, the ideology of white supremacy and racism has played a central role in justifying this. This racist, white supremacist mentality is part of the “social glue” that holds U.S. society together. What do we mean by “social glue”? The sense of what it means to be a full member of society—an American—in this country. Beginning with slavery, the slaves—along with Native American Indians—were deemed to be social pariahs or outcasts, and not deserving of the “natural rights” due to all white men. The white population was led to identify their interests as members of the master class (whether they owned slaves or not). And then, this same mentality was promoted in different forms after slavery as white people defined themselves as “white Americans”—in violent opposition to Black people—and with a set of privileges, expectations and entitlements to go with that.

The ideas may have gone through some changes, but the essential mind set has not. Today the demonization of the youth, and the Black masses more generally, as “criminals beyond redemption” and a “danger to the values of society”—themes which Obama has openly and shamelessly given voice to—have become a integral part of the social glue. This master class mentality has not only justified horrific crimes committed against Black people for hundreds of years, but has been a major ideological pillar rooted in and reinforcing this whole setup and what it means to be an American. And the master class mentality—the sense that by virtue of being white and being American you are entitled to certain privileges and justified in violently defending those privileges—has found expression in other crimes as well: the war against, and robbery of Mexico; the genocide carried out against Native Americans; the colonization and neo-colonization of Latin America and Philippines; and then the entire century of wars for empire carried out, and still being carried out, by the U.S.

Nobody with any sense of humanity or decency should want to be part of that. Everybody with any humanity and decency should strive to STOP thinking like an American and start thinking about humanity.

Getting In On the System vs. Getting Rid of It

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “The American racial revolution has been a revolution to ‘get in’ rather than to overthrow. We want a share in the American economy, the housing market, the educational system and the social opportunities. This goal itself indicates that a social change in America must be non-violent.”7

Barack Obama is indeed the inheritor of this distinctly American dream—and that path. He has risen through the ranks to become the Chief Executive and Commander in Chief of the U.S. And he has pledged to serve the interests of this country—as concentrated in the Constitution whose promise is a framework and vehicle for exploitation and fundamental inequality.

King, of course, insisted that people be non-violent in pursuing justice. But even while he came, very late in the game, to oppose the horrific and genocidal U.S. war against Vietnam, he never questioned the basic “right” of the U.S. government to “be violent”—that is, to command the most horrific and massive means of violence ever seen—and to use that as it saw fit, to back up this system and to maintain the status quo. King never came to grips with—or at least never followed to its logical conclusion—the fact that all the injustice, all the oppression, all the exploitation in the world is backed up and enforced by guns. And that in today’s world, the vast majority of that exploitation is carried out by America and enforced by American guns.

And let’s put it plain: “the share in the American economy” that King demanded is nothing less than a share in American plunder. This plunder is carried out in every corner of the world—and it is ensuring the ability to continue that plunder that keeps American troops based in every part of the world. Families in Iraq having their doors kicked in and being murdered by U.S. troops...the torture going on at the U.S.-run Bagram prison in Afghanistan and the wholesale killing of civilians by American helicopters in that country, where Obama says he will send 30,000 more troops...the CIA “predator drone” that, once again, kills civilians in Pakistan—all this and more is what guarantees the so-called American economy. What kind of a dream is that?

In reality, King actually called for U.S. troops to be sent to Detroit to suppress Black people who rose up in revolt there in 1967. Those troops then carried out massacres—as anyone who knows anything about America and its army could have easily predicted. King actually said “if blood must be spilled, let it be our blood”—and the U.S. government was only too happy to oblige.

Where Obama differs from King is that Obama openly brags that he has the “right temperament,” as he put it, to command that huge apparatus of oppression. To use that machinery of violence against any who would oppose America.

In that very real sense, Obama has realized King’s dream. No, not the aspiration that most people associate with it—the idea of an end to the oppression of Black people. As we have seen, that oppression is in many ways more intense. But the reality of where the limits of King’s dream must lead, and actually did lead, even in his lifetime: to the reinforcement of a fundamentally unjust system.

In other words, we have seen where this dream leads, and must lead, in the real world. We should and we must come to terms with that, and reject it.

A Dream of Real Emancipation

But there is a dream we should dream. And there is a way forward to achieve this dream. We need a revolution. A revolution which breaks free of and tears apart the whole framework of exploitation and oppression. One which establishes a new revolutionary state power which aims to uproot and abolish all the exploitative and oppressive relations, including inequality and the oppression of nations and whole peoples...and all the ugly ways of thinking that go along with these relations, including racism and the ideology of white supremacy.

We have published many things on the kind of society that could accomplish that—both in the works of Bob Avakian8 and in our paper, every week. We have spoken in particular of how this revolution would and could uproot the oppression of Black people, as part of emancipating all of humanity, in Bob Avakian’s Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy, and our special issue The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System, and The Revolution We Need. And we will speak more on this in the weeks, months and years to come. Right now, however, we urge you to go on-line to check these out, or to visit our bookstores to get your hands on these, or to write to us for them.

The point we wish to close with is this:

These are times of serious crisis for this system and there is upheaval ahead. The very fact that the racist rulers of this system saw the need to put a Black man at the head of it speaks to how serious that is, and how much they see the need to contain and (mis-)direct such upheaval. Make no mistake: this upheaval could result in the remaking of society in ways that will pile more horror upon the horror that is already daily life for billions. Or, if there is a growing revolutionary movement and growing resistance, it could open the way for and set different terms—and potentially set the stage to wrench a whole better future out of it.

The change Black people—and all people—need can only come by doing away with this system which forces people into desperate conditions and gives them dead end choices. And yes, the people themselves do need to change and do need to take responsibility. But people are only going to change themselves in a positive way by confronting the actual source of the problem and radically changing themselves as they change and revolutionize their conditions. This will only happen based on fighting the system that enforces this, with an aim and goal of getting rid of that system—and NOT by “working within it.”
Related Categories: U.S. | Racial Justice
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