Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The question Obama sidestepped

Unless one is amused by Washington theatrics, there were few reasons to watch the State of the Union address last night. No one thinks for a minute that the Republican Congress will pause from its baby-eating program to cooperate with a president that they have largely neutralized with their program of massive resistance to anything he proposes, suggests or even thinks.

“Massive resistance” was the term Virginia Senator Harry Byrd introduced into the national lexicon in response to the 1954 Brown decision by the Supreme Court outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Byrd called for the white overclass in the South to dig in its collective heels and defend the Jim Crow system by any and all means; the strategy was unapologetic, sometimes violent and quite effective. Even as the overt racism of the times slowly weakened and was discredited in its crudest forms, the mobilization of the white population to resist integration arguably succeeded. While blacks and whites in the South now mingle in lunch counters and universities, in many meaningful aspects their lives unfold in very separate spheres.

The film Selma shows something of the coalition that gradually pushed back against “massive resistance”: a mass movement of persons ready to face state-sanctioned violence, expert leadership both at the grass roots and recognizable icons, determined allies in the federal government. What is particularly compelling about the movie is that is shows us without explicitly stating it that blacks’ steady organizing and willingness to risk their lives gave the leaders and the politicians an arena in which to act. Without the patient groundwork of the SNCC organizers, who come off in the movie as somewhat unreasonable hotheads, the Selma march could not have taken place.

Obama knew, or should have known, that he was facing a new round of “massive resistance”—his enemies announced it from the rooftops. Joe Wilson’s shout of “You lie!” at an earlier State of the Union address merely flagged it symbolically for all to see. (I often wonder what would have happened if Obama had called him out on the spot, told him off and reminded him that he had won the election and thus spoke for the people.)

That’s the question Obama has never chosen to address: what should his approach have been given that the white people’s party had no intention of giving him an inch. Like the southern segregationists thumbing their noses at the highest court of the land, the GOP used Obama’s electoral mandate as toilet paper. They were so determined to see him fail that the country’s failures domestically and overseas continued to be a source of sniggering delight.

But for the president, none of this is happening. He’s like the patient alcoholic’s wife who calls in to the office to say her husband slipped on the ice or has a nasty cold instead of admitting that he’s hung over. It’s remarkable to sit and listen to the guy pretending to direct the country’s affairs while staring at a roomful of white men (and a few of their horrible women) determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The 1950s and 1960s were a prosperous time in the United States, and the role of economic opportunity and spreading wealth in the post-war period in the burgeoning civil rights movement is largely unexplored. Black Americans had ways to earn a living, both down South and in escaping northward to the industrial belt to earn good union wages. Those days are over, and it’s no surprise that with much narrower possibilities for getting ahead and a shredded safety net, people are less combative.

With no mobilized base nipping at his heels, Obama could substitute rhetoric for results. So we got expanded health insurance, but not the right to health; Race to the Top-style corporate education for some, but no relief for the ragged public schools now populated increasingly by poor minority children. A black president watching impotently while the Voting Rights Act that made him possible is dismantled and various forms of poll tax restored.

Obama had a chance to reverse the pauperization of the populace at the end of the disastrous second Bush Administration, and he carefully destroyed it by siding with Wall Street. Now that the alliance of the financier class and the reactionaries of the neo-Jim Crow Republicans has been cemented, they no longer need an Obama to save them from the mess they made in the 2000s. He’s still the boss and can make some interesting moves with his powers like the opening to Cuba and executive action on immigration and the like. But politically he’s used up. The next two years will be a holding pattern while the country decides whether to give the architects of the new “massive resistance” further rope with which to hang themselves and us.

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