Only a Black President Can
With the election, inauguration, State of the Union speech and President’s Day behind us, and Black History Month almost done, it’s time to take stock.
Barack Obama has won two presidential elections. He’ll never run again. If he’s going to be fully effective, it’s time for us to face how many Americans have been blinded by racial prejudice. And to face the fact that, up to now, progressives have been letting him down.
At the same time, let’s dare to honestly examine and accept, if not celebrate, the fact that there are some things only a black president can do.
President Obama must be more tired of hearing “I’m so glad we have a black president” than anyone on earth. It’s patronizing. It’s impersonal. It’s almost insulting. And it mocks Dr Martin Luther King, whose Dream wasn’t “a black president” – it’s “a nation where we will not be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character” – which is, in a way, the opposite concept. (Like the president, I’m black, ivy league educated, and from a rare family that was integrated 50 years ago – so I feel for him.)
Now that the first black president has been re-elected the maximum number of times, our brothers and sisters of color, and fans of civil rights, justice and equality, have a duty to honestly acknowledge distinctions between race, policy and character. And we’ll want to hold this president to the same standard as his predecessors, and higher.
Let’s also acknowledge that, just as there are bigots who have trouble telling black folks apart, there are millions of well-meaning fans of the president who assume Dr. King’s vision is being realized if the president is black.
But like Rev Cornel West and perhaps millions of others who actually compare Dr King’s message with the president’s, I shuddered when president Obama took his second inaugural oath on Martin Luther King Jr.’s bible.
DR KING’s LEGACY
Those eager to praise the first black president do not dwell on the fact that he has been publicly repudiating Dr. King’s ideas since 2009, in both word and deed. When early in his first term president Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize (which he and many of his supporters agreed was inappropriate and premature), he mentioned and then dismissed Dr. King’s ideas on peace and non-violence and against militarism, on the grounds that the civil rights leader – whose home and church were firebombed, was harassed by the FBI, and was ultimately gunned down by an assassin – couldn’t appreciate what “terror” really is.
Try to picture any other president making this point. Picture either president Bush. Once the uncomfortable laughter subsided, horror, outrage and contempt would be followed by protestations of dishonesty, naivety, inappropriate reference, and racism.
But when president Obama did it, almost everyone looked the other way or heard nothing. Only a black president can reject Dr. King’s teaching without criticism – make that acceptable rather than horrifying – and then borrow his bible.
That was just the beginning in 2009. For 12 years the United States has experienced escalating policies on warrantless surveillance, kidnapping, detention without charges or trial, secrecy, the unconstitutional PATRIOT Act, elite immunity, lawless Guantanamo and Bagram, and much more.
The Obama administration has embraced all of these and expanded many of them to include immunity for financial crimes, immunity for torture, murder of unarmed prisoners, unprecedented attacks on whistleblowers, and offensive cyber warfare; assassination programs with unmanned weapons that kill civilians, mourners, and rescuers; and bold ideas about “secret” law where the government need not acknowledge it has killed or secretly plans to kill citizens who have never been charged with any crime. This continues and significantly extends the once-detested policies of president George W. Bush and VP Dick Cheney.
And of course, that’s the main change in the past four years: we have a charismatic Black President who can turn policies we once acknowledged were illegal, immoral, and unconstitutional under Bush and Cheney, and make them OK.
There’s no escaping the profound impact race has on perceptions of the president and this 12 year regime. President Obama needn’t do anything in particular to be considered centrist, left, and “obviously” very different from president Bush. It’s as if race and party labels themselves fully offset or completely trump actual policies, historical facts, and the full continuity between the Bush administration and the current even more radical one.
President Obama has been to the right of despised Vice President Cheney on issues ranging from assassination to drones – and even marriage equality. But Obama changes the public’s view of them.
It affects us every day in ways we barely notice. During a report on an AP investigation we might briefly wonder: ‘Putting every Muslim business and mosque in the NYC tri-state area under surveillance without warrants can’t be unconstitutional racial and religious Profiling – not when the Black President with the muslim name has been secretly spending millions funding it – can it?’
As the president leads us deeper into militarism, lawlessness, assaults on civil rights, murder, vengeance and war, he can permanently deform our national character in ways Bush and Cheney never could.
My family integrated most of the neighborhoods we lived in. We found that much of dealing with prejudice is common sense, if you just ask the right questions and listen to the answers. Nobody is going to say “I’m a bigot” of course. But when you ask someone whether others should be granted the same rights they enjoy, they’ll either answer “of course” or “it’s none of my business”; or they’ll say – as if it absolutely is their business – “I’m evolving.” Every person of color and disenfranchised minority understands this is the polite phrasing for “I don’t assume they should have the same rights as my family and me, and of course I’d like my opinion to matter – to carry the force of law.”
When asked about equality, only a black president can oppose marriage equality and answer “I’m evolving” as President Obama did, without automatically being self-outed as a bigot.
Years later in May of 2012 President Obama was widely, wildly applauded for reaching the conclusion that Vice President Cheney had reached in 2004 – that gay families deserve marriage rights.
For over 200 years, America’s slave owners, jim crow enforcers and bigots fought on a legal platform of State’s Rights: each state asserted that its right to regulate bathrooms, bus seats, marriage and more mustn’t be overruled by a federal government attempting to enforce equality.
Like Cheney, president Obama went on to point out that whatever happens at the federal level, any state can deny gay couples the right to legally become a family – to force couples to leave the state to marry, or change residences to obtain their rights.
Only a black president can argue in 2012 that unlike the rules for bathrooms, lunch counters, schools and bus seats, marriage is still an issue of states’ rights – not family’s rights, human rights, or universal rights – and be applauded for it.
The unanimous 1967 Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, Loving vs. Virginia, granted federal protection to previously disenfranchised families – which in those days meant interracial families. The ruling requires the marriages of families like Obama’s and mine to be recognized in any state going forward. In his 2012 remarks president Obama never mentioned it.
Only a black president can – after taking eight years to catch up with right wing icon Dick Cheney – put each “state’s right” to outlaw equality back on the table 45 years after equality won, and be applauded as a hero for it by his relieved fans.
Multiple generations in my family have read To Kill A Mockingbird or seen the powerful movie. A black man or “nigger” is accused of a crime he could not physically have committed, convicted by an all-white Alabama jury, and – unarmed – is shot seventeen times by guards and killed before his appeal.
The black victim in the story is publicly accused, indicted, arrested, pleads not guilty, hears the evidence against him in court, has an attorney who cross examines witnesses, testifies himself, and is even convicted and offered an appeal – before he is suddenly killed. Nonetheless, back in 1960 it was disgraceful and embarrassing to the people of Alabama.
In contrast, president Obama skips all but the last step – the killing. None of the victims or the families of those kidnapped, tortured or killed by the Bush-Obama administration will have the luxury of a day in court – at least not until the next administration. And under president Obama, no one who ordered kidnapping, torture, or murder or destroyed evidence of them will even see the inside of a courtroom for their crimes.
We’ve come a long way since Mockingbird. In the Bush-Obama administration the real niggers aren’t African Americans – they’re Muslims and Arabs. According to the president they include any mosque or Muslim-owned business – certainly not restricted to the tri-state area – and anyone the president suspects of “terrorism” but can’t convince any judge or grand jury to charge with a crime.
Those are the ones for whom evidence, warrants, judges and convictions are optional. They include Anwar Awlaki’s 16 year old son, a Colorado-born citizen who was never accused of anything and was murdered with other teenagers by drone last year. Thousands of civilians have been similarly killed, including over 100 children. When not boasting about the success of his drone program, in courts (say, when the relatives of a victim have sued) the president has officially declared it to be so secret that it may not even exist – to prevent any judicial oversight.
If this regime continues, our children will wonder why people once thought Alabama’s justice system was so bad. And that’s something only a black president can achieve.
WHAT IS LYNCHING?
It’s natural to wonder: just what is the difference between an extra-judicial killing and a lynching? It’s a serious question, but with intuitive answers that are so unsatisfying:
• If there’s no rope and nobody swinging from it, it’s not a lynching.
• If it’s done by an ivy league educated scholar who can pronounce “extra-judicial”, it’s not a lynching – it’s clearly just an extra-judicial killing.
• If it’s approved by a black president and a black attorney general, it can’t possibly be a lynching.
A lynching sometimes happens in secret without law enforcement cooperation – so there’s a small chance the law will emerge later to prosecute a lynching as murder. After an extra-judicial killing by the state, that’s impossible unless international bodies intervene. By this legal measure, a traditional lynching can be more just.
Aside from this, the clearest way to distinguish a proper lynching from a sober extra-judicial killing may be the cheering crowds.
Unlike any other civilized country, under this president’s leadership most Americans have cheered assassinating unarmed suspects upon their capture, and embraced ongoing killing of innocents and unknown parties by airborne drone.
Only a black president can heal ancient, shameful national wounds – finally bringing together white and black, Democrat and Republican, North and South – in a shared vision of just what varieties of lynching deserve cheers from us all.
“We’re [focussed on] two missions — training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates.” – State of the Union 2013
We’ve heard this for 12 years now. It’s sadder, but darkly funny today when you try to seriously consider any specific question about this training:
- Are we training the Afghans – famed for centuries as The Graveyard of Empires – how to win war in Afghanistan, with help from winners like Vietnam veteran John McCain?
- Could we be training them in native language skills, guerrilla warfare, local terrain, and IED’s?
- Aren’t they being trained by the same contractors, special ops and CIA whose cooperation in kidnapping, murder, torture, gun-running and disappearing civilians have made multiple headlines again just this week (it’s Wednesday) – and for the past decade?
- Are we equipping them with the helicopters, automatic weapons, tanks and drones we consider essential for our own safety, and training them how to operate them? Or are we claiming to train them to do what we’ve never succeeded at ourselves?
- In recent years when Afghanistan’s Karzai government has demanded due process for prisoners, it has had to overrule just one vigorous opponent: the Obama administration – which has rejected habeas corpus oversight and demanded detention without charges for prisoners at Bagram as well as at Afghan prisons. So are we training them to ignore basic human rights?
- Are we training them in accord with our own Frago 242 policy, kept secret by the president but revealed by Wikileaks in 2010, which “orders coalition troops not to investigate any breach of the laws of armed conflict, such as the abuse of detainees, unless it directly involves members of the coalition.”?
- Does training include American values training – so the Afghans understand that once 3000 of your innocent countrymen have died, it’s OK to kill thousands of foreigners in response – even if you kill mostly innocents or retaliate against the wrong country? And will that part of the training curriculum be updated now that Senator Graham announced for the first time last week that there are over 4700 dead drone victims?
At the torturer’s whim, the logs reveal, the victim can be hung by his wrists or by his ankles; knotted up in stress positions; sexually molested or raped; tormented with hot peppers, cigarettes, acid, pliers or boiling water – and always with little fear of retribution since, far more often than not, if the Iraqi official is assaulting an Iraqi civilian, no further investigation will be required.
With each answer more obvious, grisly and absurd than the last, one is forced to ask: What kind of fool automatically accepts “training the Afghans” as if it makes any sense at all?
The answer is: Millions of proud Americans so certain of their innate, vast superiority to Afghans that once Training is invoked, none of those logical, practical or moral questions enter their minds. Often unconsciously, many of us consider Afghans and other Arabs stupid, immoral savages who lack the skills, competency and training to fight for their own interests and well being.
Such certain superiority makes empathy impossible. So, few Americans imagine that Afghans react to foreign occupying armies much as we would. The fact that we would feel like traitors if we helped them – but might quietly undermine them while accepting “training” pay if we desperately needed jobs – seems irrelevant. To ordinary American racists, twelve years without progress – with more insider attacks now than ever – just proves the Afghans are even stupider, lazier, more disloyal and harder to train than we thought.
The paternal pose behind the “training” dog whistle, and our automatic response to it, are as old as imperial and occupation propaganda itself – immortalized by Kipling as The White Man’s Burden. President Obama has shown even a black man can blow that whistle and hoist that burden.
But I once had a Dream: that we’d never again violently occupy the brown and asian natives of another nation, and be told we’re “training” them – at least not by a black president.
A LOWER STANDARD?
We know “I’m so glad we have a black president!” has been a slightly clumsy but sentimental cry of joy – not a rebuke of racial colorblindness or of Dr. King’s dream.
But when at the same time we hold president Obama to a lower standard than we held despised president George W. Bush, we are turning Obama from the hope of the nation and the world into a dangerous new kind of affirmative action case – providing license and cover for the Bush Administration’s unprosecuted crimes along with new, even deadlier ones.
Worse, president Obama is actively leading America in the wrong direction. Studies find “liberals” are more likely to favor policies like targeted killings by drone once they know it’s Obama’s policy.
Meanwhile, after four years of even more extreme policies, Obama is now even more hated in the middle east than Bush was. Every drone strike in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan recruits more survivors to jihad – even after Obama bombs the rescuers and mourners.
So enough wild applause for vengeance and murder. They’re not fooling anyone overseas, and they’re not really making us safer.
There will be a next administration. It’s time to decide whether it’s in our national interest to continue the Bush-Obama administration – or whether 16 years of lawless Terror government is plenty, and it’s time to reject them.
For the first time in nearly 5 years, Obama’s defenders can dare to hold him accountable to keep his oaths, defend the Constitution, and improve our security – without fear of throwing an election.
For the first time in this presidency, Americans with a conscience can discuss these vital issues without being accused of helping Mitt Romney or endorsing Ron Paul.
PEOPLE OF COLOR MUST LEAD
It would be great if we could completely de-couple these problems and their solutions from race. But as we’ve seen, racial and religious prejudice are central both to the way we treat Afghans and the way we treat our president.
Before she became an educator and a Dean, my mother was an actress in New York. In Green Pastures in the 1940’s she was apparently the first black woman in a lead role on Broadway who wasn’t playing a maid. When a black brother or sister appeared in an awful role or performed terribly, she’d smile, “Well, it’s one of our people working,” so we could enjoy that small victory while averting our gaze.
But we mustn’t do this with president Obama. This is not like pretending Tracy Morgan is funny. And it’s far more dangerous than pretending Condoleezza Rice kept us safe, that Clarence Thomas isn’t a lying crook, or that Colin Powell didn’t green light Iraq. Rev West’s horror over a violent black warrior who repudiates Dr. King’s vision needs to be echoed throughout our community.
It’s easy to see why so many white progressives are afraid to engage these truths. Intellectually they may know that a leader who evades the Constitution to become judge, jury and executioner is the dictionary definition of “tyranny”. But they dread being mistaken for the millions of bigoted white idiots who think the president was born overseas, and who use “tyranny” to describe everything from enforcing sensible gun regulations to adjusting the tax code. And since this time the war crimes and immunity come from someone they voted for, denial is often easier.
That’s why people of color may wind up leading the charge to end the Bush Obama regime. It’s why it’s so important that America’s and Dr. King’s true allies – like Rev Cornel West, King’s close friend Harry Belafonte, and Rev Desmond Tutu – feel a duty to call out war crimes when they see them, even when a person of color or someone they voted for has committed them – and even when a Muslim is the victim. Isn’t that Dr. King’s real dream?
And of course, they’re joined by brave journalists of every race, from Glenn Greenwald to Norman Solomon – who both dared to denounce Obama’s hypocrisy, militarism and indifference to the rule of law on Martin Luther King Day – rather than safely behave like bigots who have trouble telling King and Obama apart.
So brothers and sisters of every creed, it’s time to step up.
This is even bigger than the civil rights struggles we won fifty years ago – because now we’re ending a global war, the longest in our history.
It’s time to stop the excuses.
Standing up for justice and our Constitution isn’t going to get Mitt elected. Finally, we’ve been liberated from that mentality for almost four years.
Giving millions of innocent civilians and abused American soldiers their much deserved, long overdue apologies won’t throw an election.
It will be a first step toward peace.