Obama and “I Have a Dream” in 2008

Against the Current, No. 132, January/February 2008

Malik Miah

AS WE ENTER the 2008 presidential election, it is noteworthy that Illinois Senator Barack Obama is still a serious contender for the Democratic Party nomination. I say “noteworthy” because his campaign has been marked throughout with ambivalence among many African Americans.

In some ways his “success” shows the contradictions of the Black community 40 years since the assassination of the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, and 45 years since King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial Monument in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963.

It’s important to reflect on that historic speech to see where African Americans have come from the heyday of the civil rights movement that led to the end of legal and de facto segregation in the South and across the country.

The March on Washington was initiated and supported by the major civil rights organizations, and organized by labor leader A. Phillip Randolph. It led to new legislation adopted by Congress and signed by President Johnson that codified fundamental political changes — a revolution won by mass mobilizations and extra-legal protests. (See Dianne Feeley’s review of Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders, and ATC feature interview with author, historian and organizer Michael Honey on the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, elsewhere in this issue.)

Today young people barely talk about those exciting days. Yet that revolution is why Obama is who he is, and is seen the way he is, by Blacks and whites alike.

King, I believe, would probably see Obama as fulfilling his “dream” of Blacks being treated as equals to whites. But he would also protest the failings of America to bring about true economic equality and opportunities for the majority of poor working-class Blacks whom he went to Memphis to support in 1968.

Some Black conservatives, such as Juan Williams of National Public Radio and Fox News, see Obama as “in the vanguard of a new brand of multi-racial politics.” (November 30, 2007, Op-Ed in The New York Times, “Obama’s Color Line”)

But is that what King was talking about in 1963 when he gave his now famous speech (see accompanying excerpts)?

Maybe. “I have a dream,” King said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.

Now listen to what Obama told NPR in response to the lingering question, “Is he Black enough”? because he seems out of step with most Black politicians on issues of racial politics. “In the history of African-American politics in this country there has always been some tension between speaking in universal terms and speaking in very race-specific terms about the plight of the African-American community,” Obama said. “By virtue of my background, you know, I am more likely to speak in universal terms.”

Is that so bad?

No one questions the fact that the majority of African Americans are still not living “The American Dream” as hoped for by King. Yet there is a changed reality that Obama and others tap — the Black middle class has grown and identifies with similar issues as do middle-class whites.

A recent Pew Research Poll (November 2007) confirms the divergent views of the Black population along class lines, and the convergence of the Black middle class with the white middle class on “values.” A striking number is that some 61% of African Americans believe the values of the middle-class and poor Blacks are becoming “more different.”

Those with some college education are more likely to see Obama “sharing the Black community’s values and interests a lot,” while only 41% of Blacks with a high school education or less see Obama as part of the Black community.

Working-class African Americans, in other words, are less likely to assume that Obama will speak up for Black people’s interests than the traditional civil rights leaders who focus on racism, discrimination and Black-centered issues.

The “electability” issue is also rarely mentioned by Black voters who backed in large majorities previous Black presidential candidates (e.g. Jesses Jackson) even though none were expected to win the nomination.

In short, it’s not that poor Blacks reject Obama. They simply aren’t sure how focused Obama will be on their concerns.

What It Means

What is the significance of this divergent opinion within the Black community?

First, it indicates that a Black man, even if of mixed racial heritage, can be taken as a serious presidential candidate across racial lines. He is being judged by his overall political positions, not only his views on Black issues. That Obama could win the nomination and might be elected president is seen as positive and should therefore be judged from that standpoint.

Second, a Black man who speaks for Americans of all ethnic groups is comfortable doing so and is accepted as such. Third, this “progress” that King hoped for and projected in his 1963 speech is being made.

King’s objective was not to achieve “integration” or “assimilation” into white America as some Black nationalists and Black Power advocates of the day charged. His hope was that all “men are created as equals” including Black men. Obama seems to fit that definition.

This evolution and progress among more liberal segments of society partly reflects, of course, the fact that ethnic minorities are about one-third of the population and growing. However, it hasn’t penetrated the other third of the population that is mainly white ethnic-centric. That group is mostly narrow-minded white male evangelicals.

It is not surprising that all the Republican presidential contenders are white men who reach out to this latter group and oppose issues such as affirmative action, immigration rights (kick out the illegal aliens ASAP) and anything that benefits minorities. The race card is still used by the religious right for that reason. The only Blacks acceptable to this neo-racist leaning crowd are the Black conservatives who preach and practice “color blind” politics.

The mainstream Democrats, including Obama, pander to the conservative center while giving lip service to issues that the “base” supports, including support for withdrawal from Iraq, abortion rights, health care reform and equal rights.

At the same time, more and more Americans are fed up with the failures of the Democratic Party liberals and the divisive politics of the right. It is why the populist anti-immigration newscaster, CNN’s Lou Dobbs, is getting a positive response to his call for citizens to register as “independents” to defend the interests of the “middle class” and working Americans.

The Missing Alternative

What’s missing is a left alternative to Obama and other “liberal” Democrats, as well as the populist demagogues. At the moment the Greens are barely visible. There is no labor movement to speak of. And there is no drive to establish a new political party based on the interests of working people.

Martin Luther King’s dream about a society based on true equality and merit has moved forward, which is why an Obama can possibly win. Unfortunately, if he does, it will be a victory for “sameness of politics” over substance. If that should occur, the “democratic revolution” launched by King and the civil rights leaders will be completed. We will officially enter the era of multi-ethnic politics.

In this respect the 2008 election could be historic for the Black community — yet as Jena, Louisiana shows, racism is still alive in America. Just as the first Black CEOs did not end the discrimination in the corporate world because the rules of the” free market” capitalist system dictate financial inequalities, the first Black man (or woman) elected president of the United States will not change racial politics on the ground.

from ATC 132 (January/February 2008)

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