Barack Obama’s White Appeal and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era

I once gave a talk about racism that was followed by an interesting comment from a middle-aged white man. “You can’t seriously imagine that racism is still a big problem in the United States ,” this man said, “when millions of white Americans are ready to vote for Barack Obama, a black man, for president.”

I once did an article on Obama that elicited the following response from a white Republican science professor in a Detroit suburb: “If Obama gets elected President, it would be a big — probably the biggest since the Emancipation Proclamation — step toward race equality in the U.S. If a half-black man gets elected President,” the professor elaborated, “we could stop focusing so much on race in this country and focus on other things.”

A different essay critical of Obama provoked an angry response from a black man who thought I was African-American. “How can you betray your race like this?” this individual asked. “Why are you undermining a brother with a shot at the most powerful job in the world?” By this writer’s estimation, Obama’s black identity was in itself sufficient reason for a responsible black journalist to swallow any criticisms of the junior Senator from Illinois.

The racial meaning of “the Obama phenomenon” is an interesting question that merits careful consideration. It is significantly more complicated than my three commentators grasped.
Is there anything positive about the fact that droves of whites are willing to embrace a black presidential candidate? Sure. Forty years ago, as the United States entered the racially turbulent summer of 1967 and the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner disturbed conventional racial norms by portraying a black doctor (played by Sidney Poitier) dating a white woman (Joanna Drayton), it would have been impossible for a black politician to become a viable presidential contender. Nothing a black candidate could have done or said would have prevented him from being excluded on the basis of the color of his or her skin. The fact that this is no longer true is a sign of some (admittedly slow) racial progress more than fifty years after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. But there are at least three reasons not to get overly excited about Obama’s cross-racial appeal from a racial justice perspective.


The first difficulty is that part of Obama’s appeal to white America has to do with the widespread Caucasian sense that Obama “isn’t all that black.” Many whites who roll their eyes at the mention of the names of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton — former presidential candidates who behave in ways that many whites find too African-American — are by the cool, underplayed blackness and ponderous, quasi-academic tone of the half-white, Harvard-educated Obama. Obama doesn’t shout, chant, holler or drawl. He doesn’t rail against injustice, bring the parishioners to their feet and threaten delicate white suburban and middle-class sensibilities. He stays away from catchy slogans (like Jackson’s “Keep Hope Alive”) and from emotive “truth”-speaking confrontations with power. To use Joe Biden’s revealing terminology, Obama strikes many whites as “clean” and “articulate” — something different from their unfortunately persistent image of blacks as dirty, dangerous, irrational and unintelligible.

Obama has no moral or political obligation to shed his biracial identity, “multicultural” background and elite, private school education to “act [more classically and stereotypically] black.” But whites’ racial attitudes are less progressive than might be assumed when their willingness to embrace a black candidate is conditioned by their requirement that his or her “blackness” be qualified. When ingrained gender sensibilities lead you (all other things equal) to prefer your “straight-acting” gay uncle over your outwardly “effeminate” gay nephew, your tolerance for non-traditional sexual orientations might be less enlightened than you think.


A second and related reason not to do racial justice cartwheels over Obama’s popularity with whites is the candidate’s deep willingness to accommodate white supremacy. In his ponderous, power-worshipping and badly titled campaign book The Audacity of Hope (Henry Crown, 2006), Obama ignores elementary U.S. social reality and strokes the master race by claiming that “what ails working- and middle-class blacks is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts.” Equally calming to the white majority is Obama’s argument that “white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America” as “even the most fair-minded of whites . . . tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimization and race-based claims based on the history of racial discrimination in this country” (p. 247). Part of the reason for this “push back” — also known as denial — is, Obama claims, the bad culture and poor work ethic of the inner city black poor (Obama 2006, pp. 245, 254-56).

White fears that Obama will reawaken the tragically unfinished revolutions of Reconstruction and Civil Rights are further soothed by his claim that most black Americans have been “pulled into the economic mainstream” (Obama 2006, pp. 248-49). During a speech marking the anniversary of the Selma, Alabama Voting Rights march, Obama claimed that 1950s and 1960s civil rights activists — who he referred to as “the Moses Generation” — had brought black America “90 percent of the way” to racial equality. It’s up to Obama and his fellow “Joshua Generation” members to get past “that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side” (Barack Obama, 2007)

And then there’s Obama’s claim that “conservatives and Bill Clinton were right about welfare.” The abolished Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, Obama claims, “sapped” inner-city blacks of their “initiative” and detached them from the great material and spiritual gains that flow to those who attach themselves to the noble capitalist labor market, including “independence,” “income,” “order, structure, dignity and opportunity for growth in peoples’ lives”. He argues that encouraging black girls to finish high school and stop having babies out of wedlock is “the single biggest that we could do to reduce inner-city poverty” (Obama 2006p. 256).

Never mind that blacks are afflicted with a shocking racial wealth gap that keeps their average net worth at one eleventh that of whites and an income structure starkly and persistently tilted towards poverty (Loewen 2005, p. 130; Shapiro 2005). Never mind that lower-, working-, and middle-class blacks continue to face numerous steep and interrelated white-supremacist barriers to equality. Or that multidimensional racial discrimination is still rife in “post-Civil Rights America,” deeply woven into the fabric of the nation’s social institutions and drawing heavily on the living and unresolved legacy of centuries of not- so “past” racism (Feagin 2000; Brown et al. 2003, Street 2005; Street 2007),

Never mind that the long centuries of slavery and Jim Crow are still quite historically recent and would continue to exercise a crippling influence on black experience even if the dominant white claim that black “racial victimization” is a “thing of the past” was remotely accurate (Brown et al. 2003; Feagin 2000). Never mind the existence of numerous left Caucasians (e.g. Joe Feagin, Tim Wise, Michael Albert, Stephen Steinberg, yours truly and many more), not to mention a large number of black Americans, who support not simply the “race-based” claims of affirmative actions but the demand for reparations to address the living and powerful legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

And never mind the absence of social-scientific evidence for the “conservative” claim that AFDC destroyed inner city work ethics or generated “intergenerational poverty.” Forget the existence of numerous studies showing that the absence of decent, minimally well-paid, and dignified work has always been the single leading cause of black inner city poverty and “welfare dependency” (Handler 1995, 32-55; Jencks 1992, 204-235; Stier and Tienda 2001). Disregard research showing that high black teenage pregnancy rates reflect the absence of meaningful long-term life and economic opportunities in the nation’s hyper-segregated inner-city and suburban ring ghettos. Forget that the single biggest thing that could be done to reduce inner city poverty would be to make the simple and elementary moral decision to abolish it through the provision of a decent guaranteed income — something once advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr. and that other dangerous left “moral absolutist” (Obama’s description of 1960s New Left peace and justice activists) Richard Nixon.

Racial hierarchy isn’t the only oppression structure that Senator Obama is willing to eagerly accommodate. As I’ve been arguing for some time now (Street 2004, 2006, 2007a-2007e), he plays the same essential opportunistic and power-worshipping game in relation to related inequality structures of class and empire. Beneath peaceful and populist sounding claims to the contrary, he’s largely on the dark and neoliberal side of power when it comes to each of what the democratic socialist and anti-imperialist Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the triple evils that are interrelated”: racism, economic exploitation/inequality (capitalism), and militarism (King 1967, 250-251; Garrow 1986 p. 546) It’s not for nothing that Obama was recently described as a “conservative” in a flattering New Yorker write-up titled “The Conciliator.” (MacFarquar 2007)


In accommodating white supremacy, Obama is playing to the perverse racial politics of the post-Civil Rights era, wherein the leading architects of policy and opinion have declared “race” over as a barrier to black advancement. It is a time when large number of Americans, including many blacks, claim “exhaustion” with race issues. Race- and racism-avoidance have become the orders of the day in an officially “color-blind” neoliberal age when conventional wisdom ascribes people’s status and wealth to purely private and personal success or failure in adapting to the permanent, inherently human realities of inequality in a “free market” system of reactionary corporate rule to which “there is no alternative.” In the dominant public discourse of this era, the nation’s “pervasive racial hierarchies collapse,” in the words of Henry A. Giroux, “into power-evasive strategies such as blaming minorities of class and color for not working hard enough, refusing to exercise individual initiative, or practicing reverse racism.” Even as an enveloping, increasingly invisible racism “functions” as “one of the deep and abiding currents in everyday [American] life,” this discourse works “to erase the social from the language of public life as to reduce all racial problems to private issues [of] . . . individual character and cultural depravity.”

This “neoliberal racism,” as Giroux calls it, “can imagine public issues only as private concerns.” It sees “human agency as simply a matter of individualized choices, the only obstacle to effective citizenship being the lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility” on the part of those most victimized by structural oppression and the amoral agency of those super-empowered actors who stand atop the nation’s steep and interrelated hierarchies of class and race. Under its rule, “human misery is largely defined as a function of personal choices,” consistent with “the central neoliberal tenet that all problems are private rather than social in nature.” (Giroux 2003; Giroux 2004).

The technically biracial Obama’s campaign and persona are perfectly calibrated for this era of victim-blaming neoliberal racism. He allows whites to assuage their racial guilt and feel non-racist by liking and perhaps even voting for him while signaling that he won’t do anything to tackle and redress the steep racial disparities and systemic racial oppression that continue to deeply scar American life and institutions. “What . . . me and my country racist? You can’t be serious: we’re thinking seriously about voting for a black man as president. My wife and son just love Oprah and Jamie Fox.”


This brings me to the third reason not to sing racial justice hosannas over the sudden rise of Obama. His election could actually worsen racism’s power in ways that are unintentionally suggested at the end of the professor’s comment given at the beginning of this article. The main problem with the conventional white wisdom holding that racism no longer poses relevant barriers to black advancement and black-white equality in post-Civil Rights America is a failure to distinguish adequately between overt “state of mind” racism and covert institutional, societal, and “state-of-being” racism (Street 2002; Street 2004a; Street 2007).

The first variety of racism has a long and sordid history. It includes such actions, policies and practices as the burning of black homes and black churches, the murder of “uppity” blacks and civil rights workers, the public use of derogatory racial slurs and epithets, the open banning of blacks from numerous occupations, the open political disenfranchisement of blacks and the open segregation of public facilities by race. It is largely defeated, outlawed and discredited in the “politically correct” environment created partly by the victories of the Civil Rights Movement.

The second variety lives on, with terrible consequences. It involves the more impersonal operation of social, economic and institutional forces and processes that both reflect and shape the related processes of capitalism in ways that “just happen” but nonetheless serve to reproduce black disadvantage in numerous interrelated key sectors of American life. It includes racially segregating real estate and home-lending practices, residential “white flight” (from black neighbors), statistical racial discrimination in hiring and promotion, the systematic under-funding and under-equipping of schools predominately attended by blacks relative to schools predominately attended by whites, the disproportionate surveillance, arrest and incarceration of blacks and much more.

Richly enabled by policymakers who commonly declare allegiance to anti-racist ideals, this deeper racism has an equally ancient history that has outlived the explicit, open and public racism of the past and the passage of justly cherished Civil Rights legislation. It does not necessarily involve individual white bigotry or even subtly prejudiced “ill will” against blacks. Consciously or even unconsciously prejudiced white actors are not required and black actors are more than welcome to help enforce the New Age societal racism of the post-King era. This entrenched, enduring, and more concealed societal racism does not depend on racist intent in order to exist as a relevant social and political phenomenon. The racism that matters most today does not require a large portion of the white population to be consciously and willfully prejudiced against blacks or any other racial minority. It only needs to produce racially disparate outcomes through the operation of objectively racialized processes. It critically includes a pivotal failure and/or refusal to acknowledge, address, and reverse, the living (present and future) windfall bestowed on sections of the white community by “past” racist structures, policies and practices that were more willfully and openly discriminatory toward blacks.

“State-of-being” or structural racism generates racially disparate results even without racist intent – “state-of-mind” racism – on the part of white actors. It oppresses blacks with objectively racialized social processes that work in “routine” and “ordinary” fashion to sustain racial hierarchy and white supremacy often and typically without white racist hostility or purpose. (Carmichael and Hamilton 1967; Feagin 2000; Brown et al. 2003; Street 2007; Steinberg 1995)


Sadly, the fact that level-one (overt) racism has been defeated while the deeper (level-two) racism survives is not just a matter of the social and racial justice glass being half-full. It’s more darkly complicated than that. The second and deeper level of racial oppression’s power may actually be more firmly entrenched by celebrated Civil Rights victories and related black upward mobility into the middle and upper classes insofar as those victories and achievements encourage the illusion that racism has disappeared and that the only obstacles left to African-American success and equality are internal to individual blacks and their community — the idea that, in Derrick Bell’s phrase, “the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races”(Bell 2004, pp. 77-78). “It’s hard,” Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown have noted, “to blame people” for believing (falsely in Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown’s view) that racism is dead in America “when our public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration ideal and our ostensible progress towards achieving it.” (Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown 1999, 6-7)

In a similar vein, Sheryl Cashin notes that “there are [now] enough examples of successful middle-class African-Americans to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity with them. The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; the issue now is individual effort.” (Cashin 2004, p. xi)

The white-run culture’s regular rituals of self-congratulation over the defeat of overt, level-one racism — the Martin Luther King national holiday, the playing of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech over school sound systems and on television, the demotion of Trent Lott, the routine reference to integrationist ideals in political speeches, and now the presidential viability of the “conservative” Obama, etc. — reinforce the dominant white sentiment that the United States no longer has much of anything to answer for in regard to its treatment of black America and the ubiquitous white American notion that racism is something only from the now relatively irrelevant and distant “past.” “Now we can finally forget about race completely” is the basic white wish seeking fulfillment in the election of someone like Obama.

This is a problem that Martin Luther King, Jr. anticipated. By the middle 1960s, King and other civil rights leaders were most concerned about the deeper institutional and societal racism that existed across the entire United States. King and others feared that the defeat of open segregation and racial terrorism in the South would reinforce the majority white nation’s tendency to avoid more covert, established, invisible and nationwide forms of racial oppression while encouraging whites to falsely conclude that all the nation’s racial problems have been “automatically solved” (King 1969, pp. 321-322).

King also worried that early Civil Rights victories over level-one racism would encourage white Americans to deny the powerful and living legacy and material relevance of “past racism.” As he knew and as is still true today, the older, more open racism of the long pre-Civil Rights past continues to cast more than just an incidental shadow over contemporary racial inequalities. Most white Americans object strenuously to the idea that “past racial discrimination matters in the present.” (Feagin 2000, 261) But anyone who examines capitalism in an honest way knows that what people get from the present and future so-called “free market” is very much about what and how much they bring to that present and future market from the past. “Long ago” racism continues to exact a major cost on current-day black Americans, raising the question of whether unresolved historical inequity is really “past.” Slavery and then Jim Crow segregation in the South — and the racial terrorism, discrimination and apartheid imposed on black northerners in places like Chicago and Detroit and the thousands of northern all-white “Sundown Towns” that were formed between 1890 and 1968 (see James Loewen’s masterly study Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, Touchstone, 2005) — “long ago” continue to shape present-day racial inequality.

As Michael K. Brown and his colleagues note in their study Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (2003), racial “inequalities are cumulative, a fact adherents of the new public wisdom on race ignore in their rush to celebrate [racial] progress.” Because the “inequalities accumulate over time,” the authors argue, the distinction frequently made by “racial conservatives” between “past and present racism” is often inadequate and deceptive” (Brown et al. 2003). The ongoing need for historical acknowledgement and correction, commonly called reparations, is developed quite well in the following useful analogy advanced by political scientist Roy L. Brooks (Brooks 1996, p. ix):

Two persons — one white and the other black — are playing a game of poker. The game has been in progress for some 300 years. One player — the white one — has been cheating during much of this time, but now announces: “from this day forward, there will be a new game with new players and no more cheating.” Hopeful but suspicious, the black player responds, “that’s great. I’ve been waiting to hear you say that for 300 years. Let me ask you, what are you going to do with all those poker chips that you have stacked up on your side of the table all these years?’ ‘Well,’ said the white player, somewhat bewildered by the question, ‘they are going to stay right here, of course.” “That’s unfair,’ snaps the black player. “The new white player will benefit from your past cheating. Where’s the equality in that?’ “But you can’t realistically expect me to redistribute the poker chips along racial lines when we are trying to move away from considerations of race and when the future offers no guarantees to anyone,” insists the white player. “And surely,” he continues, “redistributing the poker chips would punish individuals for something they did not do. Punish me, not the innocents!” Emotionally exhausted, the black player answers, “but the innocents will reap a racial windfall.”

Seen against the backdrop of Brooks’ living “racial windfall,” there is something significantly racist about the widespread white assumption that the white majority society owes African-Americans nothing in the way of special, ongoing compensation for singular black disadvantages resulting from past explicit racism. Roy Brooks’ surplus “chips” are not quaint but irrelevant hangovers from “days gone by.” They are weapons of racial oppression in the present and future. Given what is well known about the relationship between historically accumulated resources and current and future success, the very distinction between past and present racism ought perhaps to be considered part of the ideological superstructure of contemporary white supremacy functioning as an ongoing barrier to black advancement and equality.

It is important to remember that the explicit and overt racism that made it impossible for a black man to seriously consider running for higher office in the not-so distant past was about more than the sadistic infliction of racial terror in and of itself. That racism served and enforced the economic exploitation and material subordination of blacks Americans. That long exploitation gave rise to a steep, living and historically cumulative racial wealth and power gap whereby stark contemporary disparities are deeply fed by past inequalities. Such is the deep and dark reality behind what Barack “The Conciliator” Obama calmly terms the tendency of “even the most fair-minded of whites . . . to push back against suggestions of racial victimization and race-based claims based on the history of racial discrimination in this country”


Thinking about white America’s superficial “post-racism” and the related distinction between level-one and level- two racism, a Left black political writer recently told me that the election of a black Democrat like Obama to the presidency would be a “disaster” for the cause of black equality. It would be a big negative from a racial justice perspective, this writer feels, because it would deeply reinforce the pervasive majority white notion that racism is essentially over as a relevant barrier to black equality in the U.S. The writer was thinking also about the perverse role that the related success of a minority of privileged blacks and the related class bifurcation of the black community has long played in the preservation of white privilege. As Stephen Steinberg noted in his important book Turning Back: the Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy (Steinberg 1995, pp.149-150):

The success of the black middle-class [since the Civil Rights Movement is not] proof of…a more favorable opportunity structure for blacks. After all, racism has never been indifferent to class distinctions, and it may well be that blacks who have acquired the ‘right’ status characteristics are exempted from stereotypes and behaviors that continue to be directed at less privileged blacks. [But] there is nothing new in this phenomenon. Even in the worst days of Jim Crow, there were blacks who owned land, received favored treatment from whites and were held forth as ‘success stories’ to prove that lower-class blacks had only themselves to blame for their destitution…The existence of this black elite did not prove that racism was abating (thought illusions to this effect were common even among blacks). On the contrary, the black elite itself was a vital part of the system of [racial] oppression, serving as a buffer between the [ruling white] oppressor and [most truly black] oppressed and furthering the illusion that blacks could surmount their difficulties if only they had the exemplary qualities of the black elite.

The remarkable success of power-respectful, bourgeois, non-threatening (to whites) and (in short) “good” blacks like Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and (once) Colin Powell helps white Americans believe that blacks have only themselves to blame on the whole for black America’s persistently separate and unequal status in the U.S. For many whites, loving national media stars like Oprah and Barack is the nice reverse side of hating inner-city Darnell and Lakisha.
The sophisticated and opportunistic Obama knows this very well. He’s not going to complicate his comfortable funding relationships with the likes of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Henry Crown and Co. and General Dynamics et al (Street 2007d and 2007e). by substantively criticizing empire and/or class inequality at home and abroad. In a similarly calculating and power-seeking vein, he’s not about to undermine his favorable post-Civil Rights situation with the white electoral majority by making strong public reference to the persistently powerful and pervasive role of anti-black racism in American life. He’s going to try to ride white America’s self-serving racial confusion and denial as far as he can — all the way, he hopes, to the White House.


Derrick Bell 2004. Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform ( New York , NY : Oxford University Press, 2004).

Roy Brooks 1996. Integration or Separation: A Strategy for Racial Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

Michael Brown et al. 2003. Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (Berkeley , CA : University of California-Berkeley Press, 2003).

Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton 1967. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York, NY: Vintage, 1967),

Sheryll Cashin 2004. The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

Bruce Dixon 2006. “Kucinich: A Blacker Candidate than Obama,” Black Agenda Report (December 20, 2006).

Joe Feagin 2000. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000).

David Garrow 1986. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1986).

Henry A. Giroux 2003. The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear ( New York, NY: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2003).

Henry A. Giroux 2004. The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004).

Joel Handler 1995. The Poverty of Welfare Reform (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

Christopher Jencks 1992. Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967. “Where Do We Go From Here?” 1967 Address to Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reproduced in Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writing and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1991), edited by James N. Washington.

Martin Luther King, Jr. 1969. “A Testament of Hope,” posthumous essay reproduced in Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writing and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1991), edited by James N. Washington.

James Loewen 2005. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism ( New York , NY : Touchstone, 2005),

Lisa MacFarquar 2007. “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).

Barrack Obama 2006. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York , NY: Crown, 2006),

Barack Obama 2007. “Selma Voting Rights Commemoration,” Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church , Selma , Alabama, March 4, 2007.

Tom Shapiro 2004. “Running in Reverse,” Center for American Progress Action Fund, October 22, 2004.

Stephen Steinberg 1995. Turning Back: the Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy (Boston: Beacon, 1995)

Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown 1999. By the Color of Their Skin: the Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race (New York, NY: Penguin, 1999),

Haya Stier and Marta Tienda 2001. The Color of Opportunity: Pathways to Family, Work, and Welfare (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001)

Paul Street 2002. “A Whole Lott Missing: Rituals of Purification and Deep Racism Denial,” Black Commentator (December 22, 2002).

Paul Street 2004. “Keynote Reflections,” (Featured Article), ZNet Magazine (July 29th, 2004).

Paul Street 2004a. “Skipping Past Structural Racism: Center Trumps Left in Recent PBS Series in Race in America ,” Black Commentator (April 8, 2004).

Paul Street 2005. Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL : Chicago Urban League, 2005).

Paul Street 2006. “Obama’s Path to Hell,” ZNet Sustainers’ Commentary (June 18, 2006).

Paul Street 2007. Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).

Paul Street 2007a. “The Obama Illusion,” Z Magazine (February 2007): 29-33.

Paul Street 2007b. “Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power: A Critical Review of Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope,” Black Agenda Report (January 31, 2007).

Paul Street 2007c. “The Pale Reflection: Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Meaning of the Black Revolution,” ZNet Magazine (March 16 2007).

Paul Street 2007d. “Sitting Out the Obama Dance in Iowa City,” ZNet (April 28 2007)

Paul Street 2007e. “‘He’s a Mouse:’ Russell Simmons’ Speaks Some Truth on Obama,” Black Agenda Report (May 9, 2007).

Paul Street ( is a veteran radical historian and independent author, activist, researcher, and journalist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm 2005); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge 2005): and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied 2007). Street's new book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics can now be ordered. Read other articles by Paul.

23 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Mark in Arlington said on June 16th, 2007 at 8:43am #

    What a tortured piece of navel-gazing! This is exactly the kind of cynicism Obama warned of when he announced his candidacy. The simple fact is that a majortiy of Americans view Obama from the perspective of values, policy positions and accomplishment which a majority identifies with and admires. This at a time when the country is starved for change and a different approach to politics than the divisiveness that has spun out of control over the past two Administrations.

  2. Robert Vitaletti said on June 16th, 2007 at 8:56am #

    You cling to your claims of entrenched racism and the demands for continued white guilt as if it were your drug. It seems to control you to the point where your intelectualized intoxication blinds you to the evolution that is taking place in the under 30 generation which is so supportive of Barack Obama. It’s time for you to pass the torch, and allow a brave new generation to be free of the baggage of the past, and to allow then new perspective without your guilt trips.
    Barack is a true blend of all that represents a younger America which hopes to throw off the opressive limits of racial stereotyping and hatred from all sides. Have you spoken with his young supporters, (with their seemingly infinite variety of races, mixes, and socioecomomic levels), at his rallies? Please do. They will help you break through your denial that the past of divisivness must still rule you, and help you withdraw from it.
    The mix of ideas that Obama offers is the the road to recovery, not capitulation.

  3. Dee Anna Roberts said on June 16th, 2007 at 9:42am #


    I’ve read your past articles and posts about Barack Obama so I know EXACTLY where you are coming from. Yes, that’s right. I did my research on you. Your race baiting in the past , as it relates to Barack Obama and your personal hatred of him, proved ineffective earlier this year and it’s going to prove ineffective now. I am one African American female who isn’t buying the crap you are selling. Give it up “bruh”.

    Obama 2008 ! Get used to it!

  4. Michael Hureaux said on June 16th, 2007 at 12:21pm #

    The reality for Ms. Roberts and many other Obama supporters, is that all the “research” they claim they have done on the opposition to Obama’s ambitions is of the same quality as the research they’ve done on their candidate. That is to say, culty and sloppy. Hence, Ms. Roberts flies into an attack on the author of the article, wherein she doesn’t bother to cite any of his alleged “race baiting”.

    The reality is that many black folks, Ms. Roberts included, are quite fine with imperialist warfare and the continued capitalist destruction of infrastructure so long as a black face is driving it. They completely lose their minds when it comes to the follies of the bought out African American leadership, which due to its embrace of late capitalism has forever lost sight of the need for independent African American leadership. It is Ms. Roberts who is race baiting in order to serve a political mercenary who is no more worthy of support than George W. Bush or Rudolph Giuliani or any other political gangster of late capital.

  5. atheo said on June 16th, 2007 at 12:34pm #

    Excellent article Paul.

    Mark/Arlington writes:
    “The simple fact is that a majortiy of Americans view Obama from the perspective of values, policy positions and accomplishment which a majority identifies with and admires. ”

    In fact Americans don’t share Obomba’s readiness to nuke Iran.

    Overlooked in the Obomba coverage is the Latin Anmerican phenomena of Mestizo governance which perpetuates racism toward and exploitation of Indios. Would an Obomba administration be any different?

  6. atheo said on June 16th, 2007 at 1:13pm #

    Obama Girl
    Cause I Got a Crush On Obama.
    Buy the Song!
    You can now buy the song “I Got a Crush on Obama” right here…

    ALSO – you can buy Leah’s last song “My Box in a Box”

    UPDATE: Pat Buchanan just said on MSNBC he liked our song and it wouldn’t hurt Obama. Sweet!

    Go for it fans!

  7. Deadbeat said on June 16th, 2007 at 5:45pm #

    Obama — the great white wash. Liberal love Obama because then they don’t have to confront racism and now they too can tell African American to stop bellyaching.

    There needs to be more black leaders who can internationalize the movement and building bridges with other communities of colors. It’s time for blacks to realize the utter failure of Liberalism.

  8. Deadbeat said on June 16th, 2007 at 5:54pm #

    Interesting observation. Other than myself there was no response to the article about misogyny yet and article about racism illicit really bring out the mutts. Just a note to those white feminist who think they have the bigger problem.

  9. TS said on June 17th, 2007 at 12:04am #

    This is an interesting article, but you offer no solutions to your “level 2” racism. How exactly do you go about re-distributing the poker chips? While the past may have been unfair, the number 1 problem of black people today IS black people. Ideas and articles like this just lead to the “poor me” mentality that hold a lot of Blacks down to this day.

    The discrimination of today is more economically based than racially based. Poor blacks face the same problem of jobs that poor whites do. The middle class of both blacks and whites in under assault by stagnant wages, runaway inflation, and outsourcing (and illegal alien INsourcing) of jobs.

    How is Obama (or any other politician) supposed to re-distribute wealth in this country by taking from whites only and giving to blacks only.

  10. VCubed said on June 17th, 2007 at 12:27am #

    This article did nothing for me but make me glad I’m over my over-intellectualizing armchair politics. Been there, done Derrida, RIP.

    Fact is Obama denies none of the realities used like sledgehammers here. He took on racial profiling and the death penalty, very unpopular issues with many whites, liberal or not. He co-sponsored and promotes in not-friendly venues his support for the Second Chance Act to remove legal discrimination against ex-felons and to establish long-term employment and financial and social stability. There are plenty of Dixiecrat/DLC Black politicians that have done less and undermined the Civil Rights movement much worse than poor Obama. God, do you hate him because his mom’s white? Because his dad’s from Africa, not the Ole South?

    The Old Guard of radicalism that settled for conferences, booksignings, and preaching to the converted see their cliques disintegrating and getting replaced by some who, yes continue the denial of the Anglo world’s racism, but also by some who take the hard-fought hard-won integration prize and use all the benefits gained to push to move everyone forward.

    It’s a fact that we all know: if you act more like a white man, you get more access. Full stop. White male Derrida is not needed to explain it. White women in power are not trying to get white men to act more like white women, and they’re certainly not trying to get themselves or their men to act like Black men, much less Black women! They’re not trying to raise the prestige of poor white women either.

    Elitism reigns, image trumps substance, and the beat goes on, only with a professional cadre of “leaders” who seem to only help themselves and their friends – just like those they criticize! Real change needs lots less self-proclaimed and clique-elected “leaders” and a lot more grassroots, and the grassroots wants results, not ideology. I agree with above commenters that the young folks don’t deny racism, they simply want to do more than support self-aggrandizing “leaders” who take us nowhere except where it fills their own pockets.

    Every culture, movement, organization that tries to undermine the white-male-supremacist status quo faces the same problems, and railing against it and calling it names gets us nowhere. Been there, done that, was Captain of the PC Police in college. White supremacist oppression is the latest in a long list. Before white folks found us they kicked each other around, and we kicked each other around, in some places and times more ferociously and effectively than others, in some luckier times and places we got smart and worked together.

    Tearing white folks up doesn’t make them any more likely to listen and learn. It’s like any other kind of hostile act – it begets vengeance and resentment, not greater understanding and certainly not meaningful progress. The same ones that decade after decade rewrite the tirades on race, class, gender and sexuality inequalities are the last ones to man the gates when the revolution erupts – and most of them forget disability, the great equalizing inequality that gets most of us sometime if we live long enough.

    Rhetoric aside, there isn’t going to be a revolution, because the rich are too powerful to let one grow, and the poor have gotten too smart to sacrifice themselves only to end up some other leader’s sucker. It’s gonna take a much deeper evolution to create a deeper and lasting change.

    This society is still worshiping idols, childishly, willfully or malignantly ignorant of the tremendous want that their gluttony creates in helpless tiny bellies and old, work-worn ones. The hypocrisy of religious leaders, lawyers, politicians, academics and activists is not lost on the communities they use. The communities see them on television, at bookreadings and conferences around the country if not around the world, while the problems at home remain. The people getting published, televised, paid, perks and/or publicity for hollerin’ and doin’ nothin’ else for the communities are the ones who most criticise the accommodators. The communities think of all those frequent-flyer miles, the thousands of dollars in airfares and hotels, the speaker fees, the rents for huge auditoriums – aren’t these leaders sounding more and more like super-church preachers?

    Accomodators like Obama, who dissed the DLC but won’t try to tear it down entirely (as most white progressive Democrats also don’t try to do) displease lots of folks, but they get it done step by step, year after year, putting up with insult and indignity after insult, from both sides and every lazy ass fool in-between who’s got an opinion and not much else.

    Malcolm grew wiser with time; his rhetoric was dynamic, stirring and provocative before he went to Mecca, but after Mecca, it was beyond rhetoric – it was truly inspiring. I hope our peoples get it together and stop acting surprised there’s still racism, and get on with truly helping our communities, our country and our planet get healthier, more stable, and certainly more just and peaceful.

  11. paul street said on June 17th, 2007 at 4:27pm #

    Mark in Arlington’s “navel gazing” charge is bizarre. He must have no idea what that phrase means. The rest is just mindless repetition of Obama campaign dogma. One out.

    Same for Robert Vitaletti. The argument went in one eye and out the other. He’s just recycling b.s. from Obama Inc. He’s caught up in the same old campaign nonsense about getting beyond divisiveness and the “baggage of the past” (especially of those horrifying 1960s that Obama loves to demonize and distance himself from). Robert V. has substantive response to the argument regarding institutionalized/structural/societal racism (a topic to which I just dedicated an entire book in regards to Chicago) of course and he reduced to the childish claim that I am addicted to the notion of racism. Oh, okay: “I disagree with (or do not understand more likely) your argument…so I think you are addicted to your key concept(s).” There’s nothing to say. In any event I must mix my drugs since as much of my writing is about class and empire as it is about racism. Two down.

    Dee Anna Roberts has I think written me before. But why bother? Again there’s no substance here. Basically she wrote to say “I like Obama but you don’t and so I don’t like you. I think you are wrong and mean.” Oh, okay. Nice argument! Yes, I have no substantive moral or political argument; it’s really all about my supposed (in fact non-existent) personal hatred of Obama. How incredibly childish and naïve. Inning over.

    Michael Hureaux homers to deep Left. That’s it exactly sir: “all the ‘research’ they claim they have done on the opposition to Obama’s ambitions is of the same quality as the research they’ve done on their candidate… culty and sloppy. Hence, Ms. Roberts flies into an attack on the author of the article, wherein she doesn’t bother to cite any of his alleged ‘race baiting.’ The reality is that many black folks, Ms. Roberts included, are quite fine with imperialist warfare and the continued capitalist destruction of infrastructure so long as a black face is driving it. They completely lose their minds when it comes to the follies of the bought out African American leadership, which due to its embrace of late capitalism has forever lost sight of the need for independent African American leadership. It is Ms. Roberts who is race baiting in order to serve a political mercenary who is no more worthy of support than George W. Bush or Rudolph Giuliani or any other political gangster of late capital.” Bulls eye!

    Atheo doubles to left and asks an I think excellent question, noting that racial elites enlist selected members of racially oppressed groups to further racial oppression in Latin America as well. There are mestizo counterparts to Cosby and Oprah and Barack and Henry Louis Gates.

    The Obama Girl video (well the Obama Girl) is very hot in my opinion.

    I’m down with Deadbeat’s comment. He singled atheo in. That is a lot of what white liberals like about B.O. in my observation. It was something that Martin Luther King Jr. warned about.

    To TS I say look at the last chapter of my next book (Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis – out next month from Rowman & Littlefield) where I talk about some policy solution areas but also at the whole book where I systematically assault the “class (and economics) over race” argument. A problem statement/diagnosis doesn’t inherently have to give solutions but I do strive for solutions. And for what it’s worth I say in the book and elsewhere along with Dr. King that racism will not be overcome within the framework of capitalism.

    VCubed offers some very useful criticism of the old guard and what passed and passes for radicalism/activism in racial and other social justice areas. It’s pretty sad for sure. But I don’t read Derrida – this piece isn’t all that intellectually ambitious (or over intellectual)…the concepts are fairly matter of fact. And VCubed is far too kind to Obama — he’s one of the corporate aliens in the movie “The Live” (not one of the noble humans). B.O. did do some stuff on criminal justice issues in Springfield, but the terrain and priorities are very different on the national/presidential stage and his ex-offender stuff was very diluted and superficial in my opinion. I have quite a few substantive pieces on all this. I’m not part of the civil rights or any other kind of elite – academic or otherwise. I left all that behind (it was and is very much what VCubed describes at the end) and am just a Left writer calling contemporary events like I see them for better or worse. Of course, as Marx said, the point is to change history not just understand it. I never confuse publications like this or more widely distributed print ones with social transformation. Last year I was depressed to see Noam Chomsky fill up a large Iowa City theater standing room only (people were waiting to get in five city blocks back) after attending an antiwar protest that barely got 100 folks. Left celebrity (truly brilliant and prolific man, yes) comes to tell us what he’s written and says about global and domestic oppression and the masses flock in. They can’t get enough. Event to actually resist some aspect of the imperialism that Chomsky describes? A small outpouring as usual.

  12. David Kendall said on June 17th, 2007 at 9:58pm #

    I thought Obama might be the next Martin Luther King Jr. How gullible can “stupid sheep” like “me” be?

    “At the end of the day” — let’s take a look at “Barack Obama”:

    Much of this essay (above URL) is purely rhetorical and biased interpretation. But enough of it is based in documented fact to convince me against Barack Obama.

    The frightening fact of life “American” workers fail to grasp is that, it really doesn’t matter who gets (s)elected “President”, anymore — if it ever did. In a nation where “our” government is controlled “by the corporation and for the corporation” rather than “by the people and for the people”, workers simply don’t have any sort of political or economic representation (“voice”) in the decisions that directly affect our lives.

    It’s long past time for “life” to change in the United States, and for “American” workers set an example for the rest of the world to emulate. But Barack Obama is not the “crack hit” that will “make it all better”. Rather, “American” workers must agree to disagree on marginal issues, agree to agree on more pivotal issues, and “reclaim the commons” that a small minority of wealthy corporate elite seized from us 200- to 500-years ago in the name of “free-market capitalism”.

  13. George Thompson said on June 18th, 2007 at 2:23pm #

    MLK conflates militarism with capitalism and exploitation. The third evil is actually religion. I wouldn’t expect a black minister to speak against that but it is true nonetheless. Religion and racism are used to divide the masses while the rich use capitalism and militarism to exploit us. I like to call the capitalism piece the “rat race” so they all three begin with an “R”.

    Black people should never have adopted the religion of our oppressors. That has been our greatest mistake. Once we believed a white Jesus was coming back to save us from white men we stopped doing what we needed to do to save ourselves. We are still operating in that “waiting on Jesus” mode. There will be no next great black leader like MLK or Malcolm X because this government will not allow it to happen. It would have to be someone that could not be co-opted by corporations nor personal financial gain. I’m afraid that black leader does not exist……………yet.

  14. Timber said on June 18th, 2007 at 3:35pm #

    Either a Hillary Clinton or a Barack Obama presidency would be Pyrrich victories for liberals, because either will simply co-opt and assimilate targeted demographics into a system, defusing potential rage and resistance with superficial concessions to “the march of progress” toward some imagined utopia in which people from any background can equally participate in a system based on exploitation and violence and oppression. Neither Clinton nor Obama have said anything of substance to criticize the status quo, and either will be little more than a placeholder for the next white right-wing male bearing the Republican standard.

  15. Hue Longer said on June 18th, 2007 at 3:38pm #

    “There will be no next great black leader like MLK or Malcolm X because this government will not allow it to happen. It would have to be someone that could not be co-opted by corporations nor personal financial gain. I’m afraid that black leader does not exist……………yet”.

    I agree with your take, George. I was thinking if anyone could throw a wrench, he would have to be a beloved sports icon, currently active and on top of his game. Shaq a few years back maybe…but the next Muhamid Ali HAS to be an over the top marketed hero who is undeniably the best….today.

    Anybody else will be silenced or turned to a joke– and that goes especially true for politicians/preachers/activists who have no game minutes.

  16. paul street said on June 19th, 2007 at 10:14am #

    David Kendall for a direct comparison between Obama and King please see my article “The Pale Reflection: Barack Obama, MLK and the Meaning of the Black Revolution,” available online at

    You do not substantiate the allegation of some “purely rhetorical and biased interpretation” in the ZMagazine article but I’m glad the essay appeared to have some decent impact.

    I’m intrigued by George Thompson’s comments about religion but I don’t think King conflated militarism with capitalism. King regularly denounced (from 1966 on) what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated:” racism, economic exploitation/poverty (capitalism), and militarism. He did say you couldn’t deal adequately with one of these evils without tacklng the others.

    I think Timber is correct on H.C. and B.O. Where I might tick off some DV readers is that I think Edwards (about whom I have no illusions; I am to the left of Kucinich) is more than insignificantly better than both of them. Granted, this says more about how right HC and BO are than about how “left” JRE is .

    In my previous comment above, I meant to say (I insert missing words in CAPS) that “Robert V. has NO substantive response to the argument regarding institutionalized/structural/societal racism (a topic to which I just dedicated an entire book in regards to Chicago) of course and he IS reduced to the childish claim that I am addicted to the notion of racism. “

  17. John Wellington said on June 24th, 2007 at 8:23pm #

    I never expect whites to respond favorably to the truth. Paul Street’s article is one of the all-time greats.

  18. Ben Lunsford said on July 2nd, 2007 at 4:17pm #

    It seems strange that you fault whites for supporting a “clean, articulate” black instead of… what? A loud, unintelligent person who preaches about THE LORD a la Sharpton/Jackson? Or perhaps a rapper? Would those stereotypes be more acceptably “black” to you?

    I don’t care if Obama is black, white, or purple, and neither should you. I support Barack Obama over Hillary because he is intelligent, thoughtful, and would make a better President of the United States than she would. That is precisely why I could NEVER support a Sharpton or Jesse Jackson… not because they are too “black”… but too religious, too stupid. And easily outclassed by Hillary.

    This isn’t a race to be the blackest black. It’s a race to be leader of the free world.

  19. Deadbeat said on July 5th, 2007 at 12:11pm #

    Unfortunately the U.S. is not the leader of the “free world”. It is the leader in making the world despotic. The U.S. throughout its history has thwarted freedom. If you are interested in seeing a movement toward freedom check out the brown and black people’s struggles against U.S neoliberalism in South America

  20. mj said on July 5th, 2007 at 7:48pm #

    I see this piece offended some but for me it put words to the discomfort I feel toward Obama. It’s great that so many people are praising personal responsibility but I wonder how it would go over if Hillary Clinton chastised women in a public forum. Also, Obama acts as a leader of the African American community when it suits him, but in his book he describes himself as “not ascribing to any particular tribe”. It’s very disappointing.

  21. panther said on November 2nd, 2007 at 10:25pm #

    The only politics in this country that’s relevant to black people today is the politics of revolution… none other.
    H. Rap Brown

  22. joseph said on March 13th, 2008 at 10:23am #

    I have always been interested in the fact that because I am white I am racist from the get go. Its also amazing that when I have a child …he or she will be considered racist just because of their skin color. I mean if a white person disagrees with a black person he is racists,,,if a white person argues his race is just as good as anyone else’s..he is racist. If a white person in any media form says anything about person thats black ..they are fired…shunned. If 4 white guys beat a black guy half to death ..its a hate crime and proof that all whites are still racist. If 4 blacks beat a white guy half to death he probably said something he shouldn’t have. Whites only vote for Obama because he is not to black. Now what is black..if black is gold teeth..baggy clothes ,looking to get back at whites , and blames the whites for anything wrong in his life then no he isn’t that black. Al racist,Tawana Brawley,if that was a white doing what he did….He might have gotten shot. See it’s ok for anyone…to say what they want to about whites…be it on TV or the senate or songs. Hell if a white person says the “N” word they are racist from then on out. Oh yeah and before someone screams white privilege, I cant remember being given a 1800 number to a hotline for whites who need instant acceptance because of their skin. Only privilege most whites enjoy is the fact that we are taught from birth no matter what the law…no matter what life throws at are the only one responsible for you giving up. Thats right whites are not given a back up excuse for anything so thats how we go at life.
    Yep I agree racism is still strong…its just not the same as it use to be

  23. personally said on June 15th, 2008 at 3:04pm #

    Um, although I admire some things about Obama and applaud his audacity to run, I question his potential as a presidential candidate AS MUCH AS I DO HILLARY. I sometimes question the motives of some critics even as I have my own reservations. It would be good to have a black person in office, but to believe that he will automatically make substantial changes because he is black should not be above question or taken as a given. I have seen the first black phenomenon where blacks elected one of their own in a position only for that person to either betray the interest of blacks or serving them or being kicked out once they became a threat. There have also been cases where black people have been put in positions and thwarted from doing things DESPITE EFFORT ON THEIR OWN PART simply by the nature of institutions,economics,policies, and processes for the simple fact that the institutional and other systematic factors were SIMPLY NOT DESIGNED to change structural problems. Which is not that surprising considering that the hands of people in leadership(regardless of race, class,gender,sexual or religious preference or nationality) are tied in the best of circumstances. I have other reservations but I will leave it at this-There are going to have to be an emphasis on other avenues outside of just electoral politics because it is only so much that will be accomplished in this arena. I do not advocate capitalism I am more for something along the lines of a cooperative commonwealth. Anyway, I am impressed with Cynthia McKinney . She’s both black and a woman.