I have been doing a lot of reading lately. Primarily because I find the political and racial atmosphere in A-merry-ca to be so fascinating.
Anyway, my man Matef from Socal shot me an e-mail today, which led me to the following article from Naomi Klein. It's a long article and it's creating a lot of buzz in certain circles. If you are a thinking person, or in anyway intellectually curious, you should read it. Here is a sampling:
"Americans began the summer still celebrating the dawn of a "post-racial" era. They are ending it under no such illusion. The summer of 2009 was all about race, beginning with Republican claims that Sonia Sotomayor, Barack Obama's nominee to the US Supreme Court, was "racist" against whites. Then, just as that scandal was dying down, up popped "the Gates controversy", the furore over the president's response to the arrest of African American academic Henry Louis Gates Jr in his own home. Obama's remark that the police had acted "stupidly" was evidence, according to massively popular Fox News host Glenn Beck, that the president "has a deep-seated hatred for white people".
Obama's supposed racism gave a jolt of energy to the fringe movement that claims he has been carrying out a lifelong conspiracy to cover up his (fictional) African birth. Then Fox News gleefully discovered Van Jones, White House special adviser on green jobs. After weeks of being denounced as "a black nationalist who is also an avowed communist", Jones resigned last Sunday.
The undercurrent of all these attacks was that Obama, far from being the colour-blind moderate he posed as during the presidential campaign, is actually obsessed with race, in particular with redistributing white wealth into the hands of African Americans and undocumented Mexican workers. At town hall meetings across the US in August, these bizarre claims coalesced into something resembling an uprising to "take our country back". Henry D Rose, chair of Blacks For Social Justice, recently compared the overwhelmingly white, often armed, anti-Obama crowds to the campaign of "massive resistance" launched in the late 50s – a last-ditch attempt by white southerners to block the racial integration of their schools and protect other Jim Crow laws. Today's "new era of 'massive resistance'," writes Rose, "is also a white racial project."
There is at least one significant difference, however. In the late 50s and early 60s, angry white mobs were reacting to life-changing victories won by the civil rights movement. Today's mobs, on the other hand, are reacting to the symbolic victory of an African American winning the presidency. Yet they are rising up at a time when non-elite blacks and Latinos are losing significant ground, with their homes and jobs slipping away from them at a much higher rate than from whites. So far, Obama has been unwilling to adopt policies specifically geared towards closing this ever-widening divide. The result may well leave minorities with the worst of all worlds: the pain of a full-scale racist backlash without the benefits of policies that alleviate daily hardships. Meanwhile, with Obama constantly painted by the radical right as a cross between Malcolm X and Karl Marx, most progressives feel it is their job to defend him – not to point out that, when it comes to tackling the economic crisis ravaging minority communities, the president is not doing nearly enough.
For many antiracist campaigners, the realisation that Obama might not be the leader they had hoped for came when he announced his administration would be boycotting the UN Durban Review Conference on racism, widely known as "Durban II". Almost all of the public debate about the conference focused on its supposed anti-Israel bias. When it actually took place in April in Geneva, virtually all we heard about was Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inflammatory speech, which was met with rowdy disruptions, from the EU delegates who walked out, to the French Jewish students who put on clown wigs and red noses, and tried to shout him down.
Lost in the circus atmosphere was the enormous importance of the conference to people of African descent, and nowhere more so than among Obama's most loyal base. The US civil rights movement had embraced the first Durban conference, held in summer 2001, with great enthusiasm, viewing it as the start of the final stage of Martin Luther King's dream for full equality. Though most black leaders offered only timid public criticism of the president's Durban II boycott, the decision was discussed privately as his most explicit betrayal of the civil rights struggle since taking office.
The original 2001 gathering was not all about Israelis v Palestinians, or antisemitism, as so many have claimed (though all certainly played a role). The conference was overwhelmingly about Africa, the ongoing legacy of slavery and the huge unpaid debts that the rich owe the poor.
Holding the 2001 World Conference against Racism in what was still being called "the New South Africa" had seemed a terrific idea. World leaders would gather to congratulate themselves on having slain the scourge of apartheid, then pledge to defeat the world's few remaining vestiges of discrimination – things such as police violence, unequal access to certain jobs, lack of adequate healthcare for minorities and intolerance towards immigrants. Appropriate disapproval would be expressed for such failures of equality, and a well-meaning document pledging change would be signed to much fanfare. That, at least, is what western governments expected to happen.
They were mistaken. When the conference arrived in Durban, many delegates were shocked by the angry mood in the streets: tens of thousands of South Africans joined protests outside the conference centre, holding signs that said "Landlessness = racism" and "New apartheid: rich and poor". Many denounced the conference as a sham, and demanded concrete reparations for the crimes of apartheid. South Africa's disillusionment, though particularly striking given its recent democratic victory, was part of a much broader global trend, one that would define the conference, in both the streets and the assembly halls. Around the world, developing countries were increasingly identifying the so-called Washington Consensus economic policies as little more than a clever rebranding effort, a way for former northern colonial powers to continue to drain the southern countries of their wealth without being inconvenienced by the heavy lifting of colonialism. Roughly two years before Durban, a coalition of developing countries had refused further to liberalise their economies, leading to the collapse of World Trade Organisation talks in Seattle. A few months later, a newly militant movement calling for a debt jubilee disrupted the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Durban was a continuation of this mounting southern rebellion, but it added something else to the mix: an invoice for past thefts.
Although it was true that southern countries owed debts to foreign banks and lending institutions, it was also true that in the colonial period – the first wave of globalisation – the wealth of the north was built, in large part, on stolen indigenous land and free labour provided by the slave trade. Many in Durban argued that when these two debts were included in the calculus, it was actually the poorest regions of the world – especially Africa and the Caribbean – that turned out to be the creditors and the rich world that owed a debt. All big UN conferences tend to coalesce around a theme, and in Durban 2001 the clear theme was the call for reparations. The overriding message was that even though the most visible signs of racism had largely disappeared – colonial rule, apartheid, Jim Crow-style segregation – profound racial divides will persist and even widen until the states and corporations that profited from centuries of state-sanctioned racism pay back some of what they owe..."
Sometimes we just "can't see the forest for the trees". Especially when we live in the forest.
More here, and in September's Harper's Magazine.
*Pic courtesy of Michael Reynolds and the Guardian.