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Presidential Possibilities: Can People of Color Change the World Under Obama?

Essay examines the pathways for change led by people of color under an Obama administration.

by Pancho McFarland

The question that confronts us this election year is not whether a President Obama will lead us to a better world but rather will people of color and their allies force an Obama administration to seek a more just world. We no longer, if we ever did, have the luxury of ignoring the struggles of the colonized, the indigenous, and the marginalized. Increasingly it has become apparent that the fates of people of color in the United States are directly related to those in poverty in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. The first order of business is to abandon nationalist worldviews. The notion that we are somehow superior to or more blesses than people in other nations or the less fortunate in this country creates chauvinism, competition, and antagonism. It allows us to blame our economic woes on the immigrant working class rather than on the elite who move factories and jobs away from the U.S. seeking cheaper overhead costs in low wage neo-colonized countries in the global South. The neoliberal capitalist economic practice of free-trade allows industrialized countries, especially the U.S., to plunder the resources and markets of poor countries. This causes both unemployment here and landlessness and joblessness elsewhere. We must recognize the connected fates of the poor and marginalized throughout the world. How will an Obama presidency help us achieve a more internationalist perspective? How can we force Senator Obama to make change in terms of nationalist chauvinism and predatory capitalism?

Obama has clearly demonstrated his allegiance to “American” nationalist values and perspective and the neoliberal economic model. The flap over how often Obama wears the flag lapel pin and the questioning of Michelle Obama’s patriotism and the responses to these events from the Obama camp demonstrate his nationalism. The Senator’s campaign stepped up their attemts to depict him as an All-American. The Democratic National Convention biography of him emphasized Senator Obama’s wholesome upbringing with a white mother. Barack plays to his All-Americanness by telling stories of his childhood on television news and interview shows and The David Letterman Show (September 10, 2008) where he discussed his first trip to the U.S. mainland including his memorable visit to Disneyland. He is every much an American as John McCain.

Nor does Obama demonstrate a willingness to completely do away with neoliberal economic practices. Nothing in Obama’s speeches or his Senate history would suggest that a President Obama would pursue just and equitable economic practices for the U.S. working classes and the global poor. He speaks often of reviving and securing the middle-class and of creating jobs. Never does he even suggest marginalizing capital or encouraging other economic and social systems that would empower the poor and lead to safety, prosperity and collective ownership for the majority of the world’s people. Obama is not our Robin Hood who will take back from the rich and give to the poor and working classes who create wealth. Don't expect Obama to even think about (much less engage in) some Marxian redistribution of wealth.

How do we get Obama to dismantle the bloated military which causes unimaginable environmental damage and the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The U.S. military has become the prime enforcer of U.S. law and neoliberal economics in many countries. It harms innocent people of color across the globe. Additionally, the enormous “Defense” budget means that other aspects of “American” security are ignored. Job security, security of health and education take a back seat to military “security.” The websites and The National Priorities Project graphically illustrate the waste in human life, money and resources in our obsession with militarism. The U.S. war machine creates environmental damage through the reliance on the burning of petroleum fuels in its vehicles and through the waste left by munitions including radioactive nuclear waste from the superhot uranium 235 based armor-piercing bullets used in both of our Gulf Wars on Iraq. Not only are Iraqis exposed to high levels of nuclear radiation, these munitions are responsible for Gulf War Syndrome in Gulf War veterans and their children. This syndrome closely mirrors the birth defects, cancers, rashes, etc seen in Iraqis. The problems associated with using nuclear materials in such munitions is well-documented in the film, Metal of Dishonor.

Obama seems to willingly embrace “American” militarism. He does not believe we need an end to war. He does not want to end war. He wants to end the wrong war and reign warfare on Afghani and Pakistani people while aggressively posturing toward other countries including Russia, South Korea and Iran. Thus, the goal of people of color in the U.S. should be to force Obama’s administration to reduce military funding and aggression. We could then shift resources to domestic problems such as jobs, community empowerment, health care and education. We could also attempt new international relations that are not based on aggression, resource theft or neo-colonialism. Mutually respectful and beneficial relations could develop between the U.S. and underdeveloped countries. These relations would be based on an internationalist perspective that recognizes the interrelatedness of all peoples. Life would be respected; not just “American” life.

Again, the question is: Will people of color force an Obama administration to seek justice practices and not just us policies? We have to first rid ourselves of our various chauvinisms and adopt a relational perspective. We must recognize that our fates our linked to the fates of the poor and marginalized throughout the globe. We must recognize “all our relations” (as the Lakota might say), the life in each of us. We have to redefine who we see as “Us” and “Them.” Prejudice has to be replaced by understanding and recognition.

In this way we can organize across social classes (races, genders, sexualities, classes, countries, generations) and seize the kind of power that can pressure Obama, Organized rhizomatically (as DeLeuze and Guattari might say about groups loosely linked with no chief authority or formal affiliations) in thousands of different groups throughout the country we can affect economic change, develop an environmental justice and stewardship mentality, develop new health care and healing systems, and educate the future generations in economic justice, internationalist perspectives and the sacredness of life. These are the kinds of things that previous leaders of color including King, Chavez, Ghandhi, Guevara and Malcolm X encouraged and fought for. In whatever sector we are in we can affect change. This is the hope of the U.S. people whether under an Obama or a McCain presidency. The real hope for change (the words emblazoned on numerous Obama campaign posters) will not come from faith in a messianic figure such as Senator Obama. Change will not come from the halls of the White House or Senate but from the energy of people tired of societal ills such as hatred, militarism and ecological destruction. Therein lies the possibilities promised by Obama.

Pancho McFarland is an assistant professor of sociology at Chicago State University. He recently published Chicano Rap: Gender and Violence in the Postindustrial Barrio.

Copyright © Pancho McFarland. All rights reserved.