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Is Obama's Election as the First Black President Conclusive Evidence of the Civil Rights Movement's Success?

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Judging by the serious meltdown across the national landscape in the mostly black occupied inner cities, those who would answer this question in the affirmative -- supporting the thesis that the Civil Rights Movement has been a success -- would be hard-pressed to make their case based on a serious review of any objective evidence. I believe the best they can do is to continue to fall back on anecdotal and wholly impressionistic (mostly media-guided wish-fulfilling pronouncements) which appear, on the surface to have an objective basis in fact, but which, upon careful analysis and examination, is revealed to be embarrassingly hollow, mostly ephemeral, always reversible, and based on the filmiest and softest of evidence.

Proponents of this view cite, as their best evidence of the success of the Civil Rights Movement, the fact that “Blacks have moved into the middle class;” and that there are “a large number of black mayors and other elected officials all across the land,” including now, Obama as President; that Blacks now have open access to public accommodations in the South; that Black home ownership has never been higher; and that none of these things could have been possible only a few decades ago.

And while they may be correct about the sorry state of racism nationwide several decades ago, this says little or nothing about actual Black racial progress in regards to closing the gap between Black and White Americans over the same time period, and since. There is no statistical evidence that any meaningful gaps have been closed at all. Nor do any of these indices of progress have anything to do with a renewed White willingness to engage in an honest pursuit of racial equality and integration as a major social goal for the nation. Nor, for that matter, do these indices have anything to do with the original goals of the Civil Rights Movement itself.

But more to the point, these often exaggerated, misleading and oblique pronouncements betray and cover-up a much larger and much deeper, and much more serious lack of commitment by the White American public to address the full range of issues dealing with racial inequality and the lack of full integration of the races within the U.S. [As one of my White friends reminded me again recently: White people simply don’t care what happens to Blacks in the U.S.] And here I am referring to the shameful incarceration of more than a million Black men (more than all the men in Communist Chinese prisons). The dramatically poorer health of Blacks and Native Americans; the embarrassing deterioration of inner city and public schools, and the continued segregation of the cities throughout the U.S., just for starters.

Lavish claims that blacks have moved into the middle class were first made in a series of articles in Commentary magazine during the Johnson administration by Wattenberg and Schammon, who argued for instance that black movement into the middle class was a direct result of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society Programs,” and that at the time (1972) it was just a matter of time before blacks would catch up with whites all together. However, their data was mostly a carefully arranged liberal statistical fairy tale, for even then it could have been argued equally well that the meager progress recorded during the Johnson years was not so much a result of increased White willingness to promote equality and integration, but a result of a certain amount of inevitable “forward leakage” on the part of Blacks, who have always been (even during slavery) bent on succeeding “despite racism,” and not “because of LBJ’s programs,” and, more importantly, not because of any relaxation of White resistance and overt objections to the perceived threat that Black progress seem always to represent.

In fact, as still remains the case even today, forward movement on the part of Blacks continues to be seen as being a threat to “passive White supremacy.”  Moreover, despite the fact that Black progress has always been an uphill battle against determined, organized and purposeful White resistance, whenever Blacks do succeed, always against this current of White resistance, the success is nevertheless chalked up as a victory for White tolerance and magnanimity.  However, the cold-blooded truth is that almost all Black progress has been achieved “despite White racism,” and only because White resistance has been “forced” to yield to the inevitabilities of Black forward motion.

In short, Black progress is never due, as the conventional wisdom assumes, to Whites voluntarily ceding White supremacist ground, or even to White magnanimity: that is by a overt willingness on the part of Whites to promote the national goal of full racial equality and integration.

The same can be said for the increased number of Black elected officials. Without being interpreted and viewed in the proper context, the numbers of Black elected officials in themselves are virtually meaningless. In the major cities where Black mayors had been elected, for instance, while it is true that a few patronage jobs for members of the Black middle class did result, and in rare instances improvements in some city services did occur, on balance elected Black officials are a net negative for both the nation and its Black people.  This is so because invariably the election of Black mayors alarms Whites, sending them and the tax base scurrying to the suburbs, stripping away and hollowing out the inner cities' economic base. This dramatically overriding negative effect, due entirely to passive-aggressive White racism, cancels out all the claims to progress that might have accrued due to the meager positive benefits of having a Black mayor. Arguably, Blacks as a whole might be better off by simply rejecting a Black candidate in favor of voting for a White mayor and thus avoiding the devastating result of scaring the tax base off to the suburbs. This is perhaps one of the most cynical paradoxes of a profoundly racist society.

As a result of the fleeing tax base, inner city cultural institutions, including especially schools, have deteriorated to the point of being mere “babysitting and detention facilities.” Factories and jobs too have been relocated away from the inner cities, leaving them wide open to corrupt officials and to the whims of the underground and criminal economy, especially to drug trafficking and other forms of organized crime. Thus, with the election of Black mayors all across the nation, comes devastation within the inner cities on a massive and virtually unimaginable scale, a scale that reminds us of the bombed out cities of Europe during the last world war. Yet, since it is unaffected, White America is trained not to acknowledge this as a proper part of America, and thus Whites willfully sit on the sidelines, failing to see the inner city melt-down as an American crisis.

As for the opening of public accommodations, beyond a symbol of dignity, this was always only a symbolic “throw-away” goal for the Civil Rights Movement, used mostly as a purposeful social lighting rod without any further intrinsic meaning or contribution to the betterment of the Black condition. What value could allowing Blacks access to public facilities, without the education or financial resources needed to enjoy them, possibly really have? After all, as many of us discovered after the lunch counters were finally integrated during the 1960s: one needed a job even to be able to afford to sit and eat a meal at the very lunch counters which we had just integrated.

And as for the increased black home ownership, well, the economic crisis we are currently experiencing, reveals that the predatory subprime loans, while they appeared on the surface to be redressing a long standing problem in housing discrimination and discriminatory lending practices, in truth just turned out to be another bitter pill that Blacks are used to swallowing: It was little more than a cynical “bust-out scheme,” designed to rob the poor, including Blacks, out of their family wealth on a massive scale. That this was a program “touted” and repeatedly promoted by conservative republican business forces, and disproportionately targeted Blacks, should have been an early warning sign that these "bogus loans" could not have been altogether, on the “up-and-up.”

And so it is with the "so-called" racial progress as a result of the Civil Rights Movement: cynicism and paradoxes all the way down to the bottom.

Finally, that brings me back to Mr. Obama, who is a product of Chicago’s “racist gangster style democratic machine run” politics. And except perhaps for Boston Massachusetts, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Chicago is perhaps America’s most racist metropolis. Chicago politics have a long pedigree of racism rivaling that of the worse examples in the Deep South. For anyone who doubts this, I suggest reviewing the vicious racist campaign run by republican Bernard Epton against Harold Washington in his bid for the mayor-ship in 1983. In that campaign, the reader may recall that in an unprecedented move based on race alone, Democratic Party members defected from their own party to join the Republican side to vote against their own candidate simply because he was Black. Or if that example is not enough evidence of how vile Chicago politics are, then one only needs to remember the "mad dog"-like reaction to Dr. King’s non-violent demonstrations in the Chicago area during the late 1960s, or the cynical move that Rod Blagojevich made when the noose of justice began to tightening around his exposed neck.

But additionally, and perhaps most importantly, we must be reminded that far from succeeding in his community organizing work, where he tried for the better part of three years to bring racial groups together to solve the shared problems of poverty and poor city services, it could be argued that instead of succeeding, Mr. Obama actually failed and then had to throw up his hands as he escaped his predicament by entering state and national politics -- thereby literally “falling uphill” to the Presidency.  

The point here being that while no one doubts that Mr. Obama is a very bright man indeed, there is no evidence in his track record that he has been successful in either alleviating the problems of poverty generally, or eliminating the problems of Black poverty in particular  -- even when he has focused exclusively on those particular problems. Therefore, for those of us who have dreams that something might be done about the horrible plight of American cities in general and about the Black American condition in particular on the Obama watch, I say: watch this space, but don’t hold you breathe.


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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
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