Until he was tapped as a shiny new national and global asset by the white American ruling-class and catapulted to rock star status in the summer of 2004, then Illinois state senator Barack Obama was not particularly popular in the Black Chicago South Side that he deceptively called “home.” Besides being an outsider from Honolulu and Harvard Law, he was an aloof and arrogant part-time law professor over at the conservative and heavily white University of Chicago, an institution long known for displacing and lording over Black South Side communities.
Obama first became a state senator in a Black South Side district by betraying Alice Palmer, a popular and progressive Black legislator, and then using a nasty campaign method — challenging her nomination signatures — to have her removed from the Democratic Party ballot in 1995.
His record in the state senate — where he became fast friends with white Republicans and antagonized many of his fellow Black legislators — quickly validated Adolph Reed Jr.’s early description of him:
“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway.”
As a state senator, Obama developed a well-deserved reputation for sounding progressive on various issues that mattered to Black Chicagoans — school funding, health insurance, poverty, mass incarceration and felony marking, and more — when speaking to South Side audiences and then padding his resume with tepid legislation reflecting his centrist taste, to crafting “pragmatic” compromises with the white right.
It didn’t help that Obama accompanied all this and more with a self-important know-it-all attitude fortified by his growing alliances with big money downtown foundations and deep pockets North Shore elites — bastions of not-so “liberal” white metropolitan wealth and power linked to Chicago’s hegemonic corporate-neoliberal white mayor Richie Daley.
It all matched the nice big semi-mansion Obama bought with help from the shady Chicago real estate developer Tony Rezko in tony Kenwood, a leading preserve for the Black bourgeoisie just north of Hyde Park, home to the ruling class university. In both neighborhoods, the University of Chicago police stand ready to defend propertied and professional class elites of all races against perceived threats from deeply impoverished Black people suffering ghetto life to the north (in the Oakland neighborhood), south (Woodlawn) and west (Grand Boulevard).
It’s not for nothing that Obama got his clock cleaned when he challenged Congressman Bobby Rush for the predominantly Black South Side 2nd congressional district in 2000. Himself no slouch when it came to selling-out to corporate interests, Rush had little difficulty crushing Obama. Rush had great fun portraying his erstwhile rival as an out-of-touch elitist more attuned to the white worlds of Harvard, Hyde Park, and the University of Chicago than to the gritty realities of life and poverty in the city’s Black neighborhoods. Regarding racial oppression as well other areas of concern to progressives, Obama’s presidency was even more consistent with Reed’s description of Obama as a “vacuous to repressive neoliberal.” As the Columbia University political scientist Frederick C. Harris noted half-way through the Obama years, “the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality…. Mr. Obama,” Harris wrote in the New York Times, “has had little to say on concerns specific to blacks. His State of the Union address in 2011 was the first by any president since 1948 to not mention poverty or the poor… [and] Mr. Obama, in his first two years in office, talked about race less than any Democratic president had since 1961. From racial profiling to mass incarceration to affirmative action, his comments have been sparse and halting.”
As the nation’s first technically black president said less about race than any American president since the racist Dwight Eisenhower, the crisis of black America deepened. Blacks took the biggest hit by far in a Great Recession that was caused by white financial elites. The People’s Policy Project (PPP) reported last fall that “Black Wealth Cratered Under Obama.” Analyzing the Federal Reserve’s 2007 and 2016 Survey(s) of Consumer Finances, the PPP found that:
“the top 2 percent of black families improved their position; the top 2 percent of Latino families improved their position; and the top 22 percent of white families improved their position. Virtually everyone else was worse off in 2016 than in 2007 in terms of their family’s net worth…. The median white family lost $26,000 under Obama while the 99th percentile white family gained $1.4 million. The black 99th percentile added $275,000 of wealth under Obama while every other black family lost money, including steep losses among most of the black upper class. The 99th percentile of Latinos added about $300,000 of wealth under Obama while every other Latino family stood still or lost ground.”
As Jacobin reported in article titled “How Obama Destroyed Black Wealth” last December, this remarkable collapse of Black net worth “can be laid at the feet of President Obama… Obama had the power — money, legislative tools, and legal leverage — to sharply ameliorate the foreclosure crisis. He chose not to use it.” That choice reflected his cringing deference to the giant white-run Wall Street institutions that funded his two presidential campaigns and staffed many positions in his administration.
Here we are more than one and a half years into a racist white Republican presidency that owes its existence at least in part to Obama’s objectively white-supremacist demoralization and demobilization of the Black electorate (why bother to vote when even a “first Black president” couldn’t bother to help Black America?). Obama has been cashing in on his eight years of service to the nation’s predominantly white and unelected dictatorships of money and empire — service he was able to provide from the White House thanks in no small part to his strategic use of Chicago’s Black South Side as the staging ground for his rise up the ladder of U.S. power and politics. He has entered the national oligarchy, moving into the ranks of the parasitic financial bourgeoisie that U.S. politicians serve, ape, and increasingly hope to enter after years of “public service.”
How richly appropriate is it, then, that he is now antagonizing Black South Side community activists with plans for an Obama Presidential Center that promises to appropriate longstanding cherished parkland in the city’s South Side Jackson Park — one of Chicago’s great lakefront civic and common spaces — and threatens to accelerate the racially displacing force of gentrification in and around the neighborhoods that Honolulu and Harvard Law’s Obama once called “home”? The Center is being rammed though over Black community and environmentalist protests by the Obama Foundation, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel (the vicious corporatist who served as Obama’s first White House chief of staff), and the racist “urban renewal” (Black removal) pioneer the University of Chicago.
“If Columbia University [where Obama got his bachelor’s degree in U.S. imperialist studies — P.S.] had said they were taking 17 acres of Central Park for this,” the Chicago landscape activist Charles Birnbaum recently told Time magazine (see M. Rhodan, “Obama’s Rocky Return,” Time, July 30, 2018) “they’d be laughed out of New York. So why is this any different?”
“It’s the ultimate in irony,” Politico reported earlier this year: “The world’s most famous ex-community organizer is facing a minor uprising from the community where his presidential center is supposed to be built—the same community, in fact, where he got his start in politics.” South Side organizers want the Obama Center to sign-on to a community-benefits agreement, a CBA including the following basic demands:
* Reserve 30% of new and rehabilitated housing in neighborhoods surrounding the center for low-income families.
* Freeze property taxes for longtime residents.
* Guarantee local hiring in and around the center.
* Require a percentage of development costs to be set aside for affordable housing and job training.
* Independent monitoring on all of the above.
The former South Side community organizer and first Black president’s response? Arrogant and neoliberal dismissal. Time reports that “Barack Obama himself rebuffed concerns about gentrification at a community meeting last fall.” In a public meeting last February, Obama coolly said that South Side beggars have no business looking a development gift horse in the mouth and proclaimed from on high that “we have such a long way to go before you will start seeing the prospect of gentrification.”
Meanwhile, real estate interests are licking their chops over “development” (profit) opportunities linked to the Obama Center’s construction.
Activists were taken aback, noting that gentrification — replete with rising rents, home values, and property taxes — is already well underway in Woodlawn, a Black neighborhood directly south of the University of Chicago’s campus. One activist told Time writer Maya Rhodan that South Siders enthused for the Obama Center “might be investing in their own displacement.”
Many of Obama supporters were “surprised” by Obama’s “detachment,” according to Rhodan. They shouldn’t have been. This is the same old “vacuous to repressive” know-it-all neoliberal Obama that many of us on the actual progressive Left and from the South Side (I grew up in the neighborhoods that Honolulu’s Obama claims as “home”) remember well from the late 20th and opening 21st centuries. It’s the same Obama who serenely and consciously helped “protect” (Obama’s own word for it) the very same wealthy white Wall Street chieftains and parasitic rentier capitalists who collapsed the U.S. and global economy on the eve of his ascendancy — and who kept the U.S. imperial machine set on kill while expanding its presence in Africa like never before.
Originally published at Black Agenda Report, Aug. 3, 2018
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Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of seven books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); (with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011); and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Paul writes regularly for Truthdig, Telesur English, Counterpunch, Black Agenda Report, Z Magazine and Dandelion Salad.
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