In the second week of November 2008, the anti-racist educator Tim Wise took to his blog to issue a “Screw you!” to “those who say this election means nothing, who insist that Obama, because he cozied up to Wall Street, or big business, is just another kind of evil no different than any other.” According to Wise, our “cynicism had become such an encumbrance as to render (us) all but useless to the liberation movement.” “In serious risk of political self-immolation”, Wise concluded, our “burning” is one we “will richly deserve.”
Before discussing what Wise, and many others, were wrong about, it should be noted that he was entirely right that those who thought the election meant nothing were mistaken.
Among those who would agree is David Dayen whose recent Atlantic piece describes how the financial crisis constituted “an extinction event for the black middle class” disproportionately represented among the “9.3 million American families who have lost their properties since the housing bubble collapsed.” They were among the “more than 20 million people, forced to uproot their lives and find shelter.” For them, the 2008 election of Obama certainly meant something: it meant suffering “the greatest disintegration of black wealth in recent memory.”
That brings up the second point on which Wise was correct which has to do not with substance but with rhetorical style. The “evil” of the Obama administration was indeed “different” from that represented by previous neoliberal Democrats: Whereas atrocities such as welfare reform, the crime bill and the war on drugs were the product of mostly white technocrats presided over by the Clintons, within the Obama administration policies devastating black america were advanced by black americans. These included Obama himself and the head of the Justice Department Eric Holder whose failure to prosecute the marketing of fraudulent loans in inner cities was a crucial element, as Denvir notes.
As the the left slowly emerged from its dysfunctional and self-destructive obsession with the first African American President, it has become clear that these two points were connected. What had been a signifier of the potential for change, now became a bludgeon by which those critical of neoliberal policies would be attacked. Among surrogates wielding it were Mellssa Harris Perry, Joy Ann Reid and Michael Eric Dyson who were quick to dismiss the mere mention of shortcomings in Obama’s policies as motivated by white supremacist tendencies expressing themselves in a deeply ingrained resistance to respecting black leadership.
As I noted at the time, whether or not he was aware of it, Wise was among those involved in defending Obama’s neoliberal agenda whether through his service to Teach for America, attacking the white privilege enjoyed by Occupy Wall Street activists, red baiting “white Marxists”, denouncing Edward Snowden as “full of crap” and smearing Glenn Greenwald for “never hav[ing] sa[id] shit about racial profiling, or surveillance of POC/Muslims.”
His views, however, are useful in one respect in functioning as a reference point helping us to negotiate the fraught topic of Identity politics. This recently received a spike in attention due to Bernie Sanders having referenced it in response to a question following a speech a couple of weeks ago. Before discussing what Sanders said, it is worth noting what he did not say, which is that he did not, as was repeatedly claimed by Clinton surrogates, “urge his supporters to ditch identity politics.” Rather, Sanders suggested that “one of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.”
As several activists pointed out, going beyond means does not mean ditching, rather the opposite: it means building on its foundation. Those claiming that Sanders’s supporters wanted to move backward rather than forward on racial justice initiatives were reiterating by this point a familiar Clintonite attack, most recently taking the form of Michael Dyson charging that Sanders was “prickly about race, uncomfortable with an outspoken, demanding blackness.”
That this was always a cynical canard should by now be well understood thanks to a Reuters poll which provided the relevant data. In fact, contrary to what was routinely claimed, Sanders supporters had substantially more progressive views on racial justice in comparison to those who had supported Clinton. This is no surprise given Clinton’s history of having referred to black youths as superpredators and having played a leading role in pushing for the drug and crime bills of the 1990s which led directly to the mass incarceration catastrophe still with us. Furthermore, as Adolph Reed noted, on virtually every substantive issue of concern to African Americans, mass incarceration, health care, free university education and prosecution of police misconduct, Sanders’s positions were far stronger than Clinton’s.
Sanders’s program embraced the politics most responsive to the needs and aspirations of those who identify as african americans, as latinos, native americans and as women. For that reason, in the substantive sense of the term, Sanders was correct that he fully supported identity politics.
That said, as Tim Wise demonstrates, the term can be construed in a very different sense, namely, as a politics which is based on unquestioning deference to black leadership, even when this leadership is in service of regressive neoliberal objectives, as it has been for the past eight years. That Sanders is aware of this, he made apparent in the next sentences of his response. Politicians need to be judged on the objective content of their performance in office, whether they would “stand up with the working class of this country, and . . . take on big money interests.” The litmus test for our support needs to be whether they would have “the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.” “It’s not good enough for somebody to say ‘hey I’m a Latina vote for me’” or “I am a woman vote for me.”
For those such as Wise, identity politics was based on the assumption that identity WAS good enough: Obama’s election was not to be seen as another in a line of neoliberal presidencies financed and controlled by corporate elites, but rather a cause for celebration with all those who failed to uncritically rejoice deserving to be “burned”.
The result was the tragedy of the Obama presidency, one in which elites pursued their agenda with impunity almost entirely unhindered by the only force which could combat it: mass protest undertaken by an organized opposition.
Elites recognized that the reflexive tendency among the left to defer to black leadership provided them with a weapon which they deployed with devastating effectiveness and at the cost of an “extinction of the black middle class”, not to mention that of much of the white middle and working class.
The Sanders movement has served notice that the days are numbered whereby neoliberalism will be able to legitimate itself through multiculturalism and sell its goods to an overly credulous left.
By now, it should be painfully apparent which side they are on.