Barack Obama’s claim that people of colour are ’90 per cent of the way to equality’ with whites in the US is false, says activist Juan Santos in an interview with Il Manifesto’s Andrea Luchetta. Citing figures on unemployment, poverty and imprisonment, Santos suggests that the US operates under a caste system in which race plays a key part in determining social class. Obama’s silence on the question of race in the run-up to the elections was tactical, says Santos – to dare to talk openly about race and oppression would alienate the millions of white centre-right voters whose support he needed to win the election. Racism, says Santos, rewards the powerful: ‘They have no reason to stop racism unless its continuance results in a level of resistance that endangers the system of profit itself’.
Andrea Luchetta: I’ve interviewed Ms. Makeba Lloyd, of the ‘Harlem4Obama Committee’. According to her, racism is nowadays a minor problem. The main conflict, for her, is of a class nature, rather than racial in nature. The social dividing line, she says, is now between the rich and the poor, not between the white and the black. What do you think of this position?
Juan Santos: This is nonsense; Lloyd’s claim is in line with Barack Obama’s utterly false claim that peoples of colour are ’90 per cent of the way to equality’ with whites in the US.
Ms. Lloyd is wrong. The poverty line is a race line. Race determines who is poor and who is not. Roughly a quarter of black and brown people in the US live in poverty, while less than one tenth of Euro-Americans live in poverty. A black person in the US is three times more likely to be poor than a white person.
That’s 90 per cent of the way to ‘equality’?
No. The very best thing I can say about the idea that peoples of colour are approaching equality with whites in the US is that it is an example of extremely bad math, or of people promoting an illusion in hopes that it will come true.
Black unemployment in the US is currently at 11.1 per cent – almost double the average for white people, whose rate of unemployment is 5.9 per cent. Among the general population – by which I mean those outside of the reservation system that imprisons Native Americans on the remnants of their lands – blacks have the highest rate of unemployment in the US, followed by Latinos, at 8.8 per cent. Among black youth, unemployment reaches a stunning 32.3 per cent. From 1976 through today, a new study shows, Latino unemployment rates typically exceeded that of the white population by some 65 per cent. The absolute rate of unemployment for Native Americans on the reservations is, however, roughly seventy per cent.
50 per cent of Native American reservation homes have no phones and one fifth of the homes lack complete kitchen facilities.
It might be interesting to show these figures to Ms. Lloyd to see if, reading them, she is still willing to claim a distinction between a race divide and a class divide in the US.
But economics is by no means the only measure of equality.
Race also determines who is imprisoned and who is not.
Black people in the US are 8.5 times more likely than whites to be imprisoned.
On any given day one in nine young black men are in prison.
Latinos are four times more likely to go to prison than white people.
68 per cent of all US prisoners are people of colour, although black, Latinos and officially recognised Native Americans together make up slightly less than 25 per cent of the overall population of the US.
The US has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. It is a system of mass imprisonment aimed at the control of people of colour, who, the elites fear, have the potential to violently and politically rebel again as they did in the 1960s. People in other parts of the world simply cannot begin to imagine the conditions that exist here; the US holds 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners, a Gulag comprised mostly of prisoners from the minority populations of African and Native American descent blacks and Latinos.
This is no ‘minor problem,’ contrary to what Ms. Lloyd suggests. It is a form of mass social control of potentially dissident and rebellious populations based on race and class status. Ms. Lloyd has missed the point entirely.
It’s not a matter of race versus class; race and class are in many ways one thing here in the US.
Usually that kind of system is called a caste system. Despite a few exceptions, like Obama himself, that’s exactly what exists in the US: a caste system.
What the white ruling class did here was this: following the mass rebellions and the burning of major US cities in the 1960s, the white ruling class decided on a strategy of divide and conquer. They created a black middle class almost overnight, largely using government employment to do so, while at the same time they found another way to deal with the millions of people of colour who could not fit into the system; mass imprisonment. These developments are two sides of the same coin. Ms. Lloyd’s failure to see this is why she can make the kind of mistakes of analysis she’s making. See this link.
Andrea Luchetta: You wrote that the price for Obama’s election was silence about the racial question. Yet, don’t you think, as many participants of the ‘Great Harlem Debate’ have suggested, that his silence was rather tactical?
Juan Santos: Yes it was tactical, but the question is this: what strategy did the tactic serve?
And: Who did that strategy serve?
And: Who did that strategy harm?
As someone put it, ‘hope is not a strategy.’ Hope is nothing but a slogan.
And here’s another question: if, as Obama claimed, blacks in the US are ’90 per cent’ of the way to equality with whites, then why was the tactic of silence necessary in the first place?
If this claim were the truth and not a lie, anyone could talk openly about race and discrimination, openly celebrate the reality that there is only one tenth of the way left to go, and put forward plans to quickly eliminate the remaining 10 per cent of the problem. If this were true, such a campaign would draw millions upon millions forward as volunteers, people who would be thankful with all of their hearts, joyful to be part of the push to bring racism in this former apartheid state to its complete end.
If racism were 90 per cent eradicated in the US, if blacks and other peoples of colour were 90 per cent of the way to equality, there would be absolutely no reason or need for silence.
If nine out of 10 former racists were no longer racists, the tiny number which remained would already be isolated and powerless. There would be no need for a tactic of silence about racial oppression because the racists who remained would be so small a group that they could not change the outcome of an election, not against a population that was 90 per cent anti-racist or non-racist. But Obama’s claim was a conscious lie, as I demonstrated in answer one. There, I dealt with the quantifiable measures, the facts of social inequality which disprove Obama’s claim. The verifiable, statistical facts disprove Obama’s claim, and they are widely available for anyone to see who cares.
Obama’s silence showed one thing – that he knew his claim about equality was false, that he knew that to dare to talk openly about race and oppression would alienate the millions of white centre-right voters whose support he needed to win the election.
So, Obama’s strategy was to give those voters what they wanted to hear, and to give them silence on what they didn’t want to hear. The tactic he used to give them what they wanted to hear was to offer the lie about ’90 per cent equality.’ This erased any need on the part of his white audience, the white electorate, to deal honestly with the actual conditions of people of colour here in the US. They could believe the lie of racial progress, and never have to think about the millions in poverty and the millions more in prison. That worked just fine for Obama.
Instead of blaming the system and white racism for the conditions of black people, he could blame black youth for a lack of ‘personal responsibility’ that’s exactly the tactic of white racists, and it looks like that is what Obama means by creating ‘unity’ between peoples of colour and white people to unite with white racists in their tactic of blaming the victim of racism for the impacts of racism.