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Saturday, 31 March 2012

Trayvon Martin and Barack Obama: Racial and Post-Racial Face to Face

The Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Florida, highlights a long-term trend in US politics stretching back into the 1960s and the civil rights and black liberation movements: that the position and status of blacks has shifted considerably at one level - as Obama's elevation to the White House most starkly indicates - but remained almost unchanged at another level: as the shooting of Martin denotes. Obama represents the tip of an iceberg that America most wants to promote - of a land of opportunity in which anyone, even a black person, can 'make it' to the very highest rungs of the ladder.

Trayvon Martin's killing - while running away from an armed white man - and the fact that the victim's family were not informed for three days of his killing, the failure on the part of the police to arrest and charge his assailant or to question witnesses but rather to begin invetigating the victim - exposes to full view the larger, submerged part of the iceberg: that black Americans remain at the bottom of the American heap on all key indicators - wealth, income, health, quality of life, longevity, educational attainment, and the like. At every stage of the criminal justice process blacks suffer discrimination: more likely to be a suspect, if suspected to be arrested, if arrested to be charged, if charged to be prosecuted, if prosecuted to be sentenced to a custodial sentence, and if imprisoned to be impisoned for longer than a white suspect for the same offence.

On the other hand, Obama represents something very real too: the new black politics of incorporation that took hold after the civil rights and black liberation movements had ebbed away - a politics not of the street but of city hall and US congress, insider politics within a system that certainly delivers better outcomes for some blacks than prevailed before 1965, but also betrays the same levels of corruption and patronage and pork-barrel for which US machine politics has long been known.

The politics of incorporation comes at its own price and creates a black political elite of which Obama is the most significant member and poster boy: a Waspified black American - socialised and trained in America's elite private schools - Occidental, Columbia, Harvard - on foundation scholarships, to be trained to think and act in particular ways, to shed the psychology of the past and embrace a future of opportunity, within a Wasp dominated power structure - whether in the corporation, law firm, bank, or executive office.

As G William Domhoff and Richard Zweigenhaft show in a series of studies of 'outsiders' who made it into the US power elite - Jews, women, Latinos, Asians, Blacks - the upper echelons of American power have become more 'diverse' in response to protest and/or self-interest but remain dominated by White Anglo-Saxon Protestant males and their culture and mindsets. Diversity yes, but not in terms of politics, ideology, or attitude to what constitutes American identity and power - at home and abroad.

But of all groups Domhoff and Zweigenhaft studied, blacks remain exceptional: the pschological and social marks of 150 years of enslavement followed by a century of violently-enforced racial segregation remain seared into the body politic and social fabric.

The blacks who do best in the United States are most frequently those who are lighter-skinned or voluntary immigrants, rather than the desendants of a subjugated and humiliated involuntary minority. Barack Obama - the son of a white mother and an African student - stands outside the core of the deadly racial matrix of the United States.

The politics of incorporation - in the cases of Obama and Martin - have yielded their predictable harvest: a black man in the White House side by side with continued and increasing racial inequality for the broad mass of black Americans for whom America's first black president has done little.

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