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October 01, 2009

On Celebrating an Election as Racial Progress

by Derrick Bell

This article is based on a presentation Professor Bell gave to the Yale Black Law Students Association shortly after the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

In our media-obsessed society, every aspect of Barack Obama’s election and inauguration was covered like a heavy rain on a parched landscape. It was a historic landmark, with Obama receiving more electoral college votes than any president in history and more popular votes than any president except Ronald Reagan. His taking office as the first black president was hailed as a racial breakthrough. And it was a unique moment, one even most civil rights progressives did not believe would occur in their lifetimes. My great appreciation for having lived to see a day I thought would never come is, however, diluted by experience.

The question that history, even fairly recent history, requires that we ask is this: Is Obama’s elevation to the White House more than just another unique moment when the fervent hopes of blacks coincide with the needs of whites and other nonwhites? Is even an individual with his enormous talents, coupled with those of so obviously gifted a woman as Michelle Obama, equal to the task of salvaging a society that by so many measures is on its way down?

I cannot forget how racial progressives hailed each instance of a court decision, hard-won legislation, or executive order that progressives felt would usher in a new era of racial equality. After a period of time, though, seemingly firm commitments to substantive progress were redefined, reversed, or simply ignored. This is the history of earlier racial breakthroughs going all the way back to the Emancipation Proclamation and forth from there through the post–Civil War amendments, Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483 [1954]), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and affirmative action policies.

In an effort to explain this “now you have it, now you don’t” racial policy transference, I have noted the importance of what I call Interest Convergence. Reform does not come because of the seriousness of the racial injustice, or the effectiveness of the arguments seeking reform. Rather, major racial steps reflect the outward manifestation of unspoken and perhaps unconscious conclusions by high-level policymakers that the racial remedies, if recognized in a proposed policy, will secure or advance societal interests deemed important by the upper classes or the country as a whole.

There is, in effect, a convergence of interests between what blacks seek and what white policymakers perceive they or the country needs. When conditions change and the difficulty of implementing these breakthroughs increases, often because of the resistance of groups of whites who view any progress for blacks as harmful to them, rationales are found to justify what Professor Lani Guinier deems Interest Divergence.

Barack Obama’s election was a dramatic example of Interest Convergence. It differed from the traditional racial progress model in that the policymakers were not a small, elite group, but sixty-five million voters who believed that their interests converged with the dramatic promises Obama made them. Many were willing to work hard and contribute much to make their beliefs real. Others, as a New York Times story reported, insisted until the bitter end that they would vote for Sen. McCain. They stubbornly did not want to acknowledge that they had changed their minds. In the end they voted out of a different kind of fear: fear for their own economic survival. In the throes of economic collapse, self-interest trumped racism.

Facing lost jobs and foreclosed homes, they had to ask themselves if they wanted a really smart young black guy, or a stodgy old white guy from the same crowd who put them in this hole.

Canvassers knocked on a door in a rural white area and asked how the householders intended to vote. The woman who responded at one modest house called the question back to her husband. “Who we votin’ for?” The answer came back: “We votin’ for the nigger.” His answer said it all.

Now, the question is whether President Obama will be able to resist the strong opposition from those interests who are determined to oppose the changes he has promised to make.

His every move is now under steady attack by a host of Republicans, most from very conservative districts and states. They oppose his stimulus plan and other measures intended to create jobs and stabilize the economy with arguments whose hypocrisy can best be measured by how those same Republicans with, alas, substantial Democratic help, routinely voted for billions for the Iraq war and huge tax cuts for the rich with never a question about budget-breaking or burdening our children and grandchildren.

President Obama’s ability to resist giving in to Interest Divergence this time as wielded by the powerful, still quite willing and able to manipulate the relatively powerless into voting their emotional rather than economic interests, may depend on his maintaining a continuing alliance with the millions who supported his campaign through volunteer work, contributions, and reluctantly recognized self-interests.

This will be no small feat, although it is one he is going all-out to pull off. His e-mail messages to this alliance have urged support, leaving it to other dot.coms to solicit e-mails to resistive congresspeople. The racial militants in our midst who view Obama with great suspicion are complaining as they did during the campaign that his election will enable America to claim that racism is no more and that the problem is the unwillingness of blacks to work hard, do right, and move on up as they have done.

Their concerns are understandable, but the fact is that conservatives have been using this argument for years, enabling even the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, in striking down a modest desegregation plan in Seattle, to observe with a straight face that the way to end racism was to stop practicing it.

Others criticize Obama for not being more specific in recognizing racism and pledging policies that will revitalize affirmative action and even support black reparations. Why these policies would gain support under a black president as opposed to increasing already strong resistance to them is not clear.

I wish the Obama critics had read, as until recently I had not read, a 1935 essay by Dr. Ralph Bunche, published in the Journal of Negro Education . Ralph J. Bunche, A Critical Analysis of the Tactics and Programs of Minority Groups , 4 J. Negro Education 308–20 (1935). It is a marvel of prescience. Bunche, writing as a young political scientist, observed that the Constitution was an unreliable source for protection of black people’s rights and lives. A democracy, he said, was more a hindrance than a help in the lives of minority people, compelling them to struggle strenuously for even a moderate participation in the democratic game.

Bunche wrote,

[W]hatever the nature of the minority group, its special problems may always be translated in terms of political, economic, and social disadvantages. Group antagonisms develop, which are fed by mythical beliefs and attitudes of scorn, derision, hate and discrimination. These serve as effective social barriers and fix the social, and hence, the political and economic status of the minority population. The mental images or verbal characterizations generally accepted as descriptive of the members of the particular racial group . . . give rise to stereotypes which are of the greatest significance in race relations. These race distinctions, along with similar class and caste distinctions, are so thoroughly rooted in our social consciousness as to command serious attention in any consideration of programs whose objective is equitable treatment for minority racial groups. Id. at 309.

The perceived economic competition blacks pose for whites, particularly those in the working class, Bunche contended, means that racial prejudice is explainable in economic terms. In addition, “The cultural, political and economic degradation of the Negro also gave the poor-whites their sole chance for ‘status.’” While deemed the “minority class,” blacks are that in only the narrow racial sense, and otherwise are “subject to the same divisive influences impinging upon the life of every other group in the nation.” This poses a dilemma for black leadership that, Bunche complained, has eschewed class concerns and “traditionally put its stress on the element of race; it has attributed the plight of the Negro to a peculiar racial condition. Leaders and organizations alike have had but one end in view—the elimination of ‘discrimination against the race.’” Id. at 310. Bunche cites without explanation a lengthy internal conflict within the NAACP during the mid-1930s over whether its efforts should be directed toward challenging the legality of racial segregation through the courts, the view of lawyers and much of the group’s board of directors, or of improving the economic status of Negroes through building business enterprises and internal self organization to push for nondiscriminatory public policies, though not necessarily through eradication of the colorline. See Mark Tushnet , The NAACP’s Legal Strategy Against Segregated Education, 1925–1950, 6–12 (1987).

This attitude, Bunche wrote,

has been reflected in the tactics which they have employed to correct abuses suffered by their group. They have not realized that so long as this basic conflict in the economic interests of the white and black groups persists, and it is a perfectly natural phenomenon in a modern industrial society, neither prayer, nor logic, nor emotional or legal appeal can make much headway against the stereotyped racial attitudes and beliefs of the masses of the dominant population. The significance of this to the programs of the corrective and reform organizations working on behalf of the group should be obvious. The most that such organizations can hope to do is to devote themselves to the correction of the more flagrant specific cases of abuse, which because of their extreme nature may exceed even a prejudiced popular approval; and to a campaign of public enlightenment concerning the merits of the group they represent and the necessity for the establishment of a general community of interest. . . . See Bunche at 310–11.

The political and economic opportunity that minority groups struggle for, Bunche argued, received more lip service than support from democratic liberalism as those “principles were applied in countries whose economies were so ordered that great masses of the populations were presupposed to be non-property-holding workingmen, whose opportunities for obtaining property became progressively less easy, and whose economic status was increasingly less certain as a result of technological and financial developments within the economic structure, resulting in periodic unemployment, loss of income and dissipation of meager savings.” Id. at 311.

In reaching his policy goals, it appears that, knowingly or not, Obama will adopt the long-ignored advice urged by Bunche, who closed his essay with this thought: “The only hope for the improvement in the condition of the masses of any American minority group is the hope that can be held out for the betterment of the masses of the dominant group. Their basic interests are identical and so must be their programs and tactics.” Id. at 320.

To update Dr. Bunche’s prescription, last year a majority of the dominant group recognized economic interests that hold a priority over cultural matters that are often tied with whiteness. This victory not a slam dunk. McCain, despite one of the poorest-run campaigns in modern history, and dragged down by a crisis economy, two unwinnable wars, and eight years of the Bush presidency, still gained some 43 million votes.

When I mentioned this in class, one of my students asked whether I was suggesting that 43 percent of white voters are racists. I said no, but I wonder about their motivations. Some felt McCain had more experience, would be a better military leader, and would adopt economic policies that they preferred. I added that McCain seldom discouraged those who were reluctant to vote for Obama because he is black, and the party’s phone calls and local literature made fear of electing a black man to the White House a major factor.

The election is long over, but Republicans are trying hard to rebuild the old racial divide-and-conquer strategy. The tactics of division barely masking racism have been successful for hundreds of years. Holding them at bay and enacting policies that help all those in need will not be easy, and may not be possible. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration can utilize the strategies that won them the election and adopt them as the key to effective governance.

It is already apparent that this will not be easy. The major media, most of which rather reluctantly joined the Obama bandwagon in the last weeks prior to the election, is already sending out zingers at his efforts, while giving a free ride to critics bemoaning every step he takes. The continuing commitment to a self-serving banking system is costing billions with no guarantee that the masters of the financial universe will recognize, much less implement, policies of public interest over their longtime commitment to private greed.

And if the stimulus efforts fail because they are too little, too late, and millions more are thrown out of work and lose their homes, then what? Those willing to consider this scenario are not welcome on even the liberal media outlets. One of them, author and commentator Chris Hedges, predicts that

The daily bleeding of thousands of jobs will soon turn our economic crisis into a political crisis. The street protests, strikes and riots that have rattled France, Turkey, Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Iceland will descend on us. It is only a matter of time. And not much time. When things start to go sour, when Barack Obama is exposed as a mortal waving a sword at a tidal wave, the United States could plunge into a long period of precarious social instability. It’s Not Going to Be OK (Feb. 2, 2009) at

How will the country cope with such a decline? Will we forego our sense that we are “number one,” a superpower with nuclear weapons and unbeatable military force, and adopt rational policies intended to support the workers and not pamper the already rich? Or, as Hedges fears, will we “follow the demagogues and charlatans who rise up out of the slime in moments of crisis to offer fantastic visions? Will we radically transform our system to one that protects the ordinary citizen and fosters the common good, that defies the corporate state, or will we employ the brutality and technology of our internal security and surveillance apparatus to crush all dissent?”

Hedges quotes the political philosopher Sheldon S. Wolin, who taught at Berkeley and Princeton and who used the phrase “inverted totalitarianism” to describe our system of power. Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism, and the Constitution while cynically manipulating internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions. Political candidates are elected in popular votes by citizens, but they must raise staggering amounts of corporate funds to compete. They are beholden to armies of corporate lobbyists in Washington or state capitals who write the legislation. A corporate media controls nearly everything we read, watch, or hear and imposes a bland uniformity of opinion or diverts us with trivia and celebrity gossip. In classical totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was subordinate to politics. “Under inverted totalitarianism the reverse is true,” Wolin writes. “Economics dominate politics and with that domination comes different forms of ruthlessness.” See Sheldon S. Wolin, Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008).

These are scary predictions with much solid evidence supporting them. We should not again ignore the realities of the past while planning the group and individual paths for the future. In other words, we should not confuse progress with fortuity, as we have while celebrating so many earlier unique moments that appeared to signal significant racial advances. Barack Obama is enormously talented, ran a great campaign, and successfully conveyed that he could be the change the country wants and needs.

An important component of his victory, though, is that the country is domestically and in foreign affairs in the worst shape it has ever been. In addition, the nation’s leadership over the last eight years has simply been dreadful. We progressives hail that the country was able to recognize that Obama’s ability mattered more than his race. Even so, we should not forget that Obama won only 43 percent of the white vote, even though he was the much superior candidate, with the much superior campaign staff, competing against a party (the Republicans) that had left the nation in shambles.

It is with this fuller picture in mind that we can review the similar situation that existed when Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. Again, civil rights lawyers had worked diligently for twenty years to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation, and when the decision came down, we hailed the victory, viewing it as a major racial breakthrough. We gave little attention to underlying motivations without which so little headway had been made until the early 1950s, when it became clear to national policymakers that the nation had to improve its international and domestic racial image against communism, which appeared a threat both at home and abroad. The Supreme Court’s decision, urged by the Justice Department, was intended to improve our image abroad, where we were competing with communist nations for the hearts and minds of peoples of color emerging from long years of colonial domination. The decision also offered reassurance to blacks at home, still living under segregation, that our subordination, while long ignored, had not been forgotten.

But when the force of fortuity gave way to the realities of racial subordination and exploitation, opposition to meaningful racial reform was resisted loudly in the South and more quietly but no less effectively in other parts of the country. Surely, much has been done, but it is hard to deny that Dr. King’s cry, “Free at last,” remains a future hope, not a present reality.

The comparison of 1954 and the years that followed with the Obama election are not exact, but the similarities are certainly there. It remains to be seen whether the old resistances to change, whether racial or economic, can be diluted by an Obama whose leadership of the nation must prove as effective as that of the campaign. But it behooves those who want his administration to succeed to contribute as much effort and support to President Obama as they did to get him into what is clearly the most challenging position any president has ever faced. The racial history of this country suggests that, in very substantive ways, if he fails, those of us who look like him had better prepare to a return to the past.

Derrick Bell

Derrick Bell is a visiting professor at New York University Law School.