By Iroel Sánchez – June 16, 2020
There is a scene in the documentary I am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016) in which the African-American writer James Baldwin is interviewed on ‘70s television and the interviewer asks Baldwin why “Negroes” aren’t optimistic, even though there are Negro mayors, there are Negroes in all of sports, there are Negroes in politics, they’re even accorded the ultimate accolade of being in television commercials now.” With a sarcastic smile, Baldwin, who saw his friends Medgar Evans, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated by the system, answers, “It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro here, the black man here,”… “the real question is what’s going to happen to this country? ”
From the time of that interview until today, many many Black people have been shot and killed in the U.S. The system continued sweeping the structural racism under the carpet until Hurricane Katrina in 2005 demonstrated it in all its harshness; then the magic formula appeared – a Black president!
As Cornell West, one of the most influential Black intellectuals in the U.S., who has been called on to appear on media like Fox and CNN in these days of anti-racist protests, has said, “all they want to do is show more Black faces — show more Black faces. But oftentimes those Black faces are losing legitimacy too because the Black Lives Matter movement emerged under a Black president, a Black attorney general, and a Black Secretary of Homeland Security and they couldn’t deliver. So when you talk about the masses of black people, the precious poor and working-class Black people, brown, red, yellow, whatever color, they’re the ones left out and they feel so thoroughly powerless, helpless, hopeless and then you get rebellion. “
But who puts the faces on the system’s administrators? In the middle of the election campaigns between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, WikiLeaks revealed a series of emails sent by Michael Froman, an upper-level CitiBank executive, to John Podesta, who was part of the transition team of President Barak Obama. One month before the primaries that Obama won, Podesta got an email from Froman with a list of “African-American, Latino, and Asian-Americans … also one with Native Americans, American Arabs and Muslims, and people with disabilities,” with the names of those who should make up the Cabinet of the newly elected president, and which post each should occupy.
Thus, CitiBank indicated who would be selected for each post one month before the U.S. voters went to the polls to choose their government, and Obama went along with this list, choosing Eric Holder for the Justice Department, Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security, Robert Gates for Secretary of Defense, Rahm Emanuel for chief of staff, Peter Orszag for the Office of Management and Budget, Arne Duncan for Education, Eric Shinseki for Veterans Affairs, Kathleen Sebelius for Health and Human Services, Melody Barnes for the Domestic Policy Council, Timothy Geithner for Treasury, Susan Rice for the UN representative…
This is what Baldwin was referring to when he said, “White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.” This, of course, did not begin with Obama. At the start of this century, the extremist government of George W Bush had a Black Secretary of State who lied at the UN to promote the invasion of Iraq and a Black National Security Council head who organized illegal surveillance, torture, and kidnapping on a worldwide level. Which bank appointed them has not yet been leaked, but the fact that they answer to one, or to several, cannot be doubted when one sees their governmental sentences passed against the non-white people of Iraq and Afghanistan, who have died by the million thanks to their efforts.
In the book The Shock Doctrine, writer and social activist Naomi Klein devotes a chapter to analyzing the effects of Katrina in New Orleans in relation to the neoliberalism imposed upon the world by the U.S. and its extreme application by the government of George W Bush. The authors calls this section “Disaster Apartheid” and quotes a repentant free-market true-believer as saying, “The collapsed levees of New Orleans will have consequences for neoconservatism just as long and deep as the collapse of the Wall in East Berlin had on Soviet Communism.” And these consequences of Katrina, together with the Iraq War and the financial crisis, did occur – the defeat of the Republican Party in the 2008 elections shows this. Nevertheless, as I pointed out in another article, the economic crisis has encouraged a resurgence of ultra-reactionaries and ultra-nationalists very similar to what occurred in pre-Hitler Germany. “German Honor” and xenophobia were the flags Hitler waved as he climbed to power in a Germany hard-hit by economic crisis. How does this differ from what we see in Trump’s campaign slogans America First and Make America Great Again?
Racism and hatred of the poor and of immigrants are locked into the functional dynamics of a system that that places things above human beings. The order that the New Orleans police got after Katrina was “shoot the looters.” “Anything coming up this street darker than a brown paper bag is getting shot,” was the phrase used by a group of white vigilantes who hunted down those escaping from the disaster.
Shortly after the impact of the hurricane on the southern U.S., Fidel oversaw the organization of the Henry Reeve Brigade in Havana. It was a quick, efficient offer to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The philosophy that proclaims “People First” was rejected by the arrogance of those who were obsessed with “Protection of Property.” The poor, abandoned to their fate by what Naomi Klein terms Disaster Capitalism, could not be treated by Cuban doctors. The same government that persecutes Cuban medical cooperation worldwide has ratcheted up xenophobia and racism to the highest level in their own country.
Some time ago, Warren Buffet, one of the richest men on the planet, shook the world with a phrase astounding in its frankness, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had defined the class struggle as the motor force of history. Nevertheless, when Barack Obama spoke in the Gran Teatro of Havana he said that the motor force of history was something else – the internet. An important government adviser, Ale Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Secretary of State, whom the magazine Foreign Policy indicated as a key figure in the Arab Spring and as particularly involved in the events that destabilized Syria and Libya, went even further when he said to a group of Latin American digital activists that the internet is the Che Guevara of the 21st Century. In other words – don’t struggle, don’t organize, don’t take to the streets, don’t study society, just use the internet. Once he was no longer president, in an interview with Prince Harry of England, Obama said that social media run the risk of dividing societies and that the internet promotes inequality. We do not know whether current events will make him go so far as to say where the true motor force of history is, although a man as intelligent and well educated as he is should not be unaware of this.
In an obvious attempt at damage control, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House and head of the House Democratic Caucus, has “demanded” the removal of 11 slave-owner Confederate statues, which up until yesterday did not bother her, from the halls of Congress, and Obama has called “with a sense of urgency” for “police reforms.” It becomes necessary to say, paraphrasing that same Bill Clinton, head of the Democratic Party elite to whom a platform such as that of Bernie Sanders is unacceptable: “It’s something more than statues and police, stupid.” It’s obvious that the racist acts committed by the police, the statues of slave owners and colonizers, the place that Pelosi holds, as well as those of Obama, Clinton, and, of course, Trump, are the result of that “metaphor for power, … a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank,” that Baldwin spoke of.
There are those who seem to have a much clearer vision of this than U.S. politicians do, represented by the 200 leaders of Western science and culture, led by actress Juliette Binoche and astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau who signed a manifesto, published in the French journal Le Monde, calling for transformation of the economic and social system.
When the anti-racism protests in the U.S. are united with the toppling of statues like that of the Belgian King Leopold, ravager of the Congo, and the vision of Cornel West of “the masses of black people, the precious poor and working-class Black people, brown, red, yellow, whatever color, “ blazes a trail in important publications unused to deal in these terms, when this is interwoven with the cinematography of Haitian film-maker Raoul Peck (Lumumba, The Young Marx, and I Am Not Your Negro) it connects the profound causes of a rebellion with origins in centuries of exploitation and inequality: capitalism.
Featured image: Black Lives Matter mural in downtown Oakland.