Barack Obama was the Democrat candidate, and practically all you could hear was:
How black is this Obama dude anyway? Ain't his mama white, his daddy African? What does that make him? Later on it became “How black are YOU if you don't support Obama?”
Got demands or just thoughts on issues like housing, foreclosures, low wages, no wages, black unemployment, mass incarceration or whatever? Swallow them. Siddown and shuddup before you scare white people out of voting for Obama. Keep quiet so he can get elected first.
Got a hunger and thirst for peace and justice? Grow up and lower those expectations. And remember he's running for president of everybody, not just black people so keep that peace and justice stuff in your back pocket till after the elections, or after he gets settled in or maybe for his second term if he gets one.
He's black so he obviously wants what you do, he just can't say so out loud or he'll scare the white folks. He's can't do nothin' anyway if he don't get elected.
There were also surrogates, who frequently lied outright to credulous black audiences, making explicit claims the candidate never wouled about rolling back mass incarceration, address black unemployment and a host of other issues if only we would keep the faith by shutting up and getting him elected first.
Some tech savvy young professionals I knew even organized a network that scooped up any short racist statement or outrage they could find online to make them viral, emailed, sent, forwarded and resent multiple times to every black person with an email address. The emails all had big headlines instructing recipients to send resend and forward the hot racist mess to every black colleague churchgoer, neighbor friend family member and friend they knew. Often these were accompanied with admonitions to register and vote. My email boxes and those of everybody I know were clogged for months with the stuff.
In most of black America in 2007 and 2008 you simply could not have a discussion on presidential politics that did not begin and end on race and racial solidarity. Talk about the foreclosure crisis which was gutting in real time 90% of black family wealth nationwide, or black unemployment, or mass incarceration, gentrification or the war machine were all shouted down and made to give way to the project of electing the first black president, who would certainly address all these things once in office.
Now it's 2016.
Things have changed. While still dominated by fear of the Republicans, black discussion around presidential politics has been freed from the contradictory need to appear unified behind a black candidate but quiet about what it actually needs to make the lives of millions better. With no black presidential candidate, some of us have begun to talk about what changes can or might actually make the lives of millions better in the context of the 2016 presidential race.
This factor combined with the patient work of longtime activists before and throughout the Obama era and the current insistence of Senator Bernie Sanders on putting inequality, living wages, criminal justice reform, unemployment and specifically black unemployment, and economic justice in general on the front burner has greatly enlarged the space in which black discussion around presidential politics in 2016 takes place.
That's progress, that's good news. In 2016 some of us have stopped shutting each other up in the name of fake black unity which only protects our black misleadership class and their sponsors.
There's bad news too.
The bad news is that some elite elements of the black polity, like The Atlantic's TaNehesi Coates and Bill Fletcher want to dial the black discussion back to a purely racial one around reparations and such. It's bad news too that many black activists are still conditioned to look for any excuse to avoid anything that directly questions capitalism or mentions the word socialism aloud.
As veteran organizer Jamalah Rogers asked the audience at the January conference on Reclaiming the Black Radical Tradition, we have to describe and bring into being a new system and new world to replace this one. It has a name, that name is socialism, and if an old white Jewish senator can say that word out loud what are young and radical black activists afraid of?
In 2016 the space is widening for more of us to realize it takes way more than identity politics, its “safe black spaces” and being “unapologetically black” to change the world.
How black unity and identity politics have retarded black led movements to make black lives better
Black students are more crushed by student debt than anybody and college is the least affordable for them. The fact that no black-led movement for free college tuition and student debt forgiveness ever emerged isn't for lack of organizing talent or need. But our emphasis on identity politics made black families crushed by student debt less important to black leaders and activists than the risk of contradicting or embarrassing the First Black President. That's where black unity gets you.
The foreclosure crisis eviscerated black home ownership and black wealth between 2007 and 2009. Lenders deliberately targeted black homeowners for predatory loans often aided by black preachers, politicians and celebrities. Black families were impacted in a hugely disproportionate manner. But no black-led movement raised its head there either, largely because we were too black & proud to stand up to our elite leaders and for ourselves. Instead of surrounding the Obama Justice Department, black America applauded when the First Black President and his First Black Attorney General refused to prosecute banksters and made, instead of homeowners, speculators whole, as Eric Holder declared Wall Street too complex to investigate and too big to fail, as Loretta Lynch wrote the fine print on get out of jail free cards for thousands of white collar criminals and their corporations and financial institutions.
Most tellingly in the Obama era, the bankrupt but pervasive notions of black unity and the treacherous black misleadership class have severely slowed the growth of black-led movements against school privatization which has disrupted the education of millions of black children, caused the firing of tens or hundreds of thousands of qualified disproportionately black educators and put billions of public education dollars into the pockets of hedge fund investors, charter school sugar daddies and their public reps like Magic Johnson, who fronts for a crooked network of online charter schools in Chicago and elsewhere.
For its part, the Obama administration still plays to our black blind side with its recent contemptible claim that opting out of the test-and-punish corporate educational regime favored by its contractors and contributors like the Opt Out Movement was something only white parents do.
Looking to the current campaign and its influence on black political thought and action.
A generation of “unapologetically black” activists has emerged whose activism is utterly individualistic, pursued via corporate social media rather than patient face to face and group organizing and struggling for power in workplaces and communities. It's a hashtag activism that crusades for Twitter followers, Facebook likes and foundation grants rather than studying, educating and organizing to bring a new world into existence and fighting for actual power.
It's still early in the 2016 presidential campaign. New winds are blowing away some of the fog. Black folks, as Glen Ford says are waking up from the long debilitating stupor of the Obama era, when black presidential politics was all about building and maintaining that black wall around the president, the wall that protected our leaders from critics but didn't protect the lives or livelihoods of ordinary black people from devastation, economic ruin, and the prison state.
But in 2016 some of the black debate sparked by the presidential campaign has finally begun to open up. An old white man even gave those who needed it coming out of the black unity stupor permission to talk about socialism. We can only hope that space will get wider and deeper in the coming months.