The Limits of Black Liberalism

Barack Obama was the first Black President of the United States of America. For Black Americans who suffer the physiological and ecological harm inflicted by the state and its forces, seeing a black president was a sign of progress. In some ways, it was an affirmation of humanity in a system that so often denies black people that. For Black Liberals, Barack Obama’s win was the culmination of everything many generations have fought so hard for, a chance to be seen and heard. A chance to have the Black agenda in the national spotlight. An opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and bring in a new era of racial equality. Barack Obama’s Presidency saw the exact opposite. Under the First Black President of the United States of America, there was the explosion of a new movement for racial justice in the face of continued black death at the hands of the state and vigilante forces. Through the tail end of Barack Obama’s Presidency, there were urban uprisings throughout major cities in the United States. Charlotte, Baltimore, Furgeson to name a few. These uprisings happened in the shadow of the 2008 financial crisis that decimated the black middle class, and the shooting death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman. These events, along with the weight of centuries of white supremacist discriminatory policies that create mass suffering, show the spectre of the Black revolution still haunts América.  

The ruling class uses various tactics to subdue revolution and maintain the existing political and social order. In a country where money is speech and corporations are people, the ruling class has seen an exorbitant influx of wealth in the last 50 years. Inequality grows increasingly erroneous and black people bear a disproportionate brunt of that burden. Many people thought that by electing Barack Obama, they would elect someone who would understand their plight, advocate for their interests and help to improve their daily lives. The hope that this would be accomplished through different and far-reaching policies. Obama talked of change, and Black people wanted to have hope in him. Obama has become a deity of sorts, and people may ascribe their aspirations onto him. Outside of Obama’s charisma and cult of personality, he represents to Black people that the system can work. Obama is the quintessential Black Liberal. He is a liberal that has held the highest office in this system of liberal democracy. The narrative around Obama’s ineffective presidency is often attributed to the Republicans having control of congress through much of his tenure. Though this may be true, it’s an argument that obscures the reality of the state and capitalism. Capitalism needs an exploited class and since the first English slave ship reached the Virginia colony in 1619, Black people have disproportionately been that exploited class. 

We hear a lot about Wall Street and the stock market, but colonization missions and Slave Trading became the first market for finance capitalism. Important to note that John Locke, one of the foremost liberal philosophers, had holdings in the Royal Africa Company, the largest slave trading institution in history. Many of the liberal institutions during the 18 and 19th centuries were built on the backs of the enslaved and the colonized. The United States Inherited its legal system from Britain, The United States inherited its political system from Britain. The Sun never set on the British Empire. Colonization helped Britain extract the raw materials and create the markets to push its political and military dominance. The United States was a settler colony of Great Britain. This means that former British subjects helped to create the colonies that would become the United States. As the colonies expanded, remnants of the British and Spanish empires would decimate the Indigenous populations of the Americas. After a few decades of food shortages, harsh winters and clashes with Indigenous people, the former British colonies would establish governments as their metropole or home country. Looking at the system of government coming from Britain, notions of radical equality and rights of racial minorities were not on the minds of those who would shape these colonial governments. In fact, Black codes were established throughout much of old colonies to restrict the movements of black people and help codify their status as non-human. This differentiation between races in the early colonies would help to lay the foundation for much of the legal system and help enshrine racism in the foundation of the United States. In essence, white supremacy was enshrined through pre-American laws and this view of black people as subhuman would eventually manifest in the US constitution. The electoral College system was based on the ⅗ compromise, which would help to solidify the political interest of the slave holding class in the South. Black slaves would count as ⅗ of a person, and they were given electors in the House of Representatives based on their population size. Liberals attach a lot of value to their liberal democratic norms and institutions. Unfortunately, these institutions were based on black sub-humanness and based on the assumption of black criminality. Outside of the racist implications of the American founding document, the American founding mythos is based on a lie. History is a history of class conflict, and the founding fathers wanted to enshrine the rule of the propertied class. America had various rebellions up until and after the ratification of the US Constitution in 1787. The US Constitution did a lot of things, but most importantly, it enshrined the rule of the senate and allowed the president to act as the Commander and Chief of the military. With control of the army, George Washington was able to put down the whiskey rebellion(1791-17940) which was triggered by a tax on domestically produced whiskey. The Constitution brought the United States under the control of a central federal government and ensured the senate could never be abolished. The United States political system is based on the British system; two legislative bodies, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Lords gets its origin from the noblemen councils that would advise the king. The Senate is the upper house and most powerful house. Senators serve longer terms,and they serve as a check on the President who acts as a king. Senators are the last line of defense to help maintain the liberal order, as the theory goes. 

Much is made about how the police developed out of slave catchers, but it’s important to note the dubious origins of the entire legal system. History is a history of class struggle, and inequality has been a widespread aspect of class society. The colonial legal system we inherited helps to maintain capitalism by exacerbating already exciting equalities. US Courts are seen as sacred and fundamental for justice, even in the face of numerous studies on racial bias in judges and juries. Not only that, but there are many studies on the disproportionate incarceration rates for black people. Coming into contact with the US carceral system is excruciating and expensive. For black people who face disproportionate rates of unemployment, coming into contact with the carceral system can mean a never-ending cycle of poverty and violence. Having woke prosecutors may help with discretion, but ultimately, no justice is being done in the court system. In fact, injustice is the only thing the system produces. Your experience with the criminal justice system is mainly based on class background. Law Enforcement routinely target low income or otherwise vulnerable communities and because of the history of racial capitalism, those vulnerable communities are disproportionately black.

 The sacredness of these procedures helps to create the civic identity to empower the state to write laws and coordinate national policy. The values of fraternity and togetherness help to keep a country stable. Unfortunately, the liberal values like freedom, equality and justice, are so far away from the reality of how these institutions function that activists have repeatedly gone to the United Nations to force the United States Government to account for its centuries of crimes against black people. The contradiction of approaching the United Nations with Issues in the United States is that the United States helped to create the global order that established the United Nations Charter.

The United Nations is just a symbol of American liberal dominance. The United Nations is only one of the many Institutions of the United States used to solidify and legitimate the rule of global capitalism. The financial, military and trade institutions created by the United States help to set the rules for global capitalism. The United States used military force across the globe to destroy any trace of self determination for the colored people of the world, all under the guise of “Anti-Communism.” The irony of the liberalism espoused during the cold war was that while the United States talked of spreading democracy, prosperity and freedom across the globe, Black people in the United States were fighting to be seen and heard and have our problems redressed. All of this in the face of murderous state security forces, squalid housing, lack of access to nutrition and overall depressed living conditions resulting from the centuries of white supremacist policies. White liberals of France, Britain and Germany talked of issues of freedom, equality of and the rights of men, while Europeans enacted genocidal campaigns against the colored people of the world during the era of Colonization. Colonial subjects were often deprived of every right, every liberty. They were deprived of communal property and exploited for the profits of their financiers.

 Liberalism and white supremacy are intimately connected. Where the imperial powers of old thought it their mission to spread democracy, freedom and civilization to the colored savages, the Cold War rhetoric seemed eerily similar to that of the old colonial powers. Liberalism is an important component of a white ontology. It’s the notion that “our” particular procedures by political actors in our liberal democracy, make us more civilized than countries of the Global South. Its important to note the racial element in who is and is not a “democracy.” Especially considering democracy is a word that means nothing in particular and procedures for liberal democracies can differ. Throughout the pandemic and continued political instability, many have noted how America is resembling a “Banana Republic” or a “3 world Country.” The reality of United States Interference in the democratic process of other countries notwithstanding, political traditions should not be confused with institutional effectiveness. Our political traditions and convoluted election system don’t make us more civilized. In fact, our commitment to these institutions in the face of the white supremacist nature of their origins, only shows how backwards we really are. 

Liberalism is a tricker and it takes many forms. Liberalism takes frustration with the system and channels that energy back into the system. Faced with mass protests movements, liberals will remind you to vote. In the civic religion, voting becomes a sacred task. The stalworth for a democratic republic. Voting creates the illusion of representation, the illusion that you have a say in the outcome. Unfortunately, much of the electoral process is predetermined by the electoral infrastructure of both parties. “The two-party system” is not a specific thing, but a collection of rules and norms that set the stage for who can and cannot run for political office. Because liberalism is ideological, the reality of the dynamics of the political system is often ignored. Most congressional incumbents get reelected. If someone wins a congressional seat, much of their time is spent fundraising for the next election. Not to mention the party apparatus itself, which has the power to make or break races with their backing and resources. While many left liberals will say that picking honest politicians will make the system run for the interests of the people, public sentiment rarely pushes legislation in congress. Money has always greased the wheels. No matter how honest a politician thinks they are, elections cost money. Elections cost time and effort. You may be able to win elected office, but the power of capital is all-encompassing. 

Capitalism and the push for profit lead to the housing speculation, which lead to the 2008 crash. It was Barack Obama’s goal to save capitalism. If Barack Obama didn’t bail out the big banks in 2008, the entire financial system may have collapsed and caused unimaginable misery. According to the Washington Post, 240,000 black families lost their homes between 2005-2008. I’m sure Barack Obama did not want that to happen, but once you are sitting in the chair; Once you are America’s king, your job is to uphold the system of capitalism. Holding up the system disproportionately harms black people. America was founded on lies. America was founded on contradiction. America was founded on sleight of hand and violent repression. The illusion of being seen and the illusion of being heard. When liberals tell black radicals to “vote” they ignore what these institutions actually represent. The institutions represent the power of the elected few. A political class who are seen as the democratic “elite.” the most fit to rule and the most fit to make the decisions that govern our lives and divide our forcibly pulled money to allocate resources. Left liberals will say that people should be able to live a decent life. There is a strong tradition in liberal politics that acknowledges the inequalities in society and promotes social responsibility. They have been given many names throughout history, long-term capitalists, social democrats or democratic socialists, etc. They have been a driving force for the welfare states we see throughout much of Europe. There is power in the Organized masses, sections of labor, the people that can take to the streets and elicit a response from the state. It’s important to note that liberalism will never liberate black people because the state will never be a force of justice. No matter how many people you get to represent your interests, as long as the state gives the bank the power to evict you, you will not be free. As long as you have to go into debt to afford your necessities, you will never be free. As long as the state has the weapons to do so, they will murder people in the streets.

The US Marshals will kill people suspected of a crime without trial. As long as our institutions are given beautiful names like freedom and democracy, the landlords will be free to charge you to live on land arbitrarily given to them by arbitrary laws. Some liberals see the state as a neutral force, one that can be malleable and shaped by those within the institution. Those liberals cannot see how politics itself is a corrupting force. When the goals, aspirations and wants for life of millions of people are held in the hands of 600 elected officials and tens of thousands of unknown bureaucrats, it will only cause inertia. As long as we rely on individuals to represent our aspirations for collective liberation, the whims of the capitalist class will limit our aspirations because they are who the state serves. From the early days of the British parliament when the king allowed the nobles to push for influence in his decision making, to both political parties being avid unabashed capitalists, in the face of cyclical crisis and deep deprivation. 

Dontay Wimberly

About Community Movement Builders (158 Articles)
Community Movement Builders (CMB) is a member-based collective of black people dedicated to being a force for creating sustainable self-determining communities through cooperative economic advancement and collective community organizing. Our mission is rooted in Black love and equity. Grassroots Thinking is our newsletter/community blog about our work and movement activity

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