Question: Describe today’s crisis in African-American politics.
Glen Ford: The crisis stems for the contradictions between the two main currents in black politics. One sometimes is called the assimilations current, and that is that the struggle is about equality and nothing else; citizenship, rights, and nothing else—to become Americans and that's it. Once we have achieved this American-ness, then the movement is over. The other current is, I call, the self-determinationist current, which recognizes African Americans as a distinct people having become a distinct people here in this country, who have the right to chose their own political path, to try to build a word as they see it based upon a world of view that they are entitled to because of their peoplehood which they achieved in this country. Often, in fact, certainly all the way through the '60s, these two currents ran parallel to each other in the same direction.
However, once we achieved legal status as full Americans, the contradictions between the two currents—the one that we just like to assimilate, and measured its progress by how American-like we were, and the other which wanted to express our view of the world, to shape the world as we thought it should be shaped. That, of course, is done politically. There was a divergence there. These contradictions have come to the inevitable head with the election of Barack Obama.
Question: What change does Barack Obama represent to the African-American community?
Glen Ford: Well, it certainly is a profound change in terms of that current that seeks to be totally integrated into this American project. It does not challenge that American project, a project that began with genocide and enslavement and continues as imperialism. So, for those who simply wanted to integrate into this American project, as Martin Luther King once said to Harry Belafonte, "Run into a burning house," this is the epiphany. This is the end of things. This is the reason to call a halt to the movement.
But for those of us whose project is not a continuation of this American project from genocide and slavery, and not to imperialism—certainly, that was no signal for us to end our struggle.
Question: Are Obama's compromises part of a larger progressive plan?
Glen Ford: Obama is a Corporate Democrat. He's a corporatist. He's exactly what he seems to be. Within the black community, there is this notion, almost generally shared, that Obama is winking at us, that he's playing a game until he secures his position of authority to the extent that he can become his own man. This is when the “brother” Obama will emerge, and we should just wink and be supportive of him, not do anything that might weaken him. At some point, this blacker Obama, this more progressive Obama, this independent Obama, this anti-corporate Obama, will make himself known. We at Black Agenda Report have no such illusions. He is a Corporate Democrat who ideologically and practically is no different than Bill Clinton or his wife.
I think in fact that Obama is pretty much the perfect corporate guy. I could see him in a very large multi-national corporation with big holdings in the United States—something like a Ford or a General Motors or the old Ford and the old General Motors. Obama would be the kind of executive who would try to reconcile the various profit centers within Ford, let's say, and, more importantly, reconcile the different imperatives in that corporation. There would be some parts of the corporation who's job it is to kill the competition, to trim workers remuneration at every point of production. These are the mean guys.
Then there are other parts of the corporation who's job it is to present that the whole institution as benign. This is the part that says, “Ford is good for Michigan, Ford is a native son, Ford cares about you, Ford contributes to your charities,” you see. That's the benign section of the corporation. All of them have a job to do and sometimes they're antithetical but they are all necessary for the machine to run.
Barack Obama would be great at that. So if we are talking about the United States as a corporation, he does that perfectly. He tries—or attempts to do it—he tries to reconcile the irreconcilable. He's going to reconcile labor and management. He's going to reconcile blacks and whites and browns by inviting representatives of each to have a beer on the White House lawn. This is what a corporate guy would do. He seems to come from that mold.
Question: What do you make of Barack Obama’s race speech?
Glen Ford: Barack Obama is speaking from basically the same position as Bill Cosby. It is also a position that is quite fine, jives very well with what corporate power, the way corporate power would like you to think. Let’s go back again, however, to black politics and I mean that in a broad sense. Usually the conversation revolves around questions of self-help, and people like Crosby and the words that Barack Obama is mouthing will always go back to self-help, we need to help ourselves. This line of argument basically rules out political organization of the people, putting masses of people in motion as a kind of self-help, when in fact, it is the most important self-help that we can possibly engage in. We did put ourselves in motion in the late ‘50’s and the ‘60’s and into the early ‘70’s and during that very brief period of time, we made greater strides than we had ever made in the United States of America. And it wasn’t because we pooled our money and formed black businesses and bought shares in a black star line, it was because we organized at every level that we were represented and demanded change. That is self-help.
So when we hear these “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” clichés, what we’re hearing is folks saying, “You don’t need to be organizing and making all that noise. Just clean yourself up and put on a tie and apply for a job and if you don’t get it, come back again and try to get yourself some education, but don’t you dare, don’t you dare organize against the powers that be.” When, in fact, that is the ultimate self-help. And you’re helping everybody else as well.
Recorded on: August 6, 2009