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2008-01-09

Barack Obama and the African American Community: A Debate with Michael Eric Dyson and Glen Ford

Guests

Michael Eric Dyson, Professor at Georgetown University, where he teaches Theology, English and African American Studies. He is the author of 14 books including "Debating Race,“ "Come Hell or High Water" and "Is Bill Cosby Right." He has been named by “Ebony” as one of the 100 Most Influential African Americans.

Glen Ford, Veteran journalist and Executive Editor of Black Agenda Report.com, a weekly journal of African American political thought and action.

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Does Barack Obama present a hope for dealing with African American issues? Or has he watered down his platform to appeal to white voters? Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson and veteran journalist Glen Ford debate. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The battle for the Democratic nomination now moves to Nevada, where the powerful Culinary Workers Union is expected to back Obama; South Carolina, where African American voters are expected to make up about half the electorate.

We turn now to a debate on Barack Obama. Michael Eric Dyson is a professor at Georgetown University, where he teaches theology, English and African American studies. He’s author of fourteen books, including Debating Race, Come Hell or High Water and Is Bill Cosby Right? He has been named by Ebony magazine one of the 100 most influential African Americans. Michael Eric Dyson, endorsing Senator Barack Obama, joining us from Washington, D.C.

And Glen Ford is a veteran journalist, executive editor of blackagendareport.com. In the late ’70s, he launched America’s Black Forum, a national black news TV program, and in ’87 he launched the first nationally syndicated hip-hop music show called Rap It Up. He also co-founded the weekly political journal Black Commentator in 2002. Glen Ford is not endorsing Senator Obama. He joins us here in our firehouse studio in New York.

Michael Eric Dyson, your response to last night’s, well, loss for Barack Obama.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I think, as you pointed out, that Barack Obama was predicted to be far behind, initially, in this race, and then, of course, the pollsters got it wrong, in terms of his overwhelming victory.

But I think a couple of things. First of all, there may be more a bit of play here of telling pollsters one thing, what they expect to hear when it comes to race, not simply because people have racist intent, but because of the historic lag between publicly identifying and embracing a person of color — in this case, a black man who is transcending what they believe to be race — to represent the entire swath of the population, on the one hand, and the persistence of a kind of resistance and skepticism, on the other. We don’t know how that will play out; we’ll see.

But secondly, I think that in his speech about “Yes, we can,” obviously he had tailored that speech for a victory, but I think what he is pointing to among his followers and the people who support him is that it was still nonetheless an extraordinary victory in overcoming such initial odds against him and then moving forward. His eye was on the future, so to speak, in Nevada and in South Carolina, where this debate will be waged bitterly, where the campaign battle is on.

And I think Barack Obama has extraordinary momentum, regardless of the perceived — of the loss last night. That loss last night didn’t lose him many more delegates, but at least the perception of being the inevitable nominee for the Democratic Party. But I think Barack Obama has extraordinary wind behind his wings and will obviously ascend much higher.

AMY GOODMAN: Glen Ford, your response to the New Hampshire loss and the Iowa victory?

GLEN FORD: Well, it wasn’t really a loss. He only lost by a couple of points. I think with New Hampshire and Iowa, Barack Obama has won a great unprecedented historical victory in proving that he can win the support of huge numbers of white people in essentially white primaries. And by doing that, he has accomplished the central mission of his entire campaign, which is to prove that a black man can be embraced by masses of white people.

The problem is, he has done that at the expense of black people, by constantly, relentlessly sending out signals to white people that a vote for Barack Obama, an Obama presidency, would signal the beginning of the end of black-specific agitation, that it would take race discourse off of the table. And he’s gone to extraordinary lengths to accomplish that.

He said things that white Democrats would — that no white Democrat would ever say — for example, the ridiculous statement that blacks had already come 90% of the way on the road to equality, with the implicit idea that a vote for him would take black people the other 10% of the way. Now, it’s a ridiculous statement. It’s based on no substance whatsoever. No indexes show blacks 90% of the way towards equality in any area of life. We’ve never made 65% more in income than white people. Black median household wealth is one-tenth white median household wealth. And on and on and on and on. In fact, we can’t find 90% figures relevant, outside of NBA teams and prison. But no white man, no white Democrat who said that would avoid being excoriated by the entire spectrum of black political opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dyson, your response?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I think that there’s no question that the politics of race, when it comes to Barack Obama, are complicated. There is the repudiation of a certain narrow conception of skin nationalism when it comes to race, and yet if you look at audacity of hope, where Barack Obama discusses the issue of race, it’s a much more nuanced and complex comprehension of the racial factors that remain.

I obviously share, as a person who’s written greatly and a great deal about race, that certainly we are not in a promised land by any measure, but I think what Barack Obama is pointing to is the fact that, as a person who can carry the water for not only African American people, but for the American population, the notion that a black man can be president then has to be put squarely in front of the American population, at least on the table.

On the other hand, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and other political critics and activists are not going to be out of job when Barack Obama becomes president. I think there’s an illusory notion that perhaps Mr. Ford might want to at least pay more strict attention to, and that is the fact that there’s a bifocal vision going on here. Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency doesn’t destroy black poverty, radical inequality, social injustice, the need to pay attention to all of those issues that he should be held accountable for once he ascends to the presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dyson —-

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: My support of Barack Obama is not predicated upon a denial of the legitimacy of social critique arguing for the development and betterment of African American people. So I think we have to keep our eyes on both of those issues at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dyson, I interviewed the Reverend Jesse Jackson on Sunday. He supports Barack Obama. I asked him why he’s not out stumping for him.

    AMY GOODMAN: So you would go out on the campaign trail for Barack Obama if he asked you to?

    REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, I would have to discuss that with him. He has not asked me to. That’s not an issue for me, frankly. My issue right now is -—

    AMY GOODMAN: Has he asked you not to?

    REV. JESSE JACKSON: No. And I tell you that I respect the distance he is trying to create for his own strategic purposes, and I accept that.

    AMY GOODMAN: What is that? Why is that?

    REV. JESSE JACKSON: I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dyson, your response?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, Jesse Jackson is one of the greatest freedom fighters in the history of this country, certainly in the twentieth century, and he is an ally and an asset to any campaign. I think when he talked about the strategic distance, that’s an acknowledgement and a nod to the kind of burden that Jesse Jackson may carry among the white population of people who potentially could vote for him, the same way that Hillary Clinton has to be very careful in terms of how she uses Bill Clinton, whether use him as a person to leverage her authority or as a wedge between her and that vote. So that’s a calculation that has to be dealt with.

I think that Jesse Jackson is an incredible asset, a brilliant politician. Without him, Barack Obama wouldn’t exist. At the same time, I think his disappointment, perhaps, in his acknowledgement of that painful lag is a realpolitik of race in American culture. And again, this is part of the very difficult and complex argument made on behalf of a person like Barack Obama seeking to represent all of America, and at the same time not losing sight of what Mr. Ford has talked about: the issues that are gritty, that make a difference for black people. I happen to believe that a Barack Obama presidency would speak poignantly to those issues, but would not nullify or eradicate the necessity for strategic political intervention on behalf of those interests. It’s not an either/or [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s get Glen Ford’s response.

GLEN FORD: Yes. Barack Obama does not carry our burden, in addition to other burdens. He in fact promises to lift white-people-as-a-whole’s burden, the burden of having to listen to these very specific and historical black complaints, to deal with the legacies of slavery. That is his promise to them. That is what allowed him to amass huge, huge numbers of white votes. And he will amass larger and larger percentages of black votes now that black folks see that white folks will vote for Barack Obama. Finally, there’s somebody who has a chance. But he can only do this — he has only pulled this off by these continual assurances to white people that race will be off the table. At least, that is the way it is received. It’s received by masses of white people. It’s even received in that way by hard-right ideologues like Bill Bennett and George F. Will, who seems to be fascinated by Barack Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you about Secretary of State — the former Secretary of State Colin Powell. The television/radio host Tavis Smiley recently interviewed Powell on his show. Tavis asked Powell what he thought of Obama’s candidacy. This is some of what Powell said.

    COLIN POWELL: I’m terribly excited. I’m impressed, and I’m happy for Barack Obama. I know him. I’ve met with him a couple of times. And I think this is such an important event for America, for the American people. We can show to the rest of the world that it’s possible to have a Kenyan father, to be a black man, to have gone to school in Indonesia, come back, gotten your education in this great country, and now you can put yourself forward for national office.

    I mean, this argument about him not being black enough, that’s just absolute nonsense, and I’m glad that he doesn’t respond to that kind of challenge. What he has put himself forward as is as a person who has a belief in the country, who is competent, and he is putting himself forward not as a black man, but as an American man who wants to be president of the United States of America, and he’s going to take his case to the American people, just as all the other candidates are. So we should see Barack as a candidate for president who happens to be black, and not a black candidate for president.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Glen Ford, your response?

GLEN FORD: Naturally, I’m not impressed by Colin Powell’s endorsement, but I’m glad you played it, because we’re in this era of firsts, and the ultimate first, a first — possibly a first black president. But we already had two firsts. Colin Powell was one of them, and Condoleezza Rice, his successor as secretary of state. How did that redound to the benefit of black people for the United States to have a black — put a black face on imperialism, on aggressive war, on violations of international law? How does that make black people look better in the world? Is that the kind of burden that black people want to carry around? Certainly, there will be no exemption for African Americans internationally after these kinds of experiences.

And Barack Obama shows quite definitively that he, being the political twin of Hillary Clinton, will also put forward that same aggressive, bellicose face to the world. How else to explain his call for 100,000 additional US Marines and soldiers? For what purpose? Even as he speaks vaguely about withdrawing from Iraq, as vaguely as Hillary Clinton does, he wants 100,000 more soldiers and Marines. What will he do with them? Clearly, he is talking about expanding, continuing US efforts to dominate militarily.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dyson?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah, I think, look, that when you make the argument, first of all, implicitly that there’s a relationship of similarity between Colin Powell, but especially Condoleezza Rice, and Barack Obama, I think that’s patently unfair. First of all, the ideological matrix from which Barack Obama emerges and the grid that he has attempted to deploy is radically dissimilar to any rightwing interest.

That doesn’t mean that there’s not room for severe and serious critique of any political candidate. I have no investment in these people as deities or demiurges or gods. What is suggested in the real world of politics, however, what Mr. Ford has not yet grappled with, is that the alternative to a Barack Obama or, for that matter, for those people who are concerned about it, even a Hillary Clinton, the reality is this is the game we’re in. This is the game that’s being played. To limit the scope of African American intelligence, interest or political concern to the fact that a president is being put forth who happens to be a black man versus the interests of African American people, I would not be so naive as to assume that the presidency of a Barack Obama would in any way mitigate against or militate against the vast region of problems that black people face. That would call for a kind of political naivete that should be suspected from the beginning.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me —

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: What I’m suggesting is that African American people have the ability to understand his presidency, at the same time deal with these persistent issues. And to Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and others, strategic interventions need to be made by those people, as well as a Barack Obama presidency. It’s not an either/or.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me a clip of what Hillary Clinton said a few days ago about Barack Obama’s reference to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. She was speaking to a crowd of supporters in Salem, New Hampshire.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Senator Obama used President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to criticize me and, you know, basically compared himself to two of our greatest heroes, saying, well, they gave great speeches. President Kennedy was in the Congress for fourteen years. He was a war hero. He was a man of great accomplishments and readiness to be president. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a movement. He was gassed. He was beaten. He was jailed. And he gave a speech that was one of the most beautifully, profoundly important speeches ever delivered in America: the "I Have a Dream" speech. And then he worked with President Johnson to get the civil rights laws passed.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Hillary Rodham Clinton. Your response, Glen Ford?

GLEN FORD: Well, Dr. Dyson doesn’t seem to know what a rightwing interest is. An expanded US military, 100,000 new troops, isn’t a rightwing interest? An expanded military budget that sucks up all of the money for healthcare, for revitalization of the cities, for a rebuilding of America’s infrastructure, for all the projects that black folks hold dear, all of which would go down the tubes, will be postponed indefinitely with the kind of expanded military budget that clearly follows from Barack Obama’s proposal for 100,000 new troops. And so, it is not in black folks’ interest. It’s really not in anyone’s interest, of course. But it is diametrically opposed to the historic black political consensus on domestic development to be proposing expanded military activities and budgets for the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have thirty seconds. Michael Eric Dyson, your response?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, listen here. I think that that is a legitimate comment to be made in terms of the critique of a potential Barack Obama presidency. Let’s see it get here first. I think that a Barack Obama presidency at least holds out the possibility of engaging these forms of critique, engaging the form of the black political consensus about which Mr. Ford has spoken, but also to deal with the fact that we have to be bifocal. The presidency —- the people who are making critiques of the system, if he’s part of the system, he will be critiqued legitimately. And African American people will be able to enjoy the victory of the grassroots being able to speak, while at the same time being part of a political process that includes us in a very serious way. I think a Barack Obama presidency -—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but this is part one of this debate. Professor Dyson, thanks for joining us, from Georgetown University; Glen Ford, executive editor of blackagendareport.com.

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