Black nationalists and White supremacists have several mistaken ideas about politics in the United States: both groups think that Barack Obama, as president of the United States, has more power at his disposal than he really has and that Black Americans weld more potential political, social and economic power than we really do. For Black nationalists, the potential for black social and political power is their greatest hope; for White supremacists this potential power is their greatest fear. Both are mistaken.
The popularity of Donald Trump in the Republican Party is arguably, at least in part, a reaction to the perception of the growth of non-White political, social and economic power. The Trump phenomenon is also something that both Black nationalists and white supremacists are mistaken about. They both believe that the passions of nativism and xenophobia that are currently sweeping across the Republican Party are the passions of the American people in general. You even hear it in the anxiety of the voices of more moderate Republicans when they say, “I don’t know what is happening to our country that Donald Trump is so popular with so many Americans.”
This gives the impression that the problem of racism and xenophobia within the Republican Party is a problem within the larger American population. If this were true it would be good news for Black nationalists because it would confirm what they have been saying about the permanence of white supremacy within American culture and American institutions. It would also be good news for white supremacists because it would confirm that they are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the average American.
The question, however, is whether or not either of these impressions is accurate.
On the issue of the alleged political power of African American communities it must be pointed out that although President Obama is an African-American this does not mean that Black people have significant power within the United States. As the president himself has stressed time and again he is, and must be, the president for all of the American people not just one racial or ethnic group. The president has been scrupulous about avoiding any policies or behavior that would give ammunition to critics who accuse him of being “pro-Black” at the expense of whites. This, of course, has not prevented them of leveling that charge against him anyway.
In reality, President Obama is like the CEO of a corporation. There are certain imperatives to the office that force the individual to conform to the behavior and interests of the corporation rather than the other way around. The race, gender or personality of the CEO is of marginal significance when it comes to doing whatever is necessary to increase the profit margin for shareholders.
The same is true for the office of the president of the United States. The race, gender and personality of the president is of marginal significance when it comes to protecting the Washington establishment’s interest in U.S. domestic and foreign policy. If there is one thing we have learned over the past seven years it is that Obama operates within a narrow range of policy options that are available to him.
Even if Obama decided that he wanted to ignore the imperatives of his office the checks and balances in the American system of government would prevent him from getting away with very much. There are all kinds of limitations on the president’s power due to the division of functions between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government and also due to divisions of government on federal, state and local levels.
On top of that, there is a nearly permanent class of federal bureaucrats to contend with. These permanent bureaucrats were in place long before Obama was elected and they will continue to be in place long after his departure. Therefore, controlling the presidency — which Obama cannot do in any case — is not enough to control the nation, much less to control it for black Americans. Nor is there reason to believe that black Americans perceive their interests as being significantly different on most issues from those of white Americans of similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
Moreover, contrary to the hopes of Black nationalists and the fears of white supremacists, one should understand that African-Americans, as a group, are far from being a monolithic population. We have many different perspectives within our population and many different interests. Rather than being a single, coherent community, African-Americans may more accurately be described as being a community of communities.
At any rate, the real power in the United States is not in the government; it is in the financial institutions and a small multi-billionaire class who have increasingly, over the past 40 years, gained disproportionate influence in all levels of government and in the federal reserve banking system.
They have bought up the major media outlets, shaping public sentiment and public opinion, which filter the issues and ideas that will be most hotly debated and that determine which issues will go largely ignored.
Beyond that, they dominate the political process through nearly unchecked campaign financing and through teams of high-powered lawyers and lobbyists to ensure that elected and appointed officials will do their bidding. Black Americans, for all of their visibility on the surface, don’t even register as a blip where power is actually concentrated.
For those who either hope for, or fear, the political potential of African Americans it is important to understand that there isn’t even an approximation of a single agenda for African-Americans, as a bloc, to rally around and support. The fact that African-American voters are overwhelmingly Democrats has more to do with the Republican Party’s post-Second World War history of courting former Dixiecrats, and cultivating white suburban fear of an increasingly non-white inner-city, than it has to do with any coordinated strategy on the part of African-Americans themselves.
The fear and racial resentment that seems to fuel much of the discourse in the Republican presidential debates in 2016 — conflating Islam with terrorism, and African-Americans and Latinos with crime, reflects the self-segregation and insularity of that political Party.
As I have pointed out previously, the Republicans have become a party of racial and social insularity whose composition does not remotely resemble that of the nation as a whole.
Nearly 90% of Republicans are non-Hispanic white Americans and approximately 5% are Hispanic. Only about 2% are African-American. This stands in contrast against the Democratic Party, which is 60% non-Hispanic white, 22% non-Hispanic black and 13% Hispanic.
This racial and ethnic self-segregation and insularity in the Republican Party lends itself to extreme views when it comes to their impressions about African-Americans, Latinos and Muslims.
Therefore, there are two myths of which observers must disabuse themselves when they are thinking about politics in the United States today. The first is that whatever passions are cascading through the Republican Party at the moment reflect the thinking and feeling of the American nation as a whole. They do not. The second is that the survival of the Obama administration through two consecutive terms reflects the coming of age of African American political and social power. It does not. The two myths reflect the fears of some and the hopes of others, but in either case they are exaggerated, hence they are mistaken.