I am re-posting here Jelani Cobb’s article (The New Yorker) written around the blunder of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, whereby he compared African slaves to immigrants. This is the same person who, out of the blue, claimed in 2013 that: “Obamacare is really … the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” The +20 million people who got insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) would beg to differ.
Anyhow, Dr. Carson will, most likely, not become president of the United States. The world will thus be probably a better place. Because despite his acknowledged skills as a neurosurgeon, Carson is a mediocre student of history. Should he want to remedy that self-inflicted intellectual handicap, he would have to rethink slavery. And first of all, he must admit that the Slave Trade is “America’s Original Sin.” Consequently, it was not some migratory itch or urge that uprooted millions of Africans and dumped them on the shores of the “New World.” On the contrary, they were taken out and across the Atlantic Ocean in chains. Upon landing, and as Edward E. Baptist put it best, they toiled, from dawn to dusk and in sweat, tears and blood, for the “Making of American Capitalism.”
Tierno S. Bah
In referring to slaves as “immigrants,” Ben Carson followed a long-standing American tradition of eliding the ugliness that is part of the country’s history.
Earlier this week, Ben Carson, the somnolent surgeon dispatched to oversee the Department of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of the Trump Administration, created a stir when he referred to enslaved black people—stolen, trafficked, and sold into that status—as “immigrants” and spoke of their dreams for their children and grandchildren. In the ensuing hail of criticism, Carson doubled down, saying that it was possible for someone to be an involuntary immigrant. Carson’s defenses centered upon strict adherence to the definition of the word “immigrant” as a person who leaves one country to take up residence in another. This is roughly akin to arguing that it is technically possible to refer to a kidnapping victim as a “house guest,” presuming the latter term refers to a temporary visitor to one’s home. Carson had already displayed a propensity for gaffes during his maladroit Presidential candidacy, and it might be easy to dismiss his latest one as the least concerning element of having a neurosurgeon with no relevant experience in charge of housing policy were it not a stand-in for a broader set of concerns about the Trump Administration.
A week earlier, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, had described historically black colleges and universities as pioneers in school choice—a view that can only co-exist with reality if we airbrush segregation into a kind of level playing field in which ex-slaves opted to attend all-black institutions rather than being driven to them as a result of efforts to preserve the supposed sanctity of white ones. The Trump Administration is not alone in proffering this rosy view of American racial history. Last week, in a story about changes being made at Thomas Jefferson‘s estate, Monticello, the Washington Post referred to Sally Hemings, the enslaved black woman who bore several of Jefferson’s children, as his “mistress”—a term that implies far more autonomy and consent than is possible when a woman is a man’s legal property. Last fall, the textbook publisher McGraw-Hill faced criticism for a section of a history book that stated, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” The word “worker” typically carries the connotation of remuneration rather than lifelong forced labor and chattel slavery.
One part of the issue here is the eliding of the ugliness of the slave past in this country. This phenomenon is neither novel nor particularly surprising. The unwillingness to confront this narrative is tied not simply to the miasma of race but to something more subtle and, in the current atmosphere, more potentially treacherous: the reluctance to countenance anything that runs contrary to the habitual optimism and self-anointed sense of the exceptionalism of American life. It is this state-sanctioned sunniness from which the view of the present as a middle ground between an admirable past and a halcyon future springs. But the only way to sustain that sort of optimism is by not looking too closely at the past. And thus the past can serve only as an imperfect guide to the troubles of the present.
In his 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Robert Warshow wrote about the mid-century efforts to pressure studios to stop producing their profitable gangster movies. The concerns focussed partly upon the violence of the films but more directly upon the fear that these films offered a fundamentally pessimistic view of life and were therefore un-American. There is a neat through-line from those critics to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” idealism to the shopworn rhetoric of nearly every aspirant to even local public office that the nation’s “best days are ahead of us.” We are largely adherents of the state religion of optimism—and not of a particularly mature version of it, either. This was part of the reason Donald Trump’s sermons of doom were seen as so discordant throughout last year’s campaign. He offered followers a diet of catastrophe, all of it looming immediately if not already under way. He told an entire nation, in the most transparently demagogic of his statements, that he was the only one who could save it from imminent peril. And he was nonetheless elected President of the United States.
Strangely enough, many of us opted to respond to Trump’s weapons-grade pessimism in the most optimistic way possible, conjuring best-case scenarios in which he would simply be a modern version of Richard Nixon, or perhaps of Andrew Jackson. But he is neither of these. Last summer, as his rallies tipped toward violence and the rhetoric seemed increasingly jarring, it was common to hear alarmed commentators speak of us all being in “uncharted waters.” This was naïve, and, often enough, self-serving. For many of us, particularly those who reckon with the history of race, the true fear was not that we were on some unmapped terrain but that we were passing landmarks that were disconcertingly familiar. In response to the increasingly authoritarian tones of the executive branch, we plumbed the history of Europe in the twentieth century for clues and turned to the writings of Czeslaw Milosz and George Orwell. We might well have turned to the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin for the more direct, domestic version of this question but looked abroad, at least in part, as a result of our tacit consensus that tragedy is a foreign locale. It has been selectively forgotten that traits of authoritarianism neatly overlap with traits of racism visible in the recent American past.
The habitual tendency to excise the most tragic elements of history creates a void in our collective understanding of what has happened in the past and, therefore, our understanding of the potential for tragedy in the present. In 1935, when Sinclair Lewis wrote “It Can’t Happen Here,” it already was happening here, and had been since the end of Reconstruction. In 1942, the N.A.A.C.P. declared a “Double V” campaign—an attempt to defeat Fascism abroad and its domestic corollary of American racism.
Similarly, it was common in the days immediately following September 11th to hear it referred to as the nation’s first large-scale experience with terrorism—or at least the worst since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, staged by Timothy McVeigh. But the nation’s first anti-terrorism law was the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, designed to stall the attempts to terrorize emancipated slaves out of political participation. McVeigh’s bombing, which claimed the lives of a hundred and sixty-eight people, was not the worst act of terrorism in the United States at that point—it was not even the worst act of terrorism in the history of Oklahoma. Seventy-four years earlier, in what became known as the Tulsa Race Riot, the city’s black population was attacked and aerially bombed; at least three hundred people were killed. Such myopia thrives in the present and confounds the reasoning of the director of the FBI, James Comey, who refused to declare Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black congregants in a South Carolina church, done in hopes of sparking a race war, as an act of terrorism—a designation he did not withhold from Omar Mateen’s murderous actions in the Pulse night club, in Orlando.
The American capacity for tragedy is much broader and far more robust than Americans—most of us, anyway—recognize. Our sense of ourselves as exceptional, of our country as a place where we habitually avert the worst-case scenario, is therefore a profound liability in times like the present. The result is a failure to recognize the parameters of human behavior and, consequently, the signs of danger as they become apparent to others who are not crippled by such optimism. A belief that we are exempt from the true horrors of human behavior and the accompanying false sense of security have led to nearly risible responses to Trumpism.
It has become a cliché of each February to present the argument that “black history is American history,” yet that shopworn ideal has new relevance. A society with a fuller sense of history and its own capacity for tragedy would have spotted Trump’s zero-sum hustle from many miles in the distance. Without it, though, it’s easy to mistake the overblown tribulations he sold his followers for candor, not a con. The sense of history as a chart of increasing bounties enabled tremendous progress but has left Americans—most of us, anyway—uniquely unsuited to look at ourselves as we truly are and at history for what it is. Our failure to reckon with this past and the centrality of race within it has led us to broadly mistake the clichés of history for novelties of current events.
From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans stands as the magisterial study of the American black experience by the late Pr. John Hope Franklin (1915-2009) and Pr. Alfred A. Moss Jr. It was a revelation when it appeared in 1947. He followed up with several and many articles on Reconstruction, the martial culture of the antebellum South, runaway slaves and other subjects. Each one is a model of graceful prose, meticulously documented and free of bias or cant. The quality of Mr. Franklin’s writings made him the first black chairman of a history department at a predominantly white institution, Brooklyn College, in 1956. Later came appointments at the University of Chicago and Duke, and teaching assignments at Howard and Cambridge universities and elsewhere. Along the way he assisted Thurgood Marshall’s legal team in Brown v. Board of Education, served in government and accumulated more academic honors than we have space to mention. In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
I am reacting here briefly to the transcript of the interview called “A Frank Conversation with a White Nationalist.” Although not not an empty talk the exchange reads like a polite but vague conversation. It fails to turn into an articulate and meaningful dialog. Its flaw lays in its weakness and even lack of historical perspective.
It is true that the journalist, Al Letson, and his interlocutor, Richard Spencer, met the day after the Republican candidate’s shocking Electoral College victory that made Donald Trump president-elect of the USA.
However, the atmosphere of the electoral upset, it was incumbent on them to acknowledge and explore better the complexities of such loaded topics as identity, race, ethnicity, nationalism, etc. Instead, they went for clichés, wrong assumptions, and somewhat shallow personal stories.
For instance, the two interlocutors agree —not surprisingly— on the contribution of Blacks in the making of American culture. Unfortunately, and due to its entertainment undertones —not to forget the association with sports—, this recognition is nothing but a stereotype. Because we know that real power is not in music and athletic achievement; it is in economics, finances, banking, science, and technology.
So what do I see as hits and misses by Al Letson and Richard Spencer respectively?
As an investigative journalist, Mr. Letson did not bring up the stronger arguments. Instead, he limited himself in reminding Richard Spencer of the Ku Klux-Klan and its terrorist lynching raids. Oddly, a word search of the interview show that Al fails to mention Slavery altogether. Yet, African bondage has been often and appropriately called America’s original sin, by President Obama. Is it merely coincidental that it was during his stewardship that such movies as 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, Selma, etc., were produced and realized? Probably not. And it was obviously not serendipity but rather a fitting reunion when former President G.W. Bush joined Obama in the inauguration of the African-American Museum of History and Culture back in September The latter finished the project that the former had started.
Therefore, African-American media professionals like Al Letson ought to study as hard as they can African-American history, sociology, economy, political science, linguistics, etc. Such an activity nurtures the mind and helps—among other things—to debunk the myths of white supremacy. They prepare and empower African-American scholars, journalists and artists as they seek to engage and refute the views of the likes of Richard Spencer.
The other Achille’s heel in Al Letson argumentation is that he does not draw Richard Spencer’s attention that oppression engenders resistance and rebellion. And that African-Americans stood up against slavery. They fought heroically to end it during the Civil War. They challenged Jim Crow. Under the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and others, they defeated legal segregation in 1964 (Civil Rights Act) and in 1965 (Voting Rights Act). Incidentally, Richard Spencer refers to the 1964 legislation as Immigration. That’s a mistake.
The bottom line is that, through and through, Blacks were neither submissive nor passive. Strong personalities and fearless leaders emerged and blazed the trail of no-surrender, insurrection and entrepreneurship right in Antebellum America. Among them Toussaint-Louverture (Haiti), Abdul-Rahman (from my native Fuuta-Jalon), Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and so many others.Their successors fought for the end of the abomination of slavery and to assert their humanity. And Whites and Jews showed solidarity all along. Quakers, intellectuals, politicians joined the anti-slavery movement, which peaked with John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.…
Mr. Spencer’s intellectual handicap and judgemental predicaments are many. I list here some of them.
First, he suffers from the delusion that Whites, Blacks, Asians, etc. constitute separate races. Never mind that such a prejudice is deep-seated. Genomics has dispelled it thoroughly. There is only one species, and that’s Humans, akaHomo sapiens? Even it still applies in culture, politics and in administration, it does not hold water in nature and in biological sciences.
Second, Richard has the illusion that Whites are homogeneous. But history belies that wrong premise. The elites, rulers and states of Germanic, Latin and Slavs peoples and countries have fought many a battle for political and economic power, as well as for cultural dominance. Three examples:
Third, Richard Spencer idealizes and idolizes the history of Europe. He is entitled to his opinion, but not to the facts. Before it spread its tentacles on the Southern Hemisphere of the Globe, capitalism began to wreak havoc at home. Again Richard should read the masterpieces of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and other works that depict the miseries brought upon Europe by the rise of capitalism. Writing in the 20th century, historian Eric Hobsbawn has laid bare the lows and highs of the Industrial Revolution.
Fourth, for all its scientific and cultural achievements Europe was the matrix of the first (1914-1918) and the second (1939-1945) World Wars. The horrors of WWI led European artists, writers and poets to express their rejection of Western civilization and to seek inspiration elsewhere. Their quest was fulfilled by the so-called primitive arts of Africa and Oceania. Thus was born surrealism, dadaism. Then the Harlem Renaissance flourished. It carried on and elevated centuries of blacks’ struggled against racism and exclusion in the United States of America. Young African and Caribbean scholars in Paris followed suit with the Négritude movement, a trailblazer of the emancipation of Africa from colonial rule.… In essence, the Surrealism—Harlem Renaissance—Négritude chain underscores how societies and people are interrelated and interdependent, irrespective of skin color or “racial” background… And, in particular, it illustrates the ties that bind the intelligentsia, as well as literary, artistic and scientific trends and currents, in time and space.
That said, on January 20, 2017 Mr. Trump will have executive control of the world’s largest and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal. Should that lethal armory be—accidentally or willfully—unleashed and retaliated against, it will wipe human life off the planet, sparing no one, including the advocates of racial supremacy or ethnic superiority.
In the end, Al Letson does not introduce Richard Spencer adequately to the audience of his podcast. We are only told that he was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Texas, and that he likes mountain biking! That’s not enough to profile the carrier of a hostile ideology. The interview could have disclosed further information about the white nationalist’s education, profession, intellectual background and political connections.
But since Al Leston and Richard Spencer remain in touch, let’s hope to learn more about this supporter of president-elect Donald Trump .
Richard Spencer is among the tens of millions of Americans who are excited about Donald Trump’s coming presidency. The 38-year-old white nationalist heads a small organization, called the National Policy Institute, and believes people of different skin color are inherently different, hate each other and should live separately.
Reveal’s host Al Letson talked to Spencer the day after the election. You can hear the whole conversation above and read the transcript below. While the months of campaigning were often devoid of real exchanges of ideas, this is the opposite: a frank and deep conversation, revealing starkly different views of the same world.
For instance, Spencer tells Al his long-term dream is an “ethnostate” – a territory set aside for people of European descent.
“So that we would always have a safe space,” Spencer says. “We would always have a homeland for us. Very similar to … how Jews conceive of Israel.”
Living all mixed together, he suggests, has not worked out that well.
Spencer also says he believes that Trump opens the door for white identity politics to become an overt and welcome part of mainstream conversation in America for the first time.
Al, who is African American, asks how Spencer is different from members of the Ku Klux Klan or other racists who “hung people up from trees.”
His answer is worth hearing.
Spencer is well-educated and well-spoken, from a mainstream conservative family. Reveal profiles him in our upcoming episode and podcast, in partnership with Mother Jones magazine.
Al Letson: So Richard, it’s the day after Donald Trump won the election. I think so many people were surprised. Were you surprised by it?
Richard Spencer: I was surprised. And I, I didn’t believe it. And I’m not sure I believe it even right now. It’s all a little surreal. I mean I thought that he was, I thought he had a much better chance than people were giving him credit for. I thought it was a much better chance than say the 5 percent chance that the Huffington Post or The New York Times gave him. Or even like the 25 percent chance that Nate Silver was giving him. I thought, I thought he was going to bring in new voters. And I also thought that there were a lot of shy Trump voters out there. But even I couldn’t believe it when it happened. I was with a friend. We were actually at the Trump Hotel on election night and that was a lot of fun and we were just walking around town. We were both kind of like pinch us. I’m not sure it’s real. So it’s it’s been quite a day.
Al Letson: So now your candidate has won. What do you see the future of America being? Because, you know, I feel like Trump winning means that kind of all bets are off. Like everything that people may have thought was going to happen the day after and from here on after, can be shifted at this one moment in time. So I’m curious, like for you, what does the future look like? Or what do you hope the future looks like?
Richard Spencer: Yeah I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t think this was just an unusual election with an unusual candidate. I think this really was a paradigmatic shift. The new paradigm that Donald Trump brought into the world was identity politics and in particular white identity politics. And this, this question which he asked directly: “Are we a nation or are we not?”
And defining his political message not on conservatism. Because, I mean, Trump is not a conservative in the way that self-described ideological conservatives understand that term. He does not – his starting point is not freedom and liberty, his starting point is not tax cuts. His starting point is not an aggressive democracy promotion foreign policy in the Middle East. His starting point is nationalism. Are we a nation? Are we a people or are we not? And again, this is something that his critics said oh this won’t play, this is too toxic, it’s too awful.
Al Letson: To to you when he says that.
Richard Spencer: And this will never work. But it worked.
Al Letson: To you and he says are we a nation or not, does nation mean specifically white people? Because when I hear are we a nation or not. I hear him say all Americans. That’s that’s what I’m listening for. But but does that is that coded language and it says something different to you?
Richard Spencer: Well obviously there are people of other races who are United States citizens. They’re, they’re here. But what really defines the American nation. Is the American nation just defined as a kind of economic platform for the world? Is the American nation just purely defined by the constitution and some legalisms? No. The American nation is defined by the fact that it is derived from Europe. That European people settled this continent, that European people built the political structures, that European people influenced its architecture, its economy, its art, its way of life and society and so on. So America, I agree of course there are many different people here. But which people truly define what America is? Well obviously that could change.
Al Letson: Let me, let me let let me respond to that let me respond to it though. Because I would say that every culture that came to America helped shape America as it is now. It was all the people that were here that created what America is.
Richard Spencer: Well, that’s certainly true to a certain extent. But I would say that white Americans, European-Americans, in particular Anglo-Saxon Americans, Anglo-Saxon Protestants were this essential historic people. That they defined it in a way that no other people did. So, of course African-Americans have influenced American culture and American identity. Of course Asians have and so on. But it really was Anglo-Saxons who truly defined it. Who made America what it is. Who were indispensable. There are other people, you know, other races and all sorts of other different countries. But there has to be that founding people, that indispensable people that really makes the country what it is.
Al Letson: I disagree with you completely but I’m going to go past that because I want to get back more to your idea about what the future’s going to be. Because if you see America as a place that was predominately created by white people, and for white people, which – I’m not sure if I disagree with the for white people – but I would definitely say if you see that is what America has been, is that where you see it going?
Richard Spencer: To be honest. That’s that’s not where I have seen it going. Over the course of my lifetime. I’ve experienced something that is quite the opposite of this notion of an America of and for white people. I have experienced a great transformation of the American nation and American culture and society. I’ve certainly experienced through immigration a move towards multiculturalism and multiracialism. But there is, you could say, a moral component to it as well. Where we live in a world of a white guilt complex. Where if a non-white actor is hired for this new movie role or more non-white applicants apply to this college or there’s a new non-white CEO of this major corporation, that’s thought of as inherently a good thing morally speaking. We need more of that. We need less white people in positions of power. We need more non-white people in positions of power. So this has been my experience I’m 38 years old. I was born in 1978. This has been my experience of America. It has not been – the arrow has not been pointing towards a country of and for white people.
Al Letson: I guess the point that I would make there is that like, if you look at the numbers, a majority of the power in this country is controlled by white people.
Richard Spencer: Yes.
Al Letson: If you look at Hollywood just, if you just look at Hollywood right now, like majority of the films that are being made star white people. If you look in colleges and look at the admission rates like you see majority of that is white people. And I think that what you’re talking about is that, you know, the world or the country is trying to find a balance where everybody gets a seat at the table. Where it’s not just so white people get all of this stuff and everybody else gets left into the corner. You know, I hear this argument a lot where I hear people talk about things like there’s BET Black Entertainment Channel and people wonder like why isn’t there a White Entertainment Channel. But every time I cut on the TV and look at just any TV station, majority of what I see is white. So therefore like there already is a White Entertainment Channel. We don’t need a White Caucus in Congress because most of Congress is white.
Richard Spencer: I think there is a certain degree of truth to what you’re saying. If we were living in, say, 1965 but we’re not living in that world anymore. Yes, white people are generally better off than many other people. But again, the question really is, which way is the arrow pointing? All of these institutions are not acting on behalf of white people. They are acting on behalf of non-white people. And you can talk about this being fair, or what have you. But I will be brutally honest with you. Fairness has never been really a great value in my mind. I like greatness and winning and dominance and beauty. Those are values. Not really fairness.
Al Letson: So Donald Trump is your perfect candidate.
Richard Spencer: Yes. Look, again, I don’t think Donald Trump is me. I don’t think Donald Trump is alt-right. I don’t think Donald Trump is an identitarian as I would use that term. I think Donald Trump is a kind of first step towards this. He’s the first time that we’ve seen a genuinely if, you could say incomplete, politician who’s fighting for European identity politics in North America. This is the first time we’ve seen it.
Al Letson: How do you maintain it though? Because the numbers are going against you. Pretty soon white people are going to be the minority in America like in the next, what 40 years?
Richard Spencer: Yes. By 2042 white, if nothing else changes, white people will become a minority. Also the majority of births right now are actually to non-white people. So there is a dramatic transformation taking place. Now, what is going to happen in that? Are we going to all, in 2042 are we going to all decide oh well you know race doesn’t mean anything anymore. Identity is meaningless. We’re just all atoms here in the United States and we all go shopping in the same store. We just have different skin colors. No. I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. I think whites are going to be, they’re going to have a amplification of their consciousness of being white. That this whole process we’re experiencing is not going to bring about racelessness. It’s going to bring about a new consciousness amongst white people that actually wasn’t there before.
Al Letson: So, what happens with that consciousness?
Richard Spencer: Well it’s not necessarily, look, it might not be about maintaining an all white society. I don’t think I can snap my fingers and we could go back to 1965 before the major immigration act under LBJ that really dramatically changed the country. I don’t think that. But I think the only way forward is through identity politics. And the only way forward for my people, for us to survive and thrive, is by having a sense of identity. And I don’t know what the future is going to hold, but we need that.
Al Letson: So earlier when you were talking to our producer and reporter you talked about that you wanted a white ethnostate. Is that the end goal, the white ethnostate? Because I guess like I don’t understand how you get to a white ethnostate if already you’re beginning to lose the numbers.
Richard Spencer: Right. The, the ideal of a white ethnostate, and it is an ideal, is something that I think we should think about in the sense of what could come after America. It’s kind of like a grand goal. It’s very similar to in the 19th century when the left had ideals of communism. It was you know, politics is the art of the possible. But philosophy is kind of the art of the impossible, so to speak. So that they were imagining a new society. And at some point they brought it into being. A similar thing could be said of Jews in the 19th century who were imagining Zionism. There’s a Jewish state in the Middle East. That that was impossible. That did not exist.
Al Letson: Richard, respectfully man, like so are you saying that like America has to end in order for your ethnostate to happen? Because if you are trying to have a white ethnostate, what you’re basically saying is that you have to forcibly remove people. Because I got to tell you like I’m African-American and I’m not leaving.
Richard Spencer: I don’t.. this shouldn’t be taken as a cop-out but the fact is I don’t know. Because I don’t know what history has in store for us. I don’t know how history is going to unfold. What I do know is that for my people to survive we have to have a sense of who we are. We have to have, we have to have identity. And we don’t always have it. We don’t have an ethnic ethnic racial consciousness. Now in terms of an ethnostate, I don’t know how that will be possible. I mean, for leftists in the 19th century, communism seemed just downright impossible. Over and over again. But history presents opportunities and it becomes possible. So, the ethnostate’s not going to happen next week. It’s most likely not going to happen through Donald Trump. What the ethnostate is, is an ideal. It’s a thing, it’s a way of thinking about we want a new type of society that would actually be a homeland for all white people. All European people. So that would include Slavs, that would include Germans, that would include Latins, it who would include people of all ethnicities that we would always have a safe space. We would always have a homeland for us. Very similar to, very similar to how Jews conceive of Israel.
Al Letson: Sure. Are you going to do that in Europe?
Richard Spencer: Again, I’m not trying to, this is not a cop-out. I don’t know. All I’m saying is that you have to dream before you can build it. And we have to have this idea in our mind. I don’t know where it will happen because I don’t know how history is going to unfold. All of this stuff might very well not happen in my lifetime. But the thing is, I know that in my lifetime I’m going to have opportunities to fight for the survival of my people and my civilization.
Al Letson: I’ve done some some reading on you. Just a little bit of research and watched a couple of videos. And you’re a handsome guy man, and you’re well put together. You’re really smart. And I’m I’m actually enjoying, like having this conversation with you. But, what’s the difference between you and the racists that like, you know, hung people up from trees? What’s the difference between you and the Klansmen that burned crosses on peoples lawns? What’s the difference between you and you know, the people who don’t look at me, an African-American man, as a full human being? Like what’s the difference. Because you know you have this great sheen about you. Like and I don’t necessarily agree with your views but this is America and I totally support you being able to have those views. But you know, I mean to me it just sounds like the same old thing that I’ve heard before in a different packaging.
Richard Spencer: Well, I don’t think it is the same old thing we’ve heard before. I think you just said that it’s not. That you’re actually intrigued by it. I don’t, you know, look I’m not going to comment about you know some hypothetical Klansman or or whomever.
Al Letson: There’s no such thing as a hypothetical Klansman because the people that I’m talking about exist. They have gone out, they have burned crosses on people’s lawns. They have lynched people. They’ve done horrible horrible things. They are the first American terrorists. So it’s not hypothetical. I’m not comparing you to this thing that I’m just dreaming up. I’m comparing you to history. And I’m not intrigued by your ideas. I’m saying to you that like your ideas sound just like them, except you wear a nice suit and you can speak to me directly. And I respect that about you. I respect that you and I can have this conversation, that you’re not wearing a hood, but it’s the same thing. And that’s so that’s what I’m asking. Like what is the difference?
Richard Spencer: I’m sure there is some commonality between these movements of the past and what I’m talking about. But you really have to judge me on my own terms. Like I am not those people and I don’t fully know, I don’t know in the specifics of what you’re referring to. Like I am who I am. And you, if you’re going to treat me with good faith, you have to listen to what I’m saying and listen to my ideas. I think someone who would go down the path of becoming a Klansman or something in 2016, I think that is, those people are very different than I am. It’s, it’s a it’s a non-starter. I think we need an idea. We need a movement that really resonates with where we are right now.
Al Letson: Richard. How are you different from them? Because you are talking about a white ethnostate. You’re saying that white people don’t have space in this country. I heard the interview with our producers. And one of the things that you said is that you were going to be able to talk to people of color about going along with your white ethnostate. And so – you’ve got a person of color right now. Talk to me about your white ethnostate.
Richard Spencer: Let’s not talk about the ethnostate. Let’s talk about identity. Who are you? If I say that, don’t think about it just answer. Who are you?
Al Letson: Sure. Sure. I’m an African-American male that has four kids. One of those kids is a white kid. I adopted him. He has no black blood in his body at all. He is the apple of my eye. He’s my 16-year-old boy and I love him to death. I have a child that’s biracial and I have two black kids. So. So yeah. I’m a black man who has love in his heart for everybody on this planet, including you. So that’s who I am. Who are you?
Richard Spencer: I’m Richard Spencer. I’m a European person. I, I’m part of this great story of Europe and our history. I was born in Massachusetts, I grew up in Texas. I like mountain biking. You know, what I’m getting at is that, when I ask you that, even, even despite the fact that you have, you know, I guess a white wife perhaps or a white child. You still answered that I’m an African-American male. And that has meaning for you. And I respect that. If you ask your average white person in America, “Who are you?” they are going to probably never get around to talking about their European identity or their heritage. They’re afraid of it. They know it. Everyone’s kind of racially unconscious. They know it in their bones but they’re not conscious. They don’t want to really talk about it and explore it and think about how that inflects their life. So that’s what I want to bring. I respect your identity. I respect the fact that you think about it seriously, that you take it seriously. I want white people to take it seriously. In terms of what I was talking about of like we’re going to do this together. I think that I want to see an identitarian future. I want to see people, different peoples, different civilizations having a sense of themselves and finding out ways to live together.
Al Letson: But a white ethnostate is not people living together. What you’re saying to me now is different from what you said before because what you said before would basically mean that I would live in one state and my son, my white son, would have to live in another state. You know, for me when we talk about like my blackness and me saying that I’m an African-American man. It’s true. I am proud of my blackness but I’m not advocating for ethnostate. So I want to respect you as a white man. I see that. I understand that history. I want you to respect me as a black man and see that and understand that history and then figure how we move forward together. That’s the difference between me and you is that I want to move forward together. And you feel like those fissures that are between us are too big to pass over.
Richard Spencer: I do respect your identity and I respect you as a black man. But the question I would have to ask is: Do you really think that we’re all better together? Do you think that modern America, contemporary America there’s greater levels of trust and togetherness than we had decades ago, or that other, you know, more ethnically homogenous nations have? I don’t think so. And I have to be honest. I think we actually kind of hate each other. And that is a very tragic thing. And that’s a very sad thing. And we don’t trust each other. And we can talk about how one day we’re going to all be holding hands, or we can actually be realistic about this and we can actually look at the power of human nature and the power of race.
Al Letson: If that is your worldview then I’m sorry. Because, like I said, like I I have white family members that I love. So no, I don’t think that we hate each other. I think that there is not a nation in this world that doesn’t have problems. But I would say that like when you just said like if we could go back x amount of years, would we be better? No, because I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. We wouldn’t, I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in right now. And I’m, I’m sorry but like the mixing pot is already created. You’re talking about going into a stew that’s already been made. Spilling it out and picking out each individual ingredient and thinking that you’re going to have a whole thing that works again. And you won’t.
Richard Spencer: I think you’re using your own personal experience, and I think you’re being genuine in talking about it, but you’re projecting that onto everyone else’s experience. Look what just happened. I mean is this an example of how class trumps race? Is this an example of us getting together? No it wasn’t. Look, I can get along with non-white people. I do. There are certainly exceptions that prove the rule but the rule is the most important thing. And that is that when you have two really dramatically different cultures, two dramatically different races all being forced together it’s a recipe for turmoil. And distrust and hatred. And I don’t know of an historical example that contradicts that.
Al Letson: Listen, you and I could go back and forth nonstop. And if you ever want to have a conversation, like just to hear the other side or anything you feel free to call me up because I will talk to you all day. Because I think honestly, the only way forward is through. And the way through is that like people like you and I like actually have conversations. As much as I think that you’re dead wrong and as much as you think that I’m dead wrong we’re actually, the fact that we’re having the conversation is probably the best benefit that could come out of both sides of it. So, Richard, I appreciate your time. Thanks for talking to us. And yeah like I said man, seriously if you want to have another conversation, I don’t know how many black people you get to talk to in your life. But if you’d like to have a conversation at any time feel free to give me a call. And if you’d like to talk to my son I would love to put you on the phone with him to hear his experience of America.
Richard Spencer: Interesting. Let’s do it.
Al Letson: We’ll let you know if that conversation happens. Richard Spencer is a white nationalist. He heads the small think tank the National Policy Institute. Want to know how Spencer came to hold these views, after growing up in mainstream Republican Texas? Catch his backstory on our next regular podcast. You’ll get that along with other post-election stories to provide reflection well beyond the vote count.
Barack Obama‘s black presidency has shocked the symbol system of American politics and made the adjective in “representative democracy” mean something quite different than in the past. Obama provoked great hope and fear about what a black presidency might mean to our democracy. His biracial roots and black identity have been a beguiling draw and also a spur to belligerent reaction. White and black folk, and brown and beige ones, too, have had their views of race and politics turned topsy-turvy. What many Americans of all colors believe is that race fundamentally defines America and is a dividing line drawn in blood through the nation’s moral map. Many metaphors of race drape the nation’s political framework: Barack Obama argued in his famous March 2008 race speech in Philadelphia that slavery is the nation’s original sin, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice claimed that racism is our country’s “birth defect.” 1 Race is the most durable link in the nation’s chain of destiny; it is at once a damning indictment of our quest for real democracy and true justice, and also a resilient category of individual and “group identity—one that cannot be reduced to either mere pathology or collective pride. Race is both the midwife of glorious achievements like jazz and the black freedom movement and the abortive instrument of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. Race is the thing we cannot seem to do without—and the thing that we cannot seem to get rid of.
Race is the defining feature of our forty-fourth president’s two terms in office. Obama’s presidency is a lens to sharpen the details of American ideas about race and democracy. His presidency also raises the question of how much closer the election of a single black man may bring us to a more just and inclusive society. Barack Obama has finally made transparent the idea that our country cannot fully flourish without embracing a black identity that is the quintessential expression of the American character. What we all intuitively sense is that this presidency turns on their ear all the ways we have historically looked at presidencies, and perhaps, even more broadly, at our very democracy. Obama certainly bears what James Baldwin called “the burden of representation.” 2
That brilliant phrase refers to the weight and meaning of blackness for individual and collective racial bodies, and for literal and symbolic bodies too. This presidency, unlike all others before it, is analyzed and understood through our obsession with race in the body of the president himself and in the “psyche of the nation he governs. A black presidency is undeniably interracial in the same way that Obama’s body is composed of black and white genes. Obama’s presidency is the symbolic love child of Notes on the State of Virginia and The Fire Next Time 3. Thomas Jefferson and James Baldwin gaze at us from immortal perches separated by two centuries and two races locked in fateful struggle. But Jefferson and Baldwin are separated only by time and race; they are united in their unrelenting sexual and political preoccupation with the “other.” Jefferson and Baldwin can finally be joined in the full complexity of a conversation about race and American politics across time—a conversation that is constantly evoked but never fully engaged, as if it were held behind doors that are locked to everyone who would participate. And yet Obama is snared in a fascinating paradox: a man seen by many observers as the key to the locked doors of conversation about race is most reluctant to take charge and unlock the treasures of racial insight and wisdom.
What we learn about Obama says a lot about what we learn about ourselves; his racial reality is our racial reality. And it is never, ever static. That truth becomes apparent when we understand just how much we as a nation project our expectations and frustrations onto Obama’s presidency, and how he effortlessly represents our deepest doubts and our most resilient hopes. We must concentrate on what Obama says and does—on what speech he gives or what policy he enacts or fails to implement. We must also grapple with what Obama literally means, what his ideas amount to, what veins of ideology or sources of racial imagination he taps when he speaks, and where we travel as a nation by welcoming or resisting the social pathways his presence lays before us.
Obama’s presidency represents the paradox of American representation. Obama represents for all of us because he stands as the symbol of America to the world. He also represents to the American citizenry proof of progress in a nation that has never before embraced a black commander in chief. Yet a third sense of representation has a racial tinge, because Obama is also a representative of a black populace that, until his election, had been excluded from the highest reach of political representation. These three meanings of representation are the core of Obama’s paradoxical relationship to the citizens of the country he represents: he is at once a representative of the country, a representative of the change the country has endured, and a representative of the people to whom change has been long denied and for whom that change has meant the most.
Of course critics may read “black presidency” as a term that denies Obama the agency and individuality that mark genuine social and moral achievement. To say “black presidency” is already to have “reduced Obama’s presidency to something less than any other presidency. But the term also imbues the presidency for the first time with the true promise of democracy on which this country was founded. The paradox of representation is thus two-sided: a member of a minority group deliberately excluded from opportunity now stands at the peak of power to represent the nation. The idea of race both qualifies and enhances the representative stature of the presidency. When it comes to race, representation in America is always an internal barometer of privilege, through the exclusion of blacks and others, while at the same time, given how central to our lives race has become, it is also an external barometer of justice.
In The Black Presidency I examine Barack Obama’s political journey to tell a story about the politics of race in America—our racial limits and possibilities, our tortured past and our complicated present, our moral conflicts and aspirations, our cherished national myths, and our contradictory political behavior. The cultural impact of Obama’s lean black presidential frame will be far more enduring than partisan debates about his political career. Obama has changed the presidency itself; the ultimate seat of power has now been occupied for two terms by a man whose body translates in concrete terms our most precious democratic ideals. Obama gives African legs to the Declaration of Independence and a black face to the Constitution. Obama’s black presidency cannot be erased by political will even as Congress thwarts his legislation. The paradox of representation Obama symbolizes is not up for judicial review even as the Supreme Court troubles the black vote that helped to sweep him into office.
The existence of a black presidency signals for some people an end to racial categories that have plagued America since 1619. The post-racial urge rises in a society seeking to avoid the pain of overcoming its racist legacy. Obama’s presidency has defeated the post-racial myth, not with less blackness but with more of it, though it is the kind of blackness that insinuates and signifies while hiding in plain sight. The presidency is now permanently marked by difference, one that transcends Obama himself and may pave the way for a female president whose gender will be far less noteworthy for Obama’s having been the first black president.
A black presidency and the politics of a lived American democracy are like a transmission and its motor: the motor creates the power and the transmission makes the power usable. A black presidency necessarily engages the identity and meaning of an American democracy that was for so long an efficient engine for excluding black participation. Some may worry that the term “black presidency” is code for a delegitimized presidency that undermines democratic institutions and ideas. But Obama’s achievement gestures toward what the state had not allowed at the highest level before his emergence: equality of opportunity, fairness in democracy, and justice in society. Our system of government gains more legitimacy when it accommodates demands for justice and adjusts to the requirements of formal equality. Obama’s presidency, paradoxically, both critiques and affirms a political order that stymied the ambitions of other black politicians—an order he now heads.
I grapple in The Black Presidency with what happens to the psyche and racial identity of a nation when a two-century-old white monopoly on the presidency is broken for two consecutive terms. Then, too, we must ask how and what the blackness of Obama signifies to other blacks.
Obama’s eight years in office will be referred to as the only black presidency until another black person is elected. If the first line in his obituary reads “first (and perhaps only) black president,” is he forever fixed in the American mind with a racial reference that he labored hard to overcome? Obama lives with a burden and possibility that no other black person in our history, perhaps in world history, has ever had to shoulder.
A brief survey of other figures might shed light on Obama’s unique historical situation. Margaret Thatcher looms large 4. Thatcher-as-prime-minister is the nearest analogy we have to Obama-as-president. Of course, the biggest difference between Thatcher and Obama is that Thatcher was “overtly ideological and Obama is anti-ideological, the very reason he was electable. There are other differences. Is Thatcher’s premiership, these many years later, evaluated as “a woman’s leadership” or “the Thatcher Years”? For the first few years of her tenure, not to mention before her election, when she was opposition leader—imagine an American woman in the late seventies as the political and ideological leader of one of our two ruling parties—critics mused about how or whether her gender determined her style of governing. But Thatcher was so hard-line, in truth, heartless, in so many areas—in other words, so stereotypically “masculine”—that in time she was thought of no longer primarily as a woman but as a steely power player, albeit a female one: “the Iron Lady.” 5 (Can we imagine a time when Obama would not be seen as black but merely as president? For that matter, should Hillary Clinton or another woman become president, can we imagine her beyond gender on these shores?) Still, by the time she lost power in 1990, British women were not, because of her position, living in a post-gender world, and they still are not today 6. Yet some of us naïvely believe that Obama’s rise has removed race from the national landscape.
Other analogous figures come to mind, including Benjamin Disraeli, the first Jewish prime minister in the United Kingdom, and John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president. Each offers instructive similarities. Disraeli’s Jewish identity forced him to assure the largely Christian constituency in nineteenth-century Britain that he would not favor Jewish citizens 7. In the same vein, Obama has not favored blacks, opting, arguably, to underplay their interests in order to reinforce his racial neutrality. Kennedy assured American citizens that he would not take his marching orders from the Vatican 8. Obama went him one better: he pushed aside the former, if greatly weakened, black political pope, Jesse Jackson, and helped to enshrine a new one, Al Sharpton, while keeping at a distance the Congressional Black Caucus, the archbishops of black politics.
Disraeli and Kennedy had, as did Thatcher, their whiteness, an escape hatch that Obama lacks. If boxer Jack Johnson possessed “unforgivable blackness,” then Obama is plagued by inescapable blackness 9. Disraeli soothed the fears of the masses about his Jewishness, Thatcher toned down her femaleness, and Kennedy downplayed his Catholicism and emphasized instead the catholicity of his politics. All three appealed in their own way to the under-girding whiteness that bound them to their constituencies beyond gender and religious difference. Yet color trumps all for Obama; to have one’s presidency examined through the lens of race before any other is as different as Obama’s election itself.
Bill Clinton’s case is not quite like the other figures’, each of whom possesses a quality—ethnicity, gender, religion—that makes their political experiences analogous to Obama’s presidency. But the example of Clinton, steeped in the cultural signifiers of blackness rather than race, still offers an intriguing parallel to consider 10. Toni Morrison and Chris Rock dubbed Clinton the nation’s “first black president”; the white politician from Arkansas shrewdly manipulated the meanings and symbols of blackness to his advantage 11. Clinton strategically embraced blackness to gain the black vote while signaling white suburban voters that he would not bow to Jesse Jackson’s leadership 12. Before his impeachment, Clinton “signed a crime bill that sparked a deadly spike in black incarceration and signed into legislation welfare reform that cruelly cut black bodies unable to find living-wage work from public assistance 13. After his political trial by fire, Clinton embraced Jesse Jackson and played upon black sympathy as smoothly as he blew his sax. Clinton prefigured Obama’s even more complicated use of black ideas and black identity while occupying the Oval Office.
Obama, however, stands alone as the only black person to occupy the world’s pinnacle of power. What he does, says, and means is as important to the future as it is to our own moment. We must grapple with Obama in the present to set the baseline for his interpretation in the years to come. The Black Presidency is my contribution to that goal.
In an Oval Office interview the president granted me for this book, he told me, “In the same way that some of the people who don’t like me probably don’t like me because of race, there are some people who probably like me because of race and put up with me in ways that they wouldn’t if I weren’t African American—the folks in African American neighborhoods who identify with me even if they disagree with my policies. And my hope would be that when you wash out those aspects of it, that people are judging me on what I do as opposed to who I am.”
The Black Presidency wrestles with the words and actions of a singular human being who rose to the summit of American power; it also measures the racial currents his life captures and conveys, and offers the president informed and principled criticism.
Finally, this book asks, and engages, every complex question suggested by its subject. Is it reasonable to expect more than Obama has offered black people and the American public? What are the salient issues provoked by a black presidency, and how does it affect our ideas of race? How does Obama’s relationship to his black elders reflect generational conflicts in fighting for progress in black America? How does Obama’s racial identity influence our understanding of his duties? How does the way he speaks reflect the “black cultures that molded him? What can we learn from his major race speeches about the ideas that shaped him and the way he confronts racial crises? How does Obama respond to the plague of police brutality that has swept the nation—and the revived racial terror that stalks the land? How does Obama’s habit of scolding black America reinforce harmful ideas about black culture? How does Obama’s emphasis on law and order, personal responsibility, and respectability politics obscure the structural features of black suffering? What—and who—would it sound like if Obama cut loose and said what he really believes? In The Black Presidency I answer these and other questions while confronting Barack Obama’s—America’s first—black presidency.”
Notes 1. Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union,” in The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union,” ed. T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2009), p. 237; Condoleezza Rice, interview on Face the Nation, CBS, November 27, 2011, . 2. Quoted in Henry Louis Gates Jr., Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 18. 3. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, annotated ed. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1998); James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963; repr., New York: Vintage, 1993).” 4. John Campbell, The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer’s Daughter to Prime Minister, abridged ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2011); Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). 5. Moore, Margaret Thatcher, pp. 298–333; Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso Press, 1988). 6. When Baroness Thatcher died in 2013, President Obama issued an official statement and noted her gender as a defining element of her legacy: “As a grocer’s daughter who rose to become Britain’s first female prime minister, she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.” “Statement from the President on the Passing of Baroness Margaret Thatcher,” April 8, 2013. 7. Although Disraeli was baptized into the Church of England at the age of twelve, his Jewish heritage remained a central feature of his existence and identity. See Adam Kirsch, Benjamin Disraeli (New York: Schocken Books, 2008). Thanks to historian Gerald Horne for suggesting the parallel between Disraeli and Obama in a brief, serendipitous conversation in an airport. 8. Thomas J. Carty, A Catholic in the White House? Religion, Politics, and John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Campaign (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). For a fascinating comparison of Obama and Kennedy, see Robert C. Smith, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and the Politics of Ethnic Incorporation and Avoidance (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013). 9. Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). 10. Dewayne Wickham, Bill Clinton and Black America (New York: One World/Ballantine, 2002). 11. Toni Morrison, “The Talk of the Town: Comment,” The New Yorker, October 5, 1998, pp. 31–32. Chris Rock said in an interview in the August 1998 issue of Vanity Fair that Clinton was “the first black president.” He also said that Clinton was “the most scrutinized man in history, just as a black person would be. He spends a hundred dollar bill, they hold it up to the light.” See Jonathan Tilove, “Before Bill Clinton Was the ‘First Black President,’” Newhouse News Service, March 6, 2007, . In 2008, in Time magazine, when asked if she regretted referring to Clinton as the first black president, Morrison said that people “misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.” See Toni Morrison, 10 Questions for Toni Morrison, Time, May 7, 2008. Indeed, in The New Yorker, Morrison wrote: “Years ago . . . one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. According to Morrison, Clinton’s blackness became even clearer when “the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the (impeachment) persecution.” Morrison, “Talk of the Town,” p. 32. During a 2008 Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina televised live on CNN, journalist Joe Johns asked Obama if Clinton was the first black president. “Well, I think Bill Clinton did have an enormous affinity with the African-American community, and still does,” Obama said. “And I think that’s well earned . . . (O)ne of the things that I’m always inspired by—no, I’m—this I’m serious about. I’m always inspired by young men and women who grew up in the South when segregation was still taking place, when, you know, the transformations that are still incomplete but at least had begun had not yet begun. And to see (those) transformations in their own lives(,) I think that is powerful, and it is hopeful, because what it indicates is that people can change. “And each successive generation can, you know, create a different vision of how, you know, we have to treat each other. And I think Bill Clinton embodies that. I think he deserves credit for that. Now, I haven’t . . . I have to say that, you know, I would have to, you know, investigate more of Bill’s dancing abilities. You know, and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother.” Wolf Blitzer said, “Let’s let Senator Clinton weigh in on that.” Hillary Clinton then humorously retorted, “Well, I’m sure that can be arranged.” “Part 3 of CNN Democratic Presidential Debate,” January 21, 2008. 12. Kenneth O’Reilly, Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton (New York: Free Press, 1995); Manning Marable, The Great Wells of Democracy: Reconstructing Race and Politics in the 21st Century (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002), pp. 77–84. 13. President Clinton admitted, both in a foreword to a book on criminal justice and in a speech before the 2015 NAACP convention—the day after President Obama at the same convention offered his landmark speech denouncing mass incarceration—that his policies had been wrong and harmful. “Plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long—we have overshot the mark. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, we now have 25 percent of its prison population, and an emerging bipartisan consensus now understands the need to do better.” Clinton also argued that it is “time to take a clear-eyed look at what worked, what didn’t, and what produced unintended, long-lasting consequences.” He said that “some are in prison who shouldn’t be, others are in for too long, and without a plan to educate, train, and reintegrate them into our communities, we all suffer.” See “William J. Clinton: Foreword,” April 27, 2015, (from the book Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, ed. Inimai Chettiar and Michael Waldman (New York: Brennan Center for Justice, 2015)). In his 2015 NAACP speech, Clinton conceded his error as president: “Yesterday, the president spoke a long time and very well on criminal justice reform. But I want to say a few words about it. Because I signed a bill that made the problem worse and I want to admit it.” See Eric Levitz, “Bill Clinton Admits His Crime Law Made Mass Incarceration ‘Worse,’” MSNBC.com, July 15, 2015, . For the deleterious (racial) consequences of welfare reform, see, by Peter Edelman (who resigned as the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services in September 1996 in protest of Clinton’s signing the welfare reform bill), “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done,” The Atlantic, March 1997. Also see Dylan Matthews, “Welfare Reform Took People Off the Rolls. It Might Have Also Shortened Their Lives,” Washington Post, June 18, 2013; Zenthia Prince, “Welfare Reform Garnered for Black Women a Hard Time and a Bad Name,” Afro, March 18, 2015, ; and Bryce Covert, “Clinton Touts Welfare Reform. Here’s How It Failed,” The Nation, September 6, 2012.”
However, The Champ’s actually fulfilled his life outside the realm of sports: as convert to the Nation of Islam, a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, a proud African American, an ambassador for peace, and a world icon.
Initially an admirer of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali’s broke up with his mentor after Malcolm left Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam in 1964. He went to create the Organization of Afro-American Unity. When he spoke at the University of Ibadan in 1965, the Nigerian Muslim Students Association bestowed on him the honorary Yoruba name Omowale (“the son who has come home”).
« We were all laughing with pleasure when we heard the familiar sounds of Black American speech. We turned around and saw Muhammad Ali coming out of the hotel with a large retinue of Black men. They were all talking and joking among themselves. One minute after we saw them, they saw Malcolm.
The moment froze, as if caught on a daguerreotype, and the next minutes moved as a slow montage. Muhammad stopped, then turned and spoke to a companion. His friends looked at him. Then they looked back at Malcolm. Malcolm also stopped, but he didn’t speak to us, nor did any of us have the presence of mind to say anything to him. Malcolm had told us that after he severed ties to the Nation of Islam, many of his former friends had become hostile.
Muhammad and his group were the first to turn away. They started walking toward a row of parked cars. Malcolm, with a rush, left us and headed toward the departing men. We followed Malcolm. He shouted:
— Brother Muhammad. Brother Muhammad.
Muhammad and his companions stopped and turned to face Malcolm.
— Brother, I still love you, and you are still the greatest. Malcolm smiled a sad little smile. Muhammad looked hard at Malcolm, and shook his head.
— You left the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. That was the wrong thing to do, Brother Malcolm.
His face and voice were also sad. Malcolm had been his supporter and hero. Disappointment and hurt lay on Muhammad’s face like dust. Abruptly, he turned and walked away. His coterie followed. After a few steps they began talking again, loudly.
Malcolm’s shoulders sagged and his face was suddenly gloomy.
— I’ve lost a lot. A lot. Almost too much. »
Yet, Ali would join mourners in paying homage to Malcolm as his body laid in rest in New York City in October 1965. Today, these two great Muslims and sons of Africa have left us. May Allah grant them Eternal Peace!