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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/[5.6.13] Black Politics in the Age of Obama

[5.6.13] Black Politics in the Age of Obama

 Black Politics in the Age of Obama



An edited transcript of the event was subsequently published in issue 57 of the Platypus Review. A full recording of this event is available at our media website.

Monday, May 6th at 6:30 PM

University of Chicago | 1116 E 59th St

Harper Memorial Library, Room 103

The reelection of Obama presented a problem for the American left. Lost was the hopeful rhetoric of transforming society for the better, and as it became clear that Obama’s administration had returned to“politics-as-usual,” the left began to cynically appraise the purported gains made in his first term. Not the least of these was the claim that we live in a“post-racial” society. From Abolitionism to the Civil Rights Movement, the issue of racism was and is a defining one for the American left. As social life in the United States has reproduced itself through various social and ideological transformations, racism seemed always to reproduce itself in and through those transformations. And, surely not without merit is the contemporary left’s skepticism regarding America’s supposed achievement of a“post-racial society.” Yet, any talk of race in the current age must account for the fact that America’s first black president was twice elected by substantial margins. If anti-Black racism subsists, it clearly does not have the same relationship it once did to capitalism and society in general. This panel will investigate the how the left understands the concept of race in contemporary politics, and how this concept can, should, or will maintain of political significance for a future renascent left.


1) There have been numerous theories of race and the manner in which racism has become society’s second nature. To be sure racism still exists; at the same time, the US has twice elected President Obama. Is there a theory adequate enough to explain this discrepancy between the apparent racism of American society, and the election of a black president?

2) In the 1960s, many on the left began to revise analyses of poverty solely based on class, adopting one that relied on the concept of race to explain the uneven distribution of wealth. Since this time, some progress seems self-evident, as minorities are now capable of holding lucrative leadership positions in large corporations and the highest offices of government. At the same time, glaring economic disparities persist on the basis of race. How is the concept of class relevant to discussions of race today? How are race and class related, and in what sense should we understand them?

3) Historically, going back at least to the “free labor ideology” of the mid-19th century Republican Party, the black question has been posed as a question of the emancipation of labor, with the radical Republican project being inherited by American socialists, the CPUSA, and New Deal labor leaders such as Adam Clayton Powell and Bayard Rustin. Similarly, at least viewed negatively, the crisis of the American labor movement and the concomitant disintegration of even the prospect of an American labor politics seems to crucially condition, if obscurely, the growing opacity of the black question in America.

4) Also since the 60s, a debate has arisen within the discussion of race, namely a rift between nationalists and integrationists. The former argue that the latter would have communal identity and black cultural particularity liquidated, while the latter argue that the former ghettoizes black political aspirations and misses the possibility to realize the potential of society as a whole. Today, is there a radical potential in either of these approaches? Which is more relevant to the concept of race in our society today?

5) In both of his election victories, President Obama was championed as a victory against the racism of the US populace. By the same token, Obama has been criticized by the left for adopting the policies of his predecessors. How does the contemporary left process this alleged victory against racism, in light of Obama’s acquiescence to politics as usual in the US?

6) The black question historically, though perhaps it has perhaps been most thoroughly politicized in the U.S., is by no means a strictly American problem. Rather, the legacy of racism seems to pervade global society today. And, indeed, from the galvanizing effect of English labor solidarity with the Union to the worldwide preoccupation with the Civil Rights movement, politicization of the black question in American has always been of the greatest political significance worldwide. So what now does the seeming marginalization of the black question in America tell us about the international situation the left faces today? How has the contemporary resolution, in the most conservative possible way, of the black question conditioned international leftism in our time?

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