America's black president and its white supremacy: Neil Macdonald

A majority of black voters are expected to cast a ballot for the Democrats come November. Neil Macdonald looks at whether President Barack Obama and nominee Hillary Clinton have actually earned that support.

Obama and Clinton have little to say about racism in America

A woman holds a picture of Alfred Olango as she listens to speeches during a rally and march on Saturday to protest the fatal police shooting of the Ugandan immigrant in El Cajon, Calif. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

​Mention white supremacy in America the next time the conversation turns to the U.S. presidential election, and watch what happens.

Heads avert, a few eyes roll, and the conversation resumes, unruffled, after a few polite smiles.

The phrase is regarded as extreme — a gross exaggeration of problems America has, after all, tried to solve.

Why, the president of the United States himself is black, and he never uses terms like white supremacy. 

Which is interesting in itself, because it goes to show the extent to which the American polity is gamed for white ascendancy.
Prof. Eddie Glaude, dean of the department of African American and religious studies at Princeton University, says President Barack Obama 'sold black America the snake oil of hope and change,' and he's contemptuous of the president's almost painful even-handedness in addressing violence against blacks. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Even a black leader cannot mention systemic discrimination against black Americans without nodding sympathetically to the grievances of white Americans, many of whom believe they are the victims in a politically correct world that values "diversity" over (their) merit.

The very word diversity is seen by millions of Americans as code for quotas and reverse discrimination. White conservatives talk wistfully about "colourblindness," something they seem persuaded actually exists.

So it takes guts to unblinkingly use the phrase white supremacy, the way the new generation of black activists, and prominent black academics, are routinely doing.

No aberration

Prof. Eddie Glaude, dean of the department of African American and religious studies at no less an institution than Princeton University, politely offers the following definition of white supremacy in America: "The belief that white people matter more than others."

In his rather ironically titled book, Democracy in Black, Glaude puts forth a powerful argument that white supremacy — racism — is not an aberration, the thoughts and actions of a hateful few, but rather a value baked into American democracy from its inception.
Prof. Eddie Glaude writes that white supremacy — racism — is not an aberration, the thoughts and actions of a hateful few, but rather a value baked into American democracy from its inception. (Princeton University)

The founders, Glaude points out, were capable of jarring cognitive dissonance; even as they created a shining city on the hill with freedom and justice for all, they owned slaves.

They saw no contradiction in that. And, writes Glaude, that disjoint continues to this day.

And of course whites are disinclined to see flaws in a system that serves them so well.

"Think about it this way," he writes. "When communists declare that Stalinism wasn't really communism, or when Christians and Muslims say that the horrific things some Christians and Muslims have done in the name of their religion isn't really Christianity or Islam, what are they doing? They are protecting their ideology…"

Likewise, he says, Americans separate the pristine ideal of America from its ugly realities: "We keep treating America like we have a great blueprint and we've just strayed from it. But the fact is we've built this country true. Black folks were never meant to be full-fledged participants."

Occam's razor

Black Americans are harassed and killed by police and imprisoned in grossly disproportionate numbers. They are much poorer, twice as unemployed, more uneducated, and lead the nation in deadly diseases.

There is really only one explanation for that, unless you actually believe blacks are more intrinsically criminal, sick and stupid.
Demonstrators march to protest the police shooting of Keith Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, last month. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

But for many American whites, Occam's razor ceases to function where blacks are concerned.

Blacks are constantly blamed for their own suffering, and Donald Trump is trying to ride that shibboleth right to the White House.

One of his campaign architects is Steve Bannon, the former head of the Breitbart website — which seems to relish singling out blacks for all sorts of sins, accuses Black Lives Matter activists of encouraging cop-killers and obsesses about "black crime" and "black-on-black crime."
Stephen Bannon, CEO of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's campaign, is the former head of the controversial Breitbart website. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

(Yes, it is true most crime against blacks is perpetrated by blacks. And most crime against whites is perpetrated by whites. But there are no accounts of "white-on-white" crime.)

Trump took his time in repudiating the support of Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, and has been embraced by the so-called "alt-right" movement, which is reasonably described as white nationalist.

Silence from Democrats

What's remarkable, though, is the crashing silence from Democrats about the life of black people in America.

Hillary Clinton largely ignores them, concentrating instead on appealing to Republicans disaffected by Trump's loopiness.

It's politically shrewd, perhaps; a politician has to prioritize for maximum effect, and blacks have been a reliable Democratic constituency for decades.

But why, as video surfaces so regularly of police gunning down unarmed (and, in some cases, apprehended and shackled) black men, seemingly with legal impunity, are leading Democrats so mealy mouthed in response?

"They're afraid of triggering white fear," Glaude told me after lunch at Princeton last week. "The moment you start speaking to our misery, people are afraid that it's going to trigger something in white citizens, right, so you have to dance. You can't tell the truth."
U.S. President Barack Obama embraces Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Both are reluctant to talk about racism in America, professor Glaude says. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Glaude says Obama "sold black America the snake oil of hope and change," and he's contemptuous of the president's almost painful even-handedness in addressing violence against blacks. 

"He will equate that reality with white resentment, or with the challenges that police face. And white resentment, to my mind, isn't morally or ethically equivalent to being resentful over racism. And he does it over, and over, and over again."

Clinton, says Glaude, effectively does the same, carefully genuflecting to white anxiety.

"All lives matter," Clinton admonished a black congregation several months ago, using what has since become a white-resentment code phrase.

Whatever the reason, her avoidance of their issues or her coziness with white corporate America, the apathy toward her among black voters is so obvious that Barack Obama now feels obliged to fight it.

Obama's legacy

In a recent speech to black lawmakers, Obama angrily declared that if blacks simply disengage and stay home election day, and allow Hillary Clinton to lose, he will take it as a "personal insult to his legacy."

"It's panic," says Glaude, "and a kind of perverse shift of blame that it's our fault that we're not excited about this centrist-right Democrat."

Glaude is not unrealistic; he knows black voters will still probably vote Democrat, and he actually advises blacks in battleground states to vote Clinton, simply to keep Trump and his coterie out of the White House.
Angela Turner protests against a visit by U.S. Republican candidate Donald Trump to a church in Detroit on Sept. 3. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

But in heavily Republican states like Texas, or solidly Democratic states like California, he says, blacks should just stay home, to make it clear they're sick of choosing between white supremacy and more concealed white supremacy.

As for Obama's personal legacy, he says, "I don't give a damn about that."

Watch Neil Macdonald's full report from The National on race in America's election campaign below.

Should blacks sit out the U.S. election?

6 years ago
Duration 11:13
Some black leaders argue that Democrats haven't delivered on their promises. Time to sit out?


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.