Posts Tagged ‘racism’

Precarious life for young men in Third City

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Note: This piece appears in the opinion section of today’s Toronto Star under a different title: Life in ‘Third City’: Nasty, brutish, and short. I will post a longer version shortly, along with a list of young men who have lost their lives to violence on Toronto’s streets.

Last week, Andrew Naidoo was shot dead outside his Rexdale home. He was 15 years old.

To his parents, peers and community he was a fun-loving teenage boy whose smile lit up the hallways of Monsignor Percy Johnson High School, who cheered on his classmates competing in school sports, who liked to do the things most boys his age like to do: listen to music, chill with friends, talk to girls.

Naidoo’s death is part of a tragic trend of young men from the city’s racialized low-income neighbourhoods losing their lives to violence: Aeon Grant, Sealand White, Jermaine Derby, Abdikadir Khan, Lorenzo Martinez, Okene Thompson, Keyon Campbell…sadly the list goes on.

More often than not, they have died at the hands of those whose social and economic circumstances they share: poor, young men from racialized communities. They lived on Fallstaff, Chalkfarm, and in Jane and Finch; neighbourhoods like Malvern, Kingston-Galloway, and Rexdale.

Their names must not to be forgotten; they should be said out loud on our city’s streets, repeated and remembered. And their deaths continue to beg the question: How many more young people from the city’s low-income, racialized communities must lose their lives to violence before our governments declare a crisis?

As researchers at the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre have documented, over the last 30 years Toronto has become segregated by income into three distinct cities. City #1 consists of the richer and whiter downtown core and well-heeled neighbourhoods close to the subway lines. City #3—or the Third City—are Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, with high concentrations of racialized poverty. Generally found in the in the northeastern and northwestern parts of Toronto, incomes in these neighbourhoods have declined 20 per cent or more since 1970. City #2 are middle-income neighbourhoods that fall in between and are shrinking in size as Toronto becomes a more socioeconomically polarized metropolis.

Those who inhabit the Third City live lives characterized by precariousness. High rents and dilapidated social housing make shelter precarious. Temporary and part-time jobs at low wages make for precarious employment. And a lack of regulated childcare compounds the insecurity of everyday life. 

Moreover, the Third City has become home to a drug market with street entrepreneurs perversely mirroring the pursuit of profits at all costs that marks Bay Street success stories. As young people in the Third City testify, you don’t have to be involved in gangs to get caught up in the violence, just be in the wrong place at the wrong time or a cocksure teen in a neighbourhood where a sideways glance or the friends you keep can translate into trouble.

Consequently, for many of the Third City’s youth, especially its young men, life itself has become precarious. Since 1998, the average age of homicide victims under the age of 25 has grown to 40% from 25% in the 1970s and a majority of those have been racialized youth from the Third City.

For years Toronto avoided the street violence which plagued U.S. cities. Yet since the late 1980s we’ve embarked on a path which would make manifest in our urban fabric the social problems of inner-city America. We cut the social safety net; we’ve neglected the built environment of poor neighbourhoods; we’ve failed to regulate precarious employment and create ‘good jobs’; we’ve yet to solve high dropout rates and youth unemployment, disproportionately impacting racialized youth; and we’ve rolled back equity initiatives which acknowledged the ways socioeconomic outcomes continue to be shaped by race.

Thus, the Third City was manufactured. And as it was made, it can be unmade, with policies to make more economically and socially secure the lives of its inhabitants.

We appeared to turn a corner with the tragic murder of Jane Creba: the problems of the Third City had made a violent appearance on the streets of the First, the spaces of commerce so central to Toronto’s competitiveness and standing as a ‘world class’ city. Commitments were made—however limited—to deal with urban social exclusion and the problems, including community violence, which it breeds.

Alas, with shifting political winds, support for such initiatives appears to be drying up.

It is time that we, as a city, confront some hard questions: Are we going to accept 15 year olds being gunned down outside their homes as our modern urban condition? Is this to be the fate of more of our city’s youth? Has Toronto become so divided, so polarized, that many of us think ‘our city’ is not ‘their city’ and ‘we’ therefore have nothing to worry about?

Published in The Toronto Star, June 8 2011

Glenn Beck targets Frances Fox Piven

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

For the past year or so, my friend and mentor Frances Fox Piven has been subject to a rather bizarre but nevertheless dangerous campaign launched by Fox News blowhard Glenn Beck.  Beck, whose weekly rants attract 2 million-plus viewers in the U.S., has targetted Piven as one of the conspiratorial leaders of a movement to bring down the United States’ “economic system” and replace it with authoritarian socialism. According to Beck, everyone from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama and community group ACORN are indicted in this movement (I only wish Obama had some left-wing convictions!). 

Frances has dedicated her life to the cause of social justice and she was a central figure in both the welfare rights movement and the passing of Clinton-era legislation, the National Voter Registration Act, which sought to ensure low-income Americans could excercise their democratic right to vote.  She’s always believed that it is the mobilization of everyday people that can change politics for the better and bring about a more just society. Her activism and scholarship have advanced the struggle against what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “three evils”: militarism, racial injustice, and poverty.

It’s both sad and disturbing that someone like Glenn Beck, whose ideology and actions are geared toward reinforcing the massive inequalities in power and wealth that characterize American society, is a household name. The Center for Constitutional Rights ( has written a letter to Fox demanding Beck end his attacks. We will have to see what comes of this. In the meantime, check out some of the links below:

Here’s Piven’s latest article in The Nation magazine:

And some coverage of Beck’s idiocy in the New York Times:

Finally, here’s a link to an interview Frances gave on Democracy Now, giving her take on the whole affair:

Remixing urban education

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

In my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star, I discuss the legacy of a little-known urban arts program that developed a number of Canada’s finest hip hop and Rn’B artists. 

Rappers Kardinal Offishal and Saukrates, singer Jully Black, and video director Lil’ X may not be familiar names to Torontonians over the age of 40, but anyone born after 1969 who loves hip hop and R and B is aware of these artists’ foundational roles in Canada’s urban music culture.

Beyond their shared talents, what these names have in common is a little-known initiative of Ontario’s NDP government: a program called Fresh Arts. Fresh Arts was developed under the umbrella of JobsOntario Youth, part of the larger JobsOntario training and employment program the NDP government introduced to address the labour market fallout of the early ’90s recession.

Fresh Arts attracted young people of colour from areas the City now designates as ‘priority neighbourhoods.’ Then, like today, these neighbourhoods were characterized by large immigrant populations, racialized poverty, and high unemployment; most strikingly, youth unemployment.

Staffed by dedicated community activists, Fresh Arts paired mentors from theatre, music and the visual arts with ambitious young artists whose styles and talents were marginalized both by their lack of economic resources and an arts sector that failed to reflect Toronto’s cultural diversity. It was in Fresh Arts that Toronto’s budding urban talents accessed the funding, education, and networks necessary to propel them to successful careers and years of ambassadorship for the city.

Part of the impetus for Fresh Arts was the Stephen Lewis Report on Race Relations in Ontario. The report was commissioned by then-premier Bob Rae following the Yonge Street Riot of May 1992, when simmering tensions between black youth and Toronto police reached a boiling point. According to Rae, the riot “served to remind everyone that there were systemic problems that were not being addressed.”

Lewis documented the social exclusion faced, particularly, by black youth in Toronto and throughout Ontario. Yet like other efforts to address systemic racism that stemmed from the Report (such as the Anti-Racism Secretariat), Fresh Arts fell victim to Mike Harris’s ‘Common Sense Revolution.’ Harris ended JobsOntario Youth, and with it, Fresh Arts.

The spirit of the now legendary program lives on in the Remix Project, a community arts hub which provides space for Toronto’s new generation of urban artists to flourish. Remix participants come primarily from the City’s Priority Neighbourhoods.

Once accepted into Remix, participants are matched with an established mentor who guides them through an intensive program which helps them earn credits toward a high school diploma, apply for post-secondary education and scholarships, or access start-up money for small business projects.

Remix ran on a modest budget until 2005, when Toronto’s ‘Summer of the Gun’ led to increased funding from both the federal and municipal governments, and various foundations. Since then, however, government funding has been minimal, and Remix has had to rely on the goodwill of individual donors and foundations to survive.

With over 200 graduates now making their way in the urban arts sector, Remix has improved the lives of some of the city’s most vulnerable youth. As one recent graduate told me, “Remix showed me the right path when I was in a dark place…the program gives us the opportunity to see another way for our lives. We’re not treated like charity cases, but respected by our peers.”

As the dominance of market logic eclipses social citizenship, programs like Remix are forced to depend on private and charitable sector partnerships to survive. Ultimately, this is what separates a program like Remix from one like Fresh Arts, and charity from social justice.

Although it had minimal funding, mostly from the government, Fresh Arts was grounded in the belief that young people from marginalized communities should have access to resources that better their lives—by virtue of social rights, not the tenuous goodwill of private individuals and corporate philanthropy.

Remix’s funding is neither stable nor predictable, which makes long-term planning difficult.

Indeed, as policy wonks trumpet the idea of the ‘creative city’ and the economic benefits of a vibrant cultural sector, it’s confounding why projects like Remix should have to struggle for every dollar. The city and the province must do more to support such proven successes.

Yet visions of what we can achieve collectively through government are threatened by promises of cutbacks and ‘tax savings’. As the latest city budget demonstrated, cuts to services are the order of the day, with our new Mayor promising more in the near future.

This is short-sighted. Fresh Arts demonstrated the potential of community-driven programs partnering with government to improve the lives of the city’s marginalized youth. Remix is now doing the same. Programs like these are not part of a “gravy train”; as the success of Fresh Arts and Remix graduates demonstrate, they are smart social investments that benefit us all.

Moreover, they are central to building a strong, socially inclusive city that is creative, prosperous, and just.

Published in The Toronto Star Jan 30 2011

The good ol’boys hockey game

Friday, January 28th, 2011

In honour of Black History Month, my latest sports column for Canadian Dimension Magazine takes on the topic of racism in pro-hockey and the hidden history of African-Canadian participation in the sport.

Oh, the good old hockey game, Is the best game you can name

And the best game you can name, Is the good ol’ hockey game

-Stompin’ Tom Connors The Hockey Song

This past summer George Laraque, ex-Montreal Canadians forward, became deputy leader of Canada’s Green Party. While the press noted his animal rights activism, they were silent on Laraque’s most enduring political fight: his personal struggle against racism in hockey. Their silence was not surprising; Canadians have always been uneasy about the realities of race and racism in our beloved sport. Hockey has been elevated to such a status that criticizing the ‘national religion’, especially from within, can evoke calls of patriotic heresy.  

One of the few black players to have become a household name in the lily white NHL, Laraque, the Montreal-born son of Haitian immigrants, has spoken publicly about the racism he experienced. Looking to African-American baseball legend Jackie Robinson for inspiration, as a youth Laraque persevered through racist taunts made by opponents and parents. He spent 13 years in the NHL, a good many of those as the team ‘enforcer’, a role not many want to play but are often obliged to by coaches who continue to see the threat of violence as necessary protection for star players and ironically, as a deterrent to dirty play. But Laraque’s aggressive on-ice persona was moulded well before he entered the NHL. It was in response to racial slurs that the quiet boy off-ice became the scrappy tough guy known as ‘Big Georges’ on-ice.

Other players of colour have shared their experiences of racism in the game and the odd news story on racist incidents in the minors occasionally bubbles up to national media attention. But no amateur hockey league (at least not to my knowledge) or the NHL has adopted an official anti-racism strategy; something that has become common in many soccer associations across Europe where racism is openly discussed as a problem. The NHL – which should be taking the lead as hockey’s premier professional league – has had a markedly liberal approach, establishing a ‘diversity taskforce’ and founding the NHL Diversity Program, all the while failing to publicly acknowledge racism in hockey.

Created in 1995, NHL Diversity operates under the banner of “Hockey is for Everyone” and has established programs to assist “economically disadvantaged boys and girls of all ages opportunities to play hockey.” Upon seeing the first graduate of the program lace up his skates for an NHL team, league commissioner Gary Bettman said “I think it’s great for the game…I think diversity is a strength,” and then parroting the program’s slogan, “Hockey is indeed for everyone.” Such liberal platitudes wrongly equate diversity with anti-racism. Bettman believes the that  the NHL has “the greatest diversity and background of any of the major sports,” which even if it were true (and that would mean Bettman sees shades of white as constituting ethno-racial diversity), the league’s goal of bringing more people of colour into the sport is not anti-racist in and of itself, especially if ‘diversity’ is the narrow and only benchmark for success.

Heading up NHL Diversity is Willie O’Ree, the league’s first black player who broke the sport’s ‘colour line’ in 1958; nine years after Jackie Robinson did the same in baseball. But unlike baseball, it took another thirteen years before a second black NHLer took the ice and there have been few and far between since (Grant Fuhr, Tony McKegney, Jarome Iginla, and Ray Emery being the most notable). Answers to ‘why aren’t there more black players in hockey?’ typically cite cultural explanations (black athletes are interested in other sports; their families don’t have histories in hockey etc.). But that lets hockey’s white gatekeepers off the hook, allowing them to preserve their privilege by attributing the game’s whiteness to ‘cultural differences’. As documented by George and Daryl Fosty in their wonderful book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925, African-Canadian participation in the game dates back as early as 1815. By 1900 a fully-fledged ‘coloured’ hockey league had been formed with teams from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, such as the Africville Sea-Sides and the New Glasgow Speed Boys. Marginalized and segregated from the emerging pro-leagues, these players were never given the shot to play in the NHL.

Don’t go looking for an exhibit showcasing this hidden history of the game at the Hockey Hall of Fame because you won’t find it. The hockey powers that be have never formally recognized the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes. But the league’s existence proves two things: cultural explanations for hockey’s whiteness don’t hold water, and that people of colour have been systematically marginalized in the sport for generations (I could devote a whole other column to the long struggle of Aboriginal peoples in hockey). As the Fostys write, “Today there are no monuments to the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes. There is no reference to the league in any but a few books on hockey. There is no reference to…the scores of players who wore the Colored League uniforms. There is no reference in the Hockey Hall of Fame of the impact that Blacks had in the development of the modern game of hockey…It is as if the league had never existed. For hockey is today a sport Whiter in history than a Canadian winter.” So while the progress made by contemporary black players like Georges Laraque is surely significant, hockey could be begin to build a racially just future by acknowledging its unjust present and its racist past.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension 45 (1) Jan/Feb 2011 Issue

Of Bails, Boundaries, and Revolution: A Tribute to CLR James

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” So begins Beyond a Boundary, the classic account of cricket and the colonial West Indies by the great 20th century socialist CLR James. The boundary is the outer line which encircles a cricket field; it demarcates the space in which the game is played like the fence and foul lines of a baseball diamond. James insisted that what happened inside the boundary influenced the world beyond it; sport could not be reduced to mere play divorced from the social world.

My column for Canadian Dimension has been, above all else, a cry for the left to take sports seriously; to move beyond a bread and circuses dismissal and see sport as a terrain of social, economic, and political struggle on which class conflict plays out in both odd and familiar ways, gender identities are shaped, formed and subverted, and issues of race and racism are ever-present.

In doing so, I owe debts to modern sports journalists like Dave Zirin, a frequent contributor to some of CD’s American equivalents such as The Progressive and whom I’ve previously featured in this space. But after recently taking the time to revisit Beyond a Boundary, I came to the conclusion that it is on the shoulders of James that many a critical sportswriter stands.

Cricket, the sport of the British colonizer, James argued, cannot simply be understood as a tool of oppression, a sporting companion to the dominant colonial ideology which permeated the institutions and public discourse of the pre-independence Caribbean. The game was a social and historical phenomenon which shaped and was shaped by the social relations of colonialism, class, and race in which it was embedded, and most importantly for James, a site in which these relations could be challenged and transformed in emancipatory ways.

This may seem a heavy burden for a sport which most North Americans view with a combination of curiosity and confusion. But the beauty of Beyond a Boundary is that a reader with little or no knowledge of cricket can appreciate the social weight to which James ascribes the sport. This is both a tribute to the author’s fine analytical skills and brilliant political mind, but also to the simple elegance and rhythm of his prose.

Reading Beyond A Boundary, one sees how the campaign for a black man Frank Worrell (which incidentally James led) to become the first black to captain the West Indies cricket team turned the hierarchy of the colonizer’s game on its head and inspired the struggle for Trinidadian independence. Through James’s critical lens, riots which could greet a bad call by the umpire became expressions of social tension between oppressors and oppressed. And for James, the choice to play for one cricket club or the other reflected desires for social mobility and the state of race relations in Trinidad’s pigmentocracy. James was writing a sociology of sport before sociologists had invented the field.

Brilliantly, James shows a capacity for deep analysis of what can appear to an outsider as the trivial intricacies of cricket. Accounting for the batting prowess of a boyhood hero, James moves through references to Edmund Burke, Michelangelo and Hegel. This is no mere intellectual pose; James weaves the literary with the carnal, the physical with the philosophical throughout Beyond a Boundary. The analysis extends to his own morality, an ethics derived not from Marx but the code of ‘fair play’ to which all good cricketers adhere: “This code,” writes James, “became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me.”(Reading James on cricket one is reminded of Albert Camus’ reflection, “All I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”)

Beyond a Boundary was first published in 1963, some twenty years after James’ classic history of the Haitian revolution The Black Jacobins appeared. Born in 1901 into a lower-middle class Afro-Trinidadian household, by the early sixties, James had rubbed shoulders with Leon Trotsky, written and acted in a play with Paul Robeson, served as cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, made significant contributions to Marxist theory and Pan-African thought, organized and agitated for revolution in the United States and national independence in the Caribbean and west Africa. A teacher, novelist, philosopher, historian, and activist, upon his death the Trinidadian polymath was described by the Times of London as the “black Plato of our generation.” (A paragraph-length biography is surely to do violence to one of the great lives of the 20th century; I recommend Paul Buhle’s CLR James: The Artist as Revolutionary as an apology.)

Before James, with few exceptions, sports writing was blind to the ‘social’ in sport, and much of it remains so today. But when sports journalists ask critical questions of the Vancouver Olympics or graduate students develop theses on the cultural meaning of Tiger Woods, knowingly or not they are paying homage to Beyond A Boundary and its author CLR James.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension Vol 44 #5 September/October 2010

A bad week in In-Between City

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Last week was not a good one to be living in the “in-between city,” the term urbanists use to describe areas wedged between the outer suburbs — with their sprawling residential neighbourhoods — and the downtown core of office towers, condos and cultural institutions.

In Toronto, the in-between city roughly corresponds to the postwar suburbs, or inner suburbs, that grew with the booming economy of the 1950s and ’60s. As urban researchers at York University’s City Institute have observed, their highrises, diverse immigrant populations and lower-than-average incomes are the stuff of the inner city; but their bungalows, strip malls and wide roads are quintessentially suburban.

It is in the in-between city that “one finds some of the most pronounced urban contradictions” — think of resource-wealthy places like the University of Toronto Scarborough campus shoulder to shoulder with one of the city’s troubled priority neighbourhoods, Kingston-Galloway.

Socio-economically, the in-between city overlaps with what researchers at the U of T’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies have called Toronto’s “third city,” which consists of areas with high concentrations of racialized poverty, where incomes have decreased 20 per cent or more over the past 30 years. City Number 1, which has seen phenomenal income growth, is the richer and whiter downtown core and swanky neighbourhoods clustered around the city’s two subway lines. Toronto’s demographically mixed middle-income neighbourhoods — or City Number 2 — are diminishing in number as we become a more socially, economically and geographically polarized metropolis.

As a confluence of events last week demonstrates, life in the in-between city is not easy.

Take Jane and Finch, a typical neighbourhood of the in-between city. First we had the ongoing wrangling between the provincial government and Mayor David Miller over the future of Transit City. The last Liberal budget deferred $4 billion in funding for light rail lines on Sheppard, Finch and Eglinton, as well as the Scarborough rapid transit route. For Jane-Finch residents, the Finch West LRT promised to better integrate the neighbourhood into Toronto’s urban fabric, cutting down frustratingly long commute times, providing better access to the social, economic and cultural resources of the rest of the city, and ending years of institutionalized exclusion caused by inadequate public transit.

Residents of the in-between city have the furthest distances to travel for employment but suffer the poorest access to TTC subway lines. According to the U of T’s Three Cities study, only 16 of the TTC’s 68 stations are within or near the city’s poor neighbourhoods.

Next we saw the Toronto District School Board unveil money-saving plans to close one of Jane-Finch’s public schools. While the board sees this action as rationalizing the use of its resources, Jane-Finch residents see it as an attack on their already precarious social infrastructure. They said as much in a meeting at Brookview Middle School with more than 250 parents packing the gymnasium to register their opposition to the TDSB’s plans.

With much of the city’s social and community services located below the Bloor/Danforth line, in-between neighbourhoods such as Jane-Finch have been underserviced for years, especially given the community’s pressing needs. For residents, school closures do little to address the deficit of educational resources, child care, parks and recreation, and health services that detrimentally impact the neighbourhood’s population.

If school closures and transit cuts weren’t enough, we had the latest Toronto Police Services raid targeting street gangs operating in the city’s northwest. As many of the neighbourhood’s youth and community leaders have repeatedly argued, such raids effectively prune the branches of violence, while leaving the social and economic root intact. New recruits take the place of incarcerated members as gangs quickly reorganize to protect their turf in a drug economy fuelled by demand that is largely external to impoverished neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch.

The week also saw the tragic death of well-known neighbourhood teenager Junior Alexander Manon near York University. According to initial news reports, Manon and an acquaintance were pulled over by police on Steeles Ave. Manon fled on foot and the officers gave chase. Police claim that the teen then collapsed. Manon was pronounced dead at York-Finch Hospital.

After viewing Manon’s body at the morgue, his family’s lawyer Selwyn Peters spoke with the press. As the Star reported, Peters said: “There was blood all over. He had a neck brace on. His eyes were black and blue. The issue of a heart attack is a fiction. It seems he died from physical force. He was a healthy young person.” Witnesses claim Manon was beaten by the police.

While we mourn the loss of this well-liked teen, Manon’s death has serious ramifications for police-community relations. The incident only adds to the tension and mutual suspicion that has existed for years between police and Jane-Finch residents.

Accusations of police brutality threaten any bonds of trust police may have built with residents in past years. Furthermore, the use of force undermines the city’s “soft” approach to youth violence, which focuses on education, intervention and diversion. Youth will not engage a police force that subjects them to routine intimidation and harassment.

But all is not despair: the in-between city is a city of activists, concerned parents, urban entrepreneurs and young leaders. Independent media outlets like cover community issues and give young people a voice that they don’t have in the mainstream media.

Groups such as the Black Action Defence Committee are engaged in gang exit, youth employment and leadership development programs. Jane-Finch Action Against Poverty, the St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club, and youth drop-in The SPOT are all working around issues of social justice, effectively mitigating the marginalization experienced by their community.

Across Toronto, in neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch, hundreds of community organizations work tirelessly on issues of transit justice, tenant rights and food security, sometimes with the help of the city through initiatives like the Neighbourhood Action Plan and Youth Challenge Fund, and often on shoestring budgets.

Such efforts give residents of the in-between city hope. Hope that one day their lives will not include the drama of police raids, struggling schools, low wages and long commutes. Hope that governments at all levels will recognize the need for a comprehensive urban agenda that combats social exclusion and addresses the needs of the in-between city.

And when you’ve lived through a week like the one just passed, hope may well be the one thing needed most.

Published in The Toronto Star, May 14 2010

The Perils and Promise of Barack Obama

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

Four months after Jesse Jackson whispered “Barack’s been talking down to black people… I want to cut his nuts off…” on Fox Television, he provided one of the most emotional moments of election night. As the screens flashed the news of Obama’s election, tears streamed down Jackson’s cheeks, his face strained and twisted by the duelling emotionsof pain and joy.

Cynical observers saw Jackson’s tears as anacknowledgment of his obsolescence in Obama’s America, claiming civil rights ideals anachronistic. How could racialized politics be relevant in a country with a black president? But unemployment, prison, education and health statistics tell a different story—one where race still matters. Like other cautious supporters of Obama, Jackson emerged from an earlier era of black politics inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle against what he called the “triple evils” of America, “racism, war and economic exploitation”. As his critics point out, on the “triple evils” Obama is found wanting.

ON WAR, the President-elect has openly stated his willingness to bomb targets in sovereign nations without their permission, has committed to extending the war in Afghanistan and intensifying the troop presence there, has continuously softened his Iraq anti-war stance, and says nothing about dismantling the military empire which includes 700-odd U.S. bases beyond its own border. His steadfast support for Israel leaves the long suffering Palestinians with few hopes of progress toward national liberation and statehood. As Condi Rice and Colin Powell demonstrated, African-Americans can bomb third-world countries with the best of them.

ON RACISM, Obama has walked the post-racial tightrope: Attempting to build a broad coalition of voters, his supporters claim Obama must talk beyond race while still appealing to the African-American community to which he owes a great deal of his success. The always on-point Tavis Smiley recently asked “Is it worth winning the White House for an African American candidate if the suffering of black people must be rendered invisible during that campaign by said candidate?”

ON ECONOMIC EXPLOITATION, frequent contributor to the Black Commentator, Paul Street observed, “Obama has placated establishment circles on virtually every front imaginable, the candidate of ‘change we can believe in’ has visited interest group after interest group to promise them that they needn’t fear any change in the way they’re familiar with doing business.” His support for the $700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street may have been necessary, but his failure to articulate a vision of economic justice that goes beyond corporate capitalism-as-usual belies his mantra of real and substantial ‘Change’. One only has to look at his presidential transition team, filled with CEOs and Clinton-era hacks (including those who pushed for the devastating welfare reforms of the mid-90s which devastated many Black communities and played into racist stereotypes of the Black poor), to know that ‘change’ may mean little more than a change in personnel in the top echelons of power, not a the type of change that would empower the poor and working class.

These are the perils of Obama. The promise lies in the fact the first Black president was elected through a massive mobilization and empowerment of Black, Latino and young voters, particularly the hip hop generation. Obama owes them and on issues of social justice he must ante-up. As Cornel West said on the eve of the election, “I’ll break-dance tonight if Obama wins, but I’ll wake up the next day his critic”. In other words, celebrate the achievement of all that is Obama, but keep him accountable to his message of ‘Hope’, ‘Change’ and ‘Progress’. In this, the hip hop generation has a massive role to play.

Published in POUND, 44 Winter 2008