When I was in the White House I arranged a meeting between President Carter and progressive activist Tom Hayden (and one-time husband of Jane Fonda). The meeting in the Oval Office started with the usual pleasantries. Hayden then launched into an attack on the power of international corporations and the damage their greed inflicted on ordinary American’s. He urged Carter to make them more accountable. Carter responded by saying that he did not particularly disagree with Hayden’s analysis but added “You do not understand how little power I actually have. I may be President of the United States but what I can do to reign in corporate abuse is really very limited. They are very powerful.” Hayden was quite taken-aback and I too was stunned both that Carter would admit this and also by the truth of his statement.
I often thought back about this discussion over the years but the recent BP oil spill in off the Gulf coast brought it vividly back to mind. President Obama has been fiercely criticized for not doing enough to solve the problem and for failing to hold BP sufficiently accountable. In fact he has extracted a great deal from BP, but he like Carter is relatively powerless when confronted by a global corporate giant. BP generates enough income in a year to make it financially more powerful than many nation states. While nominally based in the UK its operations and its reach are global, making it immune to any real regulatory control. In addition the scale of their income allows them to buy regulators and legislators whenever they stand in the way of their profit making. I am sure they view elected officials who are here today and gone tomorrow with a considerable degree of contempt. In the long run, for them, an oil spill is a minor inconvenience, causing at worst an undesired PR problem. Being forced to face a Congressional hearing or a White House dressing down is just a minor bump in the road as far as their long-term profits and power are concerned.
We talk about the security threat from “non-state” actors by which we are usually referring to Islamic activist groups we do not like. Actually global corporate entities like BP with their almost unlimited economic power pose a far greater threat to the US.
In the nineteen sixties I was working on a project at the Atlanta city jail looking at how the thousands arrested for public drunkenness each year could be better handled. Periodically I gave a presentation and progress report to the all-white members of the city council and their staff. I worked with an African-American, Ernest Wright, who had master’s degree in counselling who had far better insights into alcoholism in the black community than I. Because of this expertise I had him share with me one of my presentations to the council. I could hear mumblings as he started to speak and afterwards I was told in no uncertain terms that it was quite inappropraite and insulting to expect white people to sit and be lectured to by a black. That any African-American could have superior information to impart to them struck at the core of their sense of racial superiority. When I scheduled a later presentation with the implication that Ernest Wright would again be involved, no one showed up. For a presentation you have to have a presenter and an audience. By not showing up they wanted to invalidate him as a credible presenter and maintain their sense of racial superioity.
I had not thought about this in years until the almost universal Republican “no” vote against the Obama stimulous package. Whatever they might say about the need for more tax cots, too much pork, or not enough time to read the whole bill, it all seemed to me a lot of smoke to hide the fact that they just could not accept Obama as president. They were absenting themselves from the process as a way of rejecting and invalidating him as the nation’s leader. His outreach for bi-partisanship enabled them to maximize the insult they inflicted on him. I am not saying all Republicans are racists or that the majority of them thought about their “no” votes in racial terms. However, all or virtually all come from districts that Obama lost. In Alabama and Mississippi Obama secured only 12 per cent of the white vote. I can assure you the 88% who voted for McCain did so for the most part not because of the policies he espoused but because they flatly rejected the notion of a “nigger” as president. They rely on exactly the same arguments that I heard throughout the South in the sixties and seventies in opposition to giving African-Americans the right to vote or access to public accomodations. “We are not yet ready for that change” they argued and “never will be” they might have added. Their Republican House and Senate members know they can not go wrong as far as their constituents are concerned by opposing Obama and doing anything they can to undermine him and have him fail. We must not under-estimate the legacy of racism that remains in the country. Rush Limbaugh was perhaps the most honest in saying Republicans should want Obama to fail. I believe that is true of many Republicans in the Congress, whether they admit it or not, who are primarily interested in pandering to a racist electorate to get themselves re-elected and have little interest in, or understanding of, the best interests of the country. If Obama fails it will delight their electorate who will say “the nigger could not cut it” and use it to try to prevent any future African-American becoming president as well as those seeking lower elective positions.
I think it admirable that Obama continues to rise above the fray and continue to seek bi-partisanship. It is also encouraging that among younger voters even in the most racist districts were more likely to vote for Obama. If Obama succeeds it will go a long way in helping racism to wither, and in laying the path for white support of African-Americans candidates at every level. In the mean time we must not under-estimate the scale of the continuing vicious struggle to wrest America from its dark and frightening past. Republicans in the Congress will continue to conflate an unspoken racist agenda with arguments about taxes, the defecit. welfare, health care, and any program to benefit poorer Americans.