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Barack Obama, The Amazing Organizer?

From a thirteen year old edition of the Chicago Reader:

What Makes Obama Run?

Lawyer, teacher, philanthropist, and author Barack Obama doesn’t need another career. But he’s entering politics to get back to his true passion–community organization.

By Hank De Zutter
December 8, 1995

… “In America,” Obama says, “we have this strong bias toward individual action. You know, we idolize the John Wayne hero who comes in to correct things with both guns blazing. But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations.”

In an interview after the class, Obama again spoke of the need to organize and mobilize the economic power and moral fervor of black churches. He also argued that as a state senator he might help bring this about faster than as a community organizer or civil rights lawyer.

“What we need in America, especially in the African-American community, is a moral agenda that is tied to a concrete agenda for building and rebuilding our communities,” he said. “We have moved beyond the clarion call stage that was needed during the civil rights movement. Now, like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, we must move into a building stage. We must invest our energy and resources in a massive rebuilding effort and invent new mechanisms to strengthen and hasten this community-building effort.

“We have no shortage of moral fervor,” said Obama. “We have some wonderful preachers in town–preachers who continue to inspire me–preachers who are magnificent at articulating a vision of the world as it should be. In every church on Sunday in the African-American community we have this moral fervor; we have energy to burn.

“But as soon as church lets out, the energy dissipates. We must find ways to channel all this energy into community building. The biggest failure of the civil rights movement was in failing to translate this energy, this moral fervor, into creating lasting institutions and organizational structures.” …

The right wing talks about this but they keep appealing to that old individualistic bootstrap myth: get a job, get rich, and get out. Instead of investing in our neighborhoods, that’s what has always happened. Our goal must be to help people get a sense of building something larger.

“The political debate is now so skewed, so limited, so distorted,” said Obama. “People are hungry for community; they miss it. They are hungry for change.

What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer,” he wondered, “as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them? As an elected public official, for instance, I could bring church and community leaders together easier than I could as a community organizer or lawyer. We would come together to form concrete economic development strategies, take advantage of existing laws and structures, and create bridges and bonds within all sectors of the community. We must form grass-root structures that would hold me and other elected officials more accountable for their actions.

The right wing, the Christian right, has done a good job of building these organizations of accountability, much better than the left or progressive forces have. But it’s always easier to organize around intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and false nostalgia. And they also have hijacked the higher moral ground with this language of family values and moral responsibility.

“Now we have to take this same language–these same values that are encouraged within our families–of looking out for one another, of sharing, of sacrificing for each other–and apply them to a larger society. Let’s talk about creating a society, not just individual families, based on these values. Right now we have a society that talks about the irresponsibility of teens getting pregnant, not the irresponsibility of a society that fails to educate them to aspire for more.” …

Obama took time off from attending campaign coffees to attend October’s Million Man March in Washington, D.C. His experiences there only reinforced his reasons for jumping into politics.

“What I saw was a powerful demonstration of an impulse and need for African-American men to come together to recognize each other and affirm our rightful place in the society,” he said. “There was a profound sense that African-American men were ready to make a commitment to bring about change in our communities and lives.

“But what was lacking among march organizers was a positive agenda, a coherent agenda for change. Without this agenda a lot of this energy is going to dissipate. Just as holding hands and singing ‘We shall overcome’ is not going to do it, exhorting youth to have pride in their race, give up drugs and crime, is not going to do it if we can’t find jobs and futures for the 50 percent of black youth who are unemployed, underemployed, and full of bitterness and rage.

“Exhortations are not enough, nor are the notions that we can create a black economy within America that is hermetically sealed from the rest of the economy and seriously tackle the major issues confronting us,” Obama said.

Any solution to our unemployment catastrophe must arise from us working creatively within a multicultural, interdependent, and international economy. Any African-Americans who are only talking about racism as a barrier to our success are seriously misled if they don’t also come to grips with the larger economic forces that are creating economic insecurity for all workers–whites, Latinos, and Asians. We must deal with the forces that are depressing wages, lopping off people’s benefits right and left, and creating an earnings gap between CEOs and the lowest-paid worker that has risen in the last 20 years from a ratio of 10 to 1 to one of better than 100 to 1.

“This doesn’t suggest that the need to look inward emphasized by the march isn’t important, and that these African-American tribal affinities aren’t legitimate. These are mean, cruel times, exemplified by a ‘lock ’em up, take no prisoners’ mentality that dominates the Republican-led Congress. Historically, African-Americans have turned inward and towards black nationalism whenever they have a sense, as we do now, that the mainstream has rebuffed us, and that white Americans couldn’t care less about the profound problems African-Americans are facing.”

“But cursing out white folks is not going to get the job done. Anti-Semitic and anti-Asian statements are not going to lift us up. We’ve got some hard nuts-and-bolts organizing and planning to do. We’ve got communities to build.”

And exactly what has Mr. Obama ever built?

If you seek his monument, look around. You will see nothing.

“The right wing, the Christian right, has done a good job of building these organizations of accountability, much better than the left or progressive forces have. But it’s always easier to organize around intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and false nostalgia. And they also have hijacked the higher moral ground with this language of family values and moral responsibility.

Ah, that would explain his lack of progress. He is not intolerant enough.

And yet:

“We have no shortage of moral fervor,” said Obama. “We have some wonderful preachers in town–preachers who continue to inspire me–preachers who are magnificent at articulating a vision of the world as it should be. In every church on Sunday in the African-American community we have this moral fervor; we have energy to burn.

Testify!

Still, one wonders if there might not be some flaw in this “vision of the world as it should be,” according to the “Reverends” Wright, Pfleger and Farrakhan.

This article was posted by Steve on Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008. Comments are currently closed.

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