Show Hide image

America's black community has impossible dreams for Barack Obama

“No matter how high you rise, you’re still a black person in a white man’s world.”

In Altgeld Gardens, a poor estate on Chicago’s South Side where Barack Obama first campaigned for change as a community organiser, local activists are discussing plans to ensure that residents are registered to vote. Sandra Watson, a 65-year-old great-grandmother, is hoarse from stressing to the group the importance of getting Obama re-elected. Even though she relies on social security and widows’ benefits to survive, she has donated what she can afford to his campaign.

“I don’t get much but I send my nickels and dimes because I believe in him,” she says. “I cried like an alley rat eating an onion when I watched him get elected and I’m not giving up on him now. Mitt Romney don’t care about us people and we don’t want to be going back to the way things used to be.”

Her passion is typical of the strength of feeling that drove more black Americans to vote in the 2008 election than ever before. Their support will be as decisive in this year’s elections in some of the swing states but the turnout is likely to be lower.

Cheryl Johnson, who worked with Obama in the 1980s to have asbestos removed from the apartments on the estate, says that they are facing an uphill battle, not simply because of apathy, but because of their history. “We were indoctrinated through slavery to believe we can’t vote,” she says to a slow nodding of heads around the room. Her comment goes some way to explaining why many black Americans are still so supportive of Obama even though their conditions – they are nearly twice as likely as white people to be unemployed and make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population – have not improved under his presidency.

“He’s had such great opposition it’s made it impossible for him to do anything,” Johnson argues. “This country has been built on the perception that the white man doesn’t have to take orders from a black man.”

Visiting the Developing Communities (DCP) project that Obama joined as a 23-year-old, I hear Gwen Rice, its current director, express similar despair at the treatment the president has received. “There is still a sense of privilege among white people and many of the attempts to stop what he’s doing have been because he’s black,” she says. “No matter how high you rise, you’re still a black person in a white man’s world.”

Fredrick C Harris, professor of political science at Columbia University, Obama’s alma mater, says these opinions are typical of a mentality that places symbolism above substance. “There is a sense that the black community should protect the country’s first black president because he operates as such a powerful symbolic force.”

Yet Harris accuses the black community of failing to hold Obama to account. “It seems perverse that America should elect its first black president and then find a complete shutdown of discussion on the issue of racial inequality . . . He’s just lacked the courage to raise these issues in case the right uses them against him.”

Silent service

At Obama’s old church, a short walk down the road from the DCP offices, there is no lack of confidence in proclaiming black identity. “Unashamedly black, unapologetically Christian”, reads a banner hanging from the balcony at Trinity United Church of Christ, where Jeremiah Wright delivered his infamous sermons.

Yet a press officer explains to me that neither the clergy nor even the members of the church are allowed to speak out about the president until after the election.

Their enforced silence speaks volumes about the stigma attached to Obama’s black identity, his apparent fear of association with his past and the impossible job he’s had in realising the hopes of the African Americans who watched his victory speech through tears of joy.


The Alternative
Show Hide image

"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.