Back to the future: BLM overcomes Obama and returns to Malcolm X

What we are witnessing in Black Lives Matter today is an historic shift back to Malcolm X, bypassing the generation that had culminated in Barack Obama’s presidency of liberal imperialism.

New York City
Demonstrators hold a Black Lives Matter banner during a protest against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in front of the at Grand Army Plaza in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, US June 7, 2020. [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

As the news of Donald Trump and his wife Melania having contracted COVID-19 sends shudders down the spine of American and global politics, steady remains the perils and promises of the most principled and revolutionary uprising of this nation: Black Lives Matter.

So let us disregard the static noise of the daily news, and the Trump campaign’s desperate attempts to turn the president’s coronavirus diagnosis to electoral advantage, and focus on what endures.

On September 1, a few weeks before he casually told the violent white supremacist gangs among his supporters “to stand back and stand by” – presumably until given further instructions – Trump went out of his way to denounce the Black Lives Matter uprising. “It’s so discriminatory,” Trump said of what is rightly considered perhaps “the largest movement in US history”. It is a “Marxist organisation,” he warned his supporters.

A “Marxist organisation?” If only: the leaders of the Black Lives Matter have their work cut out for them.

The long arch of history

History does not progress on a steady path. It zigzags, regresses, stumbles, until it reaches the point of an epistemic shift.

In Egypt, the charismatic thunder of Gamal Abdel Nasser eventually led to the dictatorship of Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. In India, the saintly and legendary figure of Mahatma Gandhi leading an anti-colonial struggle eventually resulted in the murderous Hindu-supremacist fascism of Narendra Modi. In Iran, the anti-colonial struggle led by Mohammad Mosaddegh eventually gave birth to the reactionary Islamic Republic ruled by a platoon of militant mullahs. In Syria, the promising political philosophy of Michel Aflaq eventually resulted in the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad.

We can continue apace on this list, but the point here is the United States, where the revolutionary charisma of Malcolm X gave birth to the reactionary liberalism of Barack Obama.

American liberals sickened by Trump’s presidency are celebrating the speech Obama gave at the Democratic Party’s national convention in August, in which he tearfully endorsed his former vice president, Joe Biden, as a defining moment for their agenda to defeat Trump and restore “American dignity”.

But American dignity cannot be “restored” by electing a washed-up liberal apparatchik like Biden. American dignity, today more than ever, is in the principled and dignified Black Lives Matter uprising. Obama and his endorsement of Biden are nothing but impediments to a far superior politics of liberation unfolding on the streets and in the critical consciousness of the best of Americans.

Obama is a dead end

Trump is the worst of America, but he is not alone. About one out of two eligible voters voted for him in 2016 and, however the 2020 election turns out, he still commands the loyalties of millions of Americans who share his unrepentant racism and bigotry. Trump represents racist fascism deeply rooted in American society and history.

Against this engrained racism rose the Black Lives Matter movement – ethically principled, morally righteous, and with the mighty power of history on its side. But the movement’s struggle is against not only Trump, but also the false figure of Obama and what he represents.

“Young black people have exploded in rebellion over the grotesque killing of George Floyd,” writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, “we are now witnessing the broadest protest movement in American history. And yet the response of black elected officials has been cautious and uninspired.”

Taylor, who is a professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, is being very polite, circumspect, and generous. The response of the Black elected officials led by Obama to the movement has been positively reactionary, bordering on a conscious betrayal of what the Black Lives Matter uprising can achieve.

Professor Taylor rightly accuses both the Congressional Black Caucus and Obama of trying to push the Black Lives Matter uprising into the tepid and largely futile sideways of electoral politics, which has historically acted like a diversionary tactic to stifle and dissipate any progressive act of political uprising.

Futility of electoral politics

For the historic unfolding of the Black Lives Matter uprising, Obama is not the solution but a problem. Here is why: What we are witnessing in Black Lives Matter today is an historic shift back to Malcolm X, bypassing the generation that had culminated in Obama’s presidency of liberal imperialism.

Historically, except for the towering figure of Malcolm X, the civil rights movement was afflicted with a debilitating parochialism that disregarded the global scene, bar a limited concern for the global consequences of the Vietnam War.

The legendary speech Martin Luther King Jr delivered on racism, militarism and poverty at the Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, for example, was the only occasion when he considered the more global frame of the Civil Rights Movement. And his equivocal position on the apartheid state of Israel, even disregarding the forged letter the Zionists have attributed to him, remains a serious compromise to his moral standing.

But today, with figures like Alice Walker, Cornel West, and Angela Davis, we have a far more global awareness of injustice evident in the Black Lives Matter’s position on militarism and its Zionist gestation. This fact takes the Black Lives Matter movement right back to the road map Malcolm X charted for the future of Black liberation – not just the US, but Africa, Latin America, and Asia were the domains of the revolutionary thinking of Malcolm X.

Against the grain of this global understanding of injustice that is at the core of the Black Lives Matter uprising, the centrist electoral politics that Obama aggressively peruses is an Achilles’ Heel of the movement and a false subterfuge for a far superior and urgent critical thinking and massive social protests.

Consider the lamentations of Cornel West when it comes to the sad legacy of Obama: “We hit the streets again with Black Lives Matter and other groups and went to jail for protesting against police killing black youth. We protested when the Israeli Defense Forces killed more than 2,000 Palestinians [including 550 children] in 50 days. Yet Obama replied with words about the difficult plight of police officers … and the additional $225m in financial support of the Israeli army. Obama said not a mumbling word about the dead Palestinian children but he did call Baltimore black youth ‘criminals and thugs’.”

Electoral politics gave us Obama 12 years ago, and now it is giving us his female version in Kamala Harris. Two reactionary liberals, fanatical centrists, steadfast Zionists, one of them allowed a violent and militarised police force to target Black communities with impunity under his watch, the other aided and abetted the mass incarceration and criminalisation of young Black men throughout her career. Obama and Harris are burying the memory of Malcolm X and turning his charismatic presence into a museum relic.

Bypassing Obama and his ilk, we are witness to a seismic change in American politics and Black Lives Matter is the very heartbeat of it. There is a new generation of bold and brilliant leaders, as Professor Taylor reminds us, “women like Mary Hooks from Southerners on New Ground in Atlanta and Miski Noor and Kandace Montgomery of the Black Vision Collective in Minneapolis” who are rearticulating an entirely different vision of their America. The world must bypass the liberal drumming up of the centrist reactionaries like Obama, Biden and Harris, and listen to these younger leaders.

Today the critical links between the generation of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, WEB DuBois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, Medgar Evers, Ruby Bridges and countless others and the younger leaders of the Black Lives Matter are the towering figures of Cornel West, Angela Davis, and Alice Walker – all of them unequivocally among the leading voices speaking bravely for the justice of the Palestinian cause.  This is not just for the justice of the Palestinian cause. This is equally for the justice of Black Lives Matter.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.