Obama's interview with Chicago's WBEZ was specifically about the civil rights movement, and the best ways to remedy the conditions of black people after slavery and Jim Crow. When Obama talks about "redistributive change," it's in the context of what needed to be done for Americans who were slaves, who owned nothing; in fact, they were owned. Anyone who's honest knows that the legacy of African-American family poverty can be traced back to slavery and Jim Crow. Obama is not ranting wildly about income distribution in the interview; he's talking calmly and thoughtfully about the array of strategies needed to erase that legacy.Read the rest in Salon, including links to other essays discussing the points in more detail. Click below for Obama's actual words from the radio program.
The greatest irony is that Obama sounds conservative themes in the interview. He says the civil rights movement relied too much on the courts, and not enough on legislation, community organizing and political will. This is exactly what conservatives have said about the movements of the 1960s -- that they relied too much on judges, rather than the legislative system. But what's really remarkable about the interview is listening to Obama talk with nuance and insight and compassion about issues that have moral, legal and political ramifications. Listen to it, and imagine having a president who talks this way. I can't wait for next Tuesday.
Here's more about and from the show from Kris Broughton at Open Salon:
Now for some facts.
Barack Obama made appearances as a guest on Odyssey, a talk show produced by Chicago Public Radio. Obama, then a State Senator and Senior Lecturer at the Law School, was on the program 3 times between 1998 and 2002.
According to Josh Andrews, who produced the shows, "when he joined us, he was more than willing to set aside his political persona and put on his academic hat. Obama participated in discussions on the evolution of the right to vote, the politics of electoral redistricting, and the uneasy relationship between slavery and the constitution in early America."
The excerpts in the youtube video were taken from this hour long audio recording made January 18, 2001 from a program entitled "The Court and Civil Rights" hosted by Gretchen Helfrich. What did Obama really say on the air? See for yourself:
OBAMA: "You know, if you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to invest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples, so that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order - as long as I could pay for it I’d be okay.
But the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society. And to that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical.
It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, at least as it has been interpreted, and the Warren Court interpreted it in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties, says what the states can’t do to you, says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf.
And that hasn’t shifted, and one of the, I think, the tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change, and in some ways we still suffer from that."
HOST: "Let’s talk with Karen – good morning, Karen, you're on Chicago Public Radio."
CALLER: "The gentleman made the point that the Warren Court wasn’t terribly radical – my question is – with economic changes – my question is, is it too late for that kind of reparative work economically and is that the appropriate place for reparative economic work to take place?"
HOST: "You mean the court?"
CALLER: "The court, or would it be legislation at this point?"
OBAMA: "You know, maybe I’m showing my bias here as a legislator as well as a law professor. But I’m not optimistic about bringing about major redistributive change through the courts. You know, the institution just isn’t structured that way.
You know, you just look at very rare examples where, in during the desegregation era the court was willing to, for example, order, you know, changes that cost money to a local school district – and, the court was very uncomfortable with it, it was very hard to manage, it was hard to figure out, you start getting into all sorts of separation of powers issues, you know, in terms of the court monitoring or engaging in a process that essentially is administrative and takes a lot of time."
OBAMA: "You know, the court’s just not very good at it, and politically, it’s just its very hard to legitimize opinions from the court in that regard. So I mean I think that, although you can craft theoretical justifications for it legally, you know, I think any three of us sitting here could, could come up with a rationale for bringing economic change through the courts."
What seemed to be the more interesting excerpt, at least to me, in this program was a comment by Obama about the seemingly contradictory relationship between liberal political ideology and the traditional African American approach to religion and politics.
HOST: "Let’s talk with Joe (I guess this must be "Joe the Liberal") – good morning, Joe, you're on Chicago Public Radio."
CALLER: "Good morning. What I'd like to know is, considering that the civil rights movement was fought very much on moral grounds as much as legal grounds, and therefore religious grounds - I mean, Martin Luther King was a reverend, after all - what impact is that having now on the Supreme Court, and perhaps, with Ashcroft being nominated, in the future."
OBAMA: "Well, you know, I think its an interesting question, you may be pointing out, sir, what has been a longstanding contradiction, not just in the Warren Court or liberal lawyers, but, sir, the liberal community generally, and that is the contradiction between on the one hand basing many of its claims for justice on moral and ethical grounds, and at the same time being suspicious of church encroachment into the political sphere.
That's been less of a contradiction traditionally in the African American community, and for whatever reason psychologically, the country has always been more comfortable with the African American community's marriage of spiritual and, and political institutions. But I think that is a genuine contradiction that exists, you know, I think in the ideological makeup of the left in this country that hasn't been entirely resolved."
My father has always maintained that integration was doomed to have limited success because "they didn't integrate the money". Neither he nor Obama were calling for any kind of reparations. They were simply acknowledging out loud what a lot of black Americans knew all along - that without adequate access to capital for investment, our community was guaranteed to struggle along.
Its not like we were asking for 700 billion dollars - just some real access to capital to go along with all that freedom we had.
But even more ironic than that is the frenzied hate over this latest "finding" that will be harbored by people who have nothing to redistribute but negligible equity in their homes, credit card debt, and virtually empty 401(k) accounts.
This has to be the greatest Jedi Mind Trick of all time - rich elites have the broke "Joe SixPacks" who comprise their base of supporters championing their cause. For people who love to call the Democrats socialists, it is the most collective ownership ideology out there. "If you tack a picture of my big house and nice cars on the wall of the house you can barely pay for, you can call yourself a capitalist. Just don't be late to work, cause I need you to make me some more money, Joe."
Racial equality without economic equality is like having a car with no gas - at that point, it just becomes something to look at and polish once in awhile so you can remember what it used to look like when back when you first got it.
The even funnier thing about all of this is, "Joe the Plumber" has more in common with "Jamal the Plumber" than he realizes. But you can't tell Joe that.
All I know is, if I run into some Joe SixPack or Joe the Plumber who starts sputtering about how Obama is going to "redistribute" wealth he probably will never have to "African Americans", I am liable to tell him the same thing Cuba Gooding said to Tom Cruise in Jerry McGuire when he told Cruise his future depended on Cuba staying with him - "all he's got to do is 'show me the money, baby!'"