Can Obama create social change?

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Can President Obama create social change?

I believe the answer is no.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore Obama and I’m caught up in Obama-mania just the same as anyone.

I want to believe. I want to hope. I want to dream a new vision. I want to see things change.

It’s not about Obama. If anyone could be the catalyst for real change, it would be him. But no single person, no matter how gifted and powerful, can create social change.

Yes, I was glued to the TV on coronation – oops – inauguration day. Along with the rest of the world, I was weepy and inspired. But I also heard President Obama putting the responsibility for change back on the people. I wonder if they really heard him?

History has shown that social change requires people uniting for a common cause, against a common enemy. Inspired by Ghandi, Indians gained their freedom from British colonization. Under the moral leadership of Martin Luther King, African-Americans fought for equal rights under the law. Encouraged by the political reforms of Jean Lesage, Francophone Quebecers overcame economic and cultural oppression by Anglos.

Can Americans get past their hero  worship of President Obama and really pull together as one people?

He’s the latest celebrity, on the covers of all the magazines. America is having a love affair with the Obama family. My question is, “Do Americans get it that they will not be saved by Obama unless they decide to save themselves?”

Certain groups in U.S. society – the poor and the oppressed — are no doubt ready to work for change. But what about the middle class? And the elite?

The United States is a stratified society. Some groups have more privilege than others. Although many Americans would like to think they live in a meritocracy, the privileges attached to being white, or male, or able-bodied, or cis-sexual, for example, are unearned.

There is no merit in being white. It’s an accident of birth. White skin privilege is undeserved privilege. Unless white people actively take part in dismantling their own privilege, they continue, by their inaction, to perpetuate the racist structures of society. But it’s very difficult for white people to accept this fact. They think their tolerance and their good intentions are enough. It’s not enough. Social change requires sacrifice from all. Are white middle class people willing to sacrifice for the sake of those people who are marginalized in society?

So if the U.S. is looking to unite against a common cause, they first have to look within. The inequalities that are structurally embedded in American society make it very difficult for them to unite against a common cause. Are people willing to work to give up their unearned privilege so they can have a more just society?

If not, then the United States will remain split from within. The goals of the elite and the marginalized will remain at odds with each other. As Pogo said, “We have seen the enemy and he is us”. Until there is social justice, it will be difficult for Americans to unite and work for a common cause.

Yes, the middle class and the elite are hurting because of the recession. They are losing jobs and losing wealth. But the more privileged groups of Americans have always prided themselves on being rugged individualists in a capitalist society. The American Dream is an individualistic dream.

Given the nature of the American psyche, I’m not sure they are able to really fulfill the vision held out by President Obama. The “haves” in society are already feeling the pinch. They are going to hold onto what they have. It’s unlikely, in my opinion, that they will see the solution as opening their hands and joining them together.

I really hope I’m wrong about this.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

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2 responses »

  1. What really needs to happen is for poor whites to stop buying into the over valuation of whiteness. Once they understand that whiteness is being used as a tool by the rich elite to stop them from pairing with poor people of colour in the common cause of justice there can be true and lasting change. The poor far outnumber the rich and if united it would be enough to seriously change our understanding of worth and value.

  2. I think you’ve put your finger on something very important, Renee. Thank you for this contribution.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about racism among the poor — who are an extremely heterogeneous group. I think that nobody wants to feel they are at the very bottom of society. Perhaps the internalized classism of poor white people (“white trash”) plays a role in poor white people’s racism. “I’m worthless, but you’re even worth less than I am.”

    It’s clearly in the interests of the ruling elite to have these divisions, because they do prevent poor black and white people from uniting.

    A recent experience gives me a glimmer of hope. I live right beside Canada’s largest housing project. A white friend who lives there said, “When I was younger, there was war between the blacks and the whites. But now we all unite and it’s become the poor against the rich.”

    I’d like to learn more about the intersection of racism, poverty, and gender and how people have successfully created bridges across groups.

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