Post-Mortem Morning: Oakland and the Remains of the Left




NOVEMBER 9, 2016, black, and spears of metallic blue dawn. It is morning in East Oakland. Along San Leandro Boulevard, a neighborhood of nondescript warehouses sits forgotten, lost behind old homes, graffiti monuments, homeless tent camps, Oracle Arena, and the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The Raiders, Warriors, and Athletics play in East Oakland, but their days here are numbered. The Raiders will soon move to Las Vegas because the Coliseum can’t compare with the facility being built in Nevada and the city of Oakland won’t allocate taxpayer funds to finance a new stadium. The Golden State Warriors are leaving too, for San Francisco on the other side of the water. The industries the warehouses that sit behind the stadiums were built to house anticipated the sports franchises and left long ago. Now, most of the warehouses are abandoned. But East Oakland was once Detroit West, an engine of America’s industrial-age economy. The first automobile plant on the West Coast, Oakland Assembly, was founded by Chevrolet way back in 1916. Clorox and Granny Goose also once called East Oakland home. But nobody here talks about this abandonment: the past is past in East Oakland, the population young, educated in the vacuum of their moment, irreverent about decades-old losses.

Day laborers, all Latino, sit on the curbsides waiting to be chosen for work. Some are legal immigrants, others not. Taco trucks dot the expanse and dominate the thoroughfare one boulevard up on International. A few warehouses are still very much in operation, their bays open for business, redolent with the rubber of overtaxed tires. Others, after lying fallow, have been repurposed to less hardscrabble ends. Dwayne Wiggins, the Tony! Toni! Tone! guitarist and Oakland native, has dibs on one warehouse and back lot, called The Compound @MINDSEED. He’s making its grounds the site of a music school for East Oakland youth. On weekends, my friend Zawditu hosts events at The Compound that cost whatever you’ve got to give. Another repurposed warehouse is now the brewery headquarters of Black Medicine iced coffee. A few streets over, the Sunshine Biscuits sign still stands tall, towering high above everything else in this waning neighborhood. The warehouse is now a kind of conservatory where dance classes and rehearsals are conducted, and once in a while there’s a performance under the high steel ceilings that might as well be a rent party.

Also, Donald J. Trump is president-elect of the United States.

This is what late-stage capitalism looks like. This is what post-industrial America looks like and has looked like for going on half a century. Read Robert O. Self’s American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (2005) for the full story of this dispossession. Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (2005) shifts the lens to Oakland East. Look, also, to William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (1996): this barren cityscape is as old as outsourcing.

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In any half-normal presidential election, the things Donald Trump said about the civic concerns of black Americans would have been regarded as uniquely problematic. Trump uncomplicatedly called black communities “hell” to live in, claiming in a presidential debate that walking the streets of a black neighborhood is a good way to get shot. Considered in a vacuum, those comments were unfortunate but forgivable, the gaffes of an untutored politician flung (even if it was he who did the flinging) upon the national stage. But candidate Trump also repeatedly opined that blacks should vote for him simply because they have nothing to lose in supporting his political agenda, meanwhile dismissing concerns about the racism inherent in his sideshow attempt to delegitimize Barack Obama, asserting at the first presidential debate that he has “nothing” to say to African-American voters regarding those concerns. Unpersuaded by these insults passed off as overtures, black voters chose Trump at an 8 percent clip. By contrast, early exit polls from CNN showed 58 percent of white voters choosing Trump, with white men and women voting for him by 63 and 53 percent, respectively. In the end, the election — which Van Jones termed, not inappropriately, a “whitelash,” or white backlash against eight years of a black presidency and the country’s rapidly changing demography — was deeply influenced by the United States’s racial schisms. 

Trump, a candidate without military or governmental experience of any kind, basically ran a disorganized, crazy, underfunded, and unserious campaign. But his rhetoric tapped into a hidden reservoir of economic angst that, when allied with white anxieties over the demographic threat to white majority rule, proved more formidable than his performance-art campaign might have suggested. By a purely economic logic, most people of color would align politically with the white working-class voters who are, at the moment, supporting Trump. But logic has little to do with what we’re living through.

In the election’s near-term aftermath, analysts have been quick to insist that white racial animus alone cannot explain the real-estate magnate and reality-TV star’s capture of the presidency. And, indeed, the reasons for Trump’s improbable win are numerous and complex, irreducible to just one cause. The liberal post-mortem has taken to counting the causes of Hillary Clinton’s failure, as well as the Democrats’ inability to regain either the House or the Senate. This blame-casting exposes and exacerbates the rift between ideological progressives on the one hand, and mainstream Democrats and people of color on the other. Progressives attribute the failure of Clinton and the Democratic Party to an elitist disdain for the working class — in other words, to economic factors — while those so-called government and media elites, not to mention people of color (who are, not incidentally, underrepresented in the ranks of the progressive left), tend to see the failure as primarily a racial and psychic issue — a reassertion of white nationalism, white masculinity, and white rule.

Glenn Greenwald’s essay “Democrats, Trump and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lessons of Brexit” (published at Intercept.com) is an example of the progressive left’s take on the election results, while Obama biographer David Remnick’s “An American Tragedy” piece in The New Yorker is an example of the mainstream Democratic view. The two journalists are of one mind about Trump himself: he is a sociopath and demagogue. About everything else, they differ profoundly.

Greenwald’s first argument is his strongest: “Put simply, Democrats knowingly chose to nominate a deeply unpopular, extremely vulnerable, scandal-plagued candidate, who — for very good reason — was widely perceived to be a protector and beneficiary of all the worst components of status quo elite corruption.” Which might go some way toward explaining why voters overall — and voters of color in particular — did not support Hillary Clinton as strongly as they had Obama in 2008 and 2012. When it comes to Clinton, Remnick is far more amiable, conceding that she was a “flawed candidate” but insisting that she is a “resilient, intelligent, and competent leader.”

Greenwald’s second point is more tenuous. He argues that, while it is indisputable that “racism, misogyny, and xenophobia are pervasive in all sectors of America,” the country did twice elect Barack Obama, so there must be limits to what can be attributed to racism. The rejoinder is obvious: the American electorate has now chosen Trump, a candidate who ran on a platform of undisguised bigotry. Evidently, the American electorate is erratic in the extreme. After downplaying the impact of xenophobia, misogyny, and racism (while conceding that, in fact, “many Trump voters are relatively well-off and many of the nation’s poorest voted for Clinton”), Greenwald concocts an apology for this bigotry, arguing that the working class whites who helped power Trump’s victories in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin have been “ravaged by free trade orgies and globalism.”

Remnick, by contrast, sees the United States’s social decline not as the result of free trade and globalism, but as the future outcome of a Trump-led government. His rhetoric is alarmist: “That the electorate has, in its plurality, decided to live in Trump’s world of vanity, hate, arrogance, untruth, and recklessness, his disdain for democratic norms, is a fact that will lead, inevitably, to all manner of national decline and suffering.” Where Greenwald presents Trump’s voters as victims of the global economy, Remnick views them as the perpetrators of a great wrong: “the cruel decision to elevate a man who rides in a gold-plated airliner but who has staked his claim with the populist rhetoric of blood and soil.” Responding to conservative and progressive critiques of mainstream liberalism, Remnick reminds the reader of a fact Greenwald dismisses, which is that, among Democratic voters, there are more poor people and people of modest means than among Trump’s supporters. “Liberals will be admonished as smug, disconnected from suffering,” he writes, “as if so many Democratic voters were unacquainted with poverty, struggle, and misfortune.”

Both Greenwald and Remnick are making necessary critiques. The neoliberal economic agenda, equally the product of Democratic and Republican administrations over several decades, has wreaked havoc on blue-collar communities throughout the United States. At the same time, the age-old hatreds rekindled and brought to flame by Trump’s brand of populism are at least as compromising of democratic values as is economic insecurity. Greenwald points out that such insecurity predictably leads to such hatreds. But this is too easy — and, in fact, speaks to the racial privileging of whiteness that some left progressives share with Trump’s vast contingent of supporters. If economic insecurity inevitably leads to xenophobia and racism, then how does one explain East Oakland, where the ravages of late-stage capitalism have been felt longer and more intensely than in the rural climes of Trump Country? Why is it that, through recessions and epidemics and wars, blacks have not descended upon Mexican Americans (who actually live among them as neighbors), seeking political vengeance? I am not suggesting that there is anything particularly heroic or principled about black culture or black people. There is not. Our demons are real. What I am saying is that there is something wrong with whiteness as a privileging category, with the belief in a birthright entitlement that gives the white working class some special claim on our attention and sympathy.

At the core of Trump’s appeal is not a reasonable economic agenda — he is promising government-created jobs through stimulus spending on infrastructure, which will somehow co-exist with a program of massive tax cuts, as well as sweeping deregulation of industries, which will likely weaken worker protections for his putative constituency. That’s a mishmash at best. No, Trump’s primary appeal is as psychic standard-bearer for a white working class that has belatedly come to feel — forty years after the forces of deindustrialization and job outsourcing crippled black inner-city communities — that free market economics do not actually serve their interests. Like long-neglected lovers only now noticing the slight, they desire revenge, and Trump promises to deliver it. But why was there no national political movement aligned with the working class in Detroit, in South Central Los Angeles, in East and West Oakland during the removal of factories and jobs from those spaces in the 1970s and ’80s?

If Trump’s election was really more about economic forces than about the reassertion of a vengeful white supremacy — as Greenwald argues, with near-indifference to the existential threats to minorities Trump’s upcoming cabinet appointments presage — then why did his policy proposals meet with such low approval among people of color, especially blacks and Latinos, who by every measure except suicide and heroin addiction have suffered worse under late-stage capitalism than have working class whites? Why was Trump’s platform primarily associated with his deportation scheme, his call for a wall along the Southern border, and his plan to ban Muslims from entering the country rather than with free-trade restrictions and the repeal of NAFTA? Why did the Ku Klux Klan endorse him, and why are they holding a victory parade in North Carolina in his honor? And why, despite all this evidence of the racist animus fueling his rise, has the white working class been cast by the mainstream media as uniquely aggrieved and thus uniquely justified in their obeisance to the Trump phenomenon?

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Trump is a salesman, a provocateur, and now a politician. He will take whatever support he can get, from whichever sectors of the population he can manage to seduce. It so happens that, when activated, the white working class is the largest voting bloc in the nation, so Trump, opportunist that he is, went straight after it, playing to its darkest fears and most nihilistic dreams — dreams for a world free from the reality of global competition and from people of brown skin, from the fact of insecurity and the changes wrought by time and technology. These are low impulses, unconscionable rhetorics, and votes that already live in infamy. The United States is slipping toward a dangerous style of populism. But no one is irredeemable.

The left is counting its losses, the right is measuring the extent of its mandate. This is, in the main, an argument taking place among those who hold power in our society, which means, as always in the United States, that it is overwhelmingly a drama played out among white people, no matter whom the president happens to be. But this election was largely settled by battles in which colored bodies were the targets. So there needs to be a more honest reckoning, on the left as well as the right, with the existential threats that Donald Trump and some of his campaign surrogates have made against minorities and other vulnerable groups, and the root shock that these threats have wrought within us.

As well, there needs to be an acknowledgment that the slow violence against working class people of color in the East Oaklands of the United States cannot be solved by abstract, depersonalized political alliances with people who hold cheap the actual lives of those workers. Talk of banning an entire religion from our country’s borders is something that can only be blithely explained away as a zany publicity stunt if you are part of the United States’s Christian majority. Making the construction of a new Berlin Wall to keep out Mexican “rapists” a pillar of a presidential campaign can only be passed off as a negotiating ploy if you are part of the white majority. Stating that the black men who were unjustly imprisoned for years for a Central Park gang rape before being exonerated by DNA evidence and the confession of the perpetrator nevertheless are somehow still guilty can only be discounted as a poor choice of words if elevating a malicious demagogue to leader of the First World matters more to you than do black lives already deemed disposable by the nation’s justice system. And charges of sexual assault are more readily ignored if your only fear of being sexually violated involves a stint in jail you are certain you will never serve. For those of us who do not play at such things, what was just contested was not an election, it was liberty and the body.

It is daybreak and morning in Oakland and in the United States. We might not like what we see, but we should welcome the light, as it is always better to see and to know than not to. Far more damaging than Trump himself is the knowledge that so many Americans in voting to elect him have affirmed his vision. But at least we can now look clear-eyed at a country that, in its divisive squalor, runs the real risk of losing, whether to anger or apathy or immigration, whole generations of ethnic and religious minorities. This may be alarmist, but it is not hyperbolic. The United States does not owe its status as the envy of the world to some oath registered in heaven, sealed forever by the Almighty, but to the conscious goodness of real people in real time. Lose this and with it everything foundational but psychic whiteness, which will be rendered worthless, leaves with it. Immigrants who have come to these shores, most of them within the bounds of our laws, have been reminded en masse of their essential marginality and minority status, and of their vulnerability to the whims of a capricious majority that does not have their best interests at heart. Black folks have been reminded that our birth certificates do not state our inherited economic status, nor our religion, nor even our nationality, but many do read “Child: Negro.” And the United States’s religious minorities know again that the franchise can break at the point of faith, not just color.

We can only come together as Americans upon a ground of mutual respect — and that means there needs to be a reckoning with what Trump has now crafted himself into, and what his sudden status as standard-bearer for a racial order that elevated his ancestors really means for those without European bloodlines in this contested land. Those who voted for Trump need to be honest about what was in their hearts and recommit to a kinder, more just society. And progressives need to acknowledge that a politics that cannot reckon the tragic force and living trauma of race in the United States is no solution for the divides breaking wide between us.

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Keenan Norris, a guest editor for the Oxford African American Studies Center, teaches at Evergreen Valley College. His novel Brother and the Dancer won the 2012 James D. Houston Award. His next book, which will be published by Northwestern University Press, is Born by the River: Richard Wright, Barack Obama and “Chi-Raq.”


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