Meditations on Black (& Woman) Humanity in the Era of Obamacracy

by Jallicia Jolly

The string of legislative and legal "victories" last month have created much discussion about civil rights and state power. The Supreme Court's approval of health care subsidies of the Affordable Care Act and the guarantee of the right to same sex-marriages, coupled with the passing of a legislation granting President Obama trade promotion authority, represent paramount reforms of the Obama administration that serve to further highlight the 'progress' of our troubled nation. Yet, the bottle-popping celebrations of these legislative "achievements" direct attention away from their connection to the politics of suffering of historically marginalized groups such as Black Americans and poor women of color.

Amidst the discussions about the alignment of these judicial reforms with the U.S.'s twin bedrock principles — justice and equality — are celebrations of the victories at the end of the dark tunnel. The hard work has paid off and now, with legal protection and social recognition, we can enjoy our newfound freedoms. Yet, the performed progressivism of the Obama Administration combined with the rhetorical support for marginalized sectors of society divert attention from the continuing attacks on the lives and health of Black Americans and poor women.

The reforms have accompanied a shameful stream of high profile murders of Black Americans that have shaken the moral landscape as they have ignited massive uproar. Just as the Supreme Court justices prepared their closing and opposing arguments for our historical records, 9 men and women were brutally massacred as they worshipped in a place that served as their sanctuary and that they believed was a safe haven. The killer, a 21-year old white supremacist, anti-black, South Carolina native, was carried away by law enforcers. He wore a bulletproof vest, further displaying the sanctity of whiteness and the protections guaranteed to those who claim it. Again, many of us rejoiced at the thought of 'justice' looming upon the murderer's arrest.

The Charleston massacre follows the brutal killings of countless Black men, women, and children by the hands of law enforcers, community guards, and civilians in cities throughout the United States. Like casualties in war, their bodies amassed discriminately and shamelessly because they were too loud, too frightening, too aggressive and now, too omnipresent.

The Obama Administration's advocacy for these legacy-defining legislations alongside the vigorous regression of the civil and human rights of Black Americans and working-class women reflects a troubling irony. Currently, members of Congress are pushing a bill that would eliminate federal funding for Title X — the national family planning program that pays for preventative and reproductive health services. This measure would make life saving resources such as cancer screenings, HIV and STD testing and treatment, contraception education, and birth control inaccessible to approximately 4.6 million low-income Americans, many of whom are Black and Latino women. The bill's approval would prove to be life threatening for a segment of our population that already receives inadequate access to quality health care and who are among the prime risk groups for most major chronic and infectious diseases.

Alongside the reduced access to basic health services are also continuous attacks on the rights of low-income women of color to parent, procreate, and access safe abortions. Policies that use pregnancy outcomes to extend prison sentences and rely on incarceration as a basis for terminating parental rights assume that criminal conviction is a rational substitute for assessing parental fitness. Among the litany of coercive reproductive measures are prison procedures that mandate shackling during labor and childbirth, as well as those that require women to obtain a judge order authorizing the jail to take them to an abortion clinic with paid transportation, staff time, and the abortion service.

As if the assaults on the right to life and health care were not egregious enough, the denials of the right to water in Detroit further demonstrated the uncompromising and unwavering disregard for the lives of people living in low-income inner-city communities. The political fiasco surrounding the city's bankruptcy coupled with the media galore of the economic devastation and social deterioration made it clear that black pathology is both entertaining and profitable. The poor take center stage positions in the drama of survival.

Like the recent measures of Congress, coercive prison policies further highlight the wombs of women of color as sites to contest America's cherished values and ideals. The dominance of stereotypical images that frame Black female sexuality as deviant and Black motherhood as degenerate contribute to the ritualistic devaluation of reproduction among Black women. Such understandings about Black womanhood and femininity continue to be challenged as women of color, particularly Black women, assert the right to birth and live with dignity and respect.

The violations of women's reproductive rights and Black civil and human rights have further withered our barren moral landscape even as we have accepted that marriage equality and the participation in health market exchanges are constitutional. The inability of these reforms to wield enough political and social capital to lead to concrete legislative and legal reform sends a disappointing, yet enlightening message: Black lives and poor women's lives are not only low priorities in the national agenda, but they are also the repository for a very distinct form of state-sanctioned structural violence. One embellished with 'progressive' rhetoric that strokes the moral cords of politicians while simultaneously wreaking havoc on the bodies, minds, lives, and communities of Black Americans and poor women.

While the abuses of Black Americans and poor people have a long record in American history, the substance and form of these assaults have crystallized under the Obama Administration. The aesthetic and symbolic performance of progressive politics have mainstreamed the grammars of suffering, which have taken shape through police extrajudicial killing, dehumanizing policing, domestic terrorism, the massive divestment from public schools, and the not-so-benign neglect of low-income communities heavily populated by Blacks and Latinos.

Obama's initial symbolic rejection of corporate and imperial policies made his election appear to be a major defeat of the militaristic neoliberal capitalism championed by the Bush Administration. His epoch has often been considered a breakthrough in terms of the political visibility of Black figures on the national stage. Yet, the public embraces proved to be shortsighted as state sanctioned killings of Black men, women and children revealed not only the myopia of his vision of racial justice, but also the paradox of American progress. The paradox lies at the contested intersection between the protectors of whiteness, the advocates of Black lives and the moral consciousness of opportunist political leaders and activists.

Capitalizing on the false pretense of "black faces in high faces," Obama has used political tokenism to cajole American public life into embracing and promoting neoliberal multiculturalism. At the core of this political approach is an emphasis on symbolic inclusion at the expense of critical, strategic, and structural transformation. It celebrates black people who break glass ceilings while turning a cold shoulder to poor and working class segments of society. It also masks the deeply ingrained racism, sexism, and classism that continue to assault the civil and human rights of Black Americans and poor women of color.

Although no longer a symbolic rejection of capitalist and imperialist policies, Obama's presidency continues to use the image of Black "figure heads" to display the improvements in our democracy. Such a barometer for social and political transformation remains parochial as its measurement of success is tied to representative politics, which ignores the material conditions of poor women and Black Americans. A quick look at their lived realities through traditional indicators of "social progress" — poverty, unemployment, education, and health status — would reveal the flaws of the popular declaration of progress as well as Obama's performance of black grief and suffering, as seen by his recent unimaginative rendition of "Amazing Grace."

These meditations beg a few important questions: For whom are the past month’s "victories?" In light of the dehumanizing legislative and legal battles, what will these celebrated triumphs mean for disenfranchised groups who remain peripheral to mainstream activist groups who enjoy transferable political and social rights? How do we treat these reforms not as isolated "achievements" but as remnants of a messy, uneven political battlefield that shifts attention away from the structural inequalities and politics of suffering faced by many Black Americans and poor women?

It's time to move beyond the hype. The social catharsis is over. The war waged against Black Americans and poor women of color must be appropriately addressed before we pop bottles. Stay. Woke.

Photo: Shutterstock

Kingston-born and Brooklyn-bred, Jallicia Jolly is a spoken-word poet, writer, and cultural anthropologist pursuing a PhD in American Studies and a masters in Public Health at the University of Michigan. Ms. Jolly is currently based in Kingston, Jamaica conducting Fulbright research on the survival strategies of HIV-positive young mothers. She writes on trauma, health, HIV/AIDS, and reproductive justice among Black women in the United States and Jamaica.

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