Ishmael Reed: "All the Demons Of American Racism Are Rising From the Sewer"


Ishmael Reed is a prolific poet, novelist, playwright, songwriter, cartoonist, and cultural critic. His work spans nearly 50 years and has been recognized with numerous distinctions and awards. Reed argues that Americans misinterpret the election of Barack Obama as evidence that the nation has finally moved beyond racism. PolicyMic's Sagar Jethani spoke with Ishmael Reed to discuss the role that race continues to play in the national discourse.

Before Barack Obama began his first term in 2009, you said that a lot of people were going to be disillusioned because of his centrist and conservative views. Five years later, how does your prediction stand up?

I think it stands up pretty well. Obama comes from the Democratic Leadership Council, which was organized to stop Jesse Jackson and to distance the party from African-American issues. That's his background. 

Is it possible to assess Barack Obama's presidency in purely political terms, or is race always a factor?

It's always a factor. The president is like that Catholic priest in The Exorcist: as a result of his presidency, all the demons of American racism are rising from the sewer. I was born in the South. My grandfather was stabbed to death by a white restaurant owner in 1934, and the doctor treating my grandfather said: “Let that nigger die.” When I hear people like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell talk, I think of night riders, nooses, and bloodhounds. They will never cooperate with a black man in that office. If you look at blogs where people can make comments about the president anonymously, you can see the sickness in the American soul. White racism may one day prove to be the country's downfall.

Candidate Barack Obama said in 2008 that “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” Yet an analysis of the president's speeches by Daniel Gillion at the University of Pennsylvania found that he has spoken less about racism in America than any president in the past 50 years. Why is that?

He's the leader of the post-race generation, the privileged members of the African-American elite. Racism hasn't affected them as much as it has affected other people. Obama goes along with this Democratic Leadership Council attitude toward black people that says that part of the problem so-called underclass blacks have is a result of their personal behavior, not structural racism.

He's had some Sister Souljah moments.

He scolded one black group about out-of-wedlock births, even though such births have plummeted since 1976. He then went before a Hispanic group and told them that they’re what America is all about— when there are more out-of-wedlock births among Hispanics per thousand than among blacks. So for him to give these tough-love speeches to black people is just not fair. Harold Cruse, in his classic The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, has a whole chapter about how non-traditional black Americans view traditional African-Americans with this kind of disdain.

Does Obama’s non-traditional experience of being black affect how he sees African Americans?

I can understand why someone who has grown up in Hawaii, Indonesia, and then the Midwest would have a different outlook on race than we have. You see this with Michelle Bernard on MSNBC, who has Jamaican ancestry. She says that personal responsibility is especially a problem in the black community. Really! I’ve lived in an inner city ghetto for thirty years, and I can assure you that there are no lazy people here. In fact, if American corporations behaved the way some of these underground economies carry on, there’d be no trade deficit.

Do liberals automatically defend the president because they feel that only their full support can help counter the viciousness of the attacks made against him?

I praise the president when he does something that benefits the common good, and I defend him against the media, which is behaving as a sort of white power government-in-exile. But I don't go along with his singling-out of the black community.

Why doesn’t the media draw more attention to the racial dynamics surrounding the nation’s first African-American president?

The media knows there are racial angles, but they don't want to alienate their white subscribers. They view their audience as the so-called majority, and to bring up racism as a factor would be seen as a turn-off. They couldn't sell their products.

They coddle their white subscribers by ignoring white pathology and blaming all of the social ills on blacks in order to get ratings. For example, the typical substance abuser in California is a white woman, and once in a while you’ll read about heroin epidemics in the suburbs of Philadelphia or Dallas. But you won’t get a “White in America” show from CNN. They show crime as black for the entertainment of their white subscribers.

Black men can’t get their books mentioned but they take up all of the time on “Lockup” and “Caught on Camera” which emphasize these pathetic street crimes of the underclass while the real thieves in Big Pharma and Wall Street have their huge, billion-dollar crimes hidden in the business pages.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan implied that minorities disproportionately benefit from federal entitlement programs, and that's why Obama won in November. Do you buy this explanation?

Paul Ryan’s family has benefited from social programs. While he criticized the stimulus and Obamacare, it turns out that he was trying to get hold of some of both for his district. This guy is Nixon without the smarts.

Look, it will take 100 years for blacks and Hispanics to obtain anything close to the kind of benefits others have received. Black people didn't get Social Security until the 1950s because of racism. President Franklin Roosevelt was so worried about support from Dixiecrats that he ensured that black people wouldn't be included in the original New Deal programs. Democrats later denied blacks the G.I. Bill, which allowed whites to enter the middle class after World War II. A million black people served in World War II, and only 40 percent of them got to participate in the entitlements which followed. So they stuck this myth on us about how we unfairly benefit from entitlements, and today they're saying the same thing.

The most vocal group calling for entitlement reform today is the Tea Party.

Rick Santelli and others have  convinced these people that the government is taking their money and giving it to black people when it’s the other way around. Banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America have gotten in trouble for systematically steering toxic loans to blacks and Hispanics, then using their savings to finance white businesses. Most of what are inaccurately called entitlements go to the red states.

The Tea Party is a bunch of over-50 pathetic white males who resent the fact that you've got a black man in the White House—people who believe that if Stonewall Jackson had been at Gettysburg instead of Lee, ours would be a different social order today. According to a NAACP report, Tea Party Nationalism, members of the far right have infiltrated the Tea Party and play a prominent role—Holocaust deniers and racists. And the media has given the Tea Party a pass, even though some of its leaders have called for the president’s assassination and have advocated sedition.

Since November, the president has been criticized by the left for not being more aggressive in promoting a liberal agenda. Maureen Dowd just wrote an op-ed slamming Obama for not being more forceful in dealing with the opposition. Is this criticism fair?

Maureen Dowd criticizes the president because she doesn’t know how much people like McConnell resent having a black man in the White House and how they want to break him. She said that racism is no longer an issue because we have a black president, while all around her in New York hundreds of thousands of blacks and Hispanics are being “stopped and frisked” every day in the same manner that the mayor’s own ancestors were once “stopped and frisked” in the streets of Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and Warsaw. She’s still the Catholic school girl, showing-off before the nuns.

White progressives and African-Americans have a strained relationship, don’t they?

Don't get me started on white progressives. They consider themselves the president's base, but they are so far out of the mainstream that their goals are impossible to attain. They want Che Guevara or Malcolm X as president, and that will never happen. They may have a lot of media-savvy, but they're a fringe movement. A few weeks ago, when Rand Paul did that filibuster stunt over an issue that they embraced, they began to swoon before him. This is a guy who has problems with civil rights bills. They just dismiss African-American concerns.

One of the reasons I feel that I should go as independent is that I don't want to be in a party with white progressives, because historically they try to use us.

You wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times earlier this year in which you argued that Republicans may have a rare opportunity to regain the black vote. How?

Today the Republican party is in chaos, and some people are saying they might go the way of the Whigs. It's time for a movement from the left for the Republican party. The John Birch Society included just a few cranks in the 1950s, but today they've taken over the entire party. So a movement now which may only include half a dozen people might, in twenty years, restore the Republican party to its true origins.

What are its true origins?

The Republican party we see today is filled with moderates and the right, but the far left was there at the beginning as the abolition movement. It started off as a progressive party — pro-immigration, pro-women's rights, pro-suffrage. I looked at the 1856 and 1860 Republican platforms, and they were radical next to those proposed by today's corporate hirelings. The early Republican party fought for blacks to have the vote; the contemporary Republican party tries to suppress the vote. Republicans today are a heretical party compared to the way they started out.

What kind of response did your op-ed receive?

You know, when some people think of the Republican party, they think of Satan. So they're upset by the article. But the reason I wrote it is because Republicans should go back to their roots and see how they began.

Do you see any figures today in the GOP who you think may represent the way forward?

No. (laughs)

What about the traditional beneficiary of black votes, the Democratic party?

My problem with the Democratic party is that it takes blacks for granted. The black vote should be up-for-grabs. We should only vote for those people who have our interests in mind instead of just blindly going along with the Democratic party.

Bill Clinton remains popular with African Americans.

President Clinton was one of the worst presidents in history for black people. There are more people in jail because of these drug laws passed during his regime – drug laws aimed at blacks and Hispanics, but not at whites, who consume more dope than any other group in the hemisphere. More people in poverty because of welfare reform, even though black people are not the ones who are primarily dependent on welfare. More neighborhoods wiped out through foreclosures because the banks were allowed to speculate after the repeal of Glass-Steagall. My whole district has been ethnically-cleansed because of foreclosures. All thanks to the Democratic Party.

Any black person who votes for the Clintons in 2016 should have their head examined.

Has the DLC’s post-racial agenda now shifted Democratic attention to the civil rights of non-black communities?

Obama speaks more about the LGBT community than he does about black people, and while LGBT today is a white, middle-class movement, the 1969 Stonewall riots were actually fought by blacks and Puerto Ricans. The white middle-class co-opted that movement, just as they co-opted the feminist movement, and a lot of us feel sold-out.

When a millionaire like Gloria Steinem says that gender is the most restrictive factor in American life, she's putting herself in the same category as millions of poor women– black, white, yellow, brown and red. I just find that to be decadent. Poor people feel that their issues should be first and all these other white middle-class issues should be second.

The gay rights movement today consciously emulates the civil rights movement of the 1960s in its struggle for equality. Is the relationship between them overstated?

While I support gay marriage, I just don't believe that the history of black people and white gays is interchangeable. White gays have advantages in major areas of American life that blacks lack. When LGBTs had their march on Washington, all of the luxury hotels were sold-out. When black lesbians tried to join them, the white leadership told them to get lost. That they weren’t interested in civil rights. That they wanted to “mainstream.”

The Senate voted this month against universal background checks for gun purchases, a move the president described as "shameful." What dynamics come in to play when the nation's first African-American president calls for new restrictions on guns?

Go read The Turner Diaries, which is about how a white nationalist regime takes over the country. Timothy McVeigh read it. The guy who shot those police officers in Pittsburgh read it. The guy who attacked residents of a Jewish nursing home in Los Angeles read it. That's their Bible. It says that blacks and Jews will take their guns, and that this would open up their homes to invasion by the underclass black male. I mean, they put it up there plain! Go take a look at Robert Crumb's When the Niggers Take Over America.

That's their vision.

The media reported the significant increase in gun sales immediately following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last November, but they forgot to mention that nationwide gun sales jumped by 30% the month Barack Obama was first elected  back in November 2008.

And do you think that everybody suddenly decided to arm themselves when Barack Obama became president because of an excessive deer population? No — those guns are to deal with black brothers.