Barack Obama's clinching of the Democratic presidential nomination raises a variety of issues for socialists.
On one hand, we should not be afraid to admit that the nomination of a black man for president represents a certain kind of social progress. This is particularly the case in a society as sodden with racism as the United States, in which a young black man is more likely to end up in prison than college and where most black people were denied the most elementary civil and political rights only a few decades ago.
In the 1940s, the Third Camp Trotskyists in New York had a default policy of supporting black candidates put forward by bourgeois parties in elections where there was no independent workers' candidate standing. I'm not convinced they were right, and today, after the civil rights movement and decades of a substantial black bourgeoisie, is certainly different. But the spirit of militant resistance to American racism that motivated them was admirable.
At the same time, a similar argument could have been used to justify support for Margaret Thatcher — and was, by some feminists. In contrast even to the basically populist presidential insurgency of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and '88, Obama's campaign is part of Democratic corporate mainstream, with policies to match. Like Hilary Clinton, he has little to offer working-class Americans, least of all the millions of black workers and poor who still face systematic discrimination and oppression.
If this is progress, it is of a fundamentally limited, one-dimensional kind. Obama is a "black candidate" perfectly acceptable to one of the two main factions, and probably a big majority, of the US's racist ruling class.
Socialists are not indifferent to what it would mean to have a black US president, but we are not delusional either. The rules of the game, of the class struggle, stay the same. Our hope remains that a significant section of the American workers' movement will rally its forces to put forward a political alternative to the fundamentally bourgeois choice of Obama or McCain.