Thursday, August 7, 2008


"Is Obama the End of Black Politics?" So asks Matt Bai, one of the smartest political reporters at the New York Times, in an article to be published in this Sunday's magazine section.

In the article, Bai reaffirms what is quickly becoming conventional wisdom on African American politics--namely the emergence of what Bai calls a "basic generational divide" among black politicians. One generation, those who fought in the black freedom struggle of the 1960s like James Clyburn, Elijah Cummings, Jesse Jackson, and John Lewis, embrace the confrontational, race-conscious politics of the civil rights era. The other, their sons and daughters, "bred at universities rather than seminaries," reject race conscious politics and instead "seek a broader political brief." Bai's emphasis on the political differences between black politicians schooled in civil rights and black power and those who came of age in the era of Clinton and Bush, is unassailable. The gap between older and younger politicians is a theme in black history--the "old guard" versus the "new Turks" in the 1930s, "militants" versus "integrationists" in the 1960s, and an earlier version of this argument, which fleeted across the stage in the 1990s, the "hip hop" generation versus the civil rights generation. None of these dichotomies--including Bai's--is particularly illuminating about the past and present of black politics in the United States.

I hate to play the history card against Bai, but I promise not to play it from bottom of the deck. Bai's article, like other recent commentaries that position Obama as the harbinger of a "post-racial" order, rests on a caricatured view of civil rights history and black politics and a fundamental tone-deafness to the complexity of black politics and social thought over the last one hundred years.

Let's look closely at some of Bai's arguments:

1. New generation black politicians are "likely to see themselves as ambassadors to the black community as they are to see themselves as spokesmen for it, which often means extolling middle-class values in urban neighborhoods, as Obama did on Father's Day. Their ambitions range well beyond safely black seats." Well, first of all, there was nothing new about the rhetoric of Obama's Father's Day speech. Calls for personal responsibility, laments about family breakdown, and denunciations of the corrosive effects of popular culture on black life reprise an old and familiar current in black politics. One of the major themes in late nineteenth and twentieth century African American history has been the importance of the politics of uplift (the special role that middle-class blacks play in "lifting as they climb," that is serving as role models and moral guardians for their poor and working-class brothers and sisters). Advocates of racial uplift called for what Harvard's Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham labeled a "politics of respectability," namely that embracing "middle-class" values was an essential first step toward full acceptance of the race by blacks. Calls for uplift and respectability have animated the careers of countless black ministers, community activists, and intellectuals.

The reason this seems new to Bai is that the everyday world of black politics is invisible to most of white America. Obama got many nods and shouts from his Father's Day audience precisely because he was playing a tried-and-true tune familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few Sundays in a black church. The big difference, however, and this explains Jesse Jackson, Sr.'s outraged (and outrageous) reaction was that until recently such calls for self-redemption were meant for black ears only. By contrast, Obama knew that under the close scrutiny of a national campaign, most of the audience for his sermon would be white.

2. Bai assumes the insularity of civil rights-era black politicians, and the "universality" of the middle class experience of the new generation of black politicians. It's tempting, but historically problematic, to separate black politicians into the civil rights/post-civil rights camp. Many of the most prominent and successful black politicians of the last forty years won office precisely because they forged appeals across racial lines. Deval Patrick is the political descendant of Edward Brooke. Tom Bradley won election and re-election as mayor of Los Angeles, a city with a relatively small black population with a lot of white support (even if the Bradley effect still kicked in). Wilson Goode was elected mayor of Philadelphia, a majority white city, with the support of white voters. Progressive whites in Chicago--one of the most racially polarized cities in the country--gave Harold Washington the votes to put him over the top. Many black politicians (Coleman Young in Detroit and John Street in Philadelphia) won office by playing the race card, but their visibility shouldn't obscure the fact that blacks won mayoral races in many other white majority cities, among them New Haven, Denver, and Dallas. Barack Obama is their political heir.

3. New generation black politicians "are a world away from the reality that was pounded into civil rights activists... to whom racism meant dogs and hoses and segregated schools and luncheonettes." This is too simple a formulation, one that reduces the history of race relations in the United States to the South. Clyburn and Lewis rose to power in the South, but many of the most visible and powerful black politicians in the U.S. have represented Northern districts (think Shirley Chisholm, John Conyers, Charlie Rangell, and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick) or western ones (think Augustus Hawkins and Maxine Waters).

The history of the forgotten struggle for civil rights outside the South--one that began early in the twentieth century and continues up to the present day--complicates this simplistic formulation. Black politicians who came of age in Detroit, New York City, Harlem, Newark, Philadelphia, Cleveland, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Oakland, Boston, and on and on--were sympathetic with the Southern freedom struggle. They were all for breaking down segregated public accommodations (which, it should be said, were common in the North through the 1950s) and passing antidiscrimination legislation. But their targets (and those of many Southern activists, for that matter) were always much, much broader than Jim Crow laws. Unfortunately, Bai falls into the common trap of associating civil rights ("THE movement") with only one of its strands. Picking up on a cliche of civil rights reporting (one that dates back to at least the 1940s), Bai states: "Now the inequities in the society are subtler- inferior schools, an absence of employers, a dearth of affordable housing - and the remedies more elusive."

There's nothing subtle about mediocre schools, unemployment, and rundown housing--and civil rights activists for most of the twentieth century would agree with me. That's why they led picketed stores that refused to hire blacks, why they boycotted separate and unequal schools (North and South), why they fought for inclusion in the workplace, why they marched for open housing, why they battled police brutality, why they demanded affirmative action, and why they lobbied for federal social programs to assist the poor and to redevelop inner cities.

Bai overlooks the fact that economic, education, and housing issues were at the center of civil rights activism in the postwar years, in the 1960s, and beyond. We pay attention to the civil rights activists who held sit-ins in Greensboro, Nashville, and Atlanta in 1960 and the Freedom Rides through the Deep South in 1961, but forget those who at the very same time were marching, committing civil disobedience and litigating for the end of separate and unequal education in Boston, Chicago, New York, and even suburban New Jersey those very same years. We remember Bull Connor's atrocities in Birmingham in 1963, as we should, but we overlook the hundreds of confrontations between civil rights protestors and the police in places like Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Newark, and Detroit that led observers to call 1963 the year of the "Negro Revolt." Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged segregated lunch counters, but remember that he gave his most famous speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The issue was, in the 1950s, and it is now unequal education, urban disinvestment, inferior housing, the lack of equal employment opportunity, and an unfair criminal justice system. A whole generation of black politicians put their energies into opening government jobs for blacks (arguably the most important consequence of the civil rights revolution nationwide) and why grassroots activists turned to the important, if not particularly TV-worthy, politics of community economic development and public health. It was the politics of neighborhood, of uneven economic development, of access to public goods and jobs that shaped two generations of black politicians.

Bai is right that SOME black politicians--mostly those who came up in mostly white communities in the United States--do not have direct experience with some of the worst indignities of racial oppression. But the vast majority of blacks are not so lucky. I won't rehearse arguments that I have made about persistent black-white gaps in health, wealth, access to the mortgage market, and public opinion, to name a few.

4. Bai recognizes the contradictions in black politics, even if ultimately, they do not serve as the organizing framework for his essay. He acknowledges that black politicians embody the

principal duality of modern black
America. On one hand, they are the most visible
examples of the highly educated, entrepreneurial and
growing black middle class that cultural markers like
'The Cosby Show' first introduced to white Americans in
the 1980s. According to an analysis by Pew's Economic
Mobility Project, almost 37 percent of black families
fell into one of the three top income quintiles in
2005, compared with 23 percent in 1973. At the same
time, though, these black leaders are constantly
confronted in their own cities and districts by
blighted neighborhoods that are predominately black,
places where poverty collects like standing water,
breeding a host of social contagions.

That both of these trend lines can exist at once poses
some difficult questions for black leaders and

True. The black experience in America cannot be easily reduced to one thing or another. As a result, black politicians are heterogenous--a reflection of the contradictions that Bai correctly acknowledges (though sometimes the weight of those contradictions gets a little too heavy, when, for example, Bai sees support for Hillary Clinton as the sign of old school black politics, except, as in the case of Michael Nutter, it isn't). But those tensions also bely an ongoing sense among blacks that regardless of class, they still share a common identity, one forged by America's unresolved history of oppression and inequality, a common history of educational and residential segregation, and a common sense that racial prejudice and discrimination are still persistent problems in American life.

One thing that I predict with certainty about this fall's election. Whether Barack Obama wins or not, it won't mean the end of black politics, nor will it mean the end of cliched thinking about race in America.


Lester Spence said...

Thanks for writing this, so I didn't have to.

mkazin said...

Great counter-essay Tom! I guess I'm going to have your blog on a regular basis now, damn it.- Michael Kazin

Tom S said...

You're welcome, Lester.
Thanks, Michael.
Read early and often.

Prometheus 6 said...

One more RSS subscription for you.

Rhesa J said...

i agree with the other post, great post. will share this, and come back to check you out again as well.

PTCruiser said...

Thanks, Tom. Your analysis and responses hit on all cylinders.

King Politics said...

Without a doubt, we are not anywhere near a post-racial era. Take the election of Harold Washington for instance. Although Washington with the support of white progressives, there were plenty of North Siders that wore campaign buttons depicting a slice of watermelon, or the buttons were simply white. The point being that even though black politicians before Obama succeeded in mixed-race districts, very few have been able to actually run post-racial campaigns. Race, though it might be more opaque than in the past, is still just beneath the surface in our politics and our policies.

Anonymous said...

Few generalities are one-size-fits-all. Obama’s victory is no exception. I voted for him four times, three in this States’ weird primary where the first turned out to be a beauty contest. It didn’t count. The second a much ballyhooed caucus where I pushed and shoved through the local high school gym so crammed even the fire marshal couldn’t move. That didn’t matter either. By the third round, Obama at last got his lion share of delegates over Hilary. My fourth was the actual presidential ballot, a mailed-in process. Having seen this remarkable man emerged as the President-elect, and after downing a celebratory few for finding a winner after too many years of losers, I along with others are now asking, SO WHAT?

Obviously, SO A LOT.

From the top, of course, it is a watershed event for America. This country has trekked a long and winding path from its founding, where the Negro was designated as only three-fifth of a human being, through Tocqueville’s 1834 astute assessment of the African-American in Democracy, Myrdal’s dismal pronouncement of the “American Dilemma” in the 1940s, the Civil Rights Movement, the Kerner Commission Report following the 1967 race riots and, now, our President-to-be Barack Hussein Obama. All very progressive, I say, but wait, progressive for whom besides this supporter along with 52% of voters?

Remember the major findings in the Kerner Report? African-Americans torched Watts, Detroit, Newark and other urban areas not only over overt discrimination but also chronic poverty, high unemployment, poor schools, inadequate housing, lack of access to health care, and systematic police bias and brutality. Now, 40 years later, what can we say about these issues?

Obama, clearly, has shown that there is no longer any discrimination on the basis of race in the ***electoral process.*** That is a monumental stride but what of other day-to-day matters of living a decent life?

High unemployment?
Poor schools?
Inadequate housing?
Lack of access to health care?
And add: Prison incarceration?

You know the numbers. They can only be fudged so much by the left, right or center. The truth is still in the details. Until proven otherwise, I will keep my fingers crossed that the Obama Administration will nudge America to a promising future with a brilliant Federal policy buoyed with popular mobilization.

York Wong

Anonymous said...

First and foremost, thank you for the post. Your counter argument was very persuasive yet, TRUE. Secondly, as a young black Chicagoan I can see the trickle down effect happening in our black communities. However, being a part of the so-called “Hip-Hop Generation” I also see the positives with the election of America’s first black President. Many young African Americans are receiving this victory very well. Even our radio stations are playing a new emergence of Hip-Hop music. It is an aspiring sound with politically based music. This brings “HOPE” to many people who couldn’t see traces of any. So yes, we may not be the wealthiest race in America, but we are people who have a huge capability of making a difference. Is there a shortage of Black Politicians in today’s society, I would venture to say so (and I am not discrediting the black politicians who are worthy). However, Barack Obama has created a common cause in the black communities of “Hope” and maybe we’ll see a turn around very quickly.

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