The following article was sent to New York Times by Linda Burnham, former and founding director of the Women of Color Resource Center in Oakland, California and long-time left-progressive activist.
The Obama candidacy has provoked a torrent of observations and speculations about race in America – some grounded in reality, some approaching the realm of sheer fantasy. In the latter category are the commentaries heralding the advent of a “post-racial America” and “the end of Black politics.”
Matt Bai’s August 10th piece in The New York Times, entitled “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” is one of the more coherent versions of the genre. In it he argues that a newly emerging generation of Ivy-bred black elected officials, with Obama as their chief representative, is more interested in representing universal interests than in representing the black community; that therefore “black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream”; and that an Obama win would likely undermine the argument for race-based measures such as affirmative action.
The post-racial, end-of-black-politics crowd rests its case on at least five fallacies:
Fallacy #1: That the end of a racially unjust society is a declarative act.
Some commentators seem to be confused by the forms racism takes in the post-civil rights era, and prepared to declare that, since there are no laws explicitly upholding racial inequity, it must be dying out of its own accord.
Racial apartheid and the most blatant 20th century forms of discrimination are behind us, but the colorline has hardly faded away. Centuries of affirmative action for whites built up an enormous wealth gap, along with stubborn inequities along nearly every other economic and social parameter. Active discrimination persists, especially in employment and housing, as the experience of testers repeatedly confirms. (According to The New York Times’ own recent poll, “nearly 70 percent of blacks said they had encountered a specific instance of discrimination based on their race, compared with 62 percent in 2000.”) Millions of white people – most of them lacking control of the resources required to actively discriminate – nonetheless make daily choices about which neighborhood to move into or out of, which schools to send their kids to. Too often those choices amount to the preservation of white space, and the privileges that attach to it. And the gains of the freedom movements of the 1950s and 60s came under attack before the ink was dry on the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act – and have been under attack ever since. Meanwhile, nominally race neutral policies, particularly those related to the social safety net, criminal justice and tax policy, have a disproportionately negative impact on people of color – hardening, if not widening the racial divide. And the globalization of the demand for labor, in the absence of the protection of the laborers themselves, has stoked a toxic mix of nativism and racism.
This is not the picture of a post-racial society
Social reality is rude. It tends to break through even the most sophisticated screens designed to mask it. The Katrina debacle, the repeated exposure of the debasement of immigrant labor, the disproportionate impact of the housing crisis and the generalized recession in communities of color all these phenomena attest to the continuing salience of racial inequity and bring the conversation about race out of the post-racialist clouds and back to earth.
Fallacy #2: That the sum total of black politics is electoral politics.
There are many forms of political leadership among African Americans, as is true for other racially or ethnically distinct groups. Elected representatives are critical and central to moving policy, but religious leaders, community organizers, think tankers, opinion leaders, policy advocates, legal strategists, and politicized artists and cultural figures all give shape, texture and substance to the complex thing that is black politics. The complete collapse of the political into the electoral ill serves a community that has been so ill served by mainstream politics. Challenging power requires the coordination and synchronization of many different actors, some located within legitimized structures, some working well outside the mainstream. Furthermore, while the politics of protest and mass action may be in extended abeyance, a death warrant is probably premature.
Fallacy #3: That the most legitimate black leaders are those elected representatives who are most legitimated in the eyes of whites.
The promoters of the “end of black politics” draw a sharp generational divide between the confrontational protest style of the Jesse Jackson generation, who are constructed as speaking to and for “only” the interests of African Americans, and the more universalist approach of the younger generation of politicians, as exemplified by the Corey Bookers and Deval Patricks of the world. This is a problem on a few different counts. Gary Younge, writing in The Nation, addressed the careful selectivity of this view: “The emergence of this cohort has filled the commentariat with joy — not just because of what they are: bright, polite and, where skin tone is concerned, mostly light — but because of what they are not. They have been hailed not just as a development in black American politics but as a repudiation of black American politics; not just as different from Jesse Jackson but the epitome of the anti-Jesse.”
There are many problems with this. Chief among them is that this ‘new generation’ is itself a crude political construct built more on wishful thinking than on chronological fact. Patrick, born in 1956, is hailed as part of it, but hapless New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who was born the same year, and civil rights campaigner Al Sharpton, who was born just two years earlier, are not. Obama and Booker are always mentioned as members of this new club, but Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who was born between them and spent his twenty-first birthday in prison protesting apartheid, is not.
So whatever else this is about, it is not just about years. It is one thing to say there is a critical mass of black politicians of a certain age and political disposition. It is entirely another to claim that they represent the views of a generation.” This view also rewrites and narrows the politics of Jesse Jackson, Martin King and a generation of leaders, many of whom were, and still are, clear that racial justice for African Americans is central to deepening democracy for all Americans and who, through the Civil Rights movement and the Rainbow Coalition, mobilized, inspired and transformed the political thinking not only of African Americans but of millions of whites and other people of col or as well.
Finally, this view posits associations between black politics and parochialism, mainstream politics and universalism, and white politics and …? Actually, in this view there is no such thing as white politics – that is, politics that represent the interests of whites as a group – only universalist politics inclusive of all and the narrow, race-based politics of the past.
Put fallacies # 2 and #3 together and you get the absurd notion that the undeniably significant expression of politics represented by Obama, Booker, Patrick, et al. is the sum total of black politics – a claim not even they would make – and that the future of black politics depends, first and foremost, upon its appeal to white voters.
Fallacy #4: That African American political expression is the black equivalent of white ethnic voting, and will soon fade as a distinct trend.
The most focused reflection of black political consensus is the 90% of black votes that regularly go to Democratic candidates in presidential elections. No other demographic votes in such a consistently and dramatically lopsided fashion. Whites split their votes, ranging between 55 and 60% Republican and 40 to 45% Democratic. Latino and Asian American votes split much more evenly than those of African Americans, and vary more from one election to the next. So if, as Bai maintains, black politics are “disappearing into American politics” somebody better tell the Democrats who, in presidential elections, are completely reliant on the consistency of that vote. As Amiri Baraka notes in a recent piece, “the foundation of Obama’s successful candidacy is the 90% support by the Afro-American people.” Even though “90% of 12% is not enough to win the presidency,” it’s something to build a campaign around, a stable factor in political strategizing, when you can count on it every time. African Americans widely view the Republican Party as the chief protector of white interests. Until that changes, that is until the Republican Party changes its core platform, African Americans are unlikely to follow the course of Irish and Italian politics and disappear as a remarkably cohesive voting bloc, at least in presidential elections.
Fallacy #5: That the progress of middle class African Americans is a stand in for the progress of African Americans in general.
Bai notes that “when millions of black Americans are catapulting themselves to success” it’s hard to make a case for the ongoing significance of race and racism. And near ly every election commentator has observed that the changed class configuration of black America has given rise to a new political cohort: those who walked through the doors swung open by the gains of the civil rights movement, and who are now themselves opening new doors in U.S. politics.
But in an era in which significant numbers of African Americans have substantially improved their social and economic standing, there are major countervailing trends: the black poverty rate still hovers between 20 and 25% and remains more than twice that of whites; the class profile of African Americans is still weighted toward the bottom; while median income rose dramatically for African American women in the 30 years between 1974 and 2004, it fell for African American men; and those African Americans who do achieve middles class status face much greater difficulty than whites in passing that status along to their children.
It may be that the biggest problem a segment of African Americans faces is whether they can hail a cab successfully in New York City. This is not the case for the black majority.
And so the issue is not whether Black politicians who aspire to represent a broader constituency can do so effectively. Undoubtedly they can. More to the point is whether they also have the orientation and the capacity to represent the interests of those who are disadvantaged on the basis of both race and class. This will take more than lessons in uplift, finger wagging at black fathers and lectures on how to turn off the TV and help the kids with their homework.
Apart from these five fallacies, the other thing that seems to confuse the post-racialists is that no one in the political mainstream makes overtly racist appeals to the white majority. So maybe racism is over with. We can count it as a victory, only recently won in terms of the long arc of white supremacy, that blatant racism is widely viewed as morally repugnant. While it is the role of the activist right to preserve the prerogatives of racial hierarchy, they’d prefer to do so without being tagged as the guardians of white power. Happy to claim their allegiance to unregulated markets, regressive tax policies, “family values,” small government, and robust militarism, the frank embrace of white supremacy is a bit beyond the pale.
And so they’ve become masterful shape shifters, skilled at promulgating policies that protect white privilege while insisting that race is the furthest thing from their minds and skilled at framing and controlling the national dialogue about race. Racist expression has taken new, coded and perverse form. And the pre sidential campaign itself provides more than enough evidence that some white politicians recognize the power of race-based appeals.
We now have:
Double-bind racism, in which those who make reference to the actually existing racial regime or advocate on behalf of anti-racist practices and policies are themselves accused of being racist, of playing the race card.” (The whose-face-is-on-the-dollar-bill flap.)
Dog-whistle racism, in which racist messages are conveyed on a separate frequency, through racially coded words and phrases, reaching ears that have been primed and are highly attuned. (Clinton’s “hard working Americans” appeal to white working class voters in Pennsylvania. Yep, the Dems do it too.)
Color-blind racism, in which the racial status quo is sustained and defended by those who pledge allegiance to purportedly race-neutral policies. (Perfected by opponents of affirmative action.)
Visually evocative racism, in which imagery is purposefully deployed to surface deeply engrained racial stereotypes. (The Paris Hilton/Brittney Spears/McCain ad fandango.)
All these stratagems and more have been skillfully manipulated to stoke fear and resentment, undermine black candidates, confuse potential allies, undercut the efficacy of racial justice organizing and advocacy, and silence the anti-racist voice. It is our job to learn to decode and expose these forms of expression for what they are – maneuvers to obstruct racial equity.
We will not reach a post-racialist U.S. by announcement or decree. The only way to get there from here is by way of racial justice. We can already identify some of the markers on that route: substantially diminishing disparities in health, education, housing, income distribution, wealth, police practices, sentencing and incarceration, political participation and representation. Whether we steadily approach these markers or they recede into a murky, unapproachably distant future depends, in large part, on the continuation and renewal of black politics in diverse, increasingly effective forms.