Tuesday 19 August 2008
by: Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III, t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Senator Barack Obama in New Mexico. (Photo: Getty Images)
On August 6, 2008, The New York Times published an article by Matt Bai entitled "Is Obama the End of Black Politics?" The premise of the article is that in 2008, 60 years after Strom Thurmond left the Democratic Party over the issue of integrating the armed forces and 45 years after Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, the Democratic Party is poised to deliver its nomination for the nation's highest office to an African-American, and this somehow signals the end of black politics.
To equate Senator Obama's historic campaign for the highest office in the land and presumed nomination by the Democratic Party with the end of black politics demonstrates that the author does not understand either issue. The fact that The New York Times would publish such rubbish begs the same questions that were recently asked about The New Yorker magazine, "Are these editors serious? Are they paying any attention to what they are publishing?"
All too often writers, journalists, reporters and analysts demonstrate their ignorance of African-American people and the African-American experience by trying to assign simplistic answers to very complex problems, events and circumstances. This usually results in African-Americans and their politics being viewed as devoid of substance, myopic, shallow and emotional. when in fact, black politics is policy-focused and born out of a people's historical experience. It's based upon slavery, oppression, exploitation and the lifelong quest for human and civil rights. To think that a major political party nomination or the election of an African-American as president can bring an end to black politics as opposed to being part of its continuum is utterly ridiculous.
Bai writes, "However, a lot of the old activists stood in the path of an African-American's advancement rather than blazing it. While Democratic black voters embraced Obama by ratios of eight or nine to one in a lot of districts, the 42 House members in the Congressional Black Caucus, for a time, split more or less down the middle between Obama and Clinton." In these perilous times, Americans, particularly African-Americans, can ill afford to engage in sentimental politics; there's too much at stake.
"Old activists" have not stood in Senator Obama's path; they've questioned his politics, his position on critical issues and his viability as a candidate. That's what an intelligent and engaged electorate does. Contrary to Mr. Bai's data, African-American voters did not initially embrace Obama by the margins he referenced. Many African-American voters did not know who he was and had no idea of where he stood on their issues. They were not just going to emotionally "vote for the black guy." Only over time and by developing a sense of viability did more of the African-American community embrace his candidacy. Again, that's practical politics.
Bai continued, "It is hard for any outsider to fully understand the thinking that led many older black leaders to spurn the candidacy of a man who is now routinely pictured with 60's-era revolutionaries like Angela Davis and Malcolm X, on T-shirts sold at the street-corner kiosks of black America." It's only hard to understand if one confuses marketing with politics and change with revolution. Just because vendors put Obama's image on T-shirts does not mean that "old black leaders" or African-American voters are confusing Obama's deracialized campaign with the true revolutionary politics of Angela Davis and Malcolm X. Senator Obama has called for change, not revolution. He is working within the established structure, not working to overthrow it. African-Americans clearly understand the pitfalls of allowing mainsteam media to select their leaders.
Bai says, "On a surface level, those who backed Clinton did so largely out of a combination of familiarity and fatalism." Again, this is equating black politics as myopic and emotional, and that is incorrect. Some backed [Hillary] Clinton because they respected her politics. Others backed her out of loyalty and their long-standing relationships with the Clintons and the positions that many of them were able to acquire or retain during the Clinton administration. That's not "familiarity"; that's realpolitik. In these difficult times, winning, not sentiment, is key. Early in this process, Senator Obama was battling the history of racism in America (and still is) and the media-created perception that Senator Clinton's lead was insurmountable. Early in this process, practical politics said vote for Clinton.
Bai talks about a "generational transition that is reordering black politics" and how members of the civil rights generation are failing to "embrace the idea that 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." There's no failure to embrace anything. It is true that some African-American politicians from multicultural districts have to change or deracialize their politics in order to appeal to a broader cross-section of the political spectrum. That's a political reality for African-American politicians in a country that is still blinded by color. Obama can not appear to be "too black" for fear of alienating European-American voters who will be threatened by a candidate that champions "black issues." Just as the Democratic Party decided in the 90's that it could no longer be identified with the "historical or traditional issues of the party" (code language for black issues) and moved its politics to the right for fear of alienating white voters. The fact that Iowa will vote for an African-American shows us how far America has come. The fact that Obama has to deracialize his politics in order to stand any chance of being elected shows us how far America has to go.
Don't get confused. The Irish and Italian machines of long ago were able to integrate into the "political mainstream" for one reason and one reason only: they are white! Race, (even though it's an artificial construct) was never their problem; labor was. As new immigrants in America who were willing to work for lower wages in order to acquire a piece of the American dream, they threatened the labor pool and dominant wage structure.
The main barrier for African-Americans, politically and otherwise, has always been, and continues to be, race and the manner in which race is used to define and diffuse issues. Yes, class is a factor as well, but race is still the dominant variable in the equation.
Historically, issues - not individuals or personalities - have been the driving force behind black politics, and this will continue in the future. During the 1930's and 1940's, a majority of African-Americans registered Republican but were beginning to vote Democratic (Roosevelt Republicans) - not out of love or loyalty to Roosevelt, but due to his New Deal policies. In fact, during his first two terms, Roosevelt did very little if anything for the African-American community. The shift from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party was based on a conscious evaluation of policy benefits and gains.
What brought African-Americans into the Democratic Party and has kept them there to this day was the enactment of civil rights legislation during the Kennedy-Johnson administrations. According to Katherine Tate in "From Protest to Politics," in the summer of 1963 Kennedy announced on national television that he would introduce sweeping civil rights legislation to Congress. During the Johnson administrations, the 1964 and 1968 Civil Rights Acts were passed and also the 1965 voting rights bill. "He would also initiate the War on Poverty, a set of federal programs aimed at creating new social service structures that would greatly benefit poor blacks." It was substantive legislation that brought blacks into the Democratic Party, not empty promises, rhetoric and symbolism.
During different times in history, the focus has shifted. Charles V. Hamilton discusses the shift from the "politics of rights" to the "politics of resources" that has occurred over the past few decades. As the economic and social conditions for African-Americans have worsened, the political agenda has had to shift in order to address the immediate reality. This is a natural part of the social and political landscape, not race-based or personality-driven politics.
As long as African-American men are incarcerated at a rate of more than six times the rate of white men and the incarceration of black women continues to grow at record numbers, black politics will be alive and well. As long as unemployment among African-Americans is more than twice the rate of white Americans, and as long as studies show that a black family's income is a little more than half that of a similar white family's income, black politics will be alive and well. As long as African-Americans continue to deal with Driving While Black, excessive high school dropout rates, and imbalances in health care, black politics will be alive and well. The election of Senator Obama can't change that.
Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III is the producer/host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program "On With Leon" on XM Satellite Radio Channel 169, and a teaching associate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, DC. Go to www.wilmerleon.com or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.