Obama and the End of Black Politics

>> Saturday, August 9, 2008

One of the undercurrents of this election cycle has been the effect of the Obama candidacy on Black oriented politics. A larger discussion of the tension and political dynamics occurring in the African American community has been written by Matt Bai in the New York Times. The main argument of the piece is that there is a transition happening in the type of African Americans that are entering politics. Bai discusses this transition from Civil Rights era to Boomer and Post-Boomer era politicians. The ultimate question is whether the Obama candidacy signals the coming end of Black Politics.

The first thing to understand about the article is that it does not answer its own question explicitly. It hints at answer from Bai’s point of view but never comes out and says, “Obama is ending Black Politics and here’s why”. The closest the article comes to a thesis is this paragraph

The generational transition that is reordering black politics didn’t start this year. It has been happening, gradually and quietly, for at least a decade, as younger African-Americans, Barack Obama among them, have challenged their elders in traditionally black districts. What this year’s Democratic nomination fight did was to accelerate that transition and thrust it into the open as never before, exposing and intensifying friction that was already there. For a lot of younger African-Americans, the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama’s candidacy signified the failure of their parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle — 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.

Bai is positing that the young Pols being elected are not interested in fighting only for the interests of the African American community. He employs interview with many of the highest profile African American politicians both young and old to illustrate the different views in the community. I get the feeling that Bai does believe that Black Politics is ending – or at least on its way to ending. I think he is wrong.

While I agree that the younger generation of AA Pols is looking to do more than represent AA I do not believe that you can connect the desires of the younger generation to the desires of the community at large. There are a number of instances in Bai’s article where Black Politics is shown to be going strong rather than fading away. The first of these is the well publicized story of John Lewis.

Lewis was in anguish over the primaries. He had endorsed his friend Hillary Clinton, but his constituents had gone heavily for Obama, and he was beginning to waver. As Clyburn remembered it, Lewis told his old friend sadly that after all these years, they were finally going to see history yield to the forces they had unleashed. “And I’m on the wrong side,” Lewis said. (Later, after weeks of public vacillating, he would switch his allegiance.)

This is not the best characterization of Lewis’ position. He was in a real bind because the voters of his district were going to go overwhelmingly for Obama. During the Primary Obama was receiving votes from AA at a 9-1 ratio and several AA Pols who had backed Clinton were afraid that they would have to face consequences for this. Bai point this out later

Jesse Jackson Jr. warned his colleagues in the black caucus of the risks of shunning Obama’s candidacy, reminding them of the political aftermath of Jesse Jackson Sr.’s campaigns in the 1980s. Back then, too, most black Congressional Democrats sided with the white presidential candidates, and Jackson carried many of their districts in 1984 and virtually all of them in 1988, driving up voter registration in the process. A result, over the next few election cycles, was a flurry of primary challenges, the retirement or defeat of several incumbents and the arrival in Washington of a new class of black congressmen, including James Clyburn. Jackson’s message was clear: even if Obama lost, there could be a cost for opposing him.

This raises the question of how Black centered politics can be on the way out when politicians are forced to support to back a candidate because of race or risk losing their job. I say because of race for two reasons. The first is that it is undeniable that Obama received many votes in the AA community because of the color of his skin. Maybe not a majority but to win 90% against a fellow democrat like Hillary Clinton says that there is some pro-Obama bias. For example, in Georgia, 21% of respondents said race was important and Obama won 72% of those people. 51% of the Georgia electorate was AA. Its clear Obama gained votes here because of his race.

The second reason I say that Lewis was being forced to get behind Obama due to race is the way this threat was delivered. It just does not have the feel of something racially neutral. The last time there was an AA man running for President and the reps failed to back that AA pol they were booted? Does not backing Obama automatically cancel out the years of legislative work done on behalf of the community? It shouldn’t. The way that this has all been discussed has made the point that it is about race. There is simply the expectation that Black pols should back black pols. This is fueled by incidents like when the Congressional Black caucus backs William Jefferson, the black representative accused of stuffing a freezer with cash bribes. Bai’s interview with the Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter discusses the perception that AA will or should always back AA,

I asked Nutter if he found it insulting to have me come barging into his office, demanding to know why he didn’t pick the black guy.
“It’s not insulting,” he answered. “It’s presumptuous. It demonstrates a continuation of this notion that the African-American community, unlike any other, is completely monolithic, that everyone in the African-American community does the same thing in lockstep, in contrast to any other group. I mean, I don’t remember seeing John Kerry on TV and anybody saying to him, ‘I can’t believe you’re not for Hillary Clinton.’ Why?”

Nutter is totally right. However, if we are moving beyond Black Politics this expectation of support should be decreasing not only among those elected but those voting. Without voter support for moving to a more inclusive AA politician Black Politics is not going anywhere. The expectation that AA pols have a special duty to their AA constituents is still prevalent. Bai highlights this in an anecdote featuring Duval Patrick,

After a black child was shot and killed in Boston last year, Patrick told me, he sent a note to the family and prepared to attend the funeral service, but relatives held a news conference at which they criticized him for not coming by to pay his respects. (Patrick later grew close to the family.) I remarked that it was usually the city’s mayor who was expected to comfort victims of urban crime.

“Yes, but it’s not good enough for me to have the reaction that you just did, to say I’m the governor, not the mayor,” Patrick told me. “They expect more.” In other words, he was expected not only to be a governor but also to fill the traditional role of the black politician — that of spokesman, minister and conduit to the white establishment.

So while some leaders are looking for more than representing one segment of their community the people they represent are not necessarily ready for them to move on. Evidence suggests that many are not moving into the post racial utopia that many are predicting on the horizon. In a diary entitled, No Negro Left Behind Brown Man ATL discusses his own experiences as an AA who has witnessed members of the AA community attack Obama for not truly representing AA in America.

Is criticism that takes any of us to task for our weaknesses only to be administered by bona fide, certified 100% black leaders?

Barack Obama has been lambasted by by black preachers, black community leaders, and a lot of the same black men who believe that Oprah Winfrey is their mortal enemy. My own co-worker, a well educated black man from Alabama, was so incensed at Obama's Father's Day speech, even though he didn't hear or read it in its entirety, he vowed not only to revoke his support of Obama - he swore he would "get a Vote for McCain sign" and parade it through black neighborhoods "his damn self".

Bai discusses what is going on in AA centered orgs both online and off. If we were truly moving away from Black Politics were the concerns of AA come first we would not expect to see groups forming with the intent to represent AA interests in the style or heritage of the 60’s civil rights struggle. This is not the case as illustrated both by the N.A.A.C.P and Bai’s description of the “Afrosphere”. Of all the things that appear in the article the “black roots” illustrate how Black Politics is not going away but simply evolving. Not into a post-racial model but into something designed to help AA in this century.

As in the liberal online community at large, there is not a lot of ideological coherence among the emerging “black roots.” There is no clear action plan for how to bridge the divide between middle-class black families and the millions left behind, aside from the same basic antiwar, anticorporate ethos that permeates the rest of the digital left. But there is a strong sense that the leaders of the civil rights generation need some kind of retirement plan, and soon. “Victims don’t make things happen,” says Rucker, who previously worked for MoveOn. “Things are changing from where they were 30 years ago. The fights are changing. And you have an infrastructure that’s not producing results. Look at the incarceration rates, the difference between whites and blacks. What are the old organizations accomplishing?”

The challenges facing AA going forward are different from the ones that they faced during the 60’s. Should we really expect that the same orgs and tactics used then would endure unchanged forever? What we are seeing is that some people are uncertain about the new direction that Black Politics is taking. It is unfamiliar territory and they worry that as AA politicians move upward into positions where they must represent more than just AA issues that the AA communities that nurtured and fought for them will be left behind. This fear is also impacted by the increasing population of and Hispanic/Latino peoples who compete in many ways for many of the same resources and services as the poorer AA communities.

Several black operatives and politicians with whom I spoke worried, eloquently, that an Obama presidency might actually leave black Americans less well represented in Washington rather than more so — that, in fact, the end of black politics, if that is what we are witnessing, might also mean the precipitous decline of black influence.

I do not see it happening. If AA politicians are not representing the AA people in their districts as those voters feel they should they will get voted out. Until the AA community itself is willing to let go of AA centered policy Black Politics will not fade away it will simply continue to evolve in order to face the new challenges. AA have a unique history among minority groups in this country. They have been maintained as the ‘other’ for hundreds of years in American culture. The civil rights era was not so long ago that those who experienced that struggle are still around. Some of them even blog about their experiences, like MB. The journey from second class citizens to political leaders has not been a quick one.

Consider the relatively few AA pols who have been elected to statewide offices. The number is very small and it seems a little presumptuous to assume that as soon as AA take their first major steps towards consistent statewide election that the institution and culture they have built to protect and help their communities will collapse as white people refuse to accept that AA still suffer from disadvantages. This is the assumption being made by some as explained by Artur Davis,

Just talking about such disparities as systemic problems could be harder for an African-American president — for any African-American, really — than it was before. “If Obama is president, it will no longer be tenable to go to the white community and say you’ve been victimized,” Artur Davis told me. “And I understand the poverty and the condition of black America and the 39 percent unemployment rate in some communities. I understand that. But if you go out to the country and say you’ve been victimized by the white community, while Barack Obama and Michelle and their kids are living in the White House, you will be shut off from having any influence.”

Black politics is evolving to address a new stage in the struggle for AA. Artur Davis is describing a problem that AA could hardly envision only a couple years ago, what to do if a AA is elected president? What we see now is not the end of Black Politics but its growing pains in response to new challenges. AA face inferior schools, an absence of employers, a dearth of affordable housing and major inequities in the justice system. As long as these still exist there will be AA political orgs designed to fight them. We will see new methods for new challenges, instead of marches for equal rights-- SAT prep classes for an equal chance at college. New AA pols will come from universities across the country bringing new experiences and new ideas about what it means to be an AA in America and that will change the politics of the AA community. Obama is not ushering in an end to Black Politics only helping to catalyze its evolution.


Francis L. Holland Blog August 9, 2008 at 10:29 AM  

The white-news media is determined to juxtapose organizations like the AfroSpear and Black movements like the afrosphere with old-line civil rights and Black political groups like the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus.

I don't see why every article that mentions what the AfroSpear and afrosphere are doing must also mention what the NAACP and CBC are not doing.

Just report the news, without this "Black intra-community strife" angle that the white press seems to like so much. There's no real strife between yesterday and today, any more than there is strife between Tuesday and Wednesday. One passes as the other begins, perhaps. But, they don't fight over it. It's just a fact of life.

The Black men and women who fought the civil rights struggles of the sixties will eventually die, because everyone does. Then, Blacks will either have new people determined to change the world for the better, or we will be as slugs in the rain.

So, it shouldn't surprise anyone that there are young Black leaders, and the only reason it surprises whites is that they have for so long announced to America that Blacks had no leaders at all. I guess we should be grateful that the old meme (Blacks are leaderless) has been replaced by a new meme (passing of the torch between the old Black leadership and the new). The new meme is much more positive, although it annoys me that every article about what Blacks are doing in politics must be accompanied by discussion of what older Blacks are doing in the nursing homes.

O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

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