Sunday, August 10, 2008

Chauncey DeVega says: Obama and the End of Black Politics--Is Black Politics Dead? Is an Obama Win a Pyrrhic Victory?

I tend to conceptualize problems in military terms (I think I watched too much of the History Channel and played too much chess as a child). It is this same inclination which attracted me to the study of politics and its emphasis on such concepts as conflict, opposition, struggle, resistance, and power.

For me, Black politics has been about a struggle, a battle for the full civic, social, political, and economic inclusion of Black Americans. Accordingly, our collective and historical war to these ends is often described as either the "Black Freedom Struggle" or as "Black Freedom Struggles." In reading the New York Time's piece, "Is Obama the End of Black Politics?" by Matt Bai one can only imagine how many edited volumes and dedicated journal issues will be produced on the topic. And to be honest, in thinking through the life and (possible) death of Black politics, I can't help but have a self interested moment of reflection where I ponder how many students of Black politics are simultaneously both excited by, and scared to death, about what an Obama victory could mean both for their research, as well as for the state of the discipline.

Is Black politics dead? Has Obama signaled the end of what we understand the Black political struggle to be? Is the Black political establishment, to the degree that there is one, publicly excited about the prospect of a Black president while being secretly terrified of what an Obama victory could represent? Is Black politics obsolete, or is it, and has it been for a long time, in a period of extended obsolescence, in the death throws of Black political demobilization? These are heady and exciting questions. Guess what? I just don't know. And if folks are being honest, they will likely tell you the same.

Again, is Black politics dead? The answer depends on how we define the end goal of Black politics. Here, the language of military science is profoundly helpful. As of late, my bedtime reading has consisted of the book, The Utility of Force by former NATO General Rupert Smith. This book focuses on how paradigm shifts impact military planning, and how technology, politics, the actors involved (nation-states, ngo's, terrorists, groups other than countries and armies), and the circumstances which govern how wars are fought (or not), have in the last few decades undergone a radical change.

As Smith details, there are some technologies which forever change how battles will be fought (airplanes for example). There are changes in the geopolitical order which change both how the ends of war are imagined, as well as what the goals of inter-state conflict are to be (the end of the Cold War; the War on Terror). A successful commander responds to all of these changes, looks forward, and innovates as he wins the current war and plans for the next.

General Smith highlights 2 useful distinctions for our thinking through of Black politics. First, the distinction between strategy and tactics. Amateurs and armchair generals often confuse the 2 (and almost always leave out the importance of logistics). Strategy is the big picture, the overall goal towards which you are working. It is the meta-level game. Tactics are the battles, the fights, the exchanges between individual men and their machines, and also between groups of these men and machines upwards to any scale--a metaphorical boxing match in which the stakes are life and death. Reconciling, what is the strategic goal of Black politics? If the strategic goal of Black politics is to elect a Black person as president, then an Obama victory may indeed mean the end of Black politics. If our only goal in the Black Freedom Struggle is to elect a Black person to office then we may indeed be nearing the end game.

What of the tactics deployed by Obama? Do they signal a shift from the past? Here, I would answer "yes." However, one must be careful and precise in this claim, as Obama is not in his accomplishments independent of the groundwork laid by NAACP, the Jesse Jacksons, the Urban Leagues, the indigenous Black political organizations, and what remains of the Black counter-public, to get him to this end. And frankly, one can understand the resentment and undisguised anger, the "I want to cut your nuts off moments," that the old guard must be feeling. In the boxing match, the tactical level engagement, Obama won battles which these "old soldiers" would not have been able to. Obama, the "next generation warrior" deployed a touch of post-racial politics, maneuvered his forces more nimbly than Clinton, and positioned himself into and through a set of different tactical postures than a Civil Rights era politician could (or would have been able to). Ultimately, Obama is a product of a particular moment and time. As a biracial, ethnic, "Black" man, Obama is able to engage in battle in a manner much more suitable to the "color-blind" political battlespace of the present than his Civil Rights era compatriots. Here, in this moment, the terrain of struggle may be more appropriate for Obama, with his lightening strikes, feints, and unorthodox approaches, than for the Civil Rights era leadership and their slow, plodding, offensive schemas.

If we complicate the goal of what a 21st century Black politics is and could be, we should also creatively modify the strategic goals to include both Black representation, as well as the improvement of Black life chances. If we broaden the goals, or recast this as the working definition of Black politics, then how does an Obama victory speak to its current or future state?

An Obama victory does not necessarily speak to his ability to reorient policy, to redirect resources, or to radically improve the life chances of the average Black American. Obama's victory, while significant, is a symbolic victory, one that is valuable, but in isolation is not empowering. Moreover, while an Obama victory may signal a sea change in how we imagine the limits of Black public life, it will likely not impact the day to day lives of the rank and file in the African American community. Obama, with a swipe of the pen, will not be able to revitalize Black communities, launch a broad initiative against poverty, correct a corrupt criminal justice system, or re-energize moribund and under-performing inner city public school systems. He could, but America, Black, White, and Brown has neither the political will, nor the resources.

Returning again to the Black Freedom Struggle, an Obama victory in this redefined Black politics is closer to being an operational victory which changes the strategic complexion of the war. This is our D-Day, a massive operation that has secured a beachhead which we can use as a jumping off point to move forward in the war. It is a monumental accomplishment, but it is not the end of the campaign.

General Smith's second point, one which is strikingly relevant to Matt Bai's piece, is the difference between war and conflict. Wars are sustained engagements, the sum total of battles--a continual state of conflict towards some strategic goal. By comparison, battles are "merely" skirmishes. Conflicts are moments of battles, perhaps more than one, but don't necessarily, and usually do not, lead to open war. Applying this conceptual framework, the Black Freedom Struggle is a War, one which has been going on for several hundred years in America and across the Diaspora against the Racial State. For some, this language is uncomfortable (the anxiety producing allusions to "race war" and the like), but "war" is the most appropriate phrase because the struggle for Black political empowerment has been one battle after another, in a sustained conflict, on multiple fronts towards a strategic goal.

But we must ask: what has been the strategic goal of the Black Freedom Struggle? Has it been an aimless series of battles, wandering and meandering from one to the next conducted by an army which has been leaderless since the victory of the Civil Rights Moment? Notice the phrasing: I use "moment" because this was an operational victory that did not signal the end of the War--as many, some Black, and many in White America, believed/and desired it to be the ultimate end of racial conflict, the final salve on America's great dilemma.

My worry is that in the rush to simultaneously announce the death of Black politics, and to crown Obama as the herald for a post-racial politics, or perhaps more benignly, a "new" Black politics, that many pundits, citizens, and advocates have forgotten that war is a state of struggle between (at least) two opposing forces. If the enemy of Black politics, of the Black Freedom Struggle, is indeed the "colorblind," neo-liberal, reactionary, racial politics embodied by the Right and the Republican Party, then how will they respond? How do they plan to resist? Do they plan a guerrilla war? Or, and given how malleable and changing the American Racial regime has been, will they concede this battle in order to win the bigger war?

Returning to the perennial example of the Civil Rights Movement, the racial establishment conceded a victory in order to maintain its racial order. However, the world was not radically changed, or more precisely, America was not changed as radically as one would like to believe by that singular step towards a more inclusive racial democracy. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the symbolic and material gains embodied by, and made possible through, the Civil Rights Movement were more of a victory for "the system" and its stability than they were for Black America. What happens to Black politics, or more generally to progressive or Left politics (they are not the same) if the Right has chosen to resist on this battlefield all the while preparing an unexpected offensive in another theater of war?

Black politics is not dead. But, the remaining soldiers and generals in the Black Freedom struggle (those erstwhile race men and race women still in the struggle) must be perpetually vigilant of the possibility that Obama's election could be one so costly, where so much was invested, so many resources spent, so much time and material expended, that the victory was not worth the cost.

Let me play provocateur and Devil's Advocate: Is Obama's victory a Pyrrhic one? Is it our Verdun?

Or our Battle of the Chosin Reservoir?

Is an Obama victory akin to the Zulu's defeat of the British? A victory which required that the King of the Zulus to deploy half of the entire male population in one battle, only to see a significant number killed in exchange for what was only a tactical victory?

Or is an Obama victory a homecoming, an anointment of a brave new world?

Could it perhaps be both?


All-Mi-T [Thought Crime] Rawdawgbuffalo said...

I figure the only color i want my politicians to acknowledge in these times is green ya dig

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Chauncey, this was a thought-provoking post for those with open eyes in seeing what's been going on beneath the PR packaging of Barack.

Your choice of videos were excellent. The cold-blooded killing of the Zulus was too painful for me to watch the whole thing. The last video made me mad to watch the happiness over of the nuking of two cities, but I had to remember what my parents told me about that time: "People didn't really know that all those Japanese were just civilians or the painful way they really died. We just believed what we read and were happy that WWII was over."

Indeed it was, as we scared the shit out of the world that no man, woman or child would be spared in our conquest for total victory.

This black radio commentary is a worth listening to: Imperialism With A Black Face.

To answer your question of Is Black Politics Dead?? I don't know, but I do know that's waaaay on the back shelf - so far back that it will be another generation or two before it's brought toward the front again.

The latest news of the war of Russia and Georgia and the US role in it is alarming. It pushes us closer to WWIII. In the Brave New World that emerges, I think it's the cowards who will have won with their superior weapons used on brave but unarmed civilians here and around the world. This played out in Ossetia over the weekend that left 1500 civilians dead and destroyed a city. When white folks start killing white folks over oil, we know we are in dire times.

You might want to read this article in your free time: War in the Caucasus: Towards a Broader Russia-US Military Confrontation?

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

thanks for the links.

we are lucky we are not in the early 1900s w. great power politics and secret alliances as these little sparks are exactly what set of the powderkeg of europe!

but still, we are in an interesting moment--russia is asserting herself again, china is ascendant and the u.s. is in decline, and NATO is trying to find a place for itself in the post Cold War world.

Add in the natural resources angle, and Georgian nationalism and Iran and Iraq's instability and with a few changes to the way things are we could have had a real problem.

thank goodness this didn't come to pass!!