Monday, August 11, 2008

Zora Says: Is Obama the End of Civil Rights Era Politics? I Hope So ...

The recent New York Times piece Is Obama the End of Black Politics? is titled inappropriately. It should have been called Is Obama the End of Civil Rights Era Politics? And to this I answer, I hope so.

With the achievements of civil rights era strategies and the untimely death of Dr. Martin Luther King, black folks got stuck in a rut. We got frozen in time. We continued looking to the same leaders, using the same strategies, pursuing the same goals, relying on the same coalitions, and making the same assumptions about white folks. We shouldn't blame ourselves completely for this, however. The powers that be figured out how to appropriate civil rights era language, strategies and leadership to support their own goals.

Those who have been anointed to speak for black Americans are almost universally from the civil rights era. They are the black leaders we look to for political endorsements. They are the black leaders who are selected to be the talking heads in the national media, to speak for black folks. They are also the black leaders who are increasingly out of step with most of Black America:

"[Congressman John] 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 [James] 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.

Black folks are just as hungry for change as white folks are. To quote a voice that is all too often left out of the male-dominated, civil rights leadership, "We are sick and tired of being sick and tired."

If Black politics had been allowed to progress without the intervention of COINTELPRO, blacks and whites might all be further along than we are today. Just imagine if the seeds of the Black Power era had been really allowed to take root.

Black voices early on identified the danger of hitching our cart to someone else's horse. We can only progress so far relying on a relationship which is inherently based in an unequal distribution of power. Ultimately, it is this white patronage which has allowed the Democratic Party to take the Black vote for granted. It is what has kept elected, black leaders from calling the Clintons on their crap. The problem with civil rights era leaders is that they can no longer imagine a world without white patrons. It is truly sad to say (and my mother will probably pop me for this), but many of our civil rights era leaders have become "House Negroes": Miz Hilree, our house be burnin'!

Black Power voices understood the need to build coalitions with other people of color. Asian-Americans and Latinos were radicalized in part by the organization of Black Power activists. Rejecting the xenophobic rhetoric of the white mainstream, there was the understanding that people of color had more in common than not. Instead of building on this sentiment and expanding our circle of friends, our leadership led us to adopt more short-sighted, provincial perspectives. And now, we wonder why Latinos and Asian-Americans don't support African-American candidates in large numbers? Let's ask our leaders what they have done to engender their support. What have we done for them lately?

Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot before he could fully develop a class-based political platform. He was beginning to stir a powerful cocktail, mixing political rights with economic rights. Black Power leaders picked up the baton and made class a key component of their consciousness-raising efforts. They made basic claims to demands for education, health care, affordable housing and adequate food for all oppressed people, regardless of race. What was so radical about this? Oh yeah, it scared the white, middle-class and made them think that the U.S. was going to turn into the U.S.S.R. I'm sure that it also scared the black middle-class, the source of many civil rights era leaders. And so, the old guard jumped to distance themselves from "the radicals," from the Mao-Maos.

And, where are the voices of black women in all of this? Civil rights leaders and Black Power activists both got it wrong when they decided to exclude black women from the stage. Angela Davis and Elaine Brown found prominence almost in spite of their brothers. It is not surprising that in discussing "black politics," the New York Times did not include a quote from a single black woman. For all of the talk about Obama's "white mama," he has shown more affinity and respect for black women than most of our old guard leaders -- both self-appointed and elected. Andrew Young's old boy comment about Bill Clinton having "had" more black women than Obama still hurts me to the core.

My point here is not to compare Barack Obama to Eldrige Cleaver or to Huey P. Newton. For he certainly is not radical in that regard. What I do want to do is draw comparisons to the strains of criticism that have been leveled at "young upstarts" over the years. Obama is no Huey, but he is challenging the status quo of black politics. Leaders that found their voices in the civil rights era have developed a sense of entitlement: We set the pace and standard of Black politics. All of us need not have been beaten in Selma in order to be effective leaders. When will they decide to pass on the baton to a new generation? To begin serving as mentors to those other than their own children?

Once again, the old guard proves its own short-sightedness in criticizing Obama for not being Black enough, for not taking a stronger stand on "black issues." What are they thinking? Obama is running to be President of the United States, not to be an Oakland city councilman or a Washington, D.C. mayor. Don't they understand electoral politics? Are they that naive? Rather than believe that they are promoting trite notions of authenticity, I prefer to think that they are.

Unfortunately, Black politics is not coming to an end anytime soon. Politics is about the balance between the powerful and the powerless. Even with Barack Obama in the White House, black folks have yet to garner enough power as a whole to tilt that balance in our favor. Older, black leaders lament not the end of black politics, but simply an end to black politics as they have molded it.

6 comments:

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

You asked, where are the voices of black women in all of this?

The serious ones aren't being invited as guests on news shows. I'd love to see Professor Angela Davis on one.

Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney became the Presidential nominee for the Green Party in July. There wasn't a peep about her or them in the mainstream media and barely a word in the alternative news media.

They did a great job of turning her into a traitor and a clown the minute she questioned what really happened on 9/11 and shortly afterwards poured tons of money in her opponent's ad campaign so she'd lose her seat. She got it back though, and submitted articles of impeachment against Bush & Co. in 2006.

Now there's a black women on top of the game and she's been trivialized - just like every black person who puts real issues on the plate that Hoover's FBI wanted to quash.

Obama groomed himself to becoming the kind of black politician that the powers in charge could accept. He has aided in the destruction of black politics, new or old, when he denounced every word that every spilled out of Rev. Wright's mouth. Wright was offensive as hell when said GD America, but he wasn't about the history of racism or how it currently "grinds us down."

Black politics? At best: on the back shelf for the next generation. At worst: game over.

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

And I thought I was cynical ;)

You don't think that even with an Obama victory--if that happens--there will always be a space for blacks, even if as symbolic outsiders to push forth change...especially given that we are "anti-citizens" of a sort?

chauncey devega

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

LOL, and

hope springs eternal.

Anonymous said...

hi Kit,

I do believe that we have to blame ourselves for a lot of the marginalization of black women in black politics. It goes back to some of the sentiments held in black churches: that women should not be in the pulpit, that women need to support their male leaders ... When are we going to start calling our brothers and leaders on the sexist remarks that come out of their mouths. Putting his relationship with Wright aside, what would you say about Obama in this area?

I see the election of Obama neither as an advancement to black politics nor as the death of black politics. Things will probably continue much as they would if a white, Democratic were to be elected.

Shermika said...

I have wondered about Obama many times myself, and will hold him accountable for his actions to the people of the U.S. and our international allies regardless of color/ethnicity/sex, etc. I have questioned his allegiance to issues most concerning black people, but it dawned on me that he is running for the Presidency of the U.S., not Black America. However, I don't want the brotha to forget about the issues of all disadvantaged peoples!

Older leaders need to embrace Obama because we need CHANGE. But we have much longer to go and black politics will never end even with a black president--that's just like saying racism is no longer existent because of the 13, 14, and 15th Amendments to the constitution. Bai's article is a far stretch from reality.

Shermika said...

I have wondered about Obama many times myself, and will hold him accountable for his actions to the people of the U.S. and our international allies regardless of color/ethnicity/sex, etc. I have questioned his allegiance to issues most concerning black people, but it dawned on me that he is running for the Presidency of the U.S., not Black America. However, I don't want the brotha to forget about the issues of all disadvantaged peoples!

Older leaders need to embrace Obama because we need CHANGE. But we have much longer to go and black politics will never end even with a black president--that's just like saying racism is no longer existent because of the 13, 14, and 15th Amendments to the constitution. Bai's article is a far stretch from reality.