The Boston Review's January issue focuses on black politics. For those not in the know, the Boston Review is an amazing publication and is one of the last long form newspapers or magazines which brings together real experts to meditate on issues of public concern. In short, the Boston Review is a treasure for those who like to think and reflect on the topics of the day, and to get one step ahead of a very narrow, corporate media driven, news cycle.
The Future of Black Politics issue has the following question on its cover: Is Black Politics Good for America? My response to such inquiries has always been, "is white politics good for America?" As a student of black politics I am always suspicious when "our" concerns are racialized, and those of other folks taken to be "normal" or "mainstream." That assumption explains so much about the challenges which face black and brown communities in the 21st century. I remain puzzled that it has not been more thoroughly interrogated.
We must “tell no lies, claim no easy victories,” Amílcar Cabral, the Guinea-Bissauan nationalist leader, said of the process of imagining new worlds. We need to understand the conditions from which we must build. So we need a pragmatic utopianism, which starts where we are and imagines where we want to be.
Pragmatic utopianism is not new to black radicalism. King and the civil rights movement combined a utopian image of a very different America, one they were repeatedly told was impossible to obtain, with hardheaded political realism and goal-oriented strategies.
Indeed, King’s Memphis campaign to support black sanitation workers, and, even more so, the Poor People’s Campaign that he was about to launch at the time of his death, were designed explicitly to take on what Walter Mosley has called the “voracious maw of capitalism,” achieve economic justice for all, and in the process build the interracial unity that had been, and remains, so elusive.
Incompatible and irreconcilable interests among blacks represent the fundamental challenge of 21st-century black politics. While black communities have always had a class divide, its sources have changed. Under Jim Crow segregation, black economic elites depended on black consumers, tethering black capitalists to the larger black community.
Drawing on a term Dawson uses elsewhere, that business arrangement created a sense of “linked fate.” Today, black economic elites not only have sources of income and wealth outside the black community, but their collective interests are at odds with those of the majority of black Americans. There is no going back.
I’m not as optimistic as Dawson about the chances that black political leaders will begin to represent all segments of black communities, particularly poor or LGBT people. It is equally likely that black political elites will continue to engage in processes of secondary marginalization. Indeed things could get worse. After all, black mayors and other mayors of color—in Oakland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and elsewhere—have behaved no differently, and often worse, than their white counterparts in responding to Occupy protests.
...In each of these cases, blacks and Latinos linked their fates with other disenfranchised groups who share similar economic and social status or worldview, but who are separated from them and from each other by the old scripts of racial division. The goal of these political-race projects is to build constituencies of accountability rather than constituencies for electability.
We applaud Dawson’s critique: the road to political power is not through the electocracy. Rather than focusing on electing more black candidates, black progressives should build political or social movements that assert their authority beyond the voting booth and offer a better vision of what this country could be. But we believe they cannot do it alone. Political race is necessary to change the wind.
Dawson insists that we need independent black organizations if we are to hold black leaders accountable. But black elected officials could be held accountable through elections if we had a more democratic system, one that didn’t give rich people and large corporations undue influence over elections and public policy. This suggests that blacks should join forces with those fighting for a fairer electoral system and campaign finance reform, regardless of their race. We of course need well-run organizations able to pressure government officials.
But again, these organizations can be racially diverse, with each member an equal. Self-appointed spokespersons for “the race” are obsolete—they don’t need to be held accountable; they need to be delegitimized...
Dawson rightly praises King’s pragmatic utopianism, and he recommends a return to the spirit and politics of King’s underappreciated Where Do We Go from Here. But Dawson seems not to have taken to heart the lessons from King’s trenchant critique of black power ideology.
Cultivating multiracial organizations and maintaining black solidarity within them strikes the right balance between utopian aspiration and political realism. Black politics need not be anchored in a set of organizations that blacks control. It can and should be rooted in blacks’ joint ethical commitment to protect each other and to fight for justice and mutual respect.