Is Obama the End of Black Politics? Lord, No
Wednesday, 13 August 2008
by Mel Reeves
The New York Times magazine predicts that Black politics will fade into "mainstream" American politics as happened with the Italians and Irish, conveniently forgetting that "the Irish and Italian machines were white!" Moreover, the article seems to maintain that "electoral politics is the primary form of black political struggle" when "the most significant black struggle has occurred in the streets." Black electoral politicians aren't rated too highly in the ‘hood. "If asked to name black heroes off the top of their heads, most blacks would instantly nominate Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X - neither of whom held elective office."
"The author is clearly out of touch with US history and the history of US race relations."
Through its Sunday magazine, the New York Times asks, "Is Obama the end of black politics?" The most obvious problem with the question is that it assumes that electoral politics is the primary form of black political struggle. Some clarification is in order.
Most of the struggle for black politics or a black piece of the pie has taken place outside of electoral politics. Rather, the most significant black struggle has occurred in the streets. The long list of black heroes in the quest for justice and equality in the US - the real black politics - includes very few politicians. In fact, if asked to name black heroes off the top of their heads, most blacks would instantly nominate Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X - neither of whom held elective office. If you asked most blacks to name the top ten African Americans of all time, maybe, just maybe, a baby boomer or two would suggest former Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.
However the author, Matt Bai, limited his version of politics to the electoral kind. With one exception, he ignored everyone on the progressive side of the black spectrum. Clearly, his list of promising black leaders are all elected, relatively conservative Democrats - black politicos such as Newark mayor Cory Booker, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and Alabama Congressman Artur Davis. Mr. Bai seems to hope that the ascendance of the Booker-Nutter-Davis crowd will put an end to black "whining" - and thus, black politics.
Therefore the very question seeks to put black folks in a box that we should be very careful to avoid. Electoral politics - often a game of placing black faces in previously white places - has at best yielded mixed results in our community. To be fair, black elected officials have a tough job, but they have seldom succeeded in substantially bettering the conditions of poor black folks without the corresponding protests of people in the street. A simple observation of where blacks are located along the misery index will serve to make the point.
"Mr. Bai seems to hope that the ascendance of the Booker-Nutter-Davis crowd will put an end to black ‘whining' - and thus, black politics."
There really is no such thing as a basic conflict between the "civil rights" generation versus the younger (or "Hip Hop") generation in our community. Both generations are confronted with racism. There are, no doubt, generational competitions between those in the electoral milieu who are jockeying for HNIC spots. However, the author is clearly out of touch with US history and the history of US race relations when he suggests that, "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 joined the political mainstream"
The Times writer could at least have waited for the black historical actors to die off before he started revising African American history. First of all: the Irish and Italian machines were white! Mr. Cai is comparing apples and oranges. He is trying to wish into existence an historical transition that has not yet occurred for black people - and my never occur. Yes, there are more opportunities for blacks in America, but the hurdles of race remain extraordinarily high. Just look at the foolishness Barack Obama encounters on an almost daily basis. No matter how much he panders to the fears of whites, a significant percentage are not quite comfortable with the "colored boy." Either the author is an ostrich and has been living with his head in the ground, or a 21st century Rip Van Winkle and has been sleeping through this government's refusal to rectify or even sincerely address the damage done to black citizens by institutional racism. More importantly, the misinformed writer fails to comprehend the importance of the oil of racism to the capitalist machinery.
The most foolish statement of the article came from the mouth Cornell Belcher, an Obama campaigner who declared, with astonishing conceit, "I'm the new black politics. The people I work with are the new black politics. We don't carry around that history. We see the world through post-civil-rights eyes. I don't mean that disrespectfully, but that's just the way it is."
In essence, what the not-so-young brother said, is that he is blind and ahistorical, yet nevertheless he and others like him are going to lead black folks into the new millennium.
An incredibly shallow person, Belcher puts Obama at the center of the African American universe. "Barack Obama is the sum of their struggle. He's the sum of their tears, their fights, their marching, their pain. This opportunity is the sum of that."
No, not-so-young man, the struggle has always been for the full social, economic and political equality of black America as a whole, not for just a few individual and token achievements.
"An incredibly shallow person, Belcher puts Obama at the center of the African American universe."
Ben Jealous, the new elected president of the NAACP, was the only person who made any sense in this very deceptive article when he said, "It's still a human rights struggle. This isn't a struggle that began in the 1930's or 1960's. It's a struggle that began in 1620."
Judging from what we have seen and heard, even if there is a president Obama in the White House in 2009 the struggle will continue. Unless Obama breaks with the political-economic-social system we know as capitalism and attempts to break the bonds of income disparity by redistributing the wealth and providing real equal opportunity and equal access to quality public education, universal health care, full employment, affordable housing, an end to military adventurism, and a fair shake from our justice department, then we will have to keep our marching boots at the ready.
Mel Reeves is an activist living in Miami. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org