Mark Anthony Neal asks the same question I’m wondering now that Obama is President-elect—whither black progress:
Obama showed a particular disdain throughout his 21-month campaign with being thought of as a black candidate or as a broker for black issues. The President-elect will likely show the same disdain for a black political establishment wholly wedded to the race politics of a quarter century ago.
If the NAACP, National Urban League and Congressional Black Caucus aim to remain relevant in the future, it is this new coalition of progressives that they will need to provide leadership for, taking advantage of the political will that Obama’s campaign has generated.
How do groups like the NAACP and Urban league play a leadership role in a broad progressive movement—in which race is only part of a broader platform centered on traditional issues of social justice (policing, incarceration rates, equitable wages), tax relief for middle income families, a repeal of No Child Left Behind and what Van Jones, in the name of the Green Industry, calls Eco-equity?
Mark (my almost-homey/beloved ‘boy’) is too well-mannered to answer his own question, but I will: The old school Movement apparatus won’t play a role in the social justice movement as long as it stays wedded to its old tactics.
Real as racism remains, the only way to move forward using the algorithm that Obama pioneered—cross-class, cross-racial, cross-age—is by including everyone. Maddening as it is for blacks, America’s most oppressed minority, we have to accept that the country must move to class- and problem-based formulations of both problems, and solutions—not just demands for America to admit to its race- and classism.
The only way a broad swath of Americans will agree to anything smelling of affirmative action is if a broad swath can benefit from it. So blacks have to join the rainbow coalition calling for WPA-type responses to the rampant unemployment we’re facing, educational reform and investment based on the socio-economic class of underserved communities and not just ‘black’ schools, criminal justice system reforms that include rednecks and trailer parks, not just ‘hoods. Don’t believe me?
From A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, described on Amazon thusly via Publishers Weekly:
According to this classic of revisionist American history, narratives of national unity and progress are a smoke screen disguising the ceaseless conflict between elites and the masses whom they oppress and exploit. Historian Zinn sides with the latter group in chronicling Indians’ struggle against Europeans, blacks’ struggle against racism, women’s struggle against patriarchy, and workers’ struggle against capitalists. First published in 1980, the volume sums up decades of post-war scholarship into a definitive statement of leftist, multicultural, anti-imperialist historiography. This edition updates that project with new chapters on the Clinton and Bush presidencies, which deplore Clinton’s pro-business agenda, celebrate the 1999 Seattle anti-globalization protests and apologize for previous editions’ slighting of the struggles of Latinos and gays. Zinn’s work is an vital corrective to triumphalist accounts, but his uncompromising radicalism shades, at times, into cynicism. Zinn views the Bill of Rights, universal suffrage, affirmative action and collective bargaining not as fundamental (albeit imperfect) extensions of freedom, but as tactical concessions by monied elites to defuse and contain more revolutionary impulses; voting, in fact, is but the most insidious of the “controls.” It’s too bad that Zinn dismisses two centuries of talk about “patriotism, democracy, national interest” as mere “slogans” and “pretense,” because the history he recounts is in large part the effort of downtrodden people to claim these ideals for their own.
To that I would add only this, from Zinn’s must-read tome. It’s from a speech given by Henry MacNeal Turner. After living as a slave for fifteen years, he taught himself to read and write, then both medicine and law, before joining the first post Civil War legislature in Georgia. When, in 1868, all the Negroes were pogrom’d out of Congress (two senators and twenty-five representatives), he gave the following (GREATLY excerpted speech): I am here to demand my rights, and to hurl thunderbolts at the men who would dare to cross the threshold of my manhood… [various, blood-curling but precise imprecations against white racism], Do we ask for compensation for the sweat our fathers bore for you—for the tears you have caused, and the hearts you have broken, and the lives you have curtailed, andt he blood you have spilled? Do we ask retaliation? We ask it not. We are willing to let the dead past bury its dead; but we ask your now for our RIGHTS…
If recently freed slaves could look to the future, Pres. Homeboy should feel fully entitled to do just the same. Obama will have to play the unreconstructed on both sides to the left and speak to the vast middle of America that wants to do the right thing.
Er, as soon as we figure out what that is.