Are Black Politics Headed Toward the Graveyard

The Sunday magazine of the New York Times predicts that black politics as we know it is headed for extinction, that Barack Obama’s “brand of ‘race-neutrality’ shows black politics is obsolete, and should be abandoned.” Of course, that’s wishful thinking from a hostile quarter, based on assumptions that all black politics is electoral, Blacks are becoming more conservative, and a generational crisis deeply divides black America – none of which is true. However, blacks have been set up for a fall. “To the extent that African Americans expect more from Barack Obama than they got from Bill Clinton, they will be devastatingly disappointed.”

The New York Times has unabashedly called for the dissolution of independent black politics in the United States. Although the paper’s Sunday magazine cover story may seem at first skim to be simply an overlong paean to Barack Obama, its intent goes way beyond the presidential race, and is embedded in the title: “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” Author Matt Bai – whose mission this election in one silly piece after another has been to identify a new generational politics — and his employers fervently hope the answer is, Yes.

The wishful headline sits atop a pile of false assumptions and outright untruths about contemporary and historical Black politics. Hardly a cogent set of facts can be found in the entire piece; it is comprised almost wholly of unsubstantiated assertions mixed with non-sequiturs in quotation marks. But the thrust is quite clear: African Americans have not only outgrown group politics, as supposedly proven by Obama’s march to – rather than on – the White House, but Obama’s brand of “race-neutrality” shows that Black politics is obsolete, and should be abandoned.

To arrive at such a racially presumptuous conclusion, Bai must build on several false or debatable premises that have nevertheless become accepted wisdom among the corporate media:

The only authentic Black politics is electoral politics. Mass movements, direct action and other non-electoral strategies are relics of the past, and rightly so. More Black faces in high places automatically equals Black progress, regardless of the political content of these office-holders’ policies. It is an unquestionable sign of general Black progress when African American candidates gain white support.

Black solidarity must decline and ultimately fade away as a political motivator as opportunities for (some) African Americans expand. A growing Black middle class inevitably leads to increased Black political conservatism. Blacks have no legitimate reasons to pursue political solidarity except those directly related to the upward mobility of their class.

A unique and pronounced age gap exists in Black America, that stands in the way of “transition” to a less confrontational, more cooperative society. (Black elders are the bottleneck in this regard.) Young Blacks are politically more mature than older Blacks, since they are further removed from the events of the Sixties and thus are not plagued by disturbing memories.

Based on these assumptions, Times readers may conclude that African Americans who struggle for group rights and objectives are behaving like superannuated dodderers in their second childhoods. Matt Bai thinks so. The following sentence gives new meaning to the term, convoluted reasoning:

“For a lot of younger African-Americans, 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 long ago joined the political mainstream.”

Amazing, isn’t it, that Bai and his ilk purport to know more about Black youth and their elders than the two Black age cohorts know about each other? Indeed, if we are to follow Bai’s logic to its natural conclusion, whites understand and communicate with young Blacks better than Black parents do. It all makes sense once you accept the assumption that young Blacks think more like whites than their parents, whose minds have been deformed by too close exposure to the nightmarish Sixties, during which time they became distrustful of white people, and have never recovered.

Fortunately, we can dismiss Bai’s assault on Black elders out of hand, since it relies on facts nowhere in evidence. Where are the graying Black legions that are resisting Obama’s candidacy as a bloc? Every Black demographic, no matter how you slice it, is overwhelmingly pro-Obama for president. How could it not be so, with the Black Obama vote in the late primaries hitting 90 – 95 percent! For every aging Black radical (like myself) who refuses to drink the Obama’Laid, there are eight of his peers with Obama signs on their front lawns, and three octogenarians thanking God they have lived long enough to vote for such an attractive, well-spoken young Black man who might actually become president.
Such is the near-irresistible pull of race, and race solidarity – the uncontainable pressure of the pent-up aspirations of centuries, finally finding vent – in this election cycle.

Bai followed his assumptions off a cliff with the “old Black folks don’t like Obama” idea. But he must maintain the fiction of a general age chasm dividing Black Americans, or the theory on the inevitable extinction of Black politics, does not work. And it must work, since Bai opens his piece with an attempt to prove that age was an important factor in the early, dead-even split in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) between Clinton and Obama supporters. Presumably, the 15 Clinton supporters were among those elders who “could not come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle.” An equal number were committed to Obama; the rest, undecided.

As it turned out, there was no chronological or ideological pattern in the CBC’s Clinton/Obama lineup, in early January. Charles Rangel (NY), the oldest Member, was in the Clinton column. John Conyers (MI), the second-oldest, opted for Obama. Barbara Lee, among the most consistently progressive Members, backed Clinton, but so did David Scott (GA), once dubbed “The Worst Black Congressman” for his relatively rightwing voting habits. Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther who, according to Bai’s reasoning, should have been the most “resistant” to Obama’s neutralism on race, was in his fellow Chicagoan’s corner.

The CBC presidential breakdown had little or nothing to do with age, or with any issues of deep substance, for that matter. Members aligned themselves at that early date based on considerations of money, petty faction, geography, and the betting odds.

Until Obama’s victory in Iowa, polls showed the Black vote still very much in play. Only when African Americans were confident that large numbers of whites would vote for Obama did they massively align with the Black candidate – and then they quickly became a bloc. Nowhere is there evidence of a decisive schism – certainly not around age. No matter. The New York Times and its corporate sisters make up facts as they go along, to justify prefabricated theories on how Black folks behave.

Here’s where Bai came closest to getting anything right:

“The generational transition that is reordering black politics didn’t start this year. It has been happening, gradually and quietly, for at least a decade, as younger African-Americans, Barack Obama among them, have challenged their elders in traditionally black districts. What this year’s Democratic nomination fight did was to accelerate that transition.”

A change has come over Black politics in the last decade, and it does involve the entrance of a relatively young crop of Black politicians. However, the decisive factor here is not age, but money. Corporate America made a strategic decision to become active players in Black Democratic politics – an arena they had largely avoided in post-Sixties decades. In 2002, the corporate Right fielded and heavily funded three Black Democratic candidates for high profile offices in majority Black contests. Two of them, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, are featured in Matt Bai’s Times article. (No surprise there: the duo appear in every corporate media article celebrating the rise of the new, young, Black, corporate politician.) The third Big Business favorite, Denise Majette, has since slipped back into political obscurity.

Booker, then a first term city councilman, was (and remains) a darling of the political network centered around the far-right Bradley Foundation, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. George Bush calls Bradley his “favorite foundation” – as well he should, since Bradley and its think tanks developed the GOP’s faith-based initiatives and private school vouchers strategies. Booker became a star of the Bradley-subsidized vouchers “movement.” (See “Fruit of the Poisoned Tree,” Black Commentator, April 5, 2002.)

In his first, unsuccessful run for Newark City Hall, Booker far outspent four-term Mayor Sharpe James – the most powerful Black politician in the state – but was narrowly defeated when his ties to school vouchers and far-right money were revealed. Booker was endorsed by every corporate media outlet in the New York metropolitan area, thanks to the ministrations of Bradley’s media-savvy think tank, the Manhattan Institute. Booker captured the office easily in 2006, after amassing an even bigger war chest, when Mayor James declined to run. (James was later convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to 27 months in prison.)

Less than a month later, former Birmingham prosecutor Artur Davis, then 34, made a second run against veteran Congressman Earl Hilliard, in a 62 percent Black district. Davis had been badly beaten by Hilliard in the Democratic primary in 2000. This time, he outspent Hilliard by more than 50 percent – with the vast bulk of his funds raised outside the district. Davis won a minority of the Black vote to beat Hilliard.

Two months later, in August 2002, the corporate-funded juggernaut rolled into Atlanta, Georgia, where five-term Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney faced former Black Republican Denise Majette in an open Democratic primary. Majette’s bankroll dwarfed McKinney’s. Majette was also backed by every corporate media outlet in the region – and far beyond.

The massed national corporate press turned the McKinney-Majette contest into a national story, an opportunity to refine their collective “analysis” of post-Sixties Black politics. Majette would win, they agreed, because McKinney’s “Sixties-style” politics were unsuited to her suburban Atlanta district, the second most affluent Black district in the country. The corporate media declared with certainty (but with no facts to buttress the claim) that the African American middle class was becoming more conservative, and a younger generation yearned for a break from the confrontations of the past.

Majette won, but with only about 17 percent of the Black vote; she was the white choice. McKinney, the fiery progressive, was the overwhelming favorite among Blacks in a district that was the perfect test for the corporate media’s theories on Black politics. They were proven wrong, but a useful lie trumps inconvenient facts. Through repetition in a monoculture corporate media, lies become truisms.

Matt Bai’s Sunday Times article is based on the same fact-devoid theory of Black rightward political drift and a yawning age divide. Even before his national debut at the 2004 Democratic convention, Barack Obama joined Cory Booker, Artur Davis, and then Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (TN) – once George Bush’s favorite Black congressperson – as exhibits in an endless series of “New Black Politics” articles, each one a clone of the last. This is what Bai mistakenly calls “the generational transition that is reordering black politics.” It’s not about age at all – other than that the young are hungrier and more malleable than their elders, and thus better prospects to march under the corporate colors.

Barack Obama does pose a dire threat to the coherence of Black politics, but not for Matt Bai’s reasons. Obama’s presidential bid is inseparable from the ongoing corporate money-and-media campaign to confuse and destabilize the Black polity – an offensive begun in earnest in 2002. Obama, a prescient and uncannily talented opportunist, understood which way the corporate wind was blowing at least a decade earlier, and methodically readied himself for the role of his life.

To the extent that African Americans expect more from Obama than they got from Bill Clinton, they will be devastatingly disappointed. His candidacy has at least temporarily caused Black folks to behave en masse as if there are no issues at stake in the election other than an Obama victory. It is altogether unclear how long this spell-like effect will last. The short-term prospects for rebuilding a coherent Black politics, are uncertain. But one thing we do know: the formation of a near-unanimous Black bloc for Obama – of which he is absolutely unworthy – is stunning evidence that the Black imperative to solidarity is undiminished. Unfortunately, the wrong guy is the beneficiary – but in a sense, that’s beside the point. Black people are not working themselves into an election year frenzy just to commit political suicide by disbanding as a bloc, no matter what Matt Bai and his ilk say.

It is at least possible that a new era of agitation and militant organization might follow the monster come-down that must descend on Black folks, either from an Obama defeat in November or, if victorious, through his ultimate (and early) betrayal of Black self-generated hopes. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that African Americans will emerge from the experience in a mood to fold up their collective, consciously Black political tent. Matt Bai is only able to envision such an outcome because he refuses to admit that the racial problem in the United States is caused by white folks. Institutional racism is engrained white behavior. The Black prison Gulag is a white creation. Double unemployment and one-tenth wealth are the products of white privilege. White people constantly replenish Black aspirations for self-determination: for a Black politics.
Bai pretends that he is genuinely concerned about how Blacks will fare in the “transition” from Black politics:

“Several black operatives and politicians with whom I spoke worried, eloquently, that an Obama presidency might actually leave black Americans less well represented in Washington rather than more so – that, in fact, the end of black politics, if that is what we are witnessing, might also mean the precipitous decline of black influence.

“The argument here is that a President Obama, closely watched for signs of parochialism or racial resentment, would have less maneuvering room to champion spending on the urban poor, say, or to challenge racial injustice. What’s more, his very presence in the Rose Garden might undermine the already tenuous case for affirmative action in hiring and school admissions.”

First, African Americans should believe Obama when he repeatedly assures whites that he does not recognize Black claims to redress for past grievances, and has little tolerance for race-based remedies of any kind. There can be no expectation of a net increase in Blacks’ ability to alter societal power relationships with Obama in the White House. (A Black president might make some difference, but not that Black president.)

And yes, there will be a white backlash – there always is – even though Blacks in general may materially gain nothing from Obama’s change of address. White backlashes are beyond Black control. But they sometimes spur African Americans to greater organizational efforts. At any rate, Black don’t need faux sympathy from Matt Bai and the New York Times. They’re part of the reason there will always be Black politics.

BAR executive editor GLEN FORD can be contacted at GLEN FORD is executive editor of Black Agenda Report where this article appears. He can be contacted at


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