This article is part of The Future of Black Politics, a forum on the power and potential of black movements.
People who live at the bottom of the social order, especially at the bottom of more than one of its hierarchies, are frequently condemned to a life of crippling disadvantage. The existence of such mutually reinforcing power hierarchies calls the social order itself into question as a matter of justice. Political movements need to disrupt these hierarchies to overcome injustice.
In the United States, a healthy black politics is indispensable to that task. Black politics—African Americans’ ability to mobilize, inﬂuence policy, demand accountability from government officials, participate in American political discourse, and ultimately offer a democratic alternative to the status quo—have at times formed the leading edge of American democratic and progressive movements; black visions were some of the more robust, egalitarian, and expansive American democratic visions. This status has been lost.
The decline of progressive black politics is apparent in the Occupy actions that have swept the country to protest economic injustice. There has been black participation, and in some areas, such as Chicago, black efforts to mobilize communities have been aided by the presence of a local Occupy movement. But, for the most part, Occupy has been divorced from black politics.
Yet both today’s black communities and black political traditions have much to offer Occupy and progressives at large. Blacks are more supportive than any other group of Americans of state action to redistribute wealth and bring about a more equal and just society. A National Journal poll released last October found that 84 percent of blacks support a surtax on people earning more than $1 million per year, compared to 68 percent support overall. They are also the strongest opponents of U.S. military intervention: blacks opposed the 2003 intervention in Iraq at far higher rates than did any other group, including Democrats. Black progressive traditions have long offered a more just and democratic vision than is usually found in American political discourse. Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, William Monroe Trotter, Hubert Harrison, A. Philip Randolph, Cyril Briggs, and W. E. B. Du Bois are just a few of the many activist-theoreticians (they tended to be both) who led movements dedicated to fighting for racial justice and in most cases offered a broad vision of social and economic justice as well.
Today there is a disconnect between black organizing and other mobilizations on behalf of labor, suffrage, and radical economic reform. Even worse, the black civil society that in the past supported flourishing black activism is today weaker than it was for most of the twentieth century. Without a mobilized black politics, American democracy is even more vulnerable to internal attacks by those who have been openly suspicious of mass democratic movements for decades.
The lack of a black political movement also feeds into the view, popular among some Americans, that we live in a post-racial society. But our apparent post-racial order, signiﬁed by President Obama’s election and inauguration, is an illusion. The black poor, if anything, ﬁnd themselves in conditions of greater deprivation now than at any time in the recent past. Racial inequality remains a brute fact of life in this country. The interracial political unity that is supposed to herald a truly post-racial society also does not exist. Blacks and whites remain bitterly divided in their political beliefs. This political division has led to desperation and anger in many black communities.
And that anger and throttling despair have replaced the insurgent forces of the civil rights era—insurgent because the change these forces sought was nothing less than transformative.
Rebuilding black progressive movements requires recovering the spirit and politics of the militant Martin Luther King Jr. of 1967–68, the King of Where Do We Go from Here. This King was anti-war and anti-imperialist, a severe critic of both the totalitarian impulses of Leninism and the savage denigration of poor people inherent in the logics of unregulated capitalism. This was the King who explained, “Black Power, in its broad and positive meaning, is a call to black people to amass the political and economic strength to achieve their legitimate goals.” Among the many still-relevant lessons of Where Do We Go From Here is that blacks need to ﬁght both for black power and against the ravages of capitalism on behalf of all who are disadvantaged.
We need to reconstruct black politics. We need not and should not copy the movements of earlier generations but should instead follow their lead by building movements based on our own realities. However, we can learn from earlier movements’ understanding that the quests for racial and economic justice for all are intertwined, from their uncompromising spirit, and from their realization that building a better society means mobilizing an entire community.
The State of Black America
Historically, black and progressive movements have begun with an account of the challenges that people face, an understanding of their sources, and a keen grasp of how they are reproduced by the workings of power both inside and outside disadvantaged communities.
What are today’s challenges, and what are their sources? The scale of the problems confronting those dedicated to social, economic, and political justice for blacks is immense. While persistent racial injustice remains a core source of these problems, the changing material reality facing African Americans—due largely to the economic transformations of neoliberalism—poses its own sets of hazards and obstacles to a vibrant black politics.
In 2007 the median black income was only 59 percent of the median white income. At the bottom of the income distribution, the racial disparities are even greater. Black poverty rates run twice that of whites. One of the reasons behind continuing high levels of black poverty is unemployment. For most of the past twenty years, blacks have suffered double-digit levels of unemployment. Since the 1950s black unemployment has generally been at least twice that of white Americans. According to official government figures, which omit a large number of people who are out of work, by October 2011, black unemployment had soared to 15 percent, compared to a nearly as catastrophic 11 percent rate for Latinos and a still-devastating, but much lower, rate of 8 percent for whites.
In the past, black politics offered one of the most expansive, egalitarian visions of American democracy.
Changes, some of them politically motivated, in the American economy—the shrinking of government labor forces at all levels, the decline of manufacturing—have played a large role in sustaining high rates of black unemployment. However, old-fashioned racial discrimination is also involved, as demonstrated by a 2003 American Economic Review study, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” The researchers found that employers were much less likely to call back job seekers who have “black-sounding” names than those with “white-sounding” names, even though applicants had identical résumés. The researchers show that this ﬁnding holds across occupational categories involving a range of skill and education requirements.
With or without black-sounding names, being black simply makes it harder to get a job. As the sociologist Devah Pager recounts in her book Marked, “Blacks are less than half as likely to receive consideration by employers than equally qualified whites, and black nonoffenders fare no better than even those whites with prior felony convictions.”
The black-white income gap was stable from 1986 to 2007, with the highest-earning quintile of black households receiving about the same income as the second-highest-earning quintile of white households. The gap reflects persistent inequality in the earning power of blacks and whites. However, within the black community the divide has widened: the income of the top quintile of black households has risen significantly in recent years, but not so the income of the lowest-earning black families, exacerbating class divisions among blacks.
In addition to high unemployment, the mortgage crisis has been magniﬁed in black communities due to a combination of factors: the concentration of blacks in segregated areas, poverty, and discriminatory loan practices. Blacks are only 13 percent of the population, but held half of the high-cost mortgages that have been so burdensome during the economic downturn. At the height of the financial crisis, one-third of blacks seeking conventional home loans were denied, compared to only 15 percent of white applicants.
The discrimination that poor and middle-class blacks face in housing, employment, loan, and ﬁnancial markets feeds future economic disadvantage by limiting blacks’ ability to generate wealth and transfer it to succeeding generations. Black wealth remains a minuscule fraction of white wealth. The median net worth of blacks is $5,446, while for whites it is $87,056, a less than 1:15 ratio. The plight of the black poor is particularly devastating, leaving once-stable working-class black communities and families increasingly isolated and disconnected from the mainstream economy. While the black middle class, particularly the upper middle class, is doing better than ever—at least it was, until the latest ﬁnancial crisis—poor blacks are arguably worse off than they were a generation ago.
Compounding economic disadvantage, the extraordinary rate of incarceration of African Americans is a disaster for political activists and the black community. In 2007 one out of a hundred Americans was incarcerated. That is by far the highest rate in the world, and the figures are even worse for African Americans. That year, one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 was in jail or prison. In all, one out of fifteen adult black men was behind bars, along with one in a hundred black women, as compared to one in 335 white women. While these numbers are in themselves distressing, they also contribute significantly to weakening economic prospects for African Americans and to widening class divisions.
The black community also faces severe health challenges. Black children are at greater risk of death by both “natural” and unnatural causes. Blacks are six times more likely than whites to be murdered. Forty percent of black adults and one-third of Latino adults did not have health insurance in 2007, as opposed to 14 percent of white adults. According to the Annual Review of Psychology report “Race, Race-Based Discrimination, and Health Outcomes among African Americans,” black mortality rates in 2006 were the same as white rates 30 years earlier. Even after controlling for socioeconomic status, age, and insurance status, a major study, Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care, found that doctors are less aggressive in treating African American patients, give them fewer referrals, and generally provide them poorer care.
Finally, blacks continue to be ravaged by HIV/AIDS. In 2005 the rate of diagnosis for black adults and adolescents was ten times that for whites. This problem does not affect all segments of the black community equally. As the political scientist Cathy Cohen has demonstrated, the black poor suffer secondary marginalization within the black community. Cohen’s research shows that at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, black organizations and leaders marginalized black gay and lesbian communities as well as intravenous drug users.
The massive inter- and intra-racial disparities facing black Americans are stunning in their own right. They also have political ramifications. Unifying African Americans around political causes has grown more challenging because the existence of “the” black community can no longer be assumed. It must be articulated politically. Nor can traditional allies in fighting economic injustice—labor unions, other people of color—be counted on. Neoliberalism—the dismantling of the state, privileging of markets over all other institutions, and relentless catering to corporate interests—has reshaped the economic and political terrain, sharpened class cleavages, and pitted disadvantaged groups against each other, presenting new challenges for any emergent black political movement.
The Nadir of Black Politics
Consider the experience of the black poor in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in which all these factors helped ensure the failure of black mobilization efforts. The disaster laid bare the savagery of class disadvantage in this country. It also made clear that racial disadvantage in the United States cannot be reduced to class disadvantage, as blacks across class divides suffered disproportionately with respect to their white counterparts. We know that it was the black elderly who were most likely to die and the black poor who were most likely to be trapped in the city and then dispersed throughout the nation. Yet blacks and their allies failed to influence the response to the disaster and its victims.
In the weeks that followed the disaster, even the veneer of rationality and the language of sober policymaking—which have long masked initiatives that hurt blacks and the poor, and disproportionately the black poor—were thin or nonexistent. A month after the storm, Richard Baker, then the U.S. representative from Louisiana’s Sixth District and dean of the state’s congressional delegation, said on national television, “We ﬁnally cleared up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
When plans for the city started to emerge, black residents, given their recent experience and the resurgence of open racism within the region, were understandably worried. They feared that a citywide vote on a master plan would be used to prevent the rebuilding of their neighborhoods. So they mobilized.
The AFL-CIO and many other organizations and individuals attempted to intervene in the hope of rebuilding poor black communities. The urban theorist Phillip Thompson argues that the wave of white (and other) young people who went to the city to help rebuild was reminiscent of an earlier generation of youth who headed to the South to participate heroically in the civil rights movement.
But the post-Katrina mobilization failed in the face of obstacles put in place by local, state, and national political leaders. Thompson relates how the Bush administration ordered the demolition of several hundred relatively undamaged public housing units shortly after the unions and Mayor Ray Nagin had announced plans to refurbish them.
Katrina’s aftermath reveals the extent to which neoliberal justiﬁcations are used to reestablish the old racial and class orders. For example, in the name of efficient land-use policy, there have been several proposals to build a golf course on the former site of a poor neighborhood. It should be no surprise then that half of New Orleans’s elderly and disabled could not return to the city. In 2007 Policy Link, a policy institute focused on the poor and people of color, estimated that “barely two in five Louisiana families who relied on rental housing before the storms will even have the option of returning to an affordable home.” The situation was dire enough that the United Nations called for an immediate halt in the destruction of public housing.
The black poor, if anything, suffer greater deprivation now than at any time in the recent past.
In Mississippi, efforts to use the disaster to further a neoliberal corporate agenda were even more blatant. Though the Mississippi Governor’s Commission acknowledged that Katrina had “a particularly devastating impact on low-wealth residents who lacked an economic safety net,” Governor Haley Barbour redirected $600 million of recovery aid to enhance the port of Gulfport, which suffered only $50 million in damage. To do so, Barbour required—and received from the Bush administration—a waiver of the federal requirement that 50 percent of recovery funds be used to “beneﬁt low- and moderate-income people.”
Even more telling was the readiness of the Bush administration, at the behest of their corporate friends in the Gulf, to roll back a slew of regulations protecting workers. These included OSHA health and safety regulations, requirements that contractors pay prevailing wages to workers on federal contracts, and affirmative action provisions. Ofﬁcials were also allowed to issue no-bid contracts and authorized contractors to “lure” undocumented workers from Mexico and Latin America—indeed, from as far away as India—without fear of employer sanctions. As a 2008 Oxfam America report put it, “While these federal waivers were eventually rescinded, they sent a powerful signal to the marketplace and set a low threshold for the future protection of workers’ rights.”
Predictably, the waivers made the work of building alliances between black and Latino workers more difficult. Black workers and communities resented an immigrant population that displaced them from good jobs by working for substandard wages under bad conditions. Latino and other immigrants in turn adopted negative views of the black population, their perceptions shaped by a globalized and Americanized media that demonizes blacks.
At the same time, a public opinion study commissioned by Oxfam in Katrina’s aftermath highlights common concerns and interests among black and Latino communities, which could be the basis for building a uniﬁed movement. Potentially heartening is that both blacks and Latinos identiﬁed the same three critical problems: affordable housing, access to health care, and “receiving fair treatment from the criminal justice system.” While the study also reveals significant hurdles—especially a lack of trust—to building black-Latino alliances in the Gulf, it notes that more than 80 percent of both groups believe those alliances are important.
Sign of Hope
While black political movements are not as effective on the national scene as they once were, there have been encouraging experiences at the local level. Mobilization around racial and economic justice has blocked the construction of big-box stores in poor urban neighborhoods, demonstrating that the kinds of appeals historically associated with black politics can still move citizens to action.
Big-box corporations such as Walmart like to put their stores in poor neighborhoods because devastated local economies offer little competition. Thanks to high unemployment, these neighborhoods also supply a pool of employees who will work for very low wages. Such corporations also perceive these minority communities as politically powerless.
Opposition to the stores has come from a variety of sources that suggest possible alliances for black activists. According to the sociologist William Sites, anti-Walmart alliances have included labor, feminists, small businesses and other preexisting commercial concerns, environmentalists, local residents, and civil and immigrant rights organizations.
The relationships between “the” black community and movements opposing Walmart have differed depending on the city; outcomes have differed too. Black and Latino communities successfully united to prevent the construction of a Walmart in Inglewood, California, just outside Los Angeles. But in Chicago the mobilization efforts failed.
In Inglewood and in Chicago, opposition was focused on many of the same concerns. Most important, African Americans and their allies in both cities by and large rejected Walmart’s argument that it was contributing to black economic empowerment. Not only did Walmart jobs pay far less than the manufacturing positions that had moved out of the proposed Chicago site, but unionized grocery jobs that other retailers could have provided there paid 50 percent more than jobs at Walmart.
In both cities Walmart sought to neutralize opposition by co-opting institutions and organizations within the black community that often had been important forces for economic justice. Walmart poured money into black civil society, funding church projects, community groups, and civil rights organizations.
But critical differences between Inglewood and Chicago helped produce the divergent results. One major difference was the role of black leaders and elected ofﬁcials. In Inglewood labor organizers, many of whom were women of color, opposed the Walmart store, helping to create unity among community members. In Chicago black elected ofﬁcials, organizations and public figures associated with civil rights, and the black ministerial community split down the middle. Some sided with unions and other anti-Walmart forces. Others, including the local NAACP and civil rights leader Andrew Young, sided with Walmart.
Frustrated anti-Walmart activists accused leaders of selling out while posturing about racial justice. But the reasons for supporting Walmart weren’t necessarily venal. Some local leaders genuinely agreed with Walmart’s claim that the store was beneficial for the community because it would provide jobs and goods. The company was able to point to the large numbers of job applications it had received, up to 50 for each opening. In two majority-black Chicago neighborhoods proposed as Walmart sites, the aldermen emphasized the extreme economic deprivation of their wards as their primary grounds for supporting Walmart. To these black leaders, the store was better than nothing.
Yet black Chicagoans overwhelmingly opposed city policies enticing Walmart and other big boxes to their communities. They also sought to restrain Walmart’s rapacity. In June 2005, 91 percent of black registered voters—and a majority of all voters—supported a citywide ordinance requiring big boxes to pay a living wage. Walmart, other big-box ﬁrms, and their allies inside and outside of municipal government tried to prevent the passage of the ordinance. Though it initially passed the city council with a “veto-proof” majority, Mayor Daley vetoed the bill anyway, and pro–big box forces launched an intense media campaign that painted the ordinance’s supporters as white outsiders unconcerned with the welfare of poor blacks in Chicago.
Even after the explicit racial framing of the debate by big-box supporters, 81 percent of black registered voters remained firmly behind the measure. Yet Daley’s veto was sustained, as three aldermen who had previously supported the bill switched their votes.
Martin Luther King warned of middle-class comfort smothering concern for justice.
Some scholars have viewed these conflicts in terms of black communities versus white labor. But the Chicago experience shows that this is a mischaracterization. At the root of the failure was the black community’s inability to hold their elected officials accountable. Black leaders in Chicago and elsewhere haven’t always appreciated black progressive organizations, but in the past those organizations could still apply pressure. I found the same pattern when I was an activist years ago in Northern California. Historically, secular and sacred black organizations inside and outside of the electoral system mobilized to hold leaders, officials, and public and private organizations accountable for their actions.
The lack of an independent black progressive movement and of independent black progressive political organizations has deprived black citizens of the institutional forces needed to hold their leaders accountable. This organizational weakness has made it harder to forge alliances outside the black community. It has also created an opening for neoliberal forces to undermine black politics even as they finance some components of black civil society.
As King, Du Bois, Malcolm X, and many other leading activists pointed out generations ago, the black elite, particularly the middle-class black elite, is very prone to compromise and forging alliances with the powers that be. King warned of the road where middle-class black comfort smothers concern for justice.
Today, segments of the black middle class and leadership provide shelter for neoliberal black elites who repeatedly work against the interests of the majority of African Americans in any number of ways, such as by supporting cuts in the social safety net, promoting big-box stores in poor communities, and backing corporate media that oppose net neutrality, without which the digital divide will be further intensified.
The Way Forward
Political and social organizing efforts are underway in many communities, but there are obstacles preventing their coalescence into a mass movement. One is the absence of coordination and information-sharing among communities—particularly those in different regions but with a common heritage of black progressive organizing.
Another is the lack of independence from immediate political concerns. We know that the grassroots can generate signiﬁcant mobilization around the campaigns of exceptional candidates, but that mobilization hasn’t produced a progressive movement with the power to last beyond the electoral cycle. Further, an independent movement is necessary for the inevitable times when one must criticize a candidate’s or ofﬁce holder’s policy positions.
Immigration also has massively transformed other communities of color, making alliance-building more challenging.
Most of all, those engaged in rebuilding black politics have to rethink the structures and roles of political organizations. They need to make new demands on the state; we need new visions that are worth fighting for.
Political discourse in the United States, and globally, naturalizes the current state of affairs—what Malcolm X would call the “American nightmare”—as the best of all possible worlds. New black institutions and movements must counter this dangerous myth with the belief that democracy, freedom, justice, egalitarianism, pleasure, health, and human development should be, and will be, consistent with our economic and political arrangements.
We must reject what the political theorist Robert Meister describes as the extreme narrowing of our aspirations, the replacement of the twentieth-century quest for social equality with a limited human rights agenda that “is generally more defensive than utopian, standing for the avoidance of evil rather than a vision of the good.” Alain Badiou warns, “If we accept the inevitability of the unbridled capitalist economy and the parliamentary politics that supports it, then we quite simply cannot see the other possibilities that are inherent in the situation in which we find ourselves.”
How do we find the way forward? Slavoj Žižek argues that we need utopias, imaginative visions of what a society based on promoting human flourishing could be, and, like Badiou, he highlights the potency of a prevailing neoliberal ideology that both thwarts analysis of our current dilemmas and promotes false ideas of the good society:
Thirty, forty years ago we were still debating about what the future would be, communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today nobody even debates this issue. We all silently accept, global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophe, the whole life on earth disintegrating because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is that it is much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism. Which means that we should reinvent utopia—but in what sense? . . . [True] utopia is a matter of innermost urgency. You are forced to imagine it as the only way out. And this is what we need today.
The great service Obama did black people and Americans more generally was to help us all once again think about the impossible. In 2008 the impossible was the election of an African American in a society that had been shaped by white supremacy. Unfortunately, President Obama has not contributed to our understanding of the possible when it comes to more just and equitable social and political institutions, or a more just, less imperialist foreign policy. Yet if a relatively small dream can come true, maybe we can dream larger dreams of a just and democratic reordering in which society and state meet their obligations to all of their emancipated and flourishing citizens.
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.
What should our utopian vision look like, and what strategies will help us achieve it? I do not know everything about how the world should be. I can only start the discussion by offering a few suggestions about what I see as necessary. These suggestions are not listed in order of priority, and, even more emphatically, they are not exhaustive. As Mosley argues, we must all develop and share our own lists, and argue in public about them.
1) Address racial resentment. Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad’s work on the racial realities of the economic crisis and white racial resentment reinforces the need for a conversation about race that presents the facts of race in America and gives Americans a context for listening to each other, so that they begin to understand their real interests. The white working and middle classes need to see that forming alliances with non-white Americans is in their own interests. We also have to counter Fox News and its allies. We still have Glenn Beck shouting to a very large and receptive audience that welfare programs such as universal health care are “stealth reparations” because they disproportionately benefit people of color. Dialogue and eventual reconciliation would be steps along the road to victory, not victory itself.
2) Rebuild the black public sphere, what I have called the black “counterpublic,” quickly and from the bottom up. The “mainstream,” predominantly white public sphere largely excludes and often demonizes the political viewpoints of the majority of African Americans on topics ranging from war in the Middle East to Katrina. The black counterpublic opposes the exclusionary tendencies of mainstream publics. To help rebuild the black counterpublic, we need to learn from the more innovative forces within the progressive movement. We can use technology to help people in neighborhoods meet and talk face-to-face and to link these smaller groups to each other. A successful black political movement will be at least as effective as the Obama campaign in using the Web to give people at the local level the tools to help them organize themselves.
3) Hit the streets in larger numbers than African Americans do now and fight for unity with the forces that are organizing for progressive, if still largely undefined, change. Franklin Roosevelt told progressive members of Congress that he agreed with them, and they needed to force him to do what they all wanted. We need a real grassroots movement, not the ersatz one foisted on us by the Obama of 2008, but one that transforms, not just “tweaks,” the system.
4) Renew our commitment to the value of meaningful work for a living wage and to an educational system that not only makes acquiring meaningful and rewarding work possible, but also allows each person to discover what it means to flourish while contributing to society.
5) Innovate and experiment. One area that desperately needs the type of innovation and experimentation generated by pragmatic-utopian thinking is the institutional arrangements that govern the functioning of modern civil society, the state, and the relationship between the two. In his book Democracy Realized, Roberto Unger argues that to achieve truly democratic societies we must concentrate on institutional changes that put into place a robust and humane democracy. Phillip Thompson and his colleagues have advocated this sort of institutional change through the “emerald cities” project. The aim is to create a large-scale partnership among labor, business, government, community organizations, and others to transform urban areas including Oakland, Cleveland, Atlanta, New York, and San Francisco. The idea, as the name indicates, is to make cities sustainable through the application of green building standards to new and existing structures. But not just that. Green projects will also create high-road, well-paid jobs and ensure work for disadvantaged populations. Moreover, with the right financing mechanisms, the gains in energy efficiency will enable the projects to pay for themselves. The principal challenge to achieving these ambitious goals is not technical or financial; it’s political. And the principal way to meet that challenge is to rebuild democratic publics—publics that are not exclusionary, that do not demonize, that serve as a democratic check on the state.
Unger argues that in order to design and implement such innovations, we must “speak in the two languages of interest calculation and political prophecy”—pragmatic utopianism. He correctly points out that institutions shape our perceptions of interests as well as our ideological predispositions, and that when designing institutions we cannot allow them to become rigid and inflexible, no longer able to serve the needs of citizens. Institutions must be able to adapt to new situations, adopt good ideas from elsewhere, and correct mistakes. Given the influence of institutions in our lives, economics, and politics, we must be willing constantly to innovate, tinker, and experiment.
6) Finally, blacks need to reclaim the proud, radical, anti-imperialist tradition of black politics. African Americans generally continue to be against the use of the American military abroad. During the first half of the 2000s, blacks, unlike most whites, believed that protesting what one thought was an unjust war was perfectly patriotic.
But since then black elites have been silent on U.S. involvement in foreign wars. And black intellectuals have not put forward anti-imperialist analyses of the mass protests in the Middle East or growing leftism in Latin America. Black movements and leaders should condemn the hypocrisy in U.S. foreign policy, whereby some despots, such as Syria’s Assad, are criticized, while others, such as the leaders of Saudi Arabia, are left relatively unscathed. There also needs to be more outrage about drone attacks that routinely kill innocent civilians and over which there is little supervision. As the political scientist Lisa Wedeen argues, we should find non-interventionist paths to oppose despotism and support democratic insurgencies. We should learn from the moral and analytical failures of the first two periods of black leftist insurgency and eschew blind faith in foreign models whether derived from China, African revolutionary movements, or the Soviet Union. But we need to try to understand the democratic currents at work globally and embrace those that are most promising for increasing democracy and well-being, even if in opposition to American foreign policy.
If a group aims to be truly emancipatory, if it is to transcend narrow self-interest and inspire others to join its cause, then its mission must be universal. Black politics must rededicate itself to overturning white supremacy—not only state-sanctioned white supremacy, but also the variety that permeates civil society in the United States. To win a better life not only for the black poor but for humanity more generally, black politics must rededicate itself to ﬁghting the rogue capitalism that today dominates all aspects of our lives. Then black politics will once again entail nothing less than the thorough transformation of the American society, economy, and state. Once again black politics will compel the support of progressives who desire the emancipation of all humanity.
Michael C. Dawson is John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and author of Not in Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics.
The Future of Black Politics, a forum with Michael C. Dawson, William Julius Wilson, Robin D. G. Kelley, and others.