When it comes to race and politics, doing better does indeed mean doing differently, as Eva Thorne and Eugene Rivers write. But it is not clear how differently things would be done if the politics of race were to be pursued along the lines they recommend.
Thorne and Rivers reject the traditional civil rights leadership of figures such as Rep. Maxine Waters and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who, in their view, have allowed themselves to be taken for granted by the Democratic Party and have been unable to mobilize a sense of solidarity linking the fates of the urban black poor—let alone those facing the AIDS catastrophe in Africa—with the success of the black middle class. Instead, the best hope for a strategy of racial justice can be found among black leaders with immigrant backgrounds and the revival of black churches taking place in the cities, for these new sources of energy, they believe, can take the resources being created by the new black middle class and add the value of moral fervor and a sense of the sacred.
While this sounds like a radical change in racial politics, it is, in fact, little different from what took place from the 1940s until the 1980s, for one simple reason: there was a far smaller black middle class in those years, which meant that black churches and immigrant black leaders were the only agents capable of furnishing the energy for the very civil rights strategy that Thorne and Rivers now find exhausted. If there is to be a new black politics, in other words, it ought to come from the new black demography. Yet, Thorne and Rivers, by confusing black professionals with black professional grievance manipulators, have a tendency to dismiss the emerging black middle class for its betrayal of the poor. They have little basis for doing so. Jesse Jackson is indeed a grievance manipulator, but his support is strong among the inner-city church-goers to whom Thorne and Rivers appeal. Hugh Price has been a sober and effective civil rights leader, but his support comes from black middle-class professionals.
Moreover, just as the old politics of civil rights found itself begging for crumbs from the table of the Democratic Party, Thorne and Rivers beg for crumbs from the Republicans. It would be difficult to imagine any policy more harmful to the black poor in America than President Bush’s plans for a 1.6 trillion dollar tax cut. While the rich would receive massive tax breaks, the poor, including the black poor, especially those who pay little or nothing in taxes, would receive little or nothing in return. To be sure, President Clinton was successful in winning black political allegiance with little more than symbols. Yet George W. Bush is just as adept at the politics of racial symbolism but would, if he had his way, harm black America far more than welfare reform ever did.
Not only that, the Bush administration, isolationist in its foreign policy inclinations, is likely to do less for the AIDS crisis in Africa than any Democratic administration would. If one were looking for a test case of when, under Republican doctrine, a foreign policy crisis should not be addressed, AIDS in Africa would be the perfect case. It involves danger and the risk of life. It costs money. It ties the country’s fate to societies that are not trading partners to the degree that countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America are. The presence of African Americans as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor will change Republican isolationism toward Africa not a whit.
Thorne and Rivers are hampered by their assumption that “black politics … should be led by black-defined political organizations and practices.” Blacks, they argue, are more likely than whites to take the plight of other blacks seriously, a position hard to reconcile with their notion that middle-class blacks have pursued an exit option from the problems of the inner city. Committed as they are to a form of racial essentialism, their only hope, once middle-class blacks are written off, is to turn to the black clergy.
But there are many other options that make themselves available the moment one recognizes that concern for the poor, including the black poor, is not tied to race. Middle-class blacks, instead of being shamed into feeling guilt for the deprived of their own race, could be far more effective in the pursuit of social justice by forming an alliance with middle-class whites to prevent the entire political system in American from tilting too far in the direction of big business. If that requires what Thorne and Rivers condemn as secularization, so be it.
The kind of work Thorne and Rivers praise—”counseling youth, policing the streets, running a program for ex-offenders, or training kids to get jobs”—is enormously important, but it is not a substitute for politics. If such tactics were to be pursued to the exclusion of litigation, campaigning, and lobbying—activities Thorne and Rivers dimissively associate with “the civil rights crowd”—whatever improvements in the private lives of individuals occurred would not be matched by any kind of responsive public life. Appreciating the sacred can make a person want a job; lobbying and litigating create and protect them.
I hope that Eugene Rivers, Ray Hammond, and the other inner-city black ministers who work with them will save the lives of thousands of young African Americans. By keeping people out of jail, helping them to get jobs, and encouraging them to lead good lives, religious leaders help make good citizens. But when people become full citizens of their society, they can and should step out on their own. At that point, they may still need moral leadership, but they will also need a sense of what their interests are and how best to achieve them. For that task, politics, more than religion, has always been the proper means.