Build Locally

I appreciate the risk that Michael Dawson has taken by reflecting courageously on the future of black politics. It is a complicated topic, and there are many with strong and conflicting views of black political activity—past, present, and future.

I do have some concerns about his analysis, though. And I disagree with many of his assumptions.

Assumption number one: the status of black political movements “has been lost.” If the assumption is that exclusively black political movements have lost influence, that may be true. But even the civil rights movement was not exclusively black. It was black-led, but strongly supported by those of other races. Today powerful citizens organizations that are either majority black—such as BUILD in Baltimore and East Brooklyn Congregations and EQUAL in New York, all affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation—or more evenly multiracial have made major advances. The living wage movement in the United States started with BUILD in 1994. Bishop Douglas Miles and other local black clergy were in the forefront of this achievement. Since then, millions of American workers have benefited from better pay. The rebuilding of East Brooklyn, East Baltimore, the South Bronx, and parts of the District of Columbia was spearheaded by black leaders such as Pastors Johnny Ray Youngblood, David K. Brawley, Bert Bennett, Christine Wiley, Lionel Edmonds, and Joe Daniels. The Massachusetts health reform movement, a forerunner of national reform, was a product of black clergy including the Reverend Hurmon Hamilton of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. The list goes on. Black leaders and black institutions, largely religious, have lost none of their savvy, strength, and initiative. On the contrary, the impact of black leaders and institutions, in coalition with others, has grown.

Assumption number two: “The lack of leadership from progressive black movements is apparent in the Occupy actions that have swept the country to protest economic injustice.” I believe that black leaders have exercised good judgment by observing the Occupy activities and keeping their distance. The lack of black participation in part reflects the reality of overwhelming white, elite leadership and a fever of media hysteria on the left. The best of the Occupy activists brought into sharp focus issues—predatory lending, the foreclosure crisis—that black institutions, again in coalition, began drawing attention to years earlier.

We have power in some communities, cities, and states. We struggle to exercise that power in effective ways.

Assumption number three: “There is a disconnect between black organizing and other mobilizations on behalf of labor, suffrage, and radical economic reform.” Left out of this formulation, again, is the extraordinary spread of black participation to multiracial and multi-faith organizations in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. The disconnect I see is between the on-the-ground work of black institutions and the interests and attention of the media and academic communities of all races. These observers pay little attention to the tangible gains of black leaders and organizations. In part, this may be because these organizations operate outside the predictable modes of social movements. We honor and revere those who came before us, but we do not simply reenact their strategies and language. We attempt to build on their legacy by adapting our strategies to the power dynamics of our times. We have power in some communities and cities and states. We struggle to exercise that power in effective ways. We partner with other institutions and power centers. We celebrate the rebuilding of neighborhoods, improvements in learning, and increases in wages that we have helped to bring about. Those looking for a repeat of the past may miss all of this. Those looking for today’s successful black institutions may need to refocus.

Assumption number four: “The interracial political unity that is supposed to herald a truly post-racial society . . . does not exist.” This is just wrong. Dawson should attend one of our assemblies. He would see people of all races, focused on issues, winning on some, struggling with others, but learning to operate together in the public arena with mutual support and respect. “Post-racial” or otherwise, we are happy to live in a society of many races, each respected and proud of its own history and culture.

Assumption number five: there is an “absence of coordination and information-sharing among communities” involved in progressive black politics. Again, this doesn’t reflect my experience as an organizer.

Dawson is a product of Chicago, the city that defeated Dr. King because the Democratic machine could not stand any challenge to its influence. Perhaps Dawson’s views have been influenced by that history and by the current context: in Hyde Park, the University of Chicago thrives, while Woodlawn, the historic black community to the south, is at least half empty and vulnerable to the expansion of the university. When he looks out his window, he may well see a reality that supports his views.

But if he were to travel beyond those precincts, he would find black leaders and black institutions working constructively, deliberately, and joyfully to rebuild their communities and cities and states.

Is this a national movement? No. Is this the kind of power that can rebuild cities, revive communities, and, when taken together, contribute to the vitality of a nation? Yes.