Divided Loyalties

Michael Dawson’s righteous and provocative essay appears not a moment too soon. Black public intellectuals have, save a few exceptions, failed us in the age of Obama. The debate about race, racial inequality, and black politics has been largely polarized into two camps, either for or against the president. The few that attempt to provide more nuanced analyses of contemporary racial politics are mostly marginalized or ignored.

So Dawson’s proposal is refreshing because for the most part it, rightly, ignores Obama. And it is inspired in thinking through the transformative possibilities of a progressive black politics at a time when Occupy Wall Street has focused national political discourse on inequality.

I agree with Dawson’s analysis of the problem and much of his call to action, especially the urgent need to rebuild a radical and vibrant black politics around pragmatic utopias that acknowledge things as they are and imagine the society we want to create. And I can’t help but be struck by how Dawson’s vision—of a transformative black politics that challenges white supremacy and capitalism—resonates with one the late Manning Marable long articulated.

Yet, I have some disagreements. One minor quibble: Dawson writes, “The existence of ‘the’ black community can no longer be assumed. It must be articulated politically.” Yet his essay assumes a semi-unified notion of “black.” I believe we might be at the point of no return to eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century notions of what constitutes black politics.

My more substantive disagreements concern organization and representation. Dawson claims that a “healthy black politics is indispensable” for movements that advance democracy and social justice in the United States, and he laments its decline. While I agree with his call to rebuild the black public sphere as a way to increase democratic capacity, I am skeptical for two reasons. First, where is the empirical data showing that black civil society has eroded significantly in the last decades? Evidence indicates a decline in individual-level black political participation, but the decline in black organizational capacity is less clear.

Black organizations may, however, have changed, with consequences for black politics. For instance, the new African American mega-churches differ from their historic predecessors in form—relying much more on a professionalized paid staff as opposed to rank-and-file volunteers—and in content—preaching a “prosperity gospel” that arguably cuts against transformative black collective action.

Second, Dawson implicitly links organizational capacity, progressive political mobilization, and accountability. Yet, while a progressive ecosystem of unions, grassroots community-based organizations, and revived federated groups such as the NAACP mobilized against inequality for years, it is the relatively loose network of social media–connected individuals comprising Occupy Wall Street that changed the national political discourse. In a little more than two months, they did what some organizations on the left have been trying to achieve for twenty years. Perhaps the capacities of traditional organizations are not that important after all.

Beyond skepticism about organizational capacity, I worry that where Dawson finds hope for rebuilding a vibrant black civil society—in his example of mobilization against big-box stores in black communities—he misreads history. Drawing partly on research I’ve conducted with Virginia Parks, I agree that success in Inglewood, California and failure in Chicago reflected different ways in which African Americans and their allies mobilized. But Dawson cites as critical the failure of Chicago’s black community “to hold their elected officials accountable.” This is curious for two reasons.

Incompatible and irreconcilable interests among blacks represent the fundamental challenge to today’s black politics.

First, both the labor and black communities had internal splits. The mostly white building trades were pro-Walmart—building and construction unions have been a core partner in contemporary urban pro-development coalitions. Service and public sector unions, the majority of whose members are people of color, allied on the other side with progressive black organizations.

Second, black elected officials were responsive and accountable to their constituents. Those in the city council who supported Walmart were being responsive to Chicago’s black neoliberal business elite as well as some poor and working-class African American residents who hoped a new store would provide jobs and offer cheap retail options in their neighborhoods. The black council members who opposed Walmart were responsive to different black constituents: poor and working-class blacks making social justice claims against the country’s largest private employer, and black small-business owners facing certain extinction if forced to compete with Walmart.

Incompatible and irreconcilable interests among blacks represent the fundamental challenge of 21st-century black politics. While black communities have always had a class divide, its sources have changed. Under Jim Crow segregation, black economic elites depended on black consumers, tethering black capitalists to the larger black community. Drawing on a term Dawson uses elsewhere, that business arrangement created a sense of “linked fate.” Today, black economic elites not only have sources of income and wealth outside the black community, but their collective interests are at odds with those of the majority of black Americans. There is no going back.

I’m not as optimistic as Dawson about the chances that black political leaders will begin to represent all segments of black communities, particularly poor or LGBT people. It is equally likely that black political elites will continue to engage in processes of secondary marginalization. Indeed things could get worse. After all, black mayors and other mayors of color—in Oakland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and elsewhere—have behaved no differently, and often worse, than their white counterparts in responding to Occupy protests.