Don't Go It Alone

Michael Dawson makes a compelling argument that the devastating conditions facing people at the bottom of today’s economic pyramid can only be changed by a healthier form of politics, energized by movements of the disadvantaged. This entails more than participation in the electoral process. Voting for black officials has not provided sufficient leverage at the administrative or legislative levels.

We do not believe that elected officials—or the constituents who support them—are personally responsible for this failure. Our critique is not an indictment of individuals. We share Dawson’s disappointment with contemporary black politics because it points to a more general problem with American politics. Poor blacks are not the only ones unable to convert their votes into political clout that yields robust and lasting change.

America is an “electocracy.” An electocracy presumes that the act of self-governing is fulfilled when citizens enjoy access to the ballot box. (Leave aside for the moment that such access is increasingly hard to come by, with Republican legislatures attempting to mitigate the unsubstantiated problem of on-site voter fraud through identification requirements that disenfranchise primarily the elderly, poor people, and electoral minorities.) In this conventional framework, only the candidate with the most votes wins. Every citizen is presumed to be represented by the winner, even if the winner opposes the citizen’s values or policy preferences.

Most often, the dominant preference of politicians is reelection. Unsurprisingly then, when blacks limit their political participation to elections, they subordinate their interests to the interests of the winning official. What moves the politician in this winner-takes-all world is not a set of principles or even the views of constituents. As Jim Wallis has articulated so memorably, “You can’t change a nation by replacing one wet-fingered politician with another. You change a nation when you change the wind.” And in our system, unfortunately, money has become the strongest wind of all.

Dawson’s solution focuses on building a “healthy black politics.” We go one step further. If blacks are going to make a difference in the 21st century, it will not be through their own movement, but through their involvement in a cross-racial coalition with other disenfranchised groups mobilized under the umbrella of “political race.”

If blacks are going to make a difference in the 21st century, it will not be through their own movement.

By political race we mean a group of people who are defined by their politics, not just their physiognomy. Race is neither lost nor hidden. Political race acknowledges racial unfairness but does not rely on phenotypic identity as the reason to capture social goods or fixed political resources. Instead race becomes a political space for organized resistance around a more transformative vision of the good society.

Consider the environmental justice movement. It originated at a 1978 meeting of the United Auto Workers, Environmentalists for Full Employment, the Sierra Club, and the Urban League in Detroit. This meeting was followed by a historic study by the United Church of Christ (UCC) that exposed the racial bias in environmental decision-making. Rather than becoming just a black movement, the environmental justice movement developed into a racially diverse coalition of poor people who have experienced the deep class- and color-based pathologies that the UCC study revealed.

The Advancement Project’s Healthy City initiative also exemplifies political race in action. It encourages neighborhoods to move beyond racial divisions in assessing the health hazards facing black and Latino communities. It expands the concerns of public health advocacy by empowering these communities to define the risks themselves.

A final example is an important educational reform in Texas called the Top Ten Percent Plan (TTP), which permits all high school graduates who finish in the top 10 percent of their classes to enroll at flagship state universities. TTP is mitigating historic class- and-race based segregation, helping to produce a student body that will mirror Texas’s diverse population. When TTP was threatened by backlash from wealthy suburban whites who previously monopolized access to the universities, poor white, black, and Latino communities formed a coalition to preserve and defend their hard-won access.

In each of these cases, blacks and Latinos linked their fates with other disenfranchised groups who share similar economic and social status or worldview, but who are separated from them and from each other by the old scripts of racial division. The goal of these political-race projects is to build constituencies of accountability rather than constituencies for electability.

We applaud Dawson’s critique: the road to political power is not through the electocracy. Rather than focusing on electing more black candidates, black progressives should build political or social movements that assert their authority beyond the voting booth and offer a better vision of what this country could be. But we believe they cannot do it alone. Political race is necessary to change the wind.