Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
There is much in "Beyond the Civil Rights Industry" that I agree with. The persistence of poverty, ill-health, AIDS diffusion, and despair in poor black communities is evident. The ineffectiveness of black political and civic leaders and institutions, the loss of confidence of the young in black civil rights leadership, and the lack of internal focus and mobilization within black communities is beneath the surface but no less salient. That many churches across the country have stepped into a void in the lives of people living in communities vitiated by failing schools, drugs, and prisons—communities bypassed by national civil rights leaders, who became enchanted with their insider access to the halls of Congress and the bench of the Supreme Court—is welcome.
Thorne's and Rivers's analysis of the causes of the malaise are more problematic. Much of their argument blames the "black political and professional class" that has "betrayed" the democratic promise of the civil rights movement. The politicians and professionals have "seized new opportunities, but largely as an exit option from their people." Why did the black elite do this? Thorne and Rivers are not sure: "Whether this abdication is fueled by selfishness, ignorance, or simple indifference … the results are bad." Black elites, according to Thorne and Rivers, have strayed from their golden moral past: "What is lost for elites in that community is the resolve and focus that come of consciously living a life by shared moral standards."
Despite their betrayal, black elites remain, Thorne and Rivers argue, more connected to the black poor than are whites, and "the black poor still trust black leadership more than white." Moreover, since Thorne and Rivers are relying on the resources of black professionals to finance the movement of a newly awakened black community, they admit that this group does "include a critical mass with moral interests in being mobilized, and enough resources to matter if they had a common project." Black elites will be attracted to such a movement ostensibly because their lives have lost meaning without the "resolve" and "focus" of close-knit black communities.
There are some problems, I think, with this analysis of the black middle class. First, the black middle class is neither as bad now, nor was as good before, as Thorne and Rivers make it out to be. Members of today's black middle class were encouraged by their parents in the 1970s and 1980s to go to college and enter into various professions then in the midst of opening their doors to young African Americans, Latinos, and women. Black civil rights leaders heralded this as an achievement—as part of the promise of the civil rights movement being realized. The black middle class bought homes in more affluent white neighborhoods, but this again was heralded as a black achievement, dutifully chronicled in Ebonyand Jet. Far from betrayal, the black middle class did what their parents and civil rights leaders told them to do. Betrayal would have meant not studying hard, or failing to save and invest in a new home. But the unintended consequence of the black middle class's integration into the corporate and civic mainstream was physical dispersion and individual preoccupation with career issues. This did indeed break down the structure of traditional black communities, but not due to betrayal.
Not only is the black middle class not as bad now as Thorne and Rivers make them out—they were never that good. Previous generations of middle-class blacks wrestled with their own moral dilemma—how to work with dominant white elites in order to make at least some gain for black people, but at the same time distance themselves from (or repress) their poorer brothers and sisters in order to hold on to their elevated positions. This was true of the house slave and the field slaves. It was true of Du Bois's Talented Tenth, who disparaged the uneducated masses, their "helpless sheep," at the turn of last century. It applied to black social reformers of the New Deal, who excluded all but the "best Negroes" from needed public housing. It was true of the NAACP of the 1950s, when it capitulated to McCarthyite red baiting and expelled hundreds of trade unionists from its ranks—the group that most tightly linked the middle-class civil rights organization to the demands of the black working poor.
If we need a black culprit to blame for today's class split among blacks, we can blame middle-class civil rights leaders for the compromises they made in structuring a limited black middle-class integration at the expense of the black poor. Andrew Young wrote, "the civil rights movement was not aimed at ending poverty. It did not focus on economic issues…. If you talked too much about class and poverty, you were characterized as a communist, therefore very few wanted to raise economic issues at that time…. But we knew we would have to deal with poverty someday." So much for the golden past when the black middle class was really in touch with the poor.
There is no new "revolt" of the black middle class today. They are caught, as usual, in a buffer position. Fearful, overwhelmed, and enticed by the power and resources of white institutions on the one hand. Guilt-ridden, anguished, and angry that the institutions they work for cannot be made more sensitive and responsive to black needs on the other hand. Their compassion for the black poor has long been mixed with disdain, fear, and (frequently) ignorance of the black "lower classes."
More troubling is Thorne's and Rivers's uncritical treatment of the black church. I certainly join them in applauding the efforts of many churches across the country in counseling youth, policing the streets, running programs for ex-offenders, housing the homeless, training kids to get jobs, providing HIV services, and more. But there are also some well-known problems in advocating that the church become the vehicle for the emergence of a post-civil rights black leadership. One is the domination of the pulpit by men. It is hard to imagine the second-coming of a church-led political movement with black women again shouldering the daily organizational work of the movement but consigned to a backseat leadership role as minister's wives, pastor's aides, or members of the ladies auxiliaries.
A second problem is homophobia. It is interesting that Thorne and Rivers do not mention lesbians and gays in their list of diverse peoples whose interests "matter equally." There is also no mention of difficulty of combating AIDS in black communities due to the taboo on discussions of homosexuality—fueled in no small part by black churches who view lesbian and gay lifestyles as sinful.
Another potential problem is co-optation and entrepreneurial competition among ministers who become engaged in delivering services in communities. While there is no reason to fear corruption among ministers more than with any other group, there is also no reason to fear it less. If churches are to become central vehicles for black political empowerment, then churches have to become much more democratic institutions, and ministers cannot be allowed to conceal their personal ambitions and pecuniary interests behind the veil of a "sacred" mission or divine ordainment. To demand less would simply replace one unaccountable elite with another.
Finally, Thorne and Rivers offer a forward-looking political program and strategy. Their program consists of equalizing wages between inner-city and suburban workers, fighting for drug treatment over punitive drug policies, and fighting the AIDS epidemic, especially in Africa. This is a good starting point for a policy discussions. But how can these objectives to be met? Thorne and Rivers want churches to, "partner with African governments to spearhead a drive to support community care structures." They also want churches to, "develop pragmatic, strategic relationships to the US Agency for International Development, the World Bank and other international agencies to demand debt cancellation for African nations." For expanding job opportunity and in building a social justice movement for livable wages, churches can "provide a natural platform for the expansion of such programs, and the development of new ones." In the area of crime and drugs, churches are again the answer. Their, "roots in these troubled communities gives them better information, and greater trust among residents, than even the best intentioned 'community policing' or government-led social service agency will ever have. Let them at least have the chance … to show their worth." The Bush administration is interesting, we are told, because they may fund some black churches to do all of these things.
We now come to the heart of the matter. Can the black church trust the Bush administration? What will be the political price for accepting Bush's patronage? Thorne and Rivers say that it is too early to tell, but they see some "promising" signs in the Bush administration. And what are these promising signs? The appointment of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice? If that is promising, why aren't they advocating that the United States spend money to fight AIDS and reduce crushing debt in Africa, rather than supporting trillion-dollar tax cuts. The Bush administration's decision not to count millions of minorities missed by the latest census also does not seem promising. In fact, the Bush administration's outreach to the black church seems little more than a cynical ploy to simultaneously divide the black vote and cover its tracks after a close vote and callous suppression of voting rights in Florida. If the black community is suffering now due to their leaders' dependence on patronage from the Democratic Party, how much better-off will African Americans be depending on patronage from a Republican Party whose main domestic slogan is don't tax virtuous wealthy people (guess who they are) to help undeserving poor people (guess who they are)?
What the black community needs is not another crowd of flattered and infatuated black White House supplicants, but independent political and policy institutions that it manages to finance itself and that it can hold accountable. As Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton pointed out nearly thirty years ago, African Americans need at least enough of a political and policy infrastructure to regularly assess who their friends are and to agree on policy objectives. If this is the goal, a good starting point would be to survey the resources that African Americans already possess, with an eye to making those resources more politically effective. Thorne and Rivers begin to do this with their discussion of black middle-class resources, but their discussion is far too limited. They do not discuss black trade unions whatsoever. One gets the impression that the most concentrated sources of black wealth and power are black professionals. This is untrue. Three predominately black local unions in New York City (DC 37 of AFSCME, TWU, and 1199) together have 250,000 regular dues-paying members in New York City alone. They have tens of billions of dollars in pension investments, and they contribute millions to state and local election campaigns every year. What is true of black labor in New York is also true of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, and many other cities. The black working class, in other words, is a whole lot more organized and powerful than disorganized black professionals.
So why don't black church leaders implore black trade union leaders to invest their pension dollars back into the poor black communities where their union members live? Instead of allowing black consumers to fatten the pockets of utility companies and drug manufacturers, why don't churches and unions organize consumer cooperatives to bring the prices down—and use a portion of the price reduction to fund institution-building? Why can't churches and unions come together to push for shareholder resolutions on companies that put patent rights over human rights in Africa? Why are Thorne and Rivers telling us about projects at Harvard, butnothing about the policies of black union organizations containingmillions of dues-paying black people? Before rushing to the White House for patronage and recognition from the Bush administration, there is some important recognition and solidarity work that needs to be done at home.
J. Phillip Thompson is Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. His most recent book is Double Trouble: Black Mayors, Black Communities, and the Call for a Deep Democracy.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Both regulators and employers have embraced new technologies for on-the-job monitoring, turning a blind eye to unjust working conditions.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.