Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
At first reading, "Beyond the Civil Rights Industry" appears to be a reasonable, if somewhat neo-conservative, analysis of the political and strategic contradictions within the current generation of liberal African American leadership elites. The article's rhetorical flourishes and polemical thrusts reflect the grandiloquence of the African American Church. Yet, when their rhetoric is peeled away, there remains a poverty of constructive ideas. The authors' thesis is based on an erroneous reading of black political history and sociology. Their real goal apparently has less to do with persuading African Americans to question or challenge their middle-class leadership elites, and more with impressing potential investors on the political right who might underwrite their pet neighborhood projects. In their political opportunism, they "out-Jesse" Jesse Jackson.
According to the weird political sociology of Thorne and Rivers, America is divided into three castes: an almost monolithic white majority, the black elite, and the nonwhite masses. The whites may be either compassionate or cruel, but because they wield state power, it is in the long-term interests of black people to negotiate with them. Thorne and Rivers have a few complaints about the new Bush administration, but only because 90 percent of all African Americans believe that it is an illegitimate regime. Even so, they dismiss the Congressional Black Caucus's decision to walk out on the vote confirming Bush as president as a "symbol without substance," forgetting that symbolic political acts—like sitting in the whites-only section of a segregated public bus, or demanding service at a Jim Crow lunch counter—always provided hope to the oppressed while challenging their oppressors.
The authors imply that the black masses are stupid or foolish, because they are so completely bamboozled by black elites. But Thorne and Rivers save their true venom for African American leaders, who are repeatedly denigrated as "aging bureaucrats," "cynical," completely "out of touch," and accused of having "largely abdicated their responsibility." Why all the hostility? It may be entertaining for Boston Review's core readers—upper-class but reasonably hip white liberals—to be treated to an open struggle for prestige and power in the national black community. This conflict is hardly new, though. The arguments between traditional black clergy on one hand, and the new black professional-managerial class and liberal officials on the other goes back 150 years.
The central social institution of the African American community has always been, and remains to this day, the black church. Black faith-based institutions led the resistance against slavery and Jim Crow segregation. They actively sought to register black voters and to elect black public officials. They initiated countless community renewal efforts around issues such as neighborhood crime, homelessness, hunger, and unemployment. Progressive black clergy have long believed that the divine is expressed by practical engagement on behalf of the oppressed and by challenging the institutional evils we see around us every day. The black church fostered a public theology of resistance and renewal, and a practical politics informed by morality.
But the black preacher was largely "created" by the black community's marginalization from the mainstream. He was the only interlocutor between the segregated worlds of white and black. His salary depended on his fidelity to the concerns of black poor and working people, yet his effectiveness rested on his ability to understand the art of the deal with the whites in power. This faith-based elite dominated black politics after Reconstruction for several generations.
During the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North, influential African-American ministers were frequently integrated into conservative political machines. Municipal patronage and resources were funneled through the black church hierarchy, in return for political accommodation and racial subordination.
The first serious challengers to their hegemony were the liberal integrationists, represented by "Talented Tenth" organizations such as the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Urban League. The NAACP had grown to 250,000 members by the end of World War II by employing education, publicity, and litigation in the campaign to outlaw segregation. There was, of course, a great overlap between these competing religious and secular institutions of black civil society. Yet there was a crucial difference between them. The black church was constructed in the context of a rigidly segregated social order. Black professionals, school teachers, auto mechanics, and the unemployed frequently worshiped side by side. The NAACP's moderate leaders, like Walter White, or more liberal integrationist activists, such as Bayard Rustin, sought to build a world without racial distinctions, where the ghetto would cease to exist. In that integrated world, the power of the black church would be undermined: as other institutions opened themselves up to African Americans, the church would lose its exclusive place in black communities and black ministers would lose their special place as leaders and intermediaries.
Since the civil rights movement, a myth has been constructed that the black ministers were central actors in the desegregation struggle. This was frequently the case, but not always, or under all conditions. The majority of black Baptist leaders opposed direct involvement in sit-ins and freedom rides and forced Martin Luther King Jr. and eight hundred other clergymen to create the breakaway Progressive Baptist Convention in 1961. And so the legislative and legal triumphs of liberal integrationism—represented by the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, as well as the implementation of affirmative action—set the stage for a new African American leadership elite, the black elected officials. Black elected officials numbered barely one hundred in 1964, 1,100 by 1970, 3,500 by 1983, and over ten thousand by 1995. The power of black elected officials, like that of black ministers, was a byproduct of racially segregated residential patterns. It was no accident that the first African American elected to Congress after the Reconstruction, Oscar De Priest, represented America's most racially segregated city, Chicago. Unlike their faith-based brethren, the politicians sought to leverage the state from within. As their numbers grew, the relative power of the African American clergy declined in significance.
When the political spectrum shifted sharply to the right in the aftermath of the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions, however, the black church was pushed back onto the political playing field. While neoliberal economic policies, governmental devolution, and welfare reform spelled social devastation to the black liberal political establishment, many in the African American church saw fresh opportunities for new initiatives—all of which brings us to the current debate. To Thorne and Rivers, the vast problems of the criminal justice system conjure up strategies for a "tough love approach" that churches have traditionally supported—instead of sensible, if radical, solutions, such as a national moratorium on new prison construction, the restoration of full voting rights for 4.3 million ex-felons, and the outlawing of draconian mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders. Likewise, Thorne and Rivers see the AIDS epidemic as an opportunity for moral leadership from church leaders in the United States—not as a part of the vast social crisis that has been accelerated by globalization and corporate trade policy.
The challenge for the black left, however, is that faith-based institutions still perform much of the "heavy lifting" inside the African-American community. We have to find a greater place in our political practice for mobilizing and working cooperatively with religious institutions and their leaders. Yet, the thorny dilemma for black churches still remains: community service providers that have a growing dependence on the federal government will probably disengage from militant social protest movements of the sort that brought down Jim Crow and are needed to improve the condition of all black Americans today. The real challenge for the black freedom movement is to engage capacity building at grassroots levels, creating a new kind of leadership not from the top down, but the bottom up.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
What we have achieved this year—and our plans for 2023.
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.