A New Progressive Generation

I share Michael Dawson’s fury and frustration over rising economic inequality in the United States (and elsewhere) and over persistent racial discrimination. I also agree that robust political action through a vibrant movement on the left is essential to solving these problems. But I disagree that “rebuilding black progressive movements” is the route to change. That strategy is both over- and under-inclusive.

It is over-inclusive because shifts in the class structure of African American populations make unified action even less likely than Dawson fears. This is not merely a matter of elites who have sold out or of the inevitable portion of any group that will never be politicized, and it is certainly not a claim that the United States is becoming a post-racial society, a claim that no serious scholar and few serious commentators would make. The point is that when it comes to blacks’ economic status today, “the mean is low and the variance is high” (a phrase the political scientist Philip Converse used to describe Americans’ political savvy). While the members of the poorest quintile are destitute, suffer disproportionately high unemployment, intensive incarceration, and segregation from better-off communities, the highest-income quintiles enjoy better education and good jobs. Even well-off blacks face continuing disadvantage compared to whites—especially with regard to wealth, as Dawson points out—but they have a lot more to lose than their chains. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the most recent high point of black political activism, things looked very different.

African Americans, particularly the young who are essential to any robust political movement, perceive these changes. In a 2007 Pew study, almost two-fifths of all blacks, and an even higher proportion of young blacks, agreed that “blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race because the black community is so diverse.” Three-fifths of blacks, compared with just over half of whites, agreed that “the values held by middle class black people and the values held by poor black people [have] become more different” over the past decade, rather than more similar. More than half of blacks agreed that the main reason many blacks can’t get ahead is a lack of responsibility for their own condition; less than a third chose discrimination as the main factor. And young adults were more likely than older adults to choose “their own fault” over “discrimination.” This is not a promising foundation for a uniquely black progressive movement.

More than half of blacks think that if they can’t get ahead, it’s their own fault.

But there is a more hopeful path, if we focus on where Dawson’s proposal is under-inclusive. As Dawson points out but does not emphasize, Latinos, whose numbers are rising in the United States, are potential allies, though by no means certain ones. Coalitions across groups are notoriously hard to develop and sustain over a long period of time, and political scientists have few convincing theories about successful coalition formation. Nevertheless, cross-group alliances are the best hope for an effective social justice movement over the next few decades.

Why? The first reason is demographics. Like sportsmen, political activists must hunt where the ducks are. Immigrants, mainly Latinos, are living near blacks. Immigrants are a disproportionately young population, and an increasing share are native-born, thus citizens who can vote and make legal claims on the state. Second, immigrants are politically active. They and their allies have demonstrated their willingness to protest; the immigrants’ rights marches of 2006 were arguably the most dramatic progressive action since the 1963 March on Washington. Finally, psychology plays a role. Immigrants come to the United States because of their passionate commitment to improving their own lives and the lives of their families. Channeling that passion into political activism could generate a force as powerful as the one that uprooted them from their home countries to begin with.

Whites can also be useful allies in the effort to rebuild progressive movements. More than half of the blacks responding to the 2007 Pew survey agreed that “in the last 10 years, the values held by black people and the values held by white people [have] become more similar.” In some surveys, though not all, the views of young whites and blacks are more similar than are the views of young adults of either race and the views of their same-race elders. Young whites are more likely than older whites to oppose anti-immigrant laws such as Arizona’s and Alabama’s and to favor racial mixture in families, schools, and workplaces. Some have occupied city parks on behalf of the poor.

I hope Dawson is right that it is possible to create a new progressive social movement. I also hope that he and his allies work to target those most likely to participate today rather than those who would have been a generation ago.