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There is much in Michael Dawson’s vision for the future of black politics that I wholeheartedly endorse. I, too, think that any progressive social movement in the United States must include a well-organized and mobilized black political wing. I agree that blacks need greater political power and a robust public sphere if they, together with their allies, are to secure racial and economic justice. But I reject his claim that the revitalization of black politics depends on rebuilding independent black organizations. That’s a vision rooted in the past rather than looking toward the future. Instead, we should focus on building and strengthening multiracial political organizations that work for progressive goals.
There is no question that black politics needs organization and institutional power to be effective—to influence policy, to coordinate grassroots action, to hold government officials accountable, and to affect public debate. However, the relevant organizations should, whenever possible, be multiracial. Blacks are only 12 percent of an increasingly diverse population, so their ability to bring about structural transformation depends crucially on building alliances with progressives from other racial and ethnic groups. The frequent misunderstandings and failures to recognize shared interests between blacks and their potential allies are best remedied by more interracial contact and cooperation, not less. And if blacks are really more progressive than other groups on racial and economic justice issues, as Dawson claims, then they should be talking less to each other and engaging more in dialogue and debate with non-blacks whom they might be able to persuade to adopt more egalitarian positions.
Dawson insists that we need independent black organizations if we are to hold black leaders accountable. But black elected officials could be held accountable through elections if we had a more democratic system, one that didn’t give rich people and large corporations undue influence over elections and public policy. This suggests that blacks should join forces with those fighting for a fairer electoral system and campaign finance reform, regardless of their race. We of course need well-run organizations able to pressure government officials. But again, these organizations can be racially diverse, with each member an equal. Self-appointed spokespersons for “the race” are obsolete—they don’t need to be held accountable; they need to be delegitimized.
Spokespersons for ‘the race’ are obsolete. They don’t need to be held accountable; they need to be delegitimized.
Dawson claims, “Organizational weakness has made it harder to forge alliances outside the black community.” But why can’t progressive interracial alliances be forged within the same organizations—blacks inviting non-black members and organizations with few if any black members encouraging more blacks to join? There seems to be an unwarranted assumption here that interracial alliances need to be between independent black organizations and non-black organizations or that these alliances have to be brokered by the leaders of such organizations, when they could be forged directly between progressive segments of the black population and like-minded persons from other groups.
Consider the NAACP. We shouldn’t think of it as a “black” organization, but as an organization that defends the civil rights of all citizens and fights for racial justice. All who share its values are welcome to join and support it financially, and any person, regardless of race, can become a leader within it.
My skepticism about Dawson’s emphasis on rebuilding independent black organizations should not be construed as a rejection of black solidarity. Such group unity, though not without its problems, is still vital because of three lamentable facts. First, many Americans believe that racial equality has been achieved and that the remaining disadvantages blacks face are best explained by the failings of blacks themselves. Second, there is much racial resentment toward blacks (exacerbated by Obama’s presidency) and a general indifference toward the suffering of the black urban poor. Third, because they fear alienating white support, many so-called liberal pragmatists refrain from openly advocating policies that would bring about substantive racial equality or directly address the problem of black-ghetto poverty. Given these realities, blacks have to maintain their bonds with one another—to watch each other’s backs—to ensure that the political organizations that they participate in (including the Democratic Party) do not neglect or marginalize their interests.
Dawson rightly praises King’s pragmatic utopianism, and he recommends a return to the spirit and politics of King’s underappreciated Where Do We Go from Here. But Dawson seems not to have taken to heart the lessons from King’s trenchant critique of black power ideology. Cultivating multiracial organizations and maintaining black solidarity within them strikes the right balance between utopian aspiration and political realism. Black politics need not be anchored in a set of organizations that blacks control. It can and should be rooted in blacks’ joint ethical commitment to protect each other and to fight for justice and mutual respect.
Black movements have historically been at the forefront of progressive change. But with black civil society in retreat, how can we rebuild black politics?
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