The Leading Edge

The two central arguments of my essay are that no progressive movement can be successful if it fails to take on both racial and economic injustice, and that rebuilding progressive black movements—there is more than one type—is a necessity in forging a wider multiracial progressive movement.

At their best, progressive black political movements were never based on an essentialist notion of blackness or some mythical African past but on the twin and ever-relevant foundations of solidarity: first, a sense that one African American’s fate was linked to that of other African Americans, and, second, shared political sensibilities. These radical and radically different shared sensibilities included a vision of racial and economic justice, opposition to imperialist American foreign policy, and confidence in the capacity of a strong central government to uphold human rights against reactionary states rights forces. These combined with a robust and critical activism willing to challenge injustice whether it emerged from civil society, corporate elites, or state policy.

As I describe in Not In Our Lifetimes, public opinion data show that this political solidarity is still alive and surprisingly healthy among African Americans. Despite what Jennifer Hochschild claims, some 70 percent of blacks today believe their fates are linked. And in direct opposition to large majorities of white Americans, large majorities of blacks opposed U.S. military intervention in Iraq, believe that protest against the war was not unpatriotic, and believe that the aftermath of the Katrina disaster taught us much about the continued nature of racial inequality within the United States.

Hochschild’s viewpoint—that young African Americans are unlikely to join a movement built around racial justice and that, “like sportsmen, political activists must hunt where the ducks are”—represents a dangerous and old-fashioned myth of the American left, one that goes back a hundred years: that the quest for racial justice should be deferred, or is no longer relevant, or is secondary to more important claims for justice. It is as misguided now as it was in the early twentieth century, when Socialist Party leaders, in the name of building a multiracial coalition, refused to support progressive black movements. Progressive black movements have always been capable of joining with other progressive forces across racial lines—which cannot be said of many other groups in the United States—and of criticizing reactionary elements within black communities.

My disagreements with other respondents are less pointed. I share William Julius Wilson’s enthusiasm for developing public messages that “help ordinary Americans become more aware of how global economic changes as well as monetary, fiscal, and social policies have increased social inequality.” As he explains, these messages should make clear that “many of the government’s policies exacerbate rather than alleviate the economic stresses of ordinary families.” Wilson is also right about not viewing problems in the black community from solely the standpoint of race. But I stress that we should not sharply distinguish racial from economic justice. We need to give both their due, along with the struggle against patriarchy. As black feminists have been trying to teach us for decades, one must embrace intersectionality—understand, that is, that the racial order, class system, and patriarchy are mutually constitutive and that each is shaped and expressed through its interaction with the others.

Building a political movement is not an either-or scenario. As I have argued, black political movements have historically formed a leading edge of American democratic and progressive causes. This view of the potential of black political movements is consistent with Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres’s concept of “political race.” Solidarity has a political, not a “phenotypic,” basis; racial injustice is acknowledged and attacked, but the aims of the movement are universal: justice for all and the crafting of a society that supports rather than eviscerates the possibility for human flourishing.

Black solidarity must be institutionalized and organized, not simply felt.

Tommie Shelby supports black solidarity, but he calls for “multiracial political organizations that work for progressive goals.” As someone who spent years in such organizations, I agree that this should be a key aim. Shelby also argues that blacks need to retain the bonds of solidarity in order to “ensure that the political organizations that they participate in . . . do not neglect or marginalize their interests.” I agree with that too, but I believe black solidarity must be institutionalized and organized, not simply felt. Independent black organizations are the most effective way to do that.

I was a union activist for several years, serving as both shop steward and member of my SEIU local’s contract negotiating team. With black progressives, I worked both within the union and within a black caucus that kept black workers’ concerns about racial injustice on the union’s agenda and that often formed the union’s most militant faction when it came to general demands. Many of us were members of black community organizations and multiracial progressive organizations as well. These different organizations enhanced each other’s effectiveness. Some black activists are more comfortable in black organizations, some in multiracial organizations; some are comfortable in both. A vibrant movement incorporates a variety of organizational forms with overlapping divisions of labor.

My emphasis on black solidarity is not meant to paper over the real divides within black communities that Andra Gillespie and Dorian Warren identify. Gillespie astutely argues that the interests of less affluent blacks are underrepresented in a society where a middle class–dominated black leadership increasingly embraces neoliberal politics. Many leaders fail to challenge harmful economic policies and are satisfied with an apathetic, demobilized black community. Yet, as King, Du Bois, and many others argued in the last century, these tensions are not new. One central task of a progressive black movement is to challenge conciliatory and downright reactionary black leaders who accept the political and economic arrangements that devastate poor communities, especially poor communities of color.

In Chicago, a city that Warren and I know well, black politicians in the 1930s cooperated with the police and landlords to evict poor black tenants even as they portrayed themselves as “race men.” Black leftists and their allies challenged them. History suggests a perennial need to challenge black leaders who aid the exploitation of the poor. It also tells us that we need both multiracial and black progressive organizations to challenge unjust economic and racial orders. As Robin Kelley argues, a black progressive presence is necessary precisely to take on the “black 1 percent.”

Rev. O’Connor confuses assumptions with data. For the record, virtually all my work as a student, union, and community organizer was in Northern California, not the cold black precincts of Chicago. But I’m not arguing that interracial cooperation or effective local black organizing is absent, even in Chicago. I am concerned about what can be done to rebuild national progressive movements capable of taking on the very large challenges we face from rapacious global capitalism and its political arms. I understand from the work of historians such as Glenda Gilmore, Robin Kelley, and Aldon Morris that disconnected local movements, both successful and unsuccessful, were often the precursors of the national civil rights and black power movements that were, in many ways, able to reshape institutions, beliefs, and society. We must have a coordinated movement that is national in scope.

I am sure that O’Connor’s work on a local scale is good and effective, but we need to look at the whole country. The racial divide, as deep as it is in some cities, is much larger when we realize most white Americans do not live in major cities. The national public opinion data is unambiguous and extremely consistent: blacks and whites are as deeply divided politically as they are geographically.

We in America’s urban core sometimes forget that the political realities outside the cities are far more hostile than the realities of our day-to-day lives. Without acknowledging the racial resentment and hostility that shape the political views of all Americans, building the multiracial movement we want, one that can fight all forms of injustice, will be impossible.