Who Cares About Race?

In his classic book Behind the Mule, Michael Dawson contends that the perceived uniformity of black political behavior and policy preferences is a product of “linked fate,” the idea that what happens to blacks as a group affects blacks as individuals. He argues that blacks who profess a strong belief in linked fate are more likely to support policies that promote the well-being of blacks as a group, even if those policies harm their personal economic interests.

Every year in my undergraduate black politics class, when I close the unit on Behind the Mule, I ask students to consider Dawson’s prediction, at the end of the book, that continued black political unity is predicated on two conditions: continuing racism targeting blacks and decreasing intra-racial class inequality. If racism persists in the face of decreased class inequality, a distinct, relatively unified black body politic will persist. If racism and class inequality both decrease, classic pluralism will flourish. If racism decreases in the face of heightened class inequality, blacks and whites in similar class strata will unite to fight for their class interests. And if racism persists in the face of heightened class inequality, there will be “two black movements,” one for upwardly mobile blacks and one for poor blacks.

My students’ responses surprise me year after year. Having just spent a semester learning about persistent inequality and structural racism, they nonetheless most often predict the “unite and fight” scenario. They contend that while they perceive class inequality, they do not think racism is as salient as it once was.

Their reactions shed light on the problems facing black politics today. Structural issues impede effective organization, and disagreement about the very nature of racism and how best to attack it also presents an obstacle. The latter can create robust discussion, but sadly, it can also hasten the emergence of permanent, class-based fissures within the black political community.

Dawson notes the decline of civil rights organizations, particularly protest organizations. A number of factors contribute to this phenomenon. A decade ago, Robert Putnam noted the rise of “checkbook organizations,” or lobbying groups that recruit large numbers of dues-paying members via subscription drives. These groups can boast of their large memberships on Capitol Hill, but they have no intention of calling upon their members to sacrifice time and convenience for the cause.

In three polls, only 1–2 percent of black respondents named race relations as the most pressing national issue.

A similar phenomenon took place in the civil rights community. As James Q. Wilson notes in Political Organizations, civil rights organizations that converted to lobbying groups survived, while protest-centered organizations eventually fell by the wayside. Moreover, as black activists heeded Bayard Rustin’s call to move “from protest to politics” and became elected officials, there were fewer experienced agitators left within civil rights organizations to hold black elected officials accountable and keep them from becoming, in the words of Robert Smith, “coopted.”

This increasing passivity of social movement activism—and the free-rider problem that it creates—are at the heart of Dawson’s lament. But it is important to note the attitudinal roots of the demise of black politics as well. Blacks are still overwhelmingly unified in their voting behavior, and there are marked differences in political attitudes among blacks and whites. According to the 2004 National Politics Survey, more than two-thirds of blacks profess a belief in linked fate. However, blacks, like my students, may think about racism differently. In 2000, 2004, and 2008, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies offered black survey participants a list of issues—such as the economy, the Iraq War, and health care—and asked them to pick “the single most important problem” facing the country. In all three polls, only 1–2 percent of respondents named race relations as the most pressing issue. In addition, the political scientist Katherine Tate recently documented increased policy moderation among blacks, a trend she attributes to the growth of the black middle class and tactical conservatism within the Democratic Party.

These factors conspire to mute the voices of the most dispossessed within the black community. To be sure, scholars such as Adolph Reed have long argued that the interests of the black middle class have been misrepresented as the interests of all blacks. Today, though, structural factors and the shift from protest to politics have solidified the dominance of the upwardly mobile in shaping black politics. If emerging leaders from these more privileged cohorts share their generation’s view that racism is of decreasing importance, if our electoral system privileges black candidates who deemphasize racial issues for the sake of crossover appeal, and if elected and protest leaders do not, as the late scholar-activist Ronald Walters recommended, develop collaborative strategies to bring racial justice and poverty to the fore, then issues of racial and economic justice will continue to be underrepresented in American politics.