snapshots of Black politics

Since the 2008 election, I have been privileged to spend seven or eight days in meetings with predominantly African American scholars or activists, talking about politics and Black issues.

It’s said that wherever there are two Jews, there are three opinions. That is true of most communities, at least when the political discussion is healthy, and it is certainly true of politically active Black Americans. There is much healthy disagreement. Nevertheless, I will offer a few tentative generalizations.

Obama is a widely seen as a challenge. The administration has not forthrightly addressed issues of particular significance to African Americans, such as the incarceration industry, workplace discrimination, police profiling, or teen violence. I am not sure why: it could be that the president is leery of alienating independent White voters, or it could be that his administration is not sure what to do about these problems. Or maybe they think that the Race to the Top education reform was the best response to the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Even though the president does relatively little to address the specific issues of African Americans, some loud White voices are accusing him of hating White people–as if to send a warning. Obama is increasingly controversial in Black America, too (see Lupe Fiasco, Cornel West, and others), but African American organizations are still leery of putting him in a tight spot by pressing on issues like incarceration and racial discrimination. He is, after all, the best defense now against disastrous policies. He is beset by maniacal enemies–like the people in my town who stand outside our post office with pictures of Barack Obama in a Hitler mustache, advocating for him to be removed from office as mentally incompetent under the 25th Amendment. With this going on, who wants to criticize the president for giving way too easily in budget negotiations? Nevertheless, Black groups would probably put more pressure on a White Democratic president, and they might get more action from a Democrat who was more worried about Black votes. One final irony: the flow of progressive money to the Obama campaign apparatus in 2008 caused older, community-based, Black-led political organizations to take a financial hit, which was then compounded by the recession. So the infrastructure is weaker than it was before the Obama era.

African American scholars and leaders of organizations are socioeconomically diverse, and some are relatively privileged. Yet many have deeper and more pervasive connections to people who are seriously suffering than comparable White scholars and leaders would have. In any group, some people bear private traumas. But in a group of African American leaders, the issues on the official agenda are also personal. Some participants have lost their own sibling or parents to murder. The intensity of concern is much deeper; the level of detachment, much less. Yet an inimitable, wry, worldly sense of humor often emerges to keep the intensity under some control.

The deepest irony or paradox is the combination, which everyone recognizes, of astounding progress on some fronts and disastrous setbacks on others. Today, Black scholars and leaders can gather in halls of power and privilege, connected not only by similar skin color but by personal networks to the president of the United States, the heads of major foundations and universities, and rich and influential celebrities. (Here is Cheryl Contee, who was at the meeting with me, reporting on her meeting with the president the day before.) That status was unthinkable 30 years ago. Yet the number of young Black men killed in a single year in any of our large cities is greater than all our deaths in Iraq or Afghanistan since those wars began. Where do we go from here?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.