New York Times Attempts to Define and Dictate Black Politics
New York Times Attempts to Define and Dictate Black Politics
by BAR executive editor
"Black people are not working themselves into an election
year frenzy just to commit political suicide by disbanding as a bloc."
The New York Times, the nation‘s preeminent corporate
mouthpiece, has unabashedly called for the dissolution of independent Black
politics in the United States. Although the paper's Sunday magazine cover story
may seem at first skim to be simply an overlong paean to Barack Obama, its intent
goes way beyond the presidential race, and is embedded in the title: "Is
Obama the End of Black Politics?" Author Matt Bai and his employers
fervently hope the answer is, Yes.
The wishful headline sits atop a pile of false assumptions
and outright untruths about contemporary and historical Black politics. Hardly
a cogent set of facts can be found in the entire piece; it is comprised almost
wholly of unsubstantiated assertions mixed with non-sequiturs in quotation
marks. But the thrust is quite clear: African Americans have not only outgrown
group politics, as supposedly proven by Obama's march to - rather than on
- the White House, but Obama's brand of "race-neutrality" shows that Black
politics is obsolete, and should be abandoned.
To arrive at such a racially presumptuous conclusion, Bai
must build on several false or debatable premises that have nevertheless become
accepted wisdom among the corporate media:
The only authentic Black politics is electoral politics. Mass
movements, direct action and other non-electoral strategies are relics of the
past, and rightly so. More Black faces in high places automatically equals
Black progress, regardless of the political content of these office-holders'
policies. It is an unquestionable sign of general Black progress when African
American candidates gain white support.
Black solidarity must decline and ultimately fade away as a
political motivator as opportunities for (some) African Americans expand. A
growing Black middle class inevitably leads to increased Black political
conservatism. Blacks have no legitimate reasons to pursue political solidarity
except those directly related to the upward mobility of their class.
A unique and pronounced age gap exists in Black America, that
stands in the way of "transition" to a less confrontational, more cooperative
society. (Black elders are the bottleneck in this regard.) Young Blacks are
politically more mature than older Blacks, since they are further removed from
the events of the Sixties and thus are not plagued by disturbing memories.
Based on these assumptions, Times readers may
conclude that African Americans who struggle for group rights and objectives
are behaving like superannuated dodderers in their second childhoods. Matt Bai
thinks so. The following sentence gives new meaning to the term, convoluted
"For a lot of younger African-Americans, the resistance of
the civil rights generation to Obama's candidacy signified the failure of their
parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their
own struggle - to embrace the idea that black politics might now be
disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian
machines long ago joined the political mainstream."
Amazing, isn't it, that Bai and his ilk purport to know more
about Black youth and their elders than the two Black age cohorts know about
each other? Indeed, if we are to follow Bai's logic to its natural conclusion,
whites understand and communicate with young Blacks better than Black parents
do. It all makes sense once you accept the assumption that young Blacks think
more like whites than their parents, whose minds have been deformed by too
close exposure to the nightmarish Sixties, during which time they became
distrustful of white people, and have never recovered.
Fortunately, we can dismiss Bai's assault on Black elders
out of hand, since it relies on facts nowhere in evidence. Where are the
graying Black legions that are resisting Obama's candidacy as a bloc? Every
Black demographic, no matter how you slice it, is overwhelmingly pro-Obama for
president. How could it not be so, with the Black Obama vote in the late
primaries hitting 90 - 95 percent! For every aging Black radical (like myself)
who refuses to drink the Obama'Laid, there are eight of his peers with Obama
signs on their front lawns, and three octogenarians thanking God they have
lived long enough to vote for such an attractive, well-spoken young Black man
who might actually become president.
Such is the near-irresistible pull of race, and race
solidarity - the uncontainable pressure
of the pent-up aspirations of centuries, finally finding vent - in this
"The writer must maintain the fiction of a general age
chasm dividing Black Americans, or the theory on the inevitable extinction of
Black politics, does not work."
Bai followed his assumptions off a cliff with the "old Black
folks don't like Obama" idea. But he must maintain the fiction of a general age
chasm dividing Black Americans, or the theory on the inevitable extinction of
Black politics, does not work. And it must work, since Bai opens his piece with
an attempt to prove that age was an important factor in the early, dead-even
split in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) between Clinton and Obama
supporters. Presumably, the 15 Clinton supporters were among those elders who
"could not come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their
own struggle." An equal number were committed to Obama; the rest, undecided.
As it turned out, there was no chronological or ideological
pattern in the CBC's Clinton/Obama lineup, in early January. Charles Rangel
(NY), the oldest Member, was in the Clinton column. John Conyers (MI), the
second-oldest, opted for Obama. Barbara Lee, among the most consistently
progressive Members, backed Clinton, but so did David Scott (GA), once dubbed "The Worst Black
Congressman" for his relatively rightwing voting habits. Bobby Rush, the former
Black Panther who, according to Bai's reasoning, should have been the most
"resistant" to Obama's neutralism on race, was in his fellow Chicagoan's
The CBC presidential breakdown had little or nothing to do
with age, or with any issues of deep substance, for that matter. Members
aligned themselves at that early date based on considerations of money, petty
faction, geography, and the betting odds.
Until Obama's victory in Iowa, polls showed the Black vote
still very much in play. Only when African Americans were confident that large
numbers of whites would vote for Obama did they massively align with the Black
candidate - and then they quickly became a bloc. Nowhere is there evidence of a
decisive schism - certainly not around age. No matter. The New York Times
and its corporate sisters make up facts as they go along, to justify
prefabricated theories on how Black folks behave.
Here's where Bai came closest to getting anything right:
"The generational transition that is reordering black politics
didn't start this year. It has been happening, gradually and quietly, for at
least a decade, as younger African-Americans, Barack Obama among them, have
challenged their elders in traditionally black districts. What this year's
Democratic nomination fight did was to accelerate that transition."
A change has come over Black politics in the last
decade, and it does involve the entrance of a relatively young crop of
Black politicians. However, the decisive factor here is not age, but money.
Corporate America made a strategic decision to become active players in Black
Democratic politics - an arena they had largely avoided in post-Sixties
decades. In 2002, the corporate Right fielded and heavily funded three Black
Democratic candidates for high profile offices in majority Black contests. Two
of them, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, are
featured in Matt Bai's Times article. (No surprise there: the duo appear
in every corporate media article celebrating the rise of the new, young,
Black, corporate politician.) The third Big Business favorite, Denise Majette,
has since slipped back into political obscurity.
"In 2002, the corporate
Right fielded and heavily funded three Black Democratic candidates for high
profile offices in majority Black contests."
Booker, then a first term city councilman, was (and
remains) a darling of the vast political network centered around the far-right
Bradley Foundation, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. George Bush calls Bradley his
"favorite foundation" - as well he should, since Bradley and its think tanks
developed the GOP's faith-based initiatives and private school vouchers
strategies. Booker became a star of the Bradley-subsidized vouchers "movement."
(See "Fruit of the
Poisoned Tree," Black Commentator, April 5, 2002.) In his first,
unsuccessful run for Newark City Hall, Booker far outspent four-term Mayor
Sharpe James - the most powerful Black politician in the state - but was
narrowly defeated when his ties to school vouchers and far-right money were
revealed. Booker was endorsed by every corporate media outlet in the New York
metropolitan area, thanks to the ministrations of Bradley's media-savvy think
tank, the Manhattan Institute. Booker captured the office easily in 2006, after
amassing an even bigger war chest, when Mayor James declined to run. (James was
later convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to 27 months in prison.)
Less than a month later, former Birmingham prosecutor
Artur Davis, then 34, made a second run against veteran Congressman Earl
Hilliard, in a 62 percent Black district. Davis had been badly beaten by
Hilliard in the Democratic primary in 2000. This time, he outspent Hilliard by more than 50
percent - with the vast bulk of his funds raised outside the district.
Davis won a minority of the Black vote to beat Hilliard.
Two months later, in August 2002, the corporate-funded
juggernaut rolled into Atlanta, Georgia, where five-term Congresswoman Cynthia
McKinney faced former Black Republican Denise Majette in an open Democratic
primary. Majette's bankroll dwarfed McKinney's. Majette was also backed by
every corporate media outlet in the region - and far beyond.
The massed national corporate press turned the
McKinney-Majette contest into a national story, an opportunity to refine their
collective "analysis" of post-Sixties Black politics. Majette would win, they agreed, because McKinney's "Sixties-style"
politics were unsuited to her suburban Atlanta district, the second most
affluent Black district in the country. The corporate media declared with
certainty (but with no facts to buttress the claim) that the African American
middle class was becoming more conservative, and a younger generation yearned
for a break from the confrontations of the past.
Majette won, but with only about 17 percent of the
Black vote; she was the white choice. McKinney, the fiery progressive, was
the overwhelming favorite among Blacks in a district that was the perfect test
for the corporate media's theories on Black politics. They were proven wrong,
but a useful lie trumps inconvenient facts. Through repetition in a monoculture
corporate media, lies become truisms.
Matt Bai's Sunday Times article is based on the
same fact-devoid theory of Black rightward political drift and a yawning age
divide. Even before his national debut at the 2004 Democratic convention,
Barack Obama joined Cory Booker, Artur Davis, and then Rep. Harold Ford Jr.
(TN) - once George Bush's favorite Black congressperson - as exhibits in an
endless series of "New Black Politics" articles, each one a clone of the last.
This is what Bai mistakenly calls "the generational transition that is
reordering black politics." It's not about age at all - other than that the
young are hungrier and more malleable than their elders, and thus better
prospects to march under the corporate colors.
"The Times article is
based on the same fact-devoid theory of Black rightward political drift and a
yawning age divide."
Barack Obama does pose a dire threat to the coherence of
Black politics, but not for Matt Bai's reasons. Obama's presidential bid is
inseparable from the ongoing corporate money-and-media campaign to confuse and
destabilize the Black polity - an offensive begun in earnest in 2002. Obama, a
prescient and uncannily talented opportunist, understood which way the
corporate wind was blowing at least a decade earlier, and methodically readied
himself for the role of his life.
To the extent that African Americans expect more from
Obama than they got from Bill Clinton, they will be devastatingly disappointed.
His candidacy has at least temporarily caused Black folks to behave en masse as
if there are no issues at stake in the election other than an Obama victory. It
is altogether unclear how long this spell-like effect will last. The short-term
prospects for rebuilding a coherent Black politics, are uncertain. But one
thing we do know: the formation of a near-unanimous Black bloc for Obama - of
which he is absolutely unworthy - is stunning evidence that the Black
imperative to solidarity is undiminished. Unfortunately, the wrong guy is the beneficiary
- but in a sense, that's beside the point. Black people are not working
themselves into an election year frenzy just to commit political suicide by
disbanding as a bloc, no matter what Matt Bai and his ilk say.
It is at least possible that a new era of agitation and
militant organization might follow the monster come-down that must descend on
Black folks, either from an Obama defeat in November or, if victorious, through
his ultimate (and early) betrayal of Black self-generated hopes. But there is
absolutely no reason to believe that African Americans will emerge from the
experience in a mood to fold up their collective, consciously Black political
tent. Matt Bai is only able to envision such an outcome because he refuses to
admit that the racial problem in the United States is caused by white folks.
Institutional racism is engrained white behavior. The Black prison Gulag is a
white creation. Double unemployment and one-tenth wealth are the products of
white privilege. White people constantly replenish Black aspirations for
self-determination: for a Black politics.
"The formation of a
near-unanimous Black bloc for Obama - of which he is absolutely unworthy - is
stunning evidence that the Black imperative to solidarity is undiminished."
Bai pretends that he is genuinely concerned about how
Blacks will fare in the "transition" from Black politics:
"Several black operatives and politicians with whom I spoke
worried, eloquently, that an Obama presidency might actually leave black
Americans less well represented in Washington rather than more so - that, in
fact, the end of black politics, if that is what we are witnessing, might also
mean the precipitous decline of black influence.
"The argument here is that a President Obama, closely
watched for signs of parochialism or racial resentment, would have less
maneuvering room to champion spending on the urban poor, say, or to challenge
racial injustice. What's more, his very presence in the Rose Garden might
undermine the already tenuous case for affirmative action in hiring and school
First, African Americans should believe Obama when he
repeatedly assures whites that he does not recognize Black claims to redress
for past grievances, and has little tolerance for race-based remedies of any
kind. There can be no expectation of a net increase in Blacks' ability to alter
societal power relationships with Obama in the White House. (A Black president
might make some difference, but not that Black president.)
And yes, there will be a white backlash - there always is
- even though Blacks in general may materially gain nothing from Obama's change
of address. White backlashes are beyond Black control. But they sometimes spur
African Americans to greater organizational efforts. At any rate, Black don't
need faux sympathy from Matt Bai and the New York Times. They're part of
the reason there will always be Black politics.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.