Ten years ago it was 2008. With the presidential election less than two months away the single minded focus of political conversation in black America was electing Barack Obama the first African American US president. I want to say it was a peculiar political moment, but it was way longer than a moment, it was a whole peculiar political season which began more than a year before his election and lasted for some during most of Obama’s entire eight years in office.
If you were black, and you had a demand or a criticism of the black presidential candidate it was your obligation, many of us told each other, to sit down and shut up and unite behind the man so he could get elected. As a prominent black Atlanta pastor fresh back from several campaign stops with Obama told me
“We’ve got to unite and build a wall, a solid black wall around Brother Obama…If we can build that solid black wall, if we can unite black people behind Brother Obama, he will have the power to do anything he wants to do. Can’t you see it? If we do that, nothing any of his opponents say or do will be able to touch him.”
The pastor pretty much got his wish, and that wall of black unity erected around President Obama proved among his most valuable assets.
But it didn’t protect him against the charter school sugar daddies intent upon privatizing public schools and throwing a hundred thousand qualified black teachers in the street. It didn’t protect President Obama from letting go the too-big-to-fail or jail banksters at a cost of trillions, while allowing 3 million families, an outsize chunk of them black families, to lose their homes. The black wall around President Obama didn’t protect him from bombing seven or eight countries, keeping troops in Iraq, escalating the war in Afghanistan, bombing Somalia, Yemen and letting torturers go without prosecution.
In the end, the wall of black unity around Barack Obama freed his hand to ignore black demands upon him, if we’d possessed coherent political sense to make any in the first place.
Ten years later, we’re doing the same thing with black candidates for governor in Florida and Georgia. If you’ve got any demands to make upon, any critical evaluations to make of Florida’s Andrew Gillum or Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, we’re told, it’s your duty to sit down and shuddup for the sake of Black Girl Magic or Black Unity or just beating the rabid racist pro-Trump Republicans they’re running against.
You’d think there would be a lesson we could draw from the Obama experience, or for that matter from the election of black mayors in scores of big and medium sized cities throughout the country in the last generation. The politics of black representation – that is, putting black faces in high places only benefits a narrow section, a small class of black people – elements of the professional and business classes and aspirants. Unity behind black mayors don’t prevent black neighborhoods from being gentrified out of existence, electing black prosecutors and police chiefs don’t prevent racist cops from gunning down black citizens with impunity. The black president didn’t prevent hundreds of thousands of black families from losing their homes. Choosing black sheriffs and prison officials doesn’t stop them from locking up black juveniles with adults, and it doesn’t bring educational programs or medical or mental health care into the prisons, which are disproportionately black and brown.
It’s pretty obvious that the politics of black representation are fraudulent. It’s a fraudulent politics because real life experiences within and without what we’re accustomed to calling the black community are determined by class, and the income and wealth differentials among black Americans are wider than those among whites.
In the next few weeks Black Agenda Report will take some closer looks at Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams, both of whom, if the polls are to be believed, are within striking distance of becoming governors of their respective states.
The wall of black unity that was built around Barack Obama protected him from accountability to the precarious working class to which most of the black population actually belongs. It enabled Barack Obama to make promises – like raising the minimum wage, and making it possible for people to join unions – promises he immediately forgot once assuming office. Gillum and Abrams have made promises too, on raising the minimum wage to a living wage, on Medicare expansion and more. Abrams is even on record as using the words “housing” and “human right” in the same paragraph. That’s impressive.
But there are no organized forces in our community which really represent the class of black people whose job and housing situations are balanced on the knife edge of precarity, who are being bled white by payday lenders, who cannot afford medical care even if they have what passes for insurance under Obamacare, who need child care and would join or form a union if federal and state laws didn’t favor the bosses at every turn. There are simply no institutions in the black community which can hold a Stacey Abrams or an Andrew Gillum or any supposedly progressive politician’s feet to the fire.
We have the power to elect them, after wealthy donors have conducted what Paul Street calls “the money primary.” But we don’t have the power to make them DO anything, especially if we build that wall of black unity around them. A class-blind black politics, as elder Adolph Reed reminds us, is also the politics of a particular class. That’s what’s real.
For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Bruce Dixon. Please remember that Black Agenda Report is being suppressed by Google, whose search algorithms deliberately suppress the appearance of our content in search results on the grounds that we may be under the influence of foreign powers. So the only way you can guarantee that you’re receiving fresh news, commentary and analysis from the black left each week is to go to www.blackagendareport.com and hit that subscribe button to have our free weekly email newsletter with links to all our newly published content in your email inbox each and every week.
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Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a member of the state committee of the GA Green Party. He lives and works near Marietta GA and can be contacted via email at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.