The Decline of Black Politics in America
by Norman Kelley
First Published in LA Weekly
Still waiting for an Urban Agenda
Politics, like capitalism, abhors a vacuum, which is what George W. Bush created for John Kerry weeks before the Democratic National Convention. President Bush declined an invitation to speak before the 95th NAACP convention in Philadelphia, allowing Kerry to waltz in and tell the African-American audience what it wanted to hear. (Bush chose a friendlier convocation hosted by the Urban League.)
In what CNN called a “politically significant speech,” Kerry said he’d be a “uniter” and would not divide the nation “by race or riches or by any other label.” The Kerry campaign also promised to send in teams of lawyers and observers to watch for Election Day problems like the funny business that kept thousands of black votes from being counted in Florida four years ago.
“We will enforce the law,” Kerry told the applauding audience. “We’re not only going to make sure every vote counts, we’re going to make sure that every single vote is counted.”
A day or so before Kerry arrived, NAACP’s chairman, Julian Bond, read the riot act to Bush for not appearing at the convention. Bond called for the president’s ouster, saying that the Republican Party, and by extension the Bush administration, appealed “to the dark underside of American culture, to the minority of Americans who reject democracy and equality.”
Little wonder, then, that “Kerry received virtually a hero’s welcome at the convention,” as CNN put it. But exactly for what reason? Seemingly because Kerry attended the convention and Bush did not. Every president has attended an NAACP convention since the 1930s except Bush, who visited it as a candidate during his “compassionate conservative” campaign days.
Kerry’s appearance, to correct CNN, was more symbolically than politically significant, since Kerry did not offer the assembled blacks anything beyond merely appearing and spouting boilerplate pro–civil rights rhetoric.
And this is why the NAACP has lasted for almost a hundred years. While most of African-American politics in the last 20 years or so is drenched in the charisma of Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and now Al Sharpton, the NAACP has persevered as the country’s premier civil rights organization (with a middle-class orientation) because it so deftly plays the game of seeking the recognition of the powers that be. Hence the NAACP’s publicly manifested ire this past week that “Massa” Bush did not grace the “good Negroes” with his presence.
That Kerry could get away with so little before the NAACP — essentially offering no substantial policy initiatives that would benefit African-Americans — underscores the grim reality that 50 years after Brown v. the Board of Education, effective black politics in America has utterly bottomed out. No real agenda drives politics beyond having the Democratic candidate show up. One is hard-pressed to hear most blacks voice any enthusiasm for Kerry the way they did when Bill Clinton ran in 1992.
“There’s no message, no organizing aimed at black people,” says Kevin Gray, a former organizer in Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns and Senator Tom Harkin’s former Southern coordinator. “It’s not like Kerry stands for anything; black people are voting against Bush” but not for Kerry.
Gray, who briefly worked for Al Sharpton’s tragicomic presidential campaign in this past year in South Carolina, believes that Kerry has no message or any kind of organizing to deal with the problems faced by black people in America. Nothing beyond “the basic political pabulum that we’ve been hearing for the last 20 years,” Gray reflects.
Put another way, boilerplate liberalism but no legislative initiative. And why would they need one? Democrats know they will suffer no sanctions from disgruntled blacks.
Bill Clinton proved that when he did not announce any significant urban agenda (read “chocolate” cities as opposed to “vanilla” suburbs). He was, however, provided one by Henry Cisneros, his HUD secretary. Cisneros advocated, among other things, hot-wiring public-housing complexes to the Internet to create “electronic villages” or “campuses for learners.”
This sad state of affairs where black votes are as much as taken for granted by the Democratic nominee is the culmination of 20 years of decline of black politics. In reality, blacks have steadily lost influence and a sense of self-empowerment by ceasing to be organized in any meaningful fashion, having given into pseudo-political mobilization over non-issues such as “atonement” and reparations over the past 10 years. One could even argue that blacks have not been sufficiently organized since the 1960s.
No better example of that decline is the rise of Reverend Al Sharpton, the latest to emerge as what I call the Head Negro in Charge to “advocate” for black America. (I put quote marks around the word advocate to draw attention to Sharpton’s utter failure to do anything other than embarrass himself.) He’s now preoccupied with doing what today’s black leaders are known for: engaging in vanity presidential campaigns, giving speeches and organizing marches over nothing of social or political consequence.
Jesse Jackson, the first post–civil rights HNIC, set this style of politics in motion in his 1984 and 1988 campaigns. He gave a rousing speech at his first convention, and then collected over 1,200 delegates in 1988, as well as 7 million votes (winning the second highest number in the Democratic primary). Yet nothing happened afterward; there was no follow-up to the millions of people who voted for him or helped him organize his campaign.
As early as the mid-1960s, leading civil rights strategists, like Bayard Rustin, were writing about moving from “protest to politics,” incorporating blacks into the Democratic structure without establishing an independent political and economic base. Jackson was merely following a script from the past: black mobilization as incorporated politics, or as pseudo-political mobilization. Jackson’s two campaigns failed to build an independent political apparatus to organize blacks, especially those at the bottom end of the food chain.
Jackson was hampered by another characteristic plaguing African-American politics: black church charismatics who can arouse people but not channel them into the routines of effective political organization needed to build any agenda-driven, grassroots voting machinery. No black charismatic — Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X — has ever left behind an efficient organization. Interestingly, the NAACP, almost a hundred years old, has never been a charismatic-based organization, which may explain, at least in part, its longevity.
Effective black politics collapsed when the black political establishment — the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, the Urban League — did nothing during Reagan’s first term as he slashed the budget appropriations that devastated social services. Black leadership did not even sufficiently mobilize black America as it had once before or invent new tactics or strategies. And the new black elite, the beneficiaries of the 1960s’ civil rights legislation, certainly did not countenance internal redevelopment in black communities as their responsibility as well as agitating for greater resources in the political arena. The rise of Jesse Jackson as a post–civil rights symbolic leader is linked to black elected officials and other leaders’ ties to the Democratic Party, which they would not challenge.
After 1988, Jackson floated around for years in nebulous incarnations: roving ambassador, shadow senator, talk-show host, Wall Street carny barker for black economic cronyism rather than black economic development. By not adequately working to build a political database, he bequeathed no organizational capacity to those who might come after him. Indeed, after Jackson came Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam — Head Negro in Charge No. 2 — and his Million Man March in 1995, which, too, was knee deep into leadership as performance. Almost 10 years later, he, like others, has done nothing with his “mandate.” African-American leadership has merely been a performance act for 20 years, demobilizing the political lives of African-Americans.
A New York Times article, “Blacks Weigh the Impact of the Post-Jackson Years,” focused on the question of leadership, or what constituted black leadership, rather than examining the dearth of effective organizing, institutions and strategic thinking. To understand how utterly bereft blacks have become in the realm of retail politics, consider Robert C. Smith’s observation in Black Political Organizations in the Post–Civil Rights Era. “None of the black interest groups have PACS,” he wrote, “although several unsuccessful efforts were made in the 1970s by a number of black groups to form one.”
The role of blacks in the Democratic Party — even at this moment of groundswell revulsion against George W. Bush — is simply to vote and shut the hell up, a role vividly underscored in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. In the film, Moore showed how not one Democratic senator had the courage to sign a petition brought by black representatives who sought to challenge the vote count that disenfranchised black voters in the 2000 election. And where was Senator John Forbes Kerry in the Senate chamber at that critical moment? That the NAACP didn’t even raise this with Kerry this week shows how ineffective black politics has become. Given the importance of this election, Kerry fears no sanctions or scrutiny by blacks.
In April, Kerry told high-tone Democrats at a $25,000-a-plate breakfast at the “21” Club in Manhattan that he was “not a redistribution Democrat.” Given the general weakness of the economy, blacks and others would probably welcome some kind of “redistribution,” a revitalized New Deal that would generate jobs rather than anemic tinkering with tax policy that Kerry advocates.
Kevin Gray cites the 60 percent home-mortgage foreclosure rate of blacks — the highest of any group — and wonders why no one has proposed a solution. “No one is dealing with anything,” says Gray, “because we’re not organized anymore.” Both Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and the NAACP have been co-opted, along with the 39 members of the Congressional Black Caucus who may as well be considered as MIA.
When Kerry’s outreach to blacks and the well-noted lack of color — black, brown and yellow — in his inner circle became a source of complaint, Kerry soon “hired” Al Sharpton to back up his black credentials. One day Sharpton was saying of Kerry’s critics of color: “I don’t know whether the criticism is based on people wanting to see the inner circle diversified or whether it’s a job application through the media.” The next day the Kerry campaign announced that Sharpton was going to do a “Jesse,” meaning he would deliver a speech at the convention. He had gotten his job. He already had been slated to serve as a CNBC commentator during the convention — to say nothing of becoming the host of a TV reality show.
Last year, in The Village Voice, Sharpton chastised blacks for allowing white politicians to pose for photo ops in their communities at no political cost. Yet it was exposed, once again in this year’s Voice, that Sharpton himself was running a Potemkin-village political operation in which his organization, the National Action Network, was a shell receiving money and technical assistance from a GOP operative. His “scampaign” finances have been so sloppy, verging on criminality, that the Federal Election Commission decided not to award him matching fund payments. Yet that won’t prevent the Kerry campaign from giving him a coveted speaking role at the Democratic National Convention.
How has it come to pass that 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, with public schools still as segregated as before, that Al Sharpton, a man with a checkered past, has come to represent black interests? Have blacks become complicit in their own political emasculation? Once upon a time blacks argued for a seat at the table; now they have settled for leadership in the form of a TV reality-show host.
By any evidence, established black leadership, in this case the NAACP, isn’t offering black America anything much better. The way the organization has barked and clapped like trained seals before John Kerry, a man whose campaign has essentially articulated the standby stale and dry formula of civil rights, doesn’t bode well. Blacks will play their predictable booster-rocket role in John Kerry’s presidential campaign, only to be — if he does win — jettisoned later.
Norman Kelley is a Brooklyn-based writer. His latest book is The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome: The Dead End of Black Politics (Nation Books). This article first appeared in LA Weekly. Thanks to Carl Bromley at The Nation.