The image above is the cover jacket from Professor Frederick C. Harris’ excellent book, “The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics”
In 1619, the first 19 Africans brought to the shores of the United States landed in Jamestown, Virginia starting the tortured history of what would be the centuries long relationship between Black people and the United States. The nature of the relationship was innately economic and political from the start. Sadly, the organizing mechanisms of the Black American social enterprise since that time have been poorly grounded in sound application of either economics or politics, barring rare exceptions.
What has caused Black people, after almost 400 years in North America, and after 150 years of emancipation from slavery, to be mired in a social condition that is becoming more debilitating by the day? One need not sound off the various statistics available illustrating the evisceration of whatever illusory semblance of progress Blacks have made, particularly since the post movement era after the 1960s.
Contrary to the inclinations of racists and many self-hating Blacks to deem this failure as some innate shortcoming in the Black American psyche, the social and political condition of Black America is a direct consequence of the level of political sophistication and sheer brutality of the tactics that have been used to deny them clarity of vision and planning as a means of rectifying this pervasive cavern they have found themselves in for generations.
The main vehicle allowing this constant social and political demobilization of the Black community stems from the problematic reality that Black politics has traditionally been grounded in a purely reactionary response to the phenomenon of racism — particularly without a clear understanding of the purpose of racism in its application to Blacks.
This stems from a failure to understand basic key aspects of the relationship of Blacks to America and racism, mostly because the sheer terror used under the guise of racism to maintain the prevailing order has been so atrocious that the political focus by Blacks has been to concentrate on that terror and attempts to neutralize it without truly addressing its root cause.
From the beginning, Europeans did not bring Africans to the Americas because they were racist. They brought Africans to the Americas to expropriate labor from them as workers in an economic system that denied compensation for that labor to maximize return on investment for the presence of those Africans. The function of Black people in America was an innately economic one from the start rooted in a politics that was based on protecting the sanctity of that economic relationship. All the terror and brutality used to maintain that system was purely ancillary to the goal of protecting that economic system of exploiting free Black labor. Yet many Blacks, even educated ones, will say that Europeans brought Africans to the Americas because of racism and White Supremacy. Racism is merely the rationale and tactic used to justify that exploitative economic relationship, and White Supremacy is the subsequent accrued benefit of the successful maintenance of that relationship — in varying degrees — over time.
A perfect example of how these realities are confused can easily be shown by attempting to ascertain from most people what the actual purpose and function of Jim Crow Segregation, which started with the consummation of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, and lasted to the end of the Civil Rights Era in 1968, actually was. Many would say things like: keeping Blacks subjugated, or denying blacks the ability to compete with Whites, or racism/White Supremacy, or fear of Black male sexual potency via White women. In reality, Jim Crow was a purely intentional reaction by White Southern agricultural interests meshed with Northern industrialists to combat the rising political and economic militancy and mutual co-operation of Blacks and poor Whites during the progressive era of the 1890s with the combined efforts of the Farmer’s Alliance and the Colored Farmers Alliance in order to maintain economic hegemony and cheap exploited labor for capitalist interests in the South, primarily Agricultural but also industrial, with the slow but new development of Southern industrialization. Jim Crow was rooted in economic control, not simply racism and brutality. Those were the tools used to keep the system intact.
Moreover, few people will admit that the main reason for the collapse of Jim Crow starting in the 1930s, and expanding rapidly into the post World War II era, had more to do with three key factors as opposed to the romanticized notions of how the valiant fight of the ancestors during the Civil Rights Movement brought us freedom: First, the new methods of mechanized agricultural farming technology started to make the need for Black farm labor in the South obsolete. Hence, the need for the disenfranchisement and related oppression became more about form rather than substance; second, the rise of Hitler and Nazism made the notion of race-based exclusion in the United Stated unpalatable, particularly in the face of Hitler’s anti-semitism; thirdly, the Cold War era and the fear of American racism being an obstacle to the competitive advantage over the Soviet Union in winning the hearts and minds of the newly independent Black, Brown, and Yellow third world would rapidly assure desegregation and ending Jim Crow being an American primary domestic agenda.
As African American political science professor Adolph Reed, Jr. states in his essay “The Color Line Then and Now,” found in the anthology, Renewing Black Intellectual History, when discussing some of the egalitarian social science and legal strategies to end Jim Crow:
This intellectual enterprise was no more responsible for defeating early-twentieth-century race theory than Charles Hamilton Houston’s and Thurgood Marshall’s legal arguments were for defeating codified racial segregation, probably much less so. Factors like the leftward shift in the domestic political climate in the 1930s and 1940s, the embarrassment that Nazi extremism presented for racialist ideology, and cold war concerns with the United States’ international image were undoubtedly more important.
An excellent treatise that explains the relationship between the Cold War and the Civil Rights victories we often wrongly think were a result of these romanticized protest activities is Cold Civil Rights: Race and the Imagery of American Democracy, by professor of law and political science, Mary L. Dudziak, in which she states about Brown v. Board of Education: “According to the Justice Department, the interest of the United States in school segregation was that race discrimination harmed American foreign relations.”
This is not to diminish the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who waged moral protest to the brutal and racist treatment of our nations Black citizens. To diminish in such a fashion could have the effect of discouraging the belief in the human capacity to make social or political change. The point is to show that our desires to romanticize certain periods of history, especially dealing with African Americans, lead to a limited and pedestrian understanding of the factors that truly shape events.
In the face of the reactionary nature of Black politics, we can better understand the post Civil Rights dilemma that has plagued the Black political scene. If the illusion of racial equality is touted as one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century American democratic experiment via these Civil Rights victories, how do you create a Black politics in a post Civil Rights era when the political traditions of this group has been rooted in combating or reacting to the racism that society now forces them to accept as no more, when in fact that is not the case?
Now we understand the root of the past 45 years of increasing Black political demobilization — meaning Black politics being unable to actually achieve lasting policy that succeeds at remedying the true root of Black suffering: economic inequality.
The ultimate sign of that demobilization is the over 97 percent support of Black America for a president whose agenda is to introduce neoliberal privatization of government resources at rates never seen before that might ultimately demolish those same communities that supported him — i.e. Barack Obama.
This is why Black America is in a crisis, because Black politics is in a crisis. That crisis is a product of the place from which Black politics was born and grew. We now need a new politics, if we shall even call it Black politics, that is not rooted in reactionary response to racism, but seeks to foster cross-racial coalitions with those similarly situated to crush the barriers to economic equality while allowing Blacks to maintain social autonomy and ideological integrity in recognition of the need for nuance in neutralizing the tool of racism that has been used to distract them from the ultimate problem of economic injustice. This is the work that must be done, but the question is: Who is up to the task?