Saturday, February 24, 2007

The New Realism of Black Politics

A new generation of black Americans is dramatically seizing economic and political opportunity across the country today. This trend is the topic of an outstanding essay by Kay Hymowitz on what she labels "the new black realism" in the Winter 2007 issue of City Journal. Here's the introduction:

What if someone gave a convention called “Black America Today” and Barack Obama, Harold Ford, Cory Booker, Bill Cosby, and Juan Williams starred as the marquee names? Right now, these are some of the black “It” guys (along with Diddy, of course)—yet they don’t fit the typical idea of “Black America,” do they? In his new book Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—And What We Can Do About It, NPR and Fox News commentator Williams plays Boswell for Cosby’s straighten-up-and-fly-right message that the comic has delivered to cheering crowds in cities across the land. Obama, Ford, and Booker are political stars who are touting old-fashioned American self-reliance and ingenuity, with nary a hint of racial resentment. Remember Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention speech, when he told the audience that people don’t want government to solve all their problems, that they expect to work hard to get ahead? “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, . . . a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America,” he urged. “There’s the United States of America.” Take that, Jesse Jackson!

This may not seem the best time to make the case for the End of the Jackson Era. After all, Harold Ford, not to mention Republicans Michael Steele of Maryland and Ken Blackwell of Ohio, lost their statewide elections. In fact, you might well argue that, if anything, we are seeing a revival of Kabuki race theater, with the actors of yesteryear appearing in a return engagement. As I write, Al Sharpton is going “a-shopping for justice” (and photo ops), calling for demonstrations and the resignation of a police chief after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man on the eve of his wedding. (See “
No, the Cops Didn’t Murder Sean Bell,” page 84.) Jackson himself is doing his part to bring back racial politics as we knew it by seizing on actor Michael Richards’s bizarre racist breakdown at a Los Angeles comedy club to demand that entertainment executives meet with him to discuss the use of the n-word (and, doubtless, the financial needs of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition). As if that weren’t enough déjà vu all over again, John Conyers, the congressional point man on slavery reparations, is about to step into the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee, and Charlie “George-Bush-is-our-Bull-Connor” Rangel, who has been on the Hill since 1971, when he replaced Adam Clayton Powell, is set to helm the Ways and Means Committee. So many veteran African-American congressmen are now in leadership positions that Rangel chuckled recently: “I don’t want to scare the hell out of people, that blacks are now in charge of the committees and so, therefore, watch out.”

Still, if you read the tea leaves carefully, you’d have to conclude that Rangel’s kind of comment—with its pitting of us against them, its air of gloating (if jocular) menace, its assumption of racial homogeneity—is growing as obsolete as its speaker. Though blacks still lag behind whites educationally and economically, and though a predominantly African-American underclass continues to languish in the inner city, there’s a tidal shift away from the black grievance and identity politics of yesterday. No, police brutality, racial profiling, welfare spending, and affirmative action are not going to vanish soon from the nation’s political discourse. And no, blacks are not about to flood into the Republican Party; Obama, after all, has a Senate record that only Americans for Democratic Action could love. But with a surging, confident, and varied black middle class, blacks are talking a more positive American language of self-empowerment and middle-class virtue and marking a significant turning point in America’s ongoing race story.
Check out the whole essay. Hymowitz also discusses the impact of Hispanic immigration on race politics. She notes that the historic color line of American politics has gotten a little blurry -- Hispanic Americans are now the nation's largest ethnic minority -- and events like last year's massive pro-immigration rallies did little to shift the traditional black civil rights agenda toward broader, multicultural goals. There's been a lot of talk of a broader alliance of people of color, notes Hymowitz:

But right now, no one could reasonably argue that blacks and Hispanics are singing “Kumbaya” together or that “people of color” isn’t sounding more and more like an empty phrase. Many blacks worry, with reason, that Hispanics are taking low-wage service-sector jobs that low-skilled African-Americans want—and that they are further suppressing wages in those jobs. With a black anti-immigration group, Choose Black America, demonstrating in the streets, Hispanics hardly seem ready to join a black-brown Poor People’s Campaign.
Hymowitz also discusses the debate on black authenticity, citing books by Debra Dickerson (The End of Blackness) and John McWhorter (Authentically Black). (I've addressed the "keeping it real" debate on black authenticity in some recent posts on Barack Obama's presidential campaign.) Hymowitz is also careful not to discount the continuing crisis of the lower third of black America. She notes, regarding black American progress: "None of this means that the country should ignore continuing black-white inequality....But without question, our narrative about black America—and our politics—is changing."

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