Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The State of Black Politics

(Philadelphia, PA)
I went down to the crossroads,
Tried to flag a ride.
Nobody seemed to know me,
Everybody passed me by.

Eric Clapton

There is an ebb and flow of Black Politics in America which is invariably at a crossroads. Will it hold on to its past or will it be nuanced enough to engage millennials who have a disdain for the prior generations' efforts. I have heard this generation call the current crop of Black politicians “comfortable” and “soft” to explain their association with traditional Civil Rights organizations.

The “old guard” sees no structure, no purpose, and the inability to compromise from those who will take Black Politics to the next level to achieve results.  I went searching for answers during this political season.

There will be no Obama on the ballot for the foreseeable future. Will it mark the end of an era of Black Politics in America as we know it? The political conventions have ended and it’s time to assess. There are pockets of promise, new energy from the Black Lives Matter Movement, and a political class which has honed its skills based on what has worked in the past. I’m not in the business of predicting the future, so I’ve sought out experts and those who’ve been there to take the pulse of Black Politics.

From the Streets to Ballot

Before Kwiesi Mfume was a Congressman and head of the NAACP, Mfume was just another Brother on the street hustling. In the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, Mfume noted social change was pulled in different directions. He pointed to “cross purposes” associated with different groups. They included movements like the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, the Urban League, the SCLC, and the NAACP. “There were five different directions, but they crisscrossed and spoke. They didn’t always agree but, they spoke (to each other)…no effort was estranged. (We believed) If you had better idea on where you were moving and where other folks would be moving in terms of lifting the community,” we listened according to Mfume.

You can see this play out in the iconic photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X backstage at the Audubon Ballroom. Prior to the photograph the pair spoke at length in private. No one knows what the conversation was about but, it likely centered on tactics to bring about change.

A sullen Mfume was saddened a similar conversation is not taking place informally or formally outside the glare of television cameras or in the world of social media. “Without interaction between the different movements there’s confusion,” the former Civil Rights leader opined. “You’ve got to find a way to have a common conduit where you share information, off the record.”

Marc Morial the head of the Urban League sees something that established groups have failed at “we need the next generation of people to offer themselves for public office. Where we lost ground is with the enthusiasm. We need to get the turnout we need particularly, amongst young people.”

Morial became the Mayor of New Orleans while in his 30’s. He was often mention as a potential Vice Presidential pick. He believes their needs to be an evolution. “Black Lives Matter has given young people a voice in the issues of the times. What I do hope they will do is embrace the idea that part of activism must include voting.”


Prof. Keith Boykin of Columbia University teaches a course on African-American Politics in the Era of Obama. “We’re in a place of transition.”

Without a clear inheritor of the “Obama Legacy” there are number of suitors including California Democratic Senator Kamalia Harris, New Jersey Senator Corey Booker and Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser.  Mayor Bowser has embraced the idea of a broad tent with few of the trappings which enabled one of her predecessors, the late Mayor Marion Barry to become Mayor. He became labeled “Mayor for Life.” It was Barry who embraced the notion that Washington, DC was “Chocolate City.”

It’s less of a focus for the current mayor who’s seen the city become more “Mocha.” “We’re focused on progressive issues that will spread the prosperity to all Washingtonians,” according to Mayor Bowser.  Like Obama the new face of Black Politics is race conscious only when it matters and absent the tough talk of “payback” for past transgressions.

Prof. Boykin picks up on this idea of less racial identity. The political observer notes that African-Americans  have known for a long time the prize was the Presidency. That box has been checked with the election of Barack Obama.  “Just electing a President isn’t enough anymore, not that it ever was…nor is it enough to assume a political figure in the Civil Rights community will be able to move the larger African-American community because the community is becoming increasingly diverse.” The political professor says the “messiah complex” needs to change.  “We have people all across the country with different backgrounds.” Despite these differences he sees promise on the horizon. The days of pointing to a single person as the face of Black Politics is in the review mirror. Boykin points to a new “third wave, that’s happening now…of people who aren’t going through traditional politics.” 

Tame or Encourage

Dayvon Love is a millennial. Love is a founder of a Baltimore based grassroots organization called Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. Before Baltimore’s Freddie Gray’s death, they were working with youth in marginal communities in the city. 

“It wasn’t a single moment” which sparked his activism. He remembers how he and his peers were affected by Jena Six in 2007 (Six Black High School students in Jena, Louisiana were arrested and charged with a assaulting a white student in December of 2006). There were a lot of question about equal justice after several white students were suspended after being in fights but the Black students were arrested. “There were legitimate conversations” occurring especially in during Senator Barack Obama first run for President.

Love and several of his colleagues are intrigued by the possibility of working with established politicians hoping to learn the ropes. He found skepticism, “younger Black folks lump older politicians into one group, but there are many strata.”  

He points to how the older folks have different opinions of Black Lives Matter. “The old guard are fearful.” Instead of nurturing the next generation they seem more concern about “challenging the young on being successful.” Conversely, he knows a “lot of older folks, know where he’s coming from.” The community organizer points to a number of established politicians locked in on their “self-interest.”

Where this younger group has an advantage over the “old guard” is it’s embrace of new technology and their ability to find unlikely partners. Organizing via the internet is millennials tool of choice. From Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Periscope the early adoption of these new technologies allows this group the ability to link with like-minded individuals who aren’t Black and may be outside the traditional Civil Rights Movement.

We saw this with the embrace of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in his run for President. Sen. Sanders had little connection with the Civil Rights Movement but, was able to plug into this group by embracing young people and their issues via these new technologies. Some of his supporters were disappointed at Obama and this was their way to vent.

Another schism includes embracing the LGBTQ community and rallying college students over student debt. There was less emphasis on race and more on community.

The Future

“Don’t trust anyone over 30,” was a simple moniker in the 1960’s. Blacks and Whites embraced the simple notion this age group had much to lose and would be cautious about confrontation. I had similar view but, as I have grown older I find myself drawn to those who are much younger than me and try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Simply, “talk is cheap.” Movements are messy. This means sometimes there will progress and at other times there will regression. “It’s not the critic that counts,” said President Theodore Roosevelt. I am firmer believer in grassroots and organic movements. These movements will and should include artisans, entrepreneurs, and “hell-raisers.”

Everyone seems to be out to capture audiences, rather than people. Combine this with the “me” generation who is quick to re-tweet something they saw or heard. Its clear social movements of the future need to learn some of the lessons from the past. If your hero is someone who has a “beef” with someone (Rappers) then maybe our priorities are whacked. Black millionaires “bitchin” has nothing to do with your daily life. We are more connected than ever. This means we must be more discerning than ever.

Black Politics has always been about people and organization. If you “ain’t about this” get out the way. With young people dying, a political class which has no pulse, and a new administration prepared to send an America back to a time where people were invisible, there is a need more than ever to “get real.”

Black Politics evolution also should be universal. What I mean, is desperate parts of the US need to find common goals from every minority community and even white folk who “get it.” Philanthropic groups are fine, but know this, telling people who are hurting what they need is tantamount to a patriarchy. We've been through this. Lastly, be open and not closed minded to problems that exist. Do not write off ideas, social organizing, or groups whom seem antithetical to what can be achieved. The need to have a politician serve as the “end all to be all,” maybe coming to an end. Great ideas have “no permanent friends nor permanent enemies’ just permanent interest;” wherever they come from. “The cream will always rise to the top.”




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