Reconsidering “Black Politics”

michael steeleThe Michael Steele 2006 Senatorial campaign in Maryland posed the question front and center of what does one mean by “Black Politics?” Does “Black politics” mean the politics of the mass of Black people or does it mean the politics of people who happen to be Black? In posing the question that way I am not trying to be amusing, but rather pointing to a matter, or perhaps quandary that became clearer and clearer after the end of the Jesse Jackson 1988 run for the Democratic Presidential nomination, and is today in our face.

After the collapse of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee political ‘machine’ in the early part of the 20th century, Black politics came to be defined largely as the politics of African Americans in struggle against Jim Crow segregation and, in the North, de facto segregation. As such, these politics were broad and, after the New Deal reforms initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt, came to be increasingly identified with the Democratic Party. But Black politics have never been identical to the politics of the Democratic Party. There have been overlapping interests.

With the end of formal segregation, the political situation became increasingly complicated. Voting rights led to an explosion in Black elected officials in the late 1960s and early 1970s, illustrated by the famous 1972 Gary, Indiana National Black Political Convention. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Black politics took another upturn in both its dramatic opposition to Reaganism as well as its demand for genuine Black political power. It was in the context of that Black-led political upsurge of the 1980s that Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns emerged.

Something happened in the 1990s. Part of it clearly was represented by the disappearance of formal barriers of racial segregation, but in either case Black politics started to lose its edge. Instead of Black politics being the champion of coalition building and an inclusive social justice movement, Black politics seemed to fragment, with pieces going in different directions, including some toward crude ethnic politics; some towards progressive electoral work; and some towards the “…I happen to be black but don’t let that turn you off…” politics.

A piece, however, swung Republican, and this is what is both curious and ironic. The Republican Party, or at least a section of it, made a very calculated decision to try to rip a portion of the Black electorate away from the Democratic Party. It did so by fronting Black individuals, both in certain races as well as in prominent positions within the George W. Bush administration. As I have said elsewhere, Blacks could enter the Republican Party but the price of admission was silence on a Black agenda.

Thus, the Michael Steele campaign, an extremely slick, professional, and at times humorous campaign, flipped history on its head. The Steele campaign suggested that the Republicans were now (and possibly always were???) the party that would advance the interests of those Black people who wish to get ahead. In that sense, the Republicans, through the Steele campaign, and other campaigns such as that witnessed in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial run by former football player Lynn Swann, worked to mutate Black politics such that it was no longer the politics for the advancement of the MASS of Black people, but instead, a politics that was at the service of those Black people willing to worship at the alter of the Republican idols of privatization, aggressive war, tax cuts for the rich, and ignoring the fact that racist oppression remains a central feature of US reality.

In my humble opinion, we are fortunate that Steele did not win, but we must recognize that there is a 21st century struggle underway to define the direction of Black America and the character of Black politics. This struggle is particularly fueled by which class within Black America gets the chance to set the direction.

bill fletcher

Bill Fletcher

Will it be the wealthy who were among the main beneficiaries of the Black Freedom struggle, many of who now seem to believe that the door is wide open to accumulating more and more wealth, or will it be the Black worker who has been disproportionately hurt by the economic restructuring, war, and cut backs that the Republicans—and in many cases centrist Democrats—have championed?

There will be no room for observers in this fight.

Bill Fletcher, Jr.
The BlackCommentator

Republished with permission.

Posted: Sunday, 23 April 2012


  1. Zwarich says

    Surely we must recognize that one of the most basic axioms
    in human politics is that people tend to function in their own (self-perceived)
    self interest. An ancillary colloquialism is that ‘people vote their


    (It is certainly true that masses of people are prone to
    being bamboozled into supporting exploitative policies that contravene their
    interests, but they do, nonetheless, function in their own self-perceived


    The ‘Black politics’ of Black Liberation from Jim Crow were
    relevant only as long as most Black people shared the circumstance of being
    victims of segregation and other forms of racial discrimination. Now that significant
    numbers of African-Americans have won economic and social success, they no
    longer share the same political interests as those African-Americans who remain
    mired in crushing poverty and deprivation. They rather share the same political
    interests as other people, of any and every race, who have enjoyed economic and
    social success, just as those Black people who still bear a disproportionate
    burden of poverty share the same political interests as other people, of any
    and every race, who live in the degradation of poverty.


    Clinging to the bygone myths of ‘Black politics’ only serves
    the interests of those who use race as a major tool in their classic ‘divide
    and conquer’ strategies. As we see the issue of race being staged, (with such
    consummate skill and deliberate intent), 
    for the coming election, (the Trayvon Martin tragedy has already been
    made into a major media circus, with much more come), it is disappointing to
    see someone of Mr. Fletcher’s intellectual stature asking a question,
    (seemingly in all seriousness), whose answer should be self-evident.


    I guess we can hope that Mr. Fletcher is asking this
    question rhetorically, for instructional purposes. People’s consciousness must
    often be advanced in increments. Perhaps the politics of race are so entrenched
    in consciousness that it will take time for us to realize that our interests no
    longer principally align according to race, but rather according to class.
    Clinging to the politics of race, (as Mr. Fletcher appears to be doing), only
    obfuscates class-consciousness, and therefore serves the interests of the elite
    exploiting class.


    “Black America” simply no longer exists as a political block
    defined by mass shared interests. This was very obvious at least as long ago as
    during the 2000 election when the NAACP issued a ‘platform’ that represented
    the interests of a prosperous Black middle class, completely ignoring the
    continuing social and economic degradation suffered by poor African-Americans.
    When Mr. Fletcher writes that: “there is a 21st century struggle underway to
    define the direction of Black America and the character of Black politics. This
    struggle is particularly fueled by which class within Black America gets the
    chance to set the direction”, he only seems to exhibit his confusion.  He recognizes that ‘Black America’ has
    been divided into separate economic classes defined by their own distinct
    interests, but he clings to the myth that the Black Liberation politics of
    yesteryear are somehow still a superseding factor.  He seems to cling longingly to this myth that shared skin
    color somehow supersedes economic interests. It not only very simply (and
    obviously) does not, but even much worse, this outdated myth rather serves to
    continue to divide us (by race) when we should be working as hard as we can to


    The question is not “which class within Black America gets
    the chance to set the direction”. The question is whether Black Americans can
    join in consciousness with the masses of other Americans, of every race, (the
    so-called 99%), to properly perceive and define our shared interests, so that
    we can end this shared misery of our economic exploitation at the hands of a
    cruel and merciless elite class (the so-called 1%). 


    The more we cling to the politics of race, the better we serve
    the designs of those who are exploiting us all.     

  2. JoeWeinstein says

    In effect Fletcher notes not one but two potential conflicts in arriving at a focus for a group’s political strivings.  One conflict is between broad social justice concerns of the mass of group members versus the interests of the wealthier group members, and the other conflict is between issue-based strivings altogether versus promotion of individual politicians who happen to belong to the group.  

    One or both of these conflicts may be acute now for Blacks but it should be noted that these same conflicts exist too – and at times are acute – for other USA  ‘ethnic groups’ as well.   

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