Monday, August 25, 2008

Is Barack Obama the End of Black Politics?

As the Democratic convention gets underway today in Denver, and as Barack Obama stands on the cusp of becoming the first African American nominated for the presidency by a major U.S. political party, the NYTimes has raised some important questions about the meaning of Obama's success.

On August 10, they asked a number of prominent black political leaders, "Is Obama the end of black politics?" The article is well worth reading. Here is the heart of the matter:
For black Americans born in the 20th century, the chasms of experience that separate one generation from the next— those who came of age before the movement, those who lived it, those who came along after — have always been hard to traverse. Elijah Cummings, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and an early Obama supporter, told me a story about watching his father, a South Carolina sharecropper with a fourth-grade education, weep uncontrollably when Cummings was sworn in as a representative in 1996. Afterward, Cummings asked his dad if he had been crying tears of joy. “Oh, you know, I’m happy,” his father replied. “But now I realize, had I been given the opportunity, what I could have been. And I’m about to die.” In any community shadowed by oppression, pride and bitterness can be hard to untangle.

The generational transition that is reordering black politics didn’t start this year. It has been happening, gradually and quietly, for at least a decade, as younger African-Americans, Barack Obama among them, have challenged their elders in traditionally black districts. What this year’s Democratic nomination fight did was to accelerate that transition and thrust it into the open as never before, exposing and intensifying friction that was already there. For a lot of younger African-Americans, the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama’s candidacy signified the failure of their parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle — to embrace the idea that black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream.

“I’m the new black politics,” says Cornell Belcher, a 38-year-old pollster who is working for Obama. “The people I work with are the new black politics. We don’t carry around that history. We see the world through post-civil-rights eyes. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but that’s just the way it is.

The letters to the editor regarding this article, were also very interesting.

And here is the Black Agenda Report's scathing response.

This morning, the Times took on another question that many African American academics and grassroots political leaders have been discussing for some time now. Here is the gist:
Mr. Obama has received overwhelming support from black voters, many of whom believe he will help bridge the nation’s racial divide. But even as they cheer him on, some black scholars, bloggers and others who closely follow the race worry that Mr. Obama’s historic achievements might make it harder to rally support for policies intended to combat racial discrimination, racial inequities and urban poverty.

They fear that growing numbers of white voters and policy makers will decide that eradicating racial discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity have largely been done. [emphasis added]

Both articles raise critical issues that have not yet been aired widely in the national media, but which we all need to consider. Does Obama represent a new approach to the politics of race? a new relationship between African Americans and American democracy? Or, does Obama's success risk overshadowing the very real struggles and persistent inequalities facing a disproportionate number of black Americans? What exactly, if anything, remains to be done to overcome the legacy of white supremacy and racial injustice in American society? Is Obama's success too easily interpreted, or perhaps manipulated, by some whites to "prove" that the struggle for racial justice is now complete and, as such, that there is no longer any social responsibility to act to ameliorate continuing racial disparities. Finally, what do these articles reveal about the relationship between the present and the past?

What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts in the "comments" section...

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