Issue 112 - November 4 2004



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The just concluded presidential election was all about Iraq, with the state of the economy lagging in importance while questions about poverty, economic inequality and racial justice languished in the shadows.  As always, the concerns of black people were invisible to the parties and to white America.  Black American voters were again caught in a vise between the vengeful white nationalist conservatism of the Republicans and an increasingly indifferent business liberalism of the Democrats. 

But one gets the sense that black America is at a breaking point in matters of politics.  The old alliance between blacks and the Democrats is about to end while the war between blacks and conservatives is going to get much worse.  Most of all, the unique solidarity between the black middle class and the black poor will soon end as the pressure of economic survival turns former allies into enemies.  Poor black people are about to become the victims of a great political betrayal that is as predictable as it is awful.   This betrayal is due to the unyielding logic of modern economic life, which has slowly but inexorably destroyed the basis for black unity.  A brief assessment of our current economic predicament shows why the old forms of black unity cannot endure. 

The Republican Party, that peculiar union of fundamentalist capitalists and fundamentalist Christians, is all about cutting the size of government through low taxes and fewer regulations, including public action to counter the outcomes of private racial discrimination in the economy or other parts of the private sector.  Republicans have done a brilliant job of building an alliance between capitalists and racists that does not rely on government power to promote racial segregation or racial inequality.  Instead, the leading sectors of conservative America have relied on the typical mechanisms of economic inequality and social class to sustain racial hierarchies in America, allowing them to champion competition, choice and individual rights in the face of persistent racial disparities in economic outcomes.  

Modern America is, according to Republicans, a place where the economic fortunes of different groups reflects the cultural and intellectual capital that these groups bring to an impartial competitive marketplace, which assigns value to people on the basis of what they do rather than what they are.  So, according to this view of things, black people are poorer than other folks because, well, they are just not as smart or as industrious as other people.  Poverty and racial inequality are not due to discrimination, but rather mean that black people should imitate the culture of successful groups if they want to get ahead. This hoary “culturalist” stance on racial inequality is an electoral winner for free market advocates who oppose most forms of redistribution as well as white nationalists who are loathe to support blacks who they view as biologically and morally inferior. 

Can blacks appeal to American liberals and progressives for support in their drive for real equal opportunity?  Not really.  The Democratic Party has largely abandoned its concern with the needs of poor and badly schooled Americans of all colors in the modern, technology driven global economy in favor of a program of business liberalism that is largely indifferent to black interests.

The harsh reality of American economic life is that the blue collar road to the middle class has collapsed in the face of a world economy dominated by trade and technology.  A large fraction of the American work force have been stranded in the declining sectors of the American economy, even as their luckier counterparts in the growing sector are experiencing a sustained economic boom.  The majority of black American workers have been stranded on the wrong side of the economic divide between skilled and unskilled labor, a far larger fraction than among the white majority.  Even skilled workers face job and employment threats from trade and technology, so they are in no mood to help people in even greater need then themselves. 

Black Americans need government help more than whites in order to achieve a middle class standard of living which, in America, means their claims fall on deaf or hostile ears.  The Republicans argue against Big Government help for anybody, thereby ensuring that poor people stay poor forever.  Every time that a conservative claims that “people can spend their money better than government can,” he or she is also saying that poor people are on their own because right wing government is not about to offer them a bridge from the broken blue collar economy to the growing part of the global economy.  Even educational reform is a fraud, since most dollars for schools come from local districts which depend on local and state tax monies that reflect yawning disparities across class and color lines.  Small government conservatism, as a practical matter, means that poor people will be locked out of educational opportunity for as long as the right is in power.

The Democrats are not much better.  The Democrats’ business liberalism promotes the well-being of the middle class majority by increasing the competitiveness of the business sector in a hyper-competitive world.  For example, Democratic support for cutting the cost of health care for families and businesses is perfectly sensible and should be applauded, especially when compared to the Republicans’ limited initiatives that leave too many people without insurance.  The same is true of Democratic proposals to reduce the burden of college tuition and housing on family budgets, which use various tax incentives and subsidies to help people pay for the goods that they need.

Do the Democrats have a program to create genuine equal opportunity for education, health care and life chances in America?  No.  Middle America is far more interested in shoring up schools, medical care and life chances for themselves and their children than they are in creating real fairness for all.  In this divided society where a sizeable group of poor and working class people simply cannot make it on their own, an insecure middle class is not about to spend money on other people, particularly if they are black.

The Democrats have no reason to champion real equal opportunity because it is expensive and would take at least a generation to achieve.  The problem with the Democrats is that they do not have a common program of economic reconstruction that can unite the poor and the middle class.  The fact that there are millions of people who cannot make it on their own, no matter how hard they try, will not convince Middle America to help out their struggling countrymen unless they see something in it for themselves.  This sense of looking out for number one is not just selfishness or even racism, but is also rooted in the politics of economic survival.

So why do black people stay with the Democrats, even if the party has no real program for creating genuine equal opportunity that can command enough support from Middle America to counter opposition from free market conservatives and their racist allies?  A different politics of survival: the black middle class needs the Democrats to protect them from white nationalist animus, while the working class and poor black majority are just holding on for dear life.  Black America is in an existential bind between a party that will tolerate their presence so long as they support business liberals and the fierce white nationalist wing of the Republican Party bent on pushing blacks back into society’s basement.  White nationalists in America are convinced that black people are an inferior sub-race that could never rise above a lowly station without help from misguided liberals.  But the black middle class believes that the only way it can resist the onslaught of white nationalism is to make common cause with the Democrats by offering to deliver the votes of the black poor to the ballot box.

Of course, black people are in a terrible bargaining position vis-à-vis the parties.  The Democrats can plausibly insist that black people fold some of their interests under the party’s general program – and shut up about whatever else they need – in exchange for limited protection from racist bullies.  Republican entreaties for black support are cruel jokes since the right has no intention of dealing with the economic sources of black distress, nor do they intend to exchange their white nationalist coalition partners for a smaller, poorer and darker group that does not command the respect of a large portion of the white population.  President Bush’s appeals to blacks to vote Republican amount to a vicious mockery of a people caught between an indifferent liberal protector and an eager conservative assailant.

The Cosby Dilemma

There are two ways out of this trap: either black people themselves must come up with a program of national economic policy that creates equal opportunity under modern global capitalism or else find a way to expand the size of the black middle class without government help.  There is rather little chance that black Americans will be able to craft a program of opportunity and economic renewal that will command the assent of enough white people to become the agenda for the nation.  A new program of growth with equality is hard enough for the richest and most powerful segments of American liberalism, much less a group pushed to the wall by the economy on one side and malignant conservatism on the other.  While the emergence of Barack Obama suggests that a growing portion of non-black America might be willing to listen to public policy proposals from an African face, it will be some time before Senator Obama or someone else presents a comprehensive program to the nation.

That leaves the road of self-reliance as the sole road to black economic development in these times of economic change and right wing assault.  But the black community is no more immune to internal class conflict than the larger American society, particularly when economic survival is at stake.

When Bill Cosby lambasted what he described as “a culture of victimhood” and the failure of black America to take responsibility for its actions, he made national headlines and spurred the usual round of pundit debates.  The real story behind the Cosby uproar is not what he said, but what it reflects about black America, which is witnessing the fraying of a historic bond between the black middle class and the black poor.  His sentiments reflect the breakdown of a bond between middle class and poor black people being torn apart by the economic reality that the well-educated are riding high while the poor black folks are battered by the US economy’s turn against poorly educated workers. 

The hard truth of our time is that the economic needs of poor black people are much closer to those of other poor Americans than they are to those of middle class blacks.  Poor blacks, like all poor people in America, need an immense array of social goods and services that they cannot pay for – from health care and education to safe streets and housing.  Middle class blacks, like all middle class Americans, want high quality public services balanced against low taxes in a society of self-reliant individuals. 

Middle class black people support greater degrees of regulation and redistribution in economic life because they are poorer than whites and are still subject to discrimination.  But the black middle class does not need or want government to the same degree as poor blacks because they are no longer trapped in the basement of the American job market.  Many middle class black people are no more interested in paying taxes to support poor people than their white counterparts, not least because they see themselves as proof that hard work and perseverance in the face of white nationalism can pay off in still all-too-racist America. 

Bill Cosby’s complaint about poor black people, unfair as it is, is nonetheless the view of many middle class black people who see poverty as a trap made worse by self-destructive behavior.  Very few members of the black middle class suggest that poor black people have only themselves to blame for their trouble: the quiet daily war against discrimination prevents them from falling into that mindset. 

Some people will say that the black middle class’s slow abandonment of the black poor is a sell out to white America, the act of selfish Uncle Toms who have forgotten what it is like to suffer as racial and class outcasts in this society.  Nothing could be further from the truth or more irrelevant.  Black middle class abandonment of the black poor is perfectly consistent with a strong sense of racial pride that nonetheless blames poor black people for making their bad situation worse.  It is perfectly possible for middle class blacks to be angry at conservative white people and poor black people at the same time.

The Revenge of the Black Middle Class: The New Washington Solution

Can the black middle class survive without a political alliance with the black poor?  Can they survive without the Democratic Party?  Perhaps. Middle class black Americans could, if they choose, create a culture of academic and commercial achievement and success based on a shared understanding of the black American experience that thrives in the face of white nationalist assault.  Indeed, the marriage of conservatism and racism that is the modern Republican Party might recommend just such a strategy provided that the concept of racial solidarity undergoes a subtle shift along lines suggested by Cosby’s complaint.

Suppose that black American middle class families begin an aggressive intellectual and cultural movement that sees learning, savings, competition and development as the primary weapons in the war against white nationalism.  Imagine a situation where black Americans not only accept the marriage of free market conservatism and white nationalism as a fact of American life, but as an assault that must be resisted through independent development rather than relying on American liberals.  Suppose that the number and density of middle class blacks has reached critical mass so that they are able to sustain independent institutions – schools, media, publishing, churches, businesses – that can support a vibrant, diverse, but defiantly black intellectual and cultural universe capable of sturdy interaction with the wider world.  This black world would be able to insulate black children from the noxious influence of white nationalism over schooling, media and character formation – perhaps by insisting on a high degree of racial segregation in housing, schooling and inter-personal association, perhaps by the evolution of communities that are racially diverse but which share a common and positive view of black intellect and ability.

These communities would also develop mechanisms for controlling children – particularly young men – whose unruly behavior threatens to disrupt the teaching and learning process.  The creation of middle class communities of color that believe in black achievement, and that deliberately set themselves against the larger white nationalist project of American conservatism as well as the fecklessness of liberalism, would allow for the emergence of strong norms of individual responsibility to self and community that make it easier for these mini-societies to promote character formation.   This world would, in time, be able to build up black social capital so that succeeding generations of black children would acquire the tools for success in academic and economic competition, including access to pools of financial and cultural capital that permit them to succeed in broadly multicultural environments.

This new, assertive black America would be a relatively small population of ten to twelve million were it to magically congeal instantaneously,  but would be a political force in regions with large black populations to the extent that its interests in economic growth, competition, knowledge and public policy converged with those of other groups.  For example, a diverse but cohesive, assertive, achievement oriented and self-reliant black community of 300,000 in New York City could tip the balance of power in that kaleidoscopic city of warring tribes, using its growing financial, cultural and political influence to shape public discourse on everything from tax policy to the arts.  

The key point here is that a middle class black community intent on establishing and expanding its place in the world would be in a position to translate its current advantages, meager though these may be when compared to whites, into an engine for growth if it redefines its mission from one of defending its poorer cousins to one of aggressive accumulation and competition.  A community whose ethos is founded on achievement and competition will, like the nation as a whole, see failure as an individual matter linked to particular choices if it has the means to prepare its children to compete in the wider world.  Persons who fail in school, or who make bad choices that result in material poverty, would no longer be able to “blame the white man” for their troubles, but would instead have to accept responsibility for their mistakes.  One hopes that this black middle class community is sufficiently fair-minded to give people who fail another chance, though a harsh rugged individualism is not inconceivable.  In any case, once the community is able to establish a common culture of success, failure would be seen as the exception rather than as the norm.

Note that this sort of community does not rely on affirmative action to achieve wealth and power. American white nationalists, for all their hostility, are not about to reinstate literal apartheid, which is extremely expensive and economically inefficient.  The free market partners of white nationalists within the Republican Party go along with obsessive racism because they want the votes of racists in order to keep taxes down.  There is no way that a business oriented white capitalist class is going to use government policy to reinstate affirmative action for incompetent whites over competent blacks in a global economy that severely punishes inefficiency with bankruptcy and unemployment.  Blacks who succeed, and who are able to establish a common culture of success in regions of the country, will be in a position to compete with whites, and, more importantly, just might be able to break up the agreement between free market capitalists and racists regarding the political utility of racism.  If affirmative action disappeared, and blacks were excluded from elite universities and from high paying jobs by virtue of  “color blind” admissions and hiring criteria, one can still imagine a situation where the temporary fall off in black representation would be followed by a resurgence powered by very skilled, very elegant and very angry people.

It is important to emphasize that what we will call the "New Washington" solution of black middle class development (in honor of, and irony about, the legacy of Booker T. Washington) is, by its nature, a program of economic and cultural development that is in stark opposition to the marriage of conservatives and racists that defines the Republican Party.  The whole point of the New Washington solution is to gather together the economic and cultural resources of black people of moderate means to build a self-sustaining culture of achievement motivated by a profound historical sense of grievance against white conservatism as well as black failure. 

The emergence of an assertive black middle class in response to the victory of the right in American politics will bring a very heavy price in terms of national unity.  The New Washington solution is, by its very nature, based on the perception that the United States is so tainted by race hatred that black self-sufficiency is the only way for people of African descent to survive.  The New Washington solution would not be a liberal program – in large part because it is would grow out of the failure of liberal politics to create a genuine post-racial society.  Instead, the New Washington movement would be a sophisticated, multi-generational, non and even anti-governmental movement aimed at creating a secure place for black Americans, and those who would band together with them, to live, work and grow.

If all this sounds a bit of paranoid, it should: the program outlined here is a riff on that of the Nation of Islam, stripped of its cultish nonsense, its racism, its sexism and homophobia.  It retains two things from the outlook of the Nation of Islam: first, a deep belief that politics is a dead end for black development in America precisely because blacks will never be accepted as genuine equals, and second, a permanent antagonism to the dominant political and cultural discourse of the United States so long as these are organized around commitments to white supremacy in daily life.  Needless to say, this stance will lead to even greater fragmentation of American life by reducing the possibility of a shared sense of American nationalism.  The New Washington solution, born out of the victory of white conservatism and the weakness of egalitarianism, represents the emergence of intransigent, post-liberal black nationalism at the heart of the republic that ultimately turns its back on Martin Luther King’s dream of a “beloved community”. 

The Wretched of the Nation

What would become of poor black people who were abandoned by their former middle class partners?  They would slip further into the shadows of American life, suffering ever greater poverty, sickness and early death like their white, brown and yellow counterparts.  If they struck out at middle class blacks in the usual way that poor people strike at society – through crime – they would find themselves assailed by a rainbow coalition of middle class folks insisting on “law and order.” Indeed, one can imagine a situation where the New Washington solution would lead to ever more punitive approaches to crime and punishment once the black middle class stopped tying the fate of the black poor to the nation’s history of slavery and apartheid.  Sympathy would shrivel still more for the poor and social outcasts, with no segment of the middle class coming to the defense of those in society’s basement.  The United States would become an even meaner place than it is now.

An ascendant, angry, confident and successful black population in a cold war with conservative America; the abandonment of the black poor by the black middle class; a permanent war of words and images, and maybe worse, between successful blacks and whites who waited too long to jettison their racist partners or who treated blacks like permanent junior partners. This is the bitter legacy that two decades of conservative victory and liberal dithering has in store for America.  The racist right and the feckless left are not remotely ready to reap the harvest of what they have sown.

Marcellus Andrews is an economist and senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.   Dr. Andrews writes on economic policy and economic justice for academic and popular audiences, including The Political Economy of Hope and Fear: Capitalism and the Black Condition in America (1999, NYU Press) and Taking Back Capitalism: A Capitalist Road to Economic Justice (forthcoming, NYU Press).   Dr. Andrews received a PhD in economics from Yale University and has taught economics at Wellesley College as well as the City University of New York.

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