On March 7th an audience of roughly a hundred people gathered at Brattle Theatre in Cambridge for a discussion of black politics in the United States. The event brought Michael C. Dawson (Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago) into conversation with William Julius Wilson (Professor of Sociology at Harvard University). Both have recently published books on race, politics, and economic inequality in the US. The discussion was moderated by Dorchester pastor Eugene Rivers.
At the center of the evening’s discussion was Dawson’s contention that black politics is now weaker than it has been in over a generation and that persistent racial injustice cannot be eliminated without rebuilding a strong black political movement.
Dawson clarified that by referring to a “black political movement,” he means more than simply the election of black politicians to office. Indeed, Dawson’s point was that, in the decades since the civil rights movement, electoral politics has largely replaced other forms of black activism.
The range of perspectives heard within black politics has also narrowed. As examples, Dawson pointed to the disappearance of black socialists and black nationalists from mainstream public discussion.
This narrowing, Dawson argued, “flies in the face of the history of black politics.”
Dawson and Wilson connected these changes in black politics to changes in the economic situation of black people in the US. Even as greater numbers of black politicians have been elected to increasingly higher local, state, and national offices, the state of black America has steadily worsened.
Blacks have been disproportionately impacted by long-term wage stagnation in the US, by the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs, by soaring rates of incarceration, by depopulation of urban neighborhoods, by mortgage malpractice, and by the “jobless recovery.” The median net worth of black households in the US is now only one twentieth the median net worth of white households, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study.
In other words, electoral victories have not been matched by advances against racial and economic injustice. To explain this disparity, Dawson and Wilson pointed to the formation of a “black political leadership class” that is disconnected from the majority of black Americans and often implements policies that hurt ordinary families.
However, neither of the speakers felt that it made sense to blame Obama for these problems. Wilson stressed that he is “sick of hearing people on the left – Cornel West and others – criticize Obama.”
“Things would be a lot worse if it were not for Obama,” Wilson said. “He risked his presidency on health care, and he avoided a depression, which would have severely hurt black people.” Wilson pointed to the President’s appropriation of $60 billion in TARP funds “for programs benefiting low-income people.” He also defended the Obama administration’s controversial “Race to the Top” education policy.
Dawson countered that the President has “gone seriously off track” in areas of foreign policy and civil liberties. Yet, rather than undertaking a full assessment of Obama’s record, Dawson sought to redirect discussion back to the wider picture: the need for a new black political movement that is not fixated on any one elected official or major political party.
Wilson and Dawson went back and forth over the question of whether it is more effective to organize around race-specific issues, or to focus on coalition-building and bridging racial divides. Stepping out of his role as moderator, Rivers interjected his views on the matter.
“There are some times, like with union organizing, where you have to build multiracial coalitions,” Rivers said, “but if you’re organizing around police brutality in an all-black community in Dorchester, it’s going to get a little racially specific!”
Towards the end of the discussion, a member of the audience asked the speakers their opinion of the Occupy movement. “It has been very important,” Wilson responded. “The Occupy movement has increased awareness of rising inequality in American society. I get calls all the time now from reporters asking about inequality.” Dawson agreed on the movement’s importance, but for a slightly different reason: he pointed to Occupy as an experiment in a “new form of political organization.”
“We cannot expect twentieth-century strategies of political organization to be sufficient to meet today’s challenges,” said Dawson, who himself has years of experience as a political organizer.