Friday, August 30, 2013

White progressive assumptions about African American politics

I am becoming aware of something that I'll bet many African Americans have known for a while now. So I'm hoping you'll apply that sentiment of "better late than never" to my awakening consciousness.

We all know that since the passage of the Civil Rights Laws in the 60's and the Republican Southern Strategy, African Americans have been the most loyal base of the Democratic Party. And I'd suggest that since that base was responsible for one of the most successful movements for change in this country, white progressives on the left have - for decades now - assumed that African Americans generally align with their political views (notice that word "assumed" - its always the basis of privilege).

And so, when an African American gets the Democratic nomination for president, the left wing of that party naturally assumes that he will align himself with their cause.

Whoops! Not so fast. If those white progressives had ever taken the time to learn about what black people in their communities actually believe, they might have been spared all this "disappointment" in President Obama. And they might have better understood why African Americans have remained so loyal.

I'll give you an example that I've noticed for a while now but haven't talked about here because it is a contentious issue that I don't (yet?) have a firm position about. If there's anything that's clear when you talk to African Americans, its that their number one issue right now is what is happening to their young people - on the streets, in school, and in the juvenile justice system.

In my professional work in this community I've noticed for some time now that many African Americans don't align themselves with a large portion of the left on their views about education. With a healthy skepticism about the intentions of Republicans, many of them have embraced the idea of alternatives to our public schools (ie, charters and private schools). That's because it is THEIR children who are failing and they don't necessarily have the time or patience to deal with the politics associated with teacher's unions in the public schools.

Most Democrats want to avoid this controversy because it pits one part of our coalition against another. But from the early days, progressives have been critical of President Obama's education reforms.

I noticed this also when I was rather surprised by the strong backlash from many progressives to Cory Booker's Senate campaign. It was interesting for me to see folks who hadn't weighed in on electoral politics in some time get so vehement in their opposition to Booker. I think that rather than simply an overt showing of racism in going after one of the few African Americans to run for Senate, it was more of a privileged ignorance about his positions. Matt Yglesias does a good job of explaining how that happened with respect to education reform.
So there's a lot at stake in painting Booker not as a fairly conventional Democrat who (like Barack Obama and lots of other Democrats) happens to disagree with teachers unions about K-12 issues. Instead, they want to paint Booker as an across-the-board demonic corporate sellout figure who disagrees with teachers unions as part of a general agenda of overclass madness.
The truth is that African Americans are often as divergent in their political positions as white Americans are - with the exception of things like voting rights. But there are strains within the community that part ways very strongly with progressives, not just on issues like education reform but on things like the value of military service and the role of religion in politics (another one where both President Obama and Booker have come under fire from progressives).

Recently there was a lot of talk about how Republicans need to reach out to minority communities if they are going to survive in this new America. I'm beginning to understand that white progressives are going to need to do the same thing in order to avoid alienating themselves with their privileged assumptions.


  1. As much as I cringe when Republicans describing African American support of Democrats as a manifestation of "plantation mentality", I suspect there is some reality to that mentality. However, it isn't the African Americans who have it. It's the white liberals who think that African Americans should be more loyal to liberal principals since they have helped them out so much.

  2. This is a topic I wish white liberals would start talking about more, and past criticisms aside (I responded to you as "Q" once before), I do appreciate and do notice your attempts to incorporate non-white and anti-racist mindful perspectives in your commentary. While I could - and probably will - one day quibble with some of the specifics you've mentioned, I think the direction your introspection is going is a valuable one. A necessary fixture of grasping racial politics is understanding how race colors not just political views, but what's politically prioritized. You're seeing it now with the rather ridiculous focus and fearmongering surrounding the NSA when contrasted with the sparse and formulaic attention given to actual, direct surveillance and ongoing police abuse in Muslim and African American communities.

    When liberal blogs that purport to embody and express liberalism predominately staff their blogs with white people, and predominately display only white people on their blogrolls, and predominately link articles written by white people (even if it's about racial issues), you get a political focus that's narrowly centered around the narcissistic myopia afforded by insultingly unanalyzed privilege. This is the state of pretty much every prominent liberal blog right now, and not only is no one talking about it, I don't think many of the largely white commenters (who view themselves as anti-racist) see it as a problem.

    Unfortunately for them (and for black people as a whole) that problem has political repercussions. If you look at the exit polling for the 2012, white people are the least loyal fixture of the Democratic coalition. Despite efforts to make liberals seem particularly popular with women and young people, it's often overlooked that Mitt Romney won both white women AND white Millennials. With the disproportionate support white liberals have afforded NSA-like issues, that's likely to become more pronounced in the future; particularly since we're seeing a privielge-induced magnification of interest in white-centric issues regardless of the undeniable evidence that POC's make up the most loyal and most important aspect of the Democratic coalition.

    By making the narrow issues of a small subsect of a broad coalition central TO liberal commentary, liberals are disconnecting the priorities of the party from the priorities of the party's actual members. And they're doing it under the assumption that they can, will, and ARE speaking for all. This is classic white racist behavior, too, and it's the kind of racism liberals separate themselves from when they try to pretend that racism and race-ignorance are exclusive to Republican political expression. There's a broad erasure of immigration issues, criminal justice issues, intersectional/race-conscious gender issues and even further left racial priorities like reparations and full on race-requirements/employment mandates from the liberal blogosphere, and as long as that exclusion exists unchallenged (as it likely will as long as these blogs are and see themselves as writing for whites), perfectly valid distinctions and intra-coalition divides will go unnoticed, unremarked on, unknown and ultimately, dismissed.

    1. Btw, how many white liberals did you notice either completely avoid saying anything substantive or relevant about race or MLK on the 50th anniversary of the Washington March? Or worse, talk about MLK and quote something that was completely unrelated to his explicitly pro-black and black supportive advocacy?

      I noticed several.

      White liberals are still white, and naked, insulting and context-insensitive efforts to decouple Martin Luther King from his pro-black racial commentary and his moral critique of white society is just one more way that whiteness gets expressed.

  3. Ms. Smartypants, this is the one time I think I've ever disagreed with you. Not with your overall point - I definitely think there's some strong myopia among a lot of white liberals.

    But I do disagree with your statements about public schools and teachers' unions. Full disclosure: I'm from an African-American family that has about a dozen teachers in in, and I myself have a degree in education (although I've primarily worked in the nonprofit sector, not schools). I was public school educated K-12 in an urban school system, and my daughter currently attends an urban public school also. I have so much respect for the teachers who taught me, and those who are teaching my daughter.

    Now, I would never tell a parent seeking better opportunities for their child to not seek them in charter or private schools, if those are good options. Last year, a private girls' school approached the after school STEM program my 12-year-old niece was attending, and offered 3 full scholarships to girls the program would recommend. My niece was one of the 3 girls chosen, and when my brother asked my opinion, I said, "Go for it. Give your child every advantage you can." (She just started year 2 there, and is doing very well so far).

    However, there are many in the school reform movement that I don't trust. (Note: I don't count President Obama and Booker among them). There are many charter schools who are just in it for the money, and produce far worse outcomes for their students than their public school counterparts. I'm also suspicious of those who think privatization is the answer, and want to neglect working to improve those public institutions, such as schools, that still serve the majority of our children.

    1. I think you totally misread what I wrote here. I stated at the outset that I haven't written about the school reform movement because its a contentious issue on which I haven't yet made up my mind. So you actually DON'T disagree with me because I didn't state an opinion.

      My point was that there are many in the African American community who support charter/private schools. That statement is a fact - not an opinion.

      For me, its important to hear what those people are saying - not that I agree with them completely. But I do understand their position.

  4. There is definitely a fertile discussion to be had here, and I'm fumbling a bit, but I think a useful way of looking at it is the concept of "otherness" or not being "one of us" in some sense. I don't exactly mean racism or sexism or classism (etc — all perhaps subsets of what I'm getting at) but something like the opposite of solidarity. We all have a tendency to group allegiance, which is human and fine, but when that is combined with unacknowledged privilege and a failure of empathy it can be very problematic. Perhaps the key clause of the original post was, "the left wing of that party naturally assumes that he will align himself with their cause." How about cooperation and compromise? Is it really necessary to be "with us or against us" all the time?

    Obama is an extraordinarily interesting politician precisely because these identity issues are really important to him, and he has written about them in detail. Perhaps everyone should go back and (re)read Dreams From My Father ...

  5. Thank you for this, SP. Many white progressives underestimate the real animosity many PoC have for them when it comes to their treatment of this president. As an african american, I am at the point where I don't want anything to do with them and their unchecked privilege and entitlement. PBO is a grown man and keeps his own council. He ain't the least bit interested in going over the cliff w/folks like this.


  6. thank you, thank you, thank you. I can't tell you how much of a pleasure it is to read your blog SP. I knew your from DKos, and this is just a breath of fresh air. Wonderful!

  7. The religious issue that Smartypants raises also seems important to me. There is a virulent anti-religious subsection of white liberalism that feels comfortable saying that all religious people are backward/stupid/destructive. These same people are deeply uncomfortable with the "Rev" in Rev Dr. King (and John Lewis and Ralph Abernathy and and and) and are either enraged or dismissive at the suggestion that Christian faith was a critical component of the civil rights movement. This sort of intolerance among the supposedly tolerant is scarring to anyone with faith, and most African-Americans have faith.