There will no doubt be a few common threads of analysis that will emerge in the aftermath Senator Barack Obama’s defeat of John McCain in the 2008 Presidential contest. Many will debate the merits of the dominance of the Democrats in the Executive and Legislative wings of government. Others will remark on the near flawless execution of the Obama campaign. Much of the commentary though will center on how Obama’s election will impact the historical role of race in our national discourse.
Many pundits were quick to say that Obama’s victory will not erode centuries of anti-black racism in this country. But conventional wisdom suggests that traditional analyses of anti-black racism as a top-down phenomenon have to be rethought when an African-American sits as the so-called leader of the free world.
When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909, their explicit mission was to agitate on behalf of “American Negroes,” particularly within the realms of public policy. In the early 20th century, public policy for Blacks was primary focused on eroding legal segregation in public spaces and challenging random violence often directed at African-Americans.
Founded a year later, The National Urban League was focused on economic development and jobs, issues that were critical to a generation of African-Americans who were migrating in large numbers from the rural south into large urban centers such as Chicago and New York City.
Despite minor ideological differences between the organizations and their leaders, both groups saw their charge as providing advocacy for African-Americans. The Brown vs. The Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas) case, which provided the legal logic for the desegregation of American Public Schools, is perhaps the most visible example of the effectiveness of the nearly century of advocacy by the two organizations.
It is, perhaps, telling that both groups were somewhat marginal to the watershed moments of the Civil Rights Movement as more regional and direct action groups-like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party-were at the forefront.
Both organizations have gone through very public reexaminations of their roles in recent years as the terrain in which race is lived for many blacks has shifted in the post-Civil Rights Era. The NACCP, for example, in the midst of the eight years of the Bush administration’s gutting of the Civil Rights apparatus in the Justice Department, felt compelled to have a symbolic funeral for the word “nigger.”
Unlike the activist organizations, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was the product of the first critical mass of black representatives elected to the House of Representatives. The CBC was formally established in 1971 with 13 founding members (all Democrats) including the late Shirley Chisholm and current representatives John Conyers and Charles Rangel.
Currently with 43 members, the CBC’s primary role has been as a political broker between their largely black constituents and whatever political party was in control of the legislative and executive branches. The CBC’s influence was perhaps most pronounced during the first two years of Bill Clinton’s administration as the ranks of the group swelled in the aftermath of Jesse Jackson’s efforts to register voters in 1988.
With significant Republican majorities in the House and Senate during the recent Bush administration, the CBC was often marginalized; President Bush refused to meet with the group for much of his presidency. The CBC’s split over the candidacy of Barack Obama (himself a member of the Caucus) during the primary season spoke volumes about the limits of a politics of brokerage.
CBC members tried to gauge which candidate they would have the most bargaining power with. Georgia Representative and CBC Member John Lewis retreated from his support of Senator Hillary Clinton, after his constituency showed an overwhelming preference for Obama. Lewis’s shift highlights the extent to which the brokerage politics of the CBC and so many of the black political leadership held over from the Civil Rights Era is often out of sync with the needs and desires of the black electorate.
Ironically, it is that same electorate, having grown significantly during Obama’s campaign, which may hold the key to groups like the CBC, NAACP and the Urban League maintaining their relevancy.
Ever the pragmatist and as someone whose campaign was intent on bringing together the traditional democratic base with independents and centrist Republicans, there’s little doubt that Obama will govern from the center of the political spectrum. Despite the rhetoric of the campaign, there’s little evidence that Obama is a true political progressive,.
Yet the coalition of new voters, African-Americans, Latina (o), Chicana (o) and young voters that made Obama’s candidacy possible represents one of the most progressive coalitions that we’ve seen since the Vietnam War Era-a coalition that is emboldened by working class and middle income voters who are in dire need of a radical redress of their economic conditions.
Obama showed a particular disdain throughout his 21-month campaign with being thought of as a black candidate or as a broker for black issues. The President-Elect will likely show the same disdain for a black political establishment wholly wedded to the race politics of a quarter century ago.
If the NAACP, National Urban League and Congressional Black Caucus aim to remain relevant in the future, it is this new coalition of progressives that they will need to provide leadership for, taking advantage of the political will that Obama’s campaign has generated.
How do groups like the NAACP and Urban league play a leadership role in a broad progressive movement-in which race is only part of a broader platform centered on traditional issues of social justice (policing, incarceration rates, equitable wages), tax relief for middle income families, a repeal of No Child Left Behind and what Van Jones, in the name of the Green Industry, calls Eco-equity?
Can these organizations speak to these issues with the understanding that any redress directed at the black community has historically and invariably affected a larger segment of the nation?
In the case of the Congressional Black Caucus, can they move beyond a politics of brokerage to form the real progressive wing of the Democratic Party?
One step might be to revaluate membership in the CBC, which historically has been limited to black members. Obama’s own identity raises interesting questions about the fluidity of racial identity, but, more specifically, wouldn’t those black constituents of white representatives whose districts are primarily black or Latina (o), be better served by caucusing with the Congressional Black Caucus?
After years of positioning themselves to make back-room deals that are often at odds with their constituencies, groups like the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Congressional Black Causes have a real responsibility to trouble the political waters; in fact this historic moment demands that they corral the powerful wave that swept the first African-American into the Oval Office for the benefit of the very coalition that made it possible-if not their own continuing relevance.