The ongoing crisis of the black poor, domestic and global, is arguably the most acute and certainly the most visible symptom of today's larger political reality: unrestrained class warfare by a transnational capitalist elite and the near-total absence of a viable left opposition, especially in the United States. Eva Thorne and Eugene Rivers are right about the weakness of the black movement—the ineffectuality of both the civil rights establishment and black nationalists, the dependence on a Democratic Party that takes black votes for granted while doing nothing to earn them, the substitution of assertions of identity for action, the lack of a galvanizing vision. Parallel observations might be made of the labor movement, the women's movement, and so-called progressives generally. Indeed, if social movements are efforts to organize masses of people in behalf of significant social change, it's questionable that the collection of union bureaucracies, advocacy organizations, and self-help projects that constitute the mainstream of what passes for a left in this country can fairly be called movements at all. Rather, they share the general consensus that it's useless to aspire to any changes that seriously interfere with the freedom of corporations, redistribute wealth, or democratize social institutions. What's left is moralizing against "corporate greed," tinkering around the edges with minimal reforms, or collaborating with essentially conservative schemes like public money for private school vouchers and religious charities.
Unfortunately, Thorne's and Rivers's proposals for revitalizing black politics do nothing to counteract this sorry situation but, on the contrary, reflect the impoverished imagination and lowered expectations that afflict the left overall. They pin their hopes on a moral appeal to the black business, professional, and political classes to "lift up their impoverished kin," while acknowledging that so far this elite has been mostly concerned with improving its own position. Why should this change? The position of the black elite is quite precarious and vulnerable, a situation that has never been conducive to generosity. And even if it were somehow persuaded or guilt-tripped into an unaccustomed noblesse oblige, how much could the black elite really do? After all, it has far less power than its white counterpart, which owns most of the nation's wealth and controls its social and economic policies. Community projects like youth counseling, job training, and drug treatment may help individuals, but they in no way challenge the massive inequities of social and economic power that perpetuate poverty. Only people organizing to improve their own lives can do that.
In the same vein, Thorne and Rivers's alternative to blind loyalty to the Democrats is not to build an independent movement capable of putting pressure on the political establishment, but rather to try, somehow, to transcend the Republicans' dismal record on race and their own justified skepticism and find a way to build connections to the Bush administration. They criticize the Congressional Black Caucus's attempt to object to President Bush's electors as ineffective symbolic politics, when what they ought to be deploring is the absence of hundreds of thousands of people protesting in the streets of Washington against the stolen election. As members of a religious community, they find promise in Bush's support for public funding of "faith-based" social services, while expressing hope that this judgment is not naïve. But naïve, in my view, is exactly what it is—especially when they argue that faith-based programs should only complement the secular governmental safety net, not replace it. Leaving aside the threat to church-state separation that many, including myself, see in Bush's initiative, the whole point is to discredit the government safety net in favor of privatizing social services and defining them as charity rather than as a political right and an essential collective function of a civilized society.
Finally, while it might seem like common sense for black people to apply their "scarce political energies" to alleviating the condition of the worst off among them, in fact this is a recipe for isolation and defeat. To begin with, it is defeatist to accept as given that one has limited political resources and therefore must have correspondingly limited aims. The point of organizing a movement is to generate enough political energy to tackle a wide range of problems, rather than do triage. Besides, we now have enough experience with anti-poverty politics to know that singling out the poor—defining it as a group that is separate and different from the rest of the population—is counterproductive. Despite the boom hype of the past decade, most people are struggling economically, as stable, secure jobs become a thing of the past. Americans work too hard for too little pay and suffer from the shortage of affordable housing, inadequate health and retirement benefits (or none at all), makeshift child care arrangements, and the deterioration of public education. Many are a layoff, divorce, illness, or other emergency away from poverty. This potentially rebellious majority is disinclined to support political demands that not only fail to address their own problems but are likely to involve taxing them to fund social benefits from which they are excluded. For this reason, programs targeted at the poor are always grudging and minimal, creating a two-tier system of superior private and inferior public services that exacerbate the social gap between the poor and everyone else. Even so, the very existence of such programs tends to drive the working and middle classes toward the right, a dynamic exacerbated by racism. The more the black poor are put in a special political category, the more they become the stigmatized other—which is why welfare has been so much easier to attack than social security.
The alternative is to revive the concept of public goods available to everyone and attractive to everyone, paid for by progressive taxation. A movement that demanded, at the very least, a minimum wage that people can actually live on, decently paid public sector jobs for the unemployed, public housing, universal health insurance, public child care and a Marshall plan for the public schools—none of it means-tested, all of it defined as an entitlement of citizenship instead of charity for the "less fortunate"—would help the black poor, but could also attract a larger interracial, interclass constituency. So long as racism exists, there will be a need for an independent black politics to make sure that black people's interests are not betrayed. But ending the marginalization of the black poor—let alone poverty—requires something more: a broad-based left that refuses to think small. •
Ellen Willis directs the cultural reporting and criticism program in the department of journalism at New York University. Her latest book is Don't Think, Smile!
Return to the forum on faith in politics, with Eva Thorne, Eugene Rivers, and responses.