Faith in Politics?
April 1, 2001
With Responses From
Apr 1, 2001
32 Min read time
Black problems are real, and often getting worse. We need new leadership community-based leadership in the black community.
From Detroit to Durban, the black world enters the new millennium ill prepared to engage the new economic, political, and social realities that confront it. Poor American blacks, equipped with the liberties won by the civil rights revolution, face declining living standards and cultural decay, the cumulative social pathologies of both, and record rates of incarceration. And for many in the global ranks of the black poor, life is now worse than it was at the start of the last century. Freed of colonial shackles, they are often simply dying—from unforgiving poverty in the dark shadows cast by casino capitalism or from the relentless genocide of AIDS.
Faced with these facts, some better-off American blacks take comfort in the bare assertion that "things could always be worse." It's hard to imagine anything worse than what is happening now in disease- and war-ravaged Africa, or what continues to happen in our central cities. In any case, forget the cold comfort: things are bad enough, surely, to demand that we do better.
But doing better also means doing differently. The political strategies of our declared leaders—at home, the brand-name CEOs of a declining civil rights industry; abroad, the aging autocrats of an antique nationalism—are exhausted, and those leaders are largely out of touch with today's reality. To build a better world, we need a frank and open discussion about a new black politics, free of genuflection before any sacred cows.
Here we offer our contribution to that discussion, and an invitation to others to join us in it. At the outset, however, we observe two fundamentals that guide that contribution.
The first is a cardinal moral principle: the life of each individual human being—whether black, white, brown, yellow, rich, poor, female, male, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Jew—matters equally. And, as a corollary, we hold that all human beings owe a special moral obligation to those among them who are most in need. The second fundamental is a political judgment: our scarce political energies should be targeted to maximize our influence. Applied to black people in politics, these fundamentals lead us to conclude that black politics should focus first and foremost onimproving the plight of the black poor, and should be led by black-defined political organizations and practices.
Our conclusion about the importance of black politics does not depend on the false and unacceptable idea that skin color matters in some ahistorical or morally fundamental way.1 Rather, and more simply, it follows from the truth that the black poor are among those "most in need," and that, for better or worse, they are more likely to get and welcome that attention from other blacks than from whites. However great our society's progress in combating racism—and we believe it has been considerable— whites generally care less passionately about blacks than do other blacks. However divided the black community is now—levels of inequality among African Americans far exceed that of the white majority—most middle- and even upper-class black families enjoy personal family connections to the black poor, not just historical ones. And however misled by their leaders, the black poor still trust black leadership more than white. So, if a morally decent politics demands that we harness our scarce resources to bring the greatest benefit to the least well-off, then the first order of a new black politics is to organize the resources we ourselves influence or control to address those among us who are suffering.
Concretely, this means harnessing the newfound power and access of black business, professional, and political elites to lift up their impoverished kin. But why isn't this already happening? The hard truth is that the great democratic promise of the civil rights movement has not just been lost for poor blacks but, consciously or not, betrayed by that very same black political and professional class. Over the past generation, our community has experienced not so much what the philosopher Jose Ortega y Gassett called "the revolt of the masses" but what historian and social critic Christopher Lasch called "the revolt of the elites."2 Specifically, those blacks newly able to move forward in society have in general not risen with the rest of their race. They have seized the new opportunities, but largely as an exit option from their people.
This is one reason that, at the outset of any discussion of a new black politics, it is particularly important to raise some basic questions about the political experience and inclination of elite black leadership: Where are its roots in the lives of the black poor, or its connection to those institutions still based among them, in particular the black church? How wise is its unquestioning alliance with the Democratic Party? Can it engage creatively with the continued devolution of policy choices—for example, in the provision of social services, or the quality of local education and training, or local rules on employment opportunity—that most directly affect the condition of the poor? Finally, what is that elite's view on US foreign policy, and the relation of that to it its domestic agenda?
The arrival of the Bush administration in Washington provides a good occasion for asking these questions. Make no mistake here: like most black Americans, we are outraged at the corrupt way this administration came to power, and skeptical about how it proposes to exercise that power. But the departure of our Democratic "friends" from the White House, however sobering, may open up space for a more frank assessment of what we want from national government. Indeed, the very illegitimacy of the present administration, as well as the departures in policy it represents, may provide new opportunities for pressure and engagement. Surely an administration that came to power by declaring thousands of upstanding Floridian blacks ex-felons, pronounces educational attainment for the poor its chief domestic policy goal, wishes to cede more control of social services to churches and other local neighborhood organizations, and has placed two black Republicans at the helm of its foreign and military policy apparatus offers something interesting to play with.
But even if the new political space turns out to be narrowly confined, we know already that black response to the new administration has been inadequate. Take the Congressional Black Caucus's staged walkout on the congressional vote that confirmed Bush as president. This did nothing to change his confirmation, nothing to improve the lot of the black poor, and nothing to advance any concrete thought on new political strategies. It was, like so much else in contemporary black politics, symbol without substance, shadow without act. To be effective again, black politics must move from protest to program, from assertions of identity to demands for action, and from politically correct preening to simple, shared, concrete, and confidently applied measures aimed at advancing those demands. And however we assess the promise of the current moment, it is ripe enough to ask, with urgency, how such a new black politics might be constructed.
Litigation or Problem Solving?
Over the past two generations, elite black Americans have gained unprecedented access to public office and private power. This has created the first real black middle class in this nation's history and put enormous resources in the control of African Americans. But members of that class have largely abdicated their responsibility to the black poor and have failed to use those resources to advance a coherent program on their behalf.
Whether this abdication is fueled by selfishness, ignorance, or simple indifference—all of which find basis in the black elite's economic and socio-cultural distance from the poor—the results are bad. The poor suffer all manner of deprivation, and are now in an almost anarchic state of social decay that reaches its most profound expression in the violent nihilism of many young black males. At the same time, the black elite suffers its own spiritual malaise. The material possessions and social standing of black elites—to their eternal disappointment—matter to no one but themselves; and now these African Americans lack even the pretense of any higher purpose. The manifest failure of the black community to take care of its own speaks volumes about the integrity of that community. What is lost for elites is the resolve and focus that come of consciously living a life by shared moral standards.
None of this is to say that the elite is utterly disengaged from the black poor, of course, but instead that its engagement is largely cynical. For professional protest leaders, "race" has always been an indispensable card to be played to deflect from intra-group failure. The elite stratum's interest in the destitute increases when its own prerogatives are threatened, then returns to distance and neglect when events turn favorable to itself.
Among young blacks of almost any class, the rhetoric of the civil rights era now rings hollow. Liberties are unmoving to the black poor without the material resources to use them. At the same time, they are more or less old-hat to the better-off who were born years after the civil rights revolution. What is missing today in the black community is a new moral vision that can again animate it as a community—something that speaks to present needs, is rooted in present lives, and aspires to something more than economic achievement. But in their single-minded focus on political power and legal protections, the civil rights leaders of the 1960s effected a mass secularization of the struggle for racial justice. Now we are reaping the consequences of this abandonment of a sacred vision of politics and society.
At the same time, surely, the results of the breakdown of American apartheid have been disappointing. The long-held promise of black political empowerment was, in part, an empty one, since voting rights could do little to curb the effects of deeper economic dislocations. Blacks gained more equal access to American labor markets just as the workings of those markets underwent fundamental transformation—the long slide in working-class American living standards, with particularly sharp losses at the bottom, that began in the early 1970s and continues to this day. Where blacks gained the most in electoral power—in our great cities—they did so just as our cities underwent massive divestment, in particular of the more unionized and heavily manufacturing jobs that would have provided a natural base for a black working class. Faced with white (and, increasing, middle-class black) flight, an eroding tax base, declining federal support, and increasingly intense problems among the poor populations left behind, newly elected black mayors found themselves nearly powerless to address the social and economic challenges confronted by their constituents. Remarkably, it would not be for a generation, when much of the damage was already done, that black congressional delegations from cities even began to seek a serious alliance with their working-class suburban counterparts, who increasingly face the same problems.
Throughout all this, the interests of black elites within an increasingly class-polarized black community only exacerbated problems, and contributed to a further narrowing of vision. For elected leaders from all-black and totally safe seats, there was little political pressure to deliver to their base. For middle- andupper-income blacks chasing the suburban dream, there was little incentive to struggle with the growing problems of the poor. And for both, there was little pressure to pursue a broad political vision with an international as a well as a domestic focus.
But—and it is no small "but"—the news is not all bad. If the deficiencies of traditional black civil rights leadership are evident enough, so too is the growth, thus far out of the spotlight, of a new leadership, one that is more based among the black poor, more cosmopolitan, and more innovative in its strategies for addressing problems.
Some of this new leadership results simply from the experience of a full generation of more equal opportunity, for education and otherwise. The number and range of blacks with college or professional degrees and secure positions in business, labor, the academy, or the media is incomparably greater than it was in the late 1960s. And while most of them are not yet mobilized politically, they do include a critical mass with moral interests in becoming active, and enough resources to matter if they had a common project. At a minimum, this much can be said: available resources among blacks are now large enough, and distributed widely enough, to bypass the traditional gatekeepers in defining our politics.
A second development of note is the emergence—particularly in our cities—of new black leaders with roots in African, Latin American, and Caribbean countries. These immigrants and their organizations make the black experience in the United States more cosmopolitan, and their natural interest in and concern for their native countries provide a natural basis for articulating a more internationalist black political vision. They could play a role in US military and development policy toward their countries of origin that is analogous in form, if not in content, to the longstanding role played by American Jews with regard to US policy in Israel and the Middle East.
In part fueled by that new immigrant experience and the changing face of central-city black life, we are witnessing a revival of black churches and religious communities. The perspective of their leadership is quite different from the civil rights crowd, since they are by definition dedicated to the sacred, and organizationally rooted in the lives of the black poor. Seeing their politics as, above all, practical and itself a form of ministry, they naturally tend to be more "hands on" and focused on concrete problem-solving. Rather than running for elective office, lobbying for legislation, mounting litigation, or making speeches—the signature strategies of the civil rights generation—they are more likely to be counseling youth, policing the streets, running a program for ex-offenders, or training kids to get jobs. By this point, they have enormous practical experience with such local and non-partisan approaches to central-city problems—an experience that could be drawn on more generally for policy innovation. Their stable roots in specific communities provide black politics with a spine and institutional infrastructure where it is needed most, in the lives of the black poor. Note here that this infrastructure is both local and national, for local churches stand both deep within their communities and are affiliated to each other in national congregations that stretch across the country.
In combination, these diverse strands of a new post-civil rights black leadership—experienced, practical, and cosmopolitan—could provide precisely what we think is most needed at present: a black politics that harnesses new resources while restoring the sacred; is directly informed by the experience of the black poor at home and abroad; and is, above all, practically engaged, pragmatic, and nonpartisan in improving the lives of the least well-off. Finally, it should be said, this new leadership need not come at the direct expense or use of the old, for which there is still a purpose. Ideally, in fact, this new leadership would work in concert with the old on issues of shared concern. But make no mistake. The emergence of this new leadership as a major partner with the traditional civil rights community, if not its successor, would surely change the tone, and particular strategies, of black politics.
A Diversified Political Portfolio?
Black political engagement in partisan politics is almost entirely with the Democratic Party. To call it real engagement would be an overstatement, since in recent years blacks have not only been unswervingly loyal to the Democrats but extremely reluctant to challenge them internally, or even demand much in return for their loyalty.
That black votes are "safe" for the Democrats is too well-known to require much comment. In the last presidential election, for example, better than 90 percent of the black vote went to Al Gore. George W. Bush won only 8 percent—the lowest share of any major party candidate since Barry Goldwater in 1964. And Goldwater's ascension in the Republican Party provides a convenient a starting point in explaining why. When the modern civil rights movement finally threatened, in the early 1960s, to crack open the more or less monolithic racism of twentieth-century American public policy, Republicans left no doubt about where they stood. Indeed, they seized upon progress on civil rights to reinvent "the party of Lincoln," and with it much of the modern American politics, in terms of racist appeals. Goldwater did so publicly in the South in 1964, during the GOP coup he led against the more tolerant "Rockefeller Republican" wing of his party. Much the same continued through Richard Nixon's "hunting where the ducks are" search for an "emerging Republican majority,"3largely based on race, and, in the generation since, the subsequent Southernization of GOP presidential and congressional politics.
Nor can there be much doubt about the racial cost of the Republican policy agenda. The GOP is the party that, in the nice remark of Rep. Barney Frank, "believes life begins at conception and ends at birth"—especially for black children. Republicans are the ones who have always been most intent on punishing unwed mothers, cutting programs for the poor, trashing our cities, limiting educational opportunity, weakening anti-discrimination law, and pursuing a "prisons first, justice last" program of civil peace. It's to Republicans that we can first look for policies that have retarded black economic progress, and that now account for the record rates of black incarceration and persons of color on death row. Between the two major parties, surely, the Republicans have done the most to make black life nasty, brutish, and short. And so, for blacks, the question of which party to vote for has pretty much answered itself.
But, if this is understandable enough, it's also undeniable that blacks now get very little from the Democrats. Consider the record of Bill Clinton, the man whom many have delighted in calling "the first black president of the United States." At the bottom line, his two terms did very little for black Americans. The longest economic expansion in our history barely dented the continued economic decline of the black poor, and Clinton's foreign economic policies—NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, most-favored nation status for China, and the rest—will only increase wage pressure on poorer and less educated workers. He did next to nothing to improve educational opportunity and, especially important for black adults, access to continued training. He barely even pretended to do anything for our cities. Of course, many of his signature domestic policies—more punitive crime policies and the ending of a half-century old federal commitment to children on welfare—consisted in "stealing issues from the Republicans" and outdoing them at their own dangerous and stingy game. Compared to these actions, the alleged promise a new "national dialogue on race" pales almost to joke, if not insult.
Once more, let's be clear: current black leadership is a large part of the problem. With little connection to the lives of the black poor, and even less accountability to them, most black elected officials came cheap in the Clinton years. They were content with high-gloss fluff events, largely absent as a coherent voice on alternative domestic directions, and often close to shameless in their role in foreign policy. Who among them has been heard on the catastrophes in Africa? And what is to be shown, if anything, for their repeated votes to "liberalize" trade?
The Clinton administration was aided and abetted in its disrespect of the black community by traditional civil rights organizations, whose determination to be politically ineffective was matched only by their efforts to monopolize access to the White House to the exclusion of alternative leadership, especially from black churches. Worthy of special inspection here is the role of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has for years been relied upon by other Democratic elites to act as shot-blocker against any significant leadership from the black church. The gatekeeper role fits Jackson well in his desire for visibility and sense of self-importance, but does much less for the interests of poor blacks, domestically or abroad. Consider, for all his speechifying, his effective silence where domestic policy choices mattered most to blacks—in education, crime policy, or the crisis of our cities. Or consider his role as "special envoy" to Africa. Did it help anyone that he was long supportive of giving Sierra Leone's Foday Sankoh—the sociopathic leader of that country's Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a guerrilla force notorious for dismembering civilians as a terror tactic—a role in "peace negotiations" in that country? How about his silence, conveniently complementing the Clinton administration's dishonest claim of ignorance, about the horrifying genocide of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994? This hardly amounts to effective advocacy for black policy concerns in Africa, much less the even more neglected black interests in Central and South America, and in the Caribbean.
The simple fact is that most black politicians and other elites are not accountable to a poor black base, and have been willing to let the Democrats have black votes for free. Moreover, this situation is unlikely to change without the emergence of new leadership within the black community, some opening to the Republican Party, or both. At present, the circle of black elites and the Democratic Party is closed; one way or another, that circle must be broken.
Here again the arrival of the Bush administration seems a particularly opportune time to consider how that might be done.
To be frank, we have no illusions about Bush's "natural" openness to black concerns. In his path to the nomination, especially in South Carolina, Bush made very clear his contrary willingness to court the racist hard right. And even after the Republican Party's effort to make its national convention look like a watered-down version of "Soul Train," it was evident that the Southern Strategy remained alive and well in the GOP. Very little real effort was made to reach out to black voters in the general election. Nor do we have many illusions about the Bush political program, the central planks in which are quintessentially Republican—tax cuts for the rich, increased military spending, attacks on the public sphere, and devolution of policy to the local arenas that are most fully ruled by private power.
Finally, we hope we are not naïve about the promise of the administration's new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. We find its emphasis a refreshing corrective to anti-religious sentiment of many social agencies. Within appropriate constitutional limits, we also welcome the material support it may offer community-serving religious institutions. But we do not suppose that support for faith-based organizations can replace a government-guaranteed social safety net, and we believe that those secularly administered guarantees and supports should remain. Faith-based organizational provision of services can complement government-run programs, but only that.
Still and all, Bush is obviously self-conscious about the limited legitimacy of his administration and—if only to drive Democrats even farther onto the defensive and secure popular acquiescence in other aspects of his program—he is making a concerted effort to reach out to blacks, particularly black churches, on both domestic and foreign policy fronts. While black religious leaders should not let themselves be used in another cynical political ploy, the moment does seem to offer at least some possible opportunity. Its fluidity, along with Bush's senior appointments, his interest in promoting a greater policy role for faith-based organizations, and his at least rhetorical commitment to renewing educational and other opportunity for the poor, in part by harnessing their problem-solving capacities, offer them their best opportunity in years at least to be heard. If nothing else, this administration provides some space for the emergence of a post-civil rights black leadership not subservient to the Democratic Party. It should see itself as that, and seize that opportunity to widen the base and range of strategies of a new black politics.
New Directions in Policy
Here are three more or less specific initiatives that might be undertaken. Each, in different ways, points up the strengths of the new black leadership: its direct experience in and motivation to experiment with real-world problem solving; its roots in the black poor; its simultaneously more cosmopolitan and more sacred sense of politics. And each would do real and specific good for the black poor.
Crime and Drugs
Crime and drugs, and public policy toward both, have a special impact on the black community. The population of "hard" drug users—2.5 million or so Americans with serious problems with cocaine or heroin use (and the 13 million or so with serious alcohol addiction or dependency)—is heavily concentrated in our central cities, which are overwhelmingly black or otherwise "of color." And blacks sustain extraordinary rates of incarceration and supervision by the criminal justice system.
In addition to wrecking millions of lives, our drug and crime policies also rank as expensive failures. Despite a direct expenditure of some $35 billionannually, the US hard-drug problem—whether measured by drug use or drug-related violence and death—is the worst in the developed world. After spending some $100 billion annually on the criminal justice system and fantastic new amounts on direct incarceration (the federal costs of which increased more than four-hold, in constant dollars, between 1985 and 1995) rates of recidivism continue to climb.
The reasons for both failures are known. Our drug policies focus single-mindedly on the "supply side" of the problem, with relatively little spent on treatment or prevention programs to curb the insatiable demand. Punitive police and incarceration measures drain resources from what is most needed to get ex-offenders back on their feet—namely a cure for drug and alcohol dependence and functional illiteracy—that usually figured in their road to prison or jail in the first place. We would do much better, at less cost, if these priorities were reversed. Let's put money and support into programs, led by community leaders who focus on healing over punishing and learning over locking up. Any number of faith-based organizations have proven their worth here, typically on shoestring budgets.
A world of practical difference could be made for the black poor if national political leaders were ever forced to recognize the familiar failures of present policy, and if sustained intervention in the lives of those about to be ruined by them were supported in our central cities. And what could be a more worthy role for black churches? Their "tough love" approach to juvenile delinquency and juvenile and adult drug abuse has the moral authority largely lacking among the legal community. At the same time, they are certainly in a position to take the moral high ground on those who speak of "all God's children" but only lift a finger if they're white. As a practical matter, their roots in these troubled communities give them better information and greater trust among residents than even the best intentioned "community policing" or government-led social service agency will ever have. Let them at least have the chance, we could argue, to show their worth, with the same sort of standards on accountability—here, measurable reductions in the many indicia of drug abuse and crime—that Bush and others urge on schools.
Employment and Training
Impoverished black communities will forever remain impoverished if their residents don't have access to jobs that enable them to support a family, with opportunities for advancement. Yet, many of the traditional avenues to both have come undone over the past generation. Divestment of our central cities, transportation policies directed against their inhabitants, and the poor performance of central-city educational institutions all tend to isolate central-city residents from job opportunities. And changes within firms and industry have made it more difficult for them to advance.
Firms have reduced the total number of job descriptions, stripping rungs from the job ladders that were traditionally climbed by less-skilled workers. Good jobs carry somewhat more demanding skill requirements, and movement across them is increasingly driven by worker demonstration of specific skills. The result is increased inequality in the labor market (with luck or skill more determinative of labor market position), less regularity in career trajectories, and a more forbidding system for would-be labor market entrants, who can no longer "go down to the factory and sign up" with any confidence either that they will get a job, or that a job will get them on a career path of increasing income and security. So we end up with marginalized workers shifting around in dead-end jobs, and workers within firms unable to advance.
What can be done about this? A natural solution is to build a modern equivalent of the old job—but, responding to new economic realities, now emphasizing a career path (with many different jobs, likely at different employers) over the course of a lifetime. Across industries and markets, employers and training institutions should map out the skills that workers will need and provide them with the means to acquire that knowledge. The potential gains are great. Employers gain a better-trained workforce and reduced search costs for new employees. Labor market entrants can get clear signals on how to get started and how to move up—even a low-paying job can be a step toward a rewarding career. Incumbent workers gain widened opportunity and greater career security.
We have seen scattered but now accumulating community efforts at building such elements of a new employment and workforce development system. In communities around the nation, often with strong roots in the religious sector, we see "living-wage campaigns" to ensure that entry-level jobs pay decent wages. And, particularly in our cities, over diverse sectors, we see efforts—like QUEST in San Antonio, the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnerships in Milwaukee, the San Francisco Hotel Partnership in the Bay Area, the Culinary Institute Las Vegas, Cooperative Home Health Care Associates in New York City, the Philadelphia-based Child Care Associates, and FocusHOPE in Detroit—to create new forms of access and promotion for the traditionally excluded. All the latter programs show significant improvement, at more effective cost than traditional employment and training programs, in improving the livelihood and opportunity of the urban poor. What is universally true of such success stories is that they are not merely the stories of labor market "mediation" and "design," but actual struggle by intentional political communities to declare their future. They are not just labor market projects but social justice projects. And certainly that is needed for the local policy struggles—around transit, for example—that are so crucial to finding job opportunities in the first place.
Here too, faith-based organizations, often with links and reach across regional labor markets, provide a natural platform for the expansion of such programs and the development of new ones. A natural goal, declared for our urban areas, should be wage and employment rates for central-city residents equivalent to metropolitan-wide averages. That is the natural next civil rights revolution—this time breaking down the barriers to economic opportunity thrown up less by overt discrimination than by industry restructuring and sprawl—and one whose advance a savvy black political leadership, with roots in poor communities, is a natural to lead.
Africa and AIDS
The foreign and development policy area also provides an opening for creative policymaking. For hardly the only example, but certainly a leading one, consider Africa and AIDS. Black Americans have a unique cultural and historical connection to Africa that lends itself to policy advocacy. Clearly, the AIDS pandemic should be at the top of the list for any political advocacy. In Africa, the AIDS pandemic will define the direction of significant segments of the continent in the areas of development, economics, and politics. The economies of severely affected countries will suffer as the economically active sector of the population is hardest hit. The implications for domestic economic development as well as insertion in the global economy are serious and profound. Political leadership will be affected, as the educated, cosmopolitan urban dwellers who constitute this class die in large numbers.
Consider the following statistics: AIDS is the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa. Of the 5.6 million new HIV infections in 1999 (according to UN-AIDS), four million were in Africa. Half the infections occurred among young people, ages fifteen through 24, with females representing more than half of the victims. Twenty-five percent of adults in Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe are infected with HIV. Life expectancy in the most affected countries will drop by as much as twenty years, rapidly reversing development gains made over thirty years. Reliable reports issued by internationally respected development institutions (such as the World Bank and UN-AIDS) estimate that there will be forty million AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa by 2010.
Unless there is a plan to address the needs of this population, the entire world will pay a very heavy price militarily, economically, and politically as it is forced to intervene to counterbalance the instability that will inevitably result from this disaster. The United States, as the world's lone superpower, will face pressure to act. It must develop a comprehensive strategy now. The orphan population, along with other issues arising from the crisis, requires a twenty- to forty-year plan, which must be elaborated and implemented as soon as possible.
Fortunately, a number of important recommendations have emerged. Black political and church leadership should focus on advocating for them. The Harvard AIDS Institute, headed by Richard Marlink, is conducting invaluable work on AIDS in Africa. This work is supported by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. Anthony Appiah of Harvard's DuBois Institute. On the economics and policy analysis side, there is Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Center for International Development at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Sachs, along with his colleagues Kweisi Botchwey and Lisa Cook, are doing work that should be actively supported by the peace and justice wing of the black church and the black political leadership. Sachs argues that the United States can and should play a leading role in addressing AIDS in Africa, which is the world's poorest continent and also where the disease has hit the hardest.4 He suggests that the US and other rich countries provide grants as opposed to loans to African countries, since they are not creditworthy. To ensure ownership, African governments should contribute their own resources, in addition to being financially transparent and accountable to civil society groups. Sachs calls for a grand investment in public health for the world's poor.
Here again, in view of the horror that confronts literally millions of Africans, black church leaders in the United States have a particular role to play in public education, political advocacy, and humanitarian assistance. They have the political clout and the access to the levers of power that are needed to educate domestic elected officials about this issue. But as important if not more, they have the wherewithal to alternately pressure and help African governments in their efforts to confront this crisis. Black Protestant and Catholic students, seminarians, and intellectuals must now mount a grassroots campaign that focuses on the relationship among sexual behaviors, AIDS, and poverty.5 The black churches must challenge African leadership to be more accountable to the needs of their own women and children, beginning perhaps with the demand that they mobilize their own societies and exact a high price for rape. Black churches should develop pragmatic, strategic relationships to the US Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and other international agencies to demand debt cancellation for African nations, thereby freeing up financial resources to be redirected towards the AIDS crisis. Churches should also apply moral, economic, and political pressure to pharmaceutical companies. Western pharmaceutical companies have been implicated in monopoly pricing practices, effectively shutting out access for poor Africans to life-preserving AIDS drugs. These pharmaceutical companies must no longer be permitted to exploit the suffering of millions of black people.
Finally, US churches, in partnership with both the public and private sector, are in a unique position to lend support to African efforts to combat the disease. Protestant and Catholic churches should partner with African governments to spearhead a drive to support community-care structures. These structures should focus on caring for those who are sick and dying. It is critical to break down stigmas that lead to violence against those who are sick—especially women and children. In many African countries, admitting having AIDS means ostracism, emotional and psychological abuse, and outright physical violence. Such treatment only exacerbates the fraying of community structures. It is imperative that those who are sick be treated with compassion and dignity. Moreover, these structures should serve to support children whose parents and adult relatives have died of AIDS. The goal should be to keep these AIDS orphans within their communities. Churches should assist in constructing and staffing orphanages for those children who have no other options. In addition to providing shelter, care, and education, these boarding schools-orphanages should serve as civic education and leadership development sites. One cannot imagine a more meaningful, and urgently needed, international ministry.
A New Black Politics?
In both domestic and foreign policy, of course, there are many other possible examples of urgent problems, with enormous adverse impact on the lives of the black poor, that a more determined and focused black leadership could address. Rather than multiply the examples, however, let us end by summarizing our main thrust. Black problems are real, and often getting worse. The present leadership has failed. That old leadership needs to be confronted, and augmented, by an emerging new leadership in the black community at once more religious, community-based, and cosmopolitan than the old civil rights community. In addition to re-embracing a moral and sacred vision of political purposes, we should be more pragmatic, more focused on actually solving the problems of the poor, and much less concerned with party labels.
Does the Bush administration offer real opportunities here? It is too early to tell, but at least some signs are promising. And this much we know already: unless we open up political debate within our own ranks, our politics will not be improved. Unless those politics are improved, we will miss what opportunities do exist. If we miss those opportunities, we do so at the price of our souls.
1 See Eugene F. Rivers III, "Beyond the Nationalism of Fools: Toward an Agenda for Black Intellectuals," Boston Review(Summer 1995), pp. 16-18.
2 See Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995). That book focuses on US white elites; our arguments about black elites run parallel to his.
3 On the Republicans' Southern strategy, see Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1969).
4 In several articles, Jeffrey D. Sachs has laid out specific policy options in this area in much greater detail than we have room for in this essay.
5 Gay white men in the United States made the connection between sexual behavior and the spread of HIV/AIDS. In addition to early testing and condom distribution, changing sexual behavior was an important part of their strategy to combat the disease. Declining infection rates among this population indicate that the strategy was successful. Part of Uganda's anti-AIDS campaign involves public education about sexual behavior. Teenagers now delay their first sexual experience by about two years. The infection rate for Uganda, which was the epicenter of the pandemic, has declined.
While we have you...
...we need your help. While reading Faith in Politics? by Eva T. Thorne and Eugene F. Rivers III, you might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. We've also gone one step further and become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your support to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
April 01, 2001
32 Min read time