Forum Final Response
April 1, 2001
With Responses From
Apr 1, 2001
9 Min read time
A new black political agenda.
We thank our respondents for their thoughtful responses. We are pleased that so many of them, including some of our sharpest critics, agree with our call for a new black political agenda and leadership.
Ronald Sider develops a number of essential points that we would have explored in a longer essay. We wish particularly to endorse his comments about the historical opposition of white evangelicals to black social progress, and hope he is right in identifying new possibilities of collaboration. And we are grateful to Lani Guinier for her important points about proportional representation. We enthusiastically support these initiatives, and urge black churches to partner with Guinier in sponsoring a series of public discussions on the merits of proportional representation and how we might develop a more democratic politics. To move this important agenda forward, Guinier should reach out to the new post-Civil Rights leadership, such as Bishop Charles E. Blake, chair of the Pan African Charismatic Evangelical Congress, and Frank Madison Reid of Baltimore.
To advance the discussion of a new black political agenda and leadership, however, we will concentrate on some points of disagreement that emerge in the responses. We approach this task in a spirit of humility and tentativeness: these issues are important and hard. In our response, we hope to clarify points that the responses have obscured, and set the stage for a next round of debate.
1. AIDS. The respondents are disturbingly silent on the AIDS pandemic in Africa. The best of the black political tradition, sacred and secular, has had an internationalist, pan-African vision that did not draw distinctions between struggles faced by Africans on the continent and those of African descent throughout the diaspora. Cathy Cohen thinks that we do not have the right solutions to the AIDS crisis. No one does. But we would be more impressed with Cohen's criticisms if she proposed something better. This issue—of transcendent moral importance—calls for constructive action, not critical theory.
2. Republicans. According to Peter Dreier, "when Rev. Rivers breaks bread with President Bush, he's simply another supplicant for crumbs from the Republican table." Manning Marable and Alan Wolfe also take us to task for talking to the Bush Administration, and Wolfe concludes—in an impressive logical leap—that we support the Bush tax cut. If Sen. Ted Kennedy can talk to Jesse Helms, then why shouldn't blacks talk to President Bush? When the North Vietnamese leadership met with Henry Kissinger, it was viewed as an act of pragmatic statesmanship. But when blacks meet with George W. Bush, it is viewed as either servile or crassly self-serving. Why the asymmetry?
Our points about talking to Republicans are really matters of smart politics. We did not vote for Bush, and do not suggest that black Americans should join the Republican Party: Why shift allegiance from indifferent Democrats to hostile Republicans? Instead, we made two points: because Democrats do not have to compete for black votes, blacks' unswerving Democratic loyalty decreases their political leverage; and because neither party is sufficiently concerned about issues of concern to the black poor, blacks should deal with both parties on an issue-by-issue basis. Which of these two points is wrong?
But didn't the Republicans steal the election? Yes. But we wish to remind Ellen Willis and Julianne Malveaux that this battle is lost, period. So let's fight where it counts, where we might win, such as getting more resources for poor blacks on the ground, through churches.
3. Justice. Several respondents (in particular, Willis, Dreier, and Marable) criticize our essay for not addressing a number of social justice issues. Let's be clear: current levels of inequality in this country are socially dangerous and morally repugnant; correcting them requires redistributive policies. In "A Pastoral Letter to President George W. Bush on Healing our Racial Divide" of January 2001 (the letter is available, for those who are interested, at http://www.pacec.org), we presented a broad progressive agenda. And in our essay, we made a number of policy proposals—including employment policy—that address important structural inequalities that weigh heavily on the black poor.
Our principal concern, however, was with the challenges confronting the black poor, and with the need for the black church to provide the political agenda that is wanting in discussions of secular black leadership. While Peter Dreier awaits the arrival of universal health care, full employment, and affordable housing, something needs to be done to help those most in need—and it needs to be done now, not at the end of days.
Ellen Willis takes issue with what she sees as our emphasis on small-scale change that does not challenge structural inequality. Apart from noting once again that we endorse structural changes, we take issue with the false individual/structural dichotomy. Our practical experience confirms the feminist principle: the personal is political. How can people organize to improve their own lives if they are strung out on drugs, lack basic skills, or are otherwise unaware of how youthful indiscretions and poor choices can affect their futures—or if they live in neighborhoods filled with such people? The individual and community work we do addresses these burdens. In doing so, it also builds capacity for more sustained organizing by growing popular experience and knowledge.
This point about combining work at different levels—individual and community, religious and political, local and national—also bears on Alan Wolfe's homily on the importance of politics, which paints simple common sense as large theoretical insight. Our work does include "counseling youth, policing the streets, running a program for ex-offenders, [and] training kids to get jobs." But we also engage in explicitly political advocacy: you can't get anything done without it. We only insist that it be done pragmatically, with a black leadership responsive to the interests of the black poor.
4. Moral Principles and Political Strategies. We are moral universalists. We believe that the life of each individual human being—whether black, white, brown, yellow, rich, poor, female, male, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Jew (and, yes, whether gay or straight)—matters equally. But our sense of history and politics indicates a continuing need for an independent black politics focused first and foremost on improving the plight of the black poor: otherwise their interests will not be given due concern. That's why we focus on black politics and the black poor. So Alan Wolfe simply fumbles the ball when he says that we embrace racial essentialism.
Living on earth, and in America, we are skeptical about whether a coalition of equals, across race and class lines, could be sustained in the long run. We do not celebrate this sad truth, but we also cannot afford to close our eyes to it. With regret, we think Ellen Willis is wrong about the willingness of whites—especially working class whites—to align themselves with the black poor. But even when we are feeling more hopeful, we think that the way to empower the poor is to start with the reality of racial division, and organize folks where they are. A strong movement built by and led by blacks organizing for and among themselves will be able to stand as an equal to other movements.
In this, we in some ways emulate the political strategy of the American Jewish community. Jews are a people with a particular history, culture, collective memory, and distinct political interests. They indeed have their own form of identity politics. Also, it should be noted that this is also true for other whites, who created modern identity politics by constructing themselves as "white." If blacks are wrong to organize on the basis of their history, culture, religion, and political experience, then so are the Irish, the Jews and every other ethnic group that organizes on this basis.
5. Religion. We understand the complexities of mixing religion and politics in a pluralistic democracy, and the special discomforts of secular intellectuals with religion. Still, the truth remains that if you steer clear of churches, you will not reach the vast majority of black people. And if you steer clear of religious discourse, then you don't speak the patois.
Ella J. Baker understood these truths. Peter Dreier speculates that she might not have liked our style. So be it. She was a stalwart, committed, Bible-believing Christian, who believed in the efficacy of churches, when properly led, to be a site for the black poor to mobilize around their interests. More generally, the Civil Rights movement and its precursors were at a minimum theistically-based, and typically church-based. In this same vein, we would remind Manning Marable that the NAACP organized most of its membership through churches, up through at least the early 1960s, and that the early SNCC was led by black Christians. Much SCLC organizing also took place through the church. To be sure, there were strategic disagreements. Some black clergy, fearing generalized lawlessness, did not support sit-ins or civil disobedience. But they did support legal attacks on segregation. And many in black churches, including the clergy, were proto-nationalists, more interested in black self-help than in assimilationism.
Ellen Willis seems unfamiliar with the burgeoning literature on faith-based approaches to social issues. These programs could never replace the role of government in providing a social safety net. Nor should they. But community-serving faith-based institutions have a role to play: they are close to the problem, show flexibility in their approaches, have a track record of service, and have earned the trust of the communities they serve. Why is this perceived as an attempt to replace government? Faith-based action merely gets more helping hands to the table, with better funding. It does not deprive government or any public sector union of the task of providing existing social services. Moreover, government often acts incompetently, whether in national defense or social services. Why not get more help closer to those in need and not sucked up by the bureaucracy by using community-based groups like churches?
Cohen and Thompson worry about the involvement of churches in service provision in part because of concerns about sexism and sexuality. We should point out that not all black churches are male-dominated. The fastest growing churches in the black world are Pentecostal, which have long afforded women a more central role in preaching as bishops and pastors and in church organization. We acknowledge the obvious: the black church is an imperfect institution. Elsewhere, we have taken the church to task for its failings, including its timidity in addressing sexual habits and morality. (See "An Open Letter to U.S. Black Religious, Intellectual, and Political Leadership Regarding AIDS and the Sexual Holocaust in Africa" at www.pacec.org.) On the complex matter of religion and politics, we would encourage Cohen, Thompson, and Marable to read carefully Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson, and Raphael Samuels on the interplay between popular religious movements and politics. On the history of the politics of black religion, we refer Cohen and Thompson to Eugene D. Genovese's definitive Roll Jordan, Roll.
On the sexual side: not all black churches have taken on the critical work of caring for people living with HIV/AIDS. Still, thousands of black churches are providing a range of services for those who are suffering from this horrible disease. But a realistic analysis shows that the black church is the first and last black-led institution thriving among the black poor. It seems sensible to us to focus the resources of that institution on the needs of the poor. As for homosexuality, its status in black churches is far more nuanced than some would admit, and is different from white churches. The black church—unlike white or black trade unions—has historically been and continues to be a haven for the homosexual community.
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April 01, 2001
9 Min read time