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Michael Dawson is right: we sorely need a national black progressive movement armed with imagination, energy, and an unswerving critique of racism, sexism, class oppression, inequality, war, and empire if we expect to mount an effective challenge to neoliberalism.
He is not the first to call for a revitalized black progressive movement. Nor is he suggesting that no movement exists, citing current community-labor alliances to block the expansion of big-box stores to low-income neighborhoods of color. But the relative absence of African Americans at the forefront of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) gives his arguments greater urgency.
I, too, see hopeful signs of movement. Some of the best exemplars of Dawson’s vision are multiracial organizations that have been deeply influenced by African American and Third World liberation movements. These include Project South in Atlanta, Miami Workers Center, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, Domestic Workers United, Queers for Economic Justice, Labor/Community Strategy Center, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, and Los Angeles Community Action Network.
Many of these organizations are majority-black (both rank-and-file and leadership) and have waged effective campaigns against police brutality, home foreclosures, disfranchisement, and gentrification, and in support of a living wage, immigrant rights, and humane working and living conditions for all. And they have been active in, if not leaders of, OWS.
But these are not black formations, per se (neither was Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, which had significant Native American, Latino/a, and poor-white participation). Is this where we ought to look for the “new black”? I have encountered many African American activists who have little or no interest in building black organizations. Exclusively black movements, they tell me, are not only passé and ineffective, but a manifestation of old-fashioned, narrow identity politics. This view overlooks the black freedom movement’s critical role in expanding U.S. democracy, challenging U.S. empire abroad, and fighting for social justice for all. Indeed, as Lisa Duggan argues in The Twilight of Equality?, many movements dismissed as promoting narrow identity politics have, in fact, democratized America, and the attack on these movements represents neoliberalism’s attack on democracy—all in the name of freedom.
Yet, even the cumulative efforts of new black-led movements for racial and economic justice do not constitute the national black progressive movement Dawson is proposing. Why?
Neoliberalism is a more powerful foe than just about anything we’ve seen before.
Because neoliberalism is a more powerful foe than just about anything we’ve seen before. The movements to which we often look for models enjoyed a kind of moral authority and operated at a time when the federal government at least pretended to bend toward social justice and enfranchisement. During Reconstruction there was a strong presence of abolition-democracy; in the 1930s, New Deal liberalism; in the 1960s, Great Society liberalism. I’m not suggesting that the federal government or even the broader U.S. political culture was more benevolent in those eras, but they had to recognize the will of social movements. In the neoliberal era, privatization, austerity, displacement, layoffs, and union busting have become necessary evils to “stimulate the economy.”
As Dawson argues, post-Katrina New Orleans is a key battleground in neoliberalism’s unrelenting war on the working class. Black activists leading multiracial organizations such as Common Ground Collective, People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, and Community Labor United resisted the privatization of schools, hospitals, public transit, and public housing and challenged those who would dismantle public sector unions.
Yet neoliberal ideology remains resilient, seeping into the collective unconscious of even those with good intentions. Many of the young whites who flocked to New Orleans to help rebuild claimed inspiration from the civil rights movement, but so steeped were they in neoliberal ideology that they unintentionally became troops for neoliberal shock therapy. Enamored with Crescent City, they decided to stay, occupying new and old housing stock, paying higher rents, and contributing, unwittingly, to the displacement of black families. This is where the parallel with the Freedom Summer ends and a different kind of occupation begins.
Neoliberalism also has its share of black allies. As Dawson points out, big-box stores depend on black elites who believe that low wages and minimal benefits are better than nothing. What distinguishes older black-elite anti-unionism from black neoliberalism is the erosion of a black public sphere. Too many former civil rights leaders are on the corporate payroll, and too many black churches have retreated from their historic social justice agenda as a new wave of black televangelists preach a form of neoliberal ideology in their corporate mega-churches.
With no broad-based, progressive black movement to challenge it, neoliberalism has emerged as the new common sense, perhaps also hampering the ability of African Americans to talk critically about class. Despite rising populism, talk of class warfare, and visible class struggles in the United States, there remains within popular African American discourse a persistent belief that the black 1 percent—millionaires and billionaires like P.Diddy, Jay-Z, and Oprah—ought to be our allies, role models, our hope for the future.
Dawson’s important essay calls for a major cultural and ideological shift. I do believe a real challenge to neoliberalism is here—though not necessarily in the form of a distinctly black, progressive social movement. But absent a progressive black presence and a core anti-racist critique, such a challenge is doomed to fail.
Robin D. G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA, is author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.
Black movements have historically been at the forefront of progressive change. But with black civil society in retreat, how can we rebuild black politics?
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