The State of Black America
by Matt Stoller, Mon Feb 12, 2007 at 07:37:12 AM EST
In case you missed it, Tavis Smiley convened a very important gathering of African-American leaders on Saturday to discuss the 'State of Black America'. It was a swirling discussion with academic leaders like Cornell West, political leaders like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Keith Ellison, and authors and artists like Chuck D and Sonia Sanchez. It was on C-Span, but I can't find the link. I've always had trouble with the C-Span search engine.
Now first I'm going to address this community about our culture. Most MyDD readers are comfortable within what I call 'Jewish political culture', which is a very individualistic, progressive style of argumentative discourse. Since the late 19th century, Jews have been backbone activists for a certain slice of the progressive movement - the union movement and the civil rights struggle both had important elements of Jewish leadership. That's one reason antisemitic slurs are thrown at the ACLU, for instance. It shouldn't surprise anyone that this culture suffuses at least part of the progressive blogosphere. On MyDD, there's a curiosity, a belligerence, a snark, a respect for academia, and an analytical tone suggesting a way of thinking about the world. Now Jewish progressive political culture is a shorthand, and it's not precise. For instance, gay culture is quite prevalent within the progressive blogosphere, as are scientists, hackers, and engineers and their culture of precision.
There are lots of other cultures out there, and lots of other ways of thinking about the world. These represent themselves online, but they don't necessarily represent themselves here. Does it matter that they don't? Maybe. Maybe not. I'm not so arrogant as to assume that the community created in the progressive blogs is necessarily THE place where African-American activists or Latino activists would want to spend time discussing political problems. What is very clear though is that there are very important conversations going on among and within other progressive cultures, and we must pay attention to them.
There's a grasping right now in the African-American community to create a new movement. Tavis Smily, an important media personality and African-American opinion leader, has published The Covenant with Black America, the first best-seller put out by a minority-owned publisher. He just came out with a sequel, which is designed to show the covenant in action. On the conversation on Sunday, the State of Black America showed themes that parallel a lot of what we're discussing on the blogs. There was significant class tension between middle and upper class blacks and working class blacks, there were splits between Hip-Hop culture and church-based older culture, and there were radically different approaches to white America.
I'm intrigued by this conversation. It's puzzling to me though that it's not taking place online as much as I would have thought, since the internet is a great place for movements. One reason is that Black America Web, which is a hugely important site published by Tom Joyner, seems designed to prevent organizing. It's a top-down media outlet. Who knows why? It's possible that Joyner doesn't yet recognize the immense power that the internet could create for the progressive black community, or maybe he's a media guy who doesn't want a wider conversation he's not controlling. Regardless, that infrastructure, which could be the fount of incredible organizing, is lying fallow.
At the 'state of black America', there was a subtle tension that resembles our dislike of single-ssue groups, which is the tension between a black elite and black organizers. At the C-Span forum, a representative from Radio One, the largest black owned media company in the country, kept emphasizing the importance of doing business with black companies. And yet, I have heard from numerous African American activists (including Davey D) that Radio One acts like another corporate monolith suppressing the voices of social justice. Consider their LA affiliate:
Radio One's KKBT has been a constant disappointment for years. I didn't think they could go much lower after hiring Steve Harvey but then they hired John Salley and made a fool of me. It was a bad move to nix then KKBT personality Dominique DiPrima, but Da Poetess has been trying to hold it down over there for the community.
Consider this. Spanish language radio disc jockeys were the moving force behind the mass numbers of people in attendance at the pro immigration rallies and marches. They told their people where to go, when to be there, what to bring with them, and the people came.
When was the last time John Salley, Big Boy, or Cliff Winston told you to attend a rally in support of an issue that was important to blacks? My point exactly.
Illegal immigration is all everybody is talking about these days, everybody except you know who.
So imagine my own surprise when I found myself tuning in to KFI 640 AM of all stations to get briefed on the latest immigration news. Notoriously known for being Los Angeles' conservative talk station, KFI has been the only station in Los Angeles to really address immigration in a language that I can understand, English. And even though I don't always agree with their points of view, I can appreciate a station that is actually willing to at least talk about the issue. It was KFI not a black radio station that first asked blacks how they felt about illegal immigration and had blacks call in to the station to voice their opinions. Go figure?
Sound familiar? Yes, it's pretty much the same critique that Atrios throws at Tim Russert. And there's amazing activism in the Hip Hop community against this kind of censorship, from DJs to fans to artists. It's not agonistic politics, but it could easily become that, the way the bloggers transformed from commentary on the media to fundraisers and activists. I could easily imagine a Hip Hop PAC using Actblue encouraging $10 donations to run ads against bad politicians on media consolidation. The tools are there. There's a LOT of political music, all it takes is one artist to show that organizing around it possible. And, well, the idea of a political fight is inherent to Hip-Hop, it's just couched in the notion of two DJs or artists lyrically 'battling'. Attach a small donation to a music download based on a partisan political battle, and boom, there's a flood of new progressive money into politics.
The incrementalist path - that of Radio One - is similar to the insider dynamic we see at work with liberals who become investment bankers and give away money to charity (which I find kind of sad). At the same time, it's a much harder discussion to have in the context of the African-American community, because economic opportunity is so arbitrarily denied. Smiley gave out free copies of his new book to everyone in the audience, sponsored by Exxon Mobile, one of the worst companies in the world when it comes to progressive politics. We could condemn that, but I've never faced the ritual of office politics as a black man, let alone succeeded at doing so. And I can guarantee that whoever made the sponsorship deal with Smiley at Exxon has engaged in that struggle.
Anyway, I don't have an answer to any of this, and we're going to see a lot more African-American politics pushed out into the open because of the internet, in the same way that the DNC has become a lot more transparent. We already are, in fact, seeing that. And Obama's going to accelerate this discussion, supersize it in fact.
My sense is that it's going to become much more important to recognize who we are as a progressive movement. There is no one 'white America', for instance, and we ought to start making that point. Jesse Jackson made that argument on Sunday, when he talked about character instead of race as what makes a movement. It's impossible not to be sympathetic to that argument, since it seems to let white people like me off the hook in terms of thinking about race. But it doesn't, and it shouldn't.
Every nasty trick the right-wing plays on us or our candidates they have used in a much more aggressive manner to keep African-Americans disempowered for hundreds of years. So when we complain about smear campaigns and fear-mongering, I can imagine the response in the African-American community is something along the lines of 'what took you so long to notice that they are a bunch of crazy immoral warmongers'. You'll notice that African-Americans, the single most progressive voting block, didn't send any votes for Nader in 2000. Though white progressives were fooled, blacks knew who Bush really was. The language and politics of social justice is inherent to black politics, which is why Al Sharpton was so good in the 2004 debates. The liberal blogs are partially descended from the white libertarianism of Silicon Valley, which has a very different and apathetic history with regards to social justice. We need to recognize that the African-American progressive struggle is our struggle, and work on bridging our community conversations. It's rough to do this, because it means that all of us are going to have to admit truths about ourselves we don't like. But not admitting these truths took us to Iraq, and that's much worse than feeling awkward or speaking out, now isn't it?
UPDATE: I recommend you read this post by Glenn Greenwald and this one by Pam Spaulding to get a sense of how Obama is sparking some excellent discussions of race. Moving beyond the black-white dichotomy means taking on other sacred cows, like AIPAC and homophobia.