Question of the Month

Neoliberalism and black politics?

Has neoliberal ideology among black elites narrowed our conceptions of what’s possible in black politics as well as our focus on means to electoral politics & lobbying? If so, is this a good or bad development for blacks’ quest for social justice?

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The Fragmented Rainbow Project

The fragmented rainbow project has evolved and is producing three book manuscripts. The first of these manuscripts is Not In Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics (2011, The University of Chicago Press). In NIOL I argue that black politics had reached a nadir by 2005. Rebuilding a robust black politics is made even more difficult, I argue, as black elites in all domains of activity, and large segments of the black middle class have embraced the anti-politics of neoliberalism. Public opinion data is used to probe both the problems facing black politics, and more generally the political consequences of the massive racial divide in contemporary American politics. This book is aimed at a trade audience, and explicitly espouses a political position.

The second of these manuscripts, Blacks In and Out of the Left: Past Present and Future, is currently under review and should be out sometime during 2012. BIOL, based on my 2009 Du Bois lectures at Harvard University, examines the two most active phases of 20th century of black leftist insurgency: 1917-1940(53) & 1964-1980. The key question going forward for black politics, and specifically radical black politics is “what is to be done,” or “where do we go from here” as Martin Luther King framed the same question in 1967. There are important lessons from both periods, I argue, for rebuilding a progressive black politics. I also critique various theorists’ narratives of the Black Power Movement that claim that black movements and their “imitators” (according to critics such as Todd Gitlin) were responsible for the fragmentation of the left and more generally progressive politics in the latter third of the twentieth century.

The final book manuscript is Reflections on Black Politics in the Early 21st Century. This manuscript is currently being completed and will be submitted at the beginning of 2012 for review. Reflections concentrates on the statistical analysis of the determinants of racial attitudes and the massive changes in racial attitudes, particularly among blacks and Latinos (the groups with the largest changes), that occurred between 2008-2010. Reflections also more explicitly engages the political theory literature using that literature to engage such questions as what traditional, if any, modes of black political leadership are relevant for contemporary black politics. This book is the most traditional political science manuscript of the three (to the degree that any of my work can be loosely labeled “traditional political science”).

There are common themes that loosely tie all three manuscripts to each other and which motivated the research of the Fragmented Rainbow Project. I take the position in all three manuscripts that in the U.S. there is a hierarchical social structure based on racial subordination—the racial order— that still shapes American politics, discourse, civil society, and economic and political institutions to the disadvantage of all non-white populations. It is a dangerous fallacy to believe the U.S. has become a post-racial society despite the statements (and desires) of some liberal and many conservative commentators. The racial order has evolved rapidly, particularly with the 1965 passage of more expansive immigration laws that greatly accelerated immigration from Latin America and Asia. While the often deadly cleavage between blacks and white never defined the racial terrain as decisively as commonly conceived, it is now questionable, some argue, whether the black/white divide remains the critical structural feature of the racial order. Empirically, I address this question by showing how the racial order at least as reflected in American public opinion is complicated, but suggests that generally, if not rigidly, blacks and whites still usually anchor the opposite ends of the public opinion spectrum.

I further argue that black politics remains weaker than it has been for generations and must be rebuilt for blacks to continue their quest for racial justice and equality within the new racial order. One obstacle to rebuilding black politics has been that neoliberalism has taken hold among black elites and the black middle class, and as a consequence the black disciples of neoliberalism have embraced an extremely narrow definition of politics. All three books in different ways aim to engage debates within black politics, progressive politics and the study of race and politics.