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In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, polls revealed that only 20 percent of African Americans believed that racial equality for blacks would be achieved in their lifetime. But following the election of Barack Obama, that number leaped to more than half. Did that dramatic shift in opinion really reflect a change in the vitality of black politics—and hope for improvement in the lives of African Americans? Or was it a onetime surge brought on by the euphoria of an extraordinary ...
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, polls revealed that only 20 percent of African Americans believed that racial equality for blacks would be achieved in their lifetime. But following the election of Barack Obama, that number leaped to more than half. Did that dramatic shift in opinion really reflect a change in the vitality of black politics—and hope for improvement in the lives of African Americans? Or was it a onetime surge brought on by the euphoria of an extraordinary election?
With Not in Our Lifetimes, Michael C. Dawson shows definitively that it is the latter: for all the talk about a new post-racial America, the fundamental realities of American racism—and the problems facing black political movements—have not changed. He lays out a nuanced analysis of the persistence of racial inequality and structural disadvantages, and the ways that whites and blacks continue to see the same problems—the disastrous response to Katrina being a prime example—through completely different, race-inflected lenses. In fact, argues Dawson, the new era heralded by Obama’s election ist more racially complicated, as the widening class gap among African Americans and the hot-button issue of immigration have the potential to create new fissures for conservative and race-based exploitation. Bringing his account up to the present with a thoughtful account of the rise of the Tea Parties and the largely successful "blackening" of the president, Dawson ultimately argues that black politics remains weak—and that achieving the dream of racial and economic equality will require the sort of coalition-building and reaching across racial divides that have always marked successful political movements.
Polemical but clear-eyed, passionate but pragmatic, Not in Our Lifetimes will force us to rethink our easy assumptions about racial progress—and begin the hard work of creating real, lasting change.
From Katrina to Obama. The phrase barely captures the massive swing in political emotions among blacks during the period from the fall of 2005 to the fall of 2008. Three short years saw a substantial and rapid shift from despair to hope occurring among African Americans. Shortly after the aftermath to the Katrina disaster, barely 20 percent of blacks believed that racial equality for blacks would be achieved either in their lifetimes or at all in the United States. Three years later, slightly over half of blacks believed that black racial equality would soon be achieved.
Was this increase in hope indicative of an actual revitalization of black politics? Did the president's successful campaign reflect the rebuilding of independent black political organizations, movements, and the black public sphere? What does the change in black opinion—the reflection of the black public sphere—signify? Does it signify the rejuvenation of a progressive black politics? Or does it reflect a shift of opinion due to an extraordinary event, but one not associated with a transformation in the basic structural realities that shape black life in America?
I argue throughout this book that, despite the relative euphoria understandably generated by the election of the first black president, the election does not signal that there has been a resurgence in black political efficacy, an increased ability of the black public sphere to influence national discourse and policy, nor a fundamental lessening of the racial conflict generated by a hierarchical racial order that continues to disadvantage black Americans, and poor blacks in particular. Nor was the increase in black optimism marked by blacks abandoning political realism about the current status of African Americans in the political, social, and economic realms. What the election does signify is a new era where the racial and class terrain, particularly at their intersection, is more complex, therefore making the rebuilding of progressive black political movements more complicated.
I begin this chapter by describing in detail the shift in black public opinion and its roots, and contrast those changes in black public opinion with the public opinion of white Americans, starting with the depths of bitterness that typified black opinion in the aftermath to Katrina.
HURRICANE KATRINA AND ITS HORRIFIC AFTERMATH VIVIDLY highlighted the depths that black political failure had reached in the United States by the fall of 2005. The majority of whites throughout the nation saw neither the dire situation affecting the residents of New Orleans, above all the poor black residents making up the vast majority of those most seriously harmed by the storm, nor the failure of the government to respond in a timely and adequate manner as having anything to do with race. Prominent African American activists, academics, and celebrities as well as ordinary grassroots people heard their opinions denounced, ridiculed, and ultimately demonized when they begged to differ, drawing attention to the evident neglect and indifference on the part of government officials in the face of the highly disproportionate effect of the storm on black citizens. Blacks were ridiculed when they demanded justice for the victims of Katrina.
Blacks were also ridiculed for insisting that the lack of justice New Orleans black citizens received was not, as neoliberal pundits insisted, the result of (just) the technical ineptness of the Bush administration—an ineptness that, while unfortunate, had no meaningful racial component (for, after all, we live in a post-racial America). Conversely, blacks in very large numbers, both public figures and those in the black grassroots, furiously insisted that blacks in New Orleans were the victims of massive racial injustice—injustice perpetrated by the state, corporate leaders, and white civil society in the Gulf. Blacks grimly marveled at what they viewed as massive white delusion as the great majority of whites in poll after poll stated that the Katrina disaster was not about race. Finally in the end, blacks were ridiculed for insisting on their democratic right to individually and collectively state their opinion, critique the state, and disagree with their fellow white citizens, even if the latter represented a (shrinking) majority.
Not only did African Americans find themselves unable to contribute effectively to the public debate around Katrina's aftermath, but an organized black political response to the outrage proved sorely lacking. This is in stark contrast to the impressive marches mounted just a few months later by a coalition of immigrant rights organizations in support of undocumented workers and immigration reform. Even as the demographic base of African American political power in New Orleans itself disintegrated, with hundreds of thousands of now homeless blacks being displaced across the nation, black political leadership on the national level was caught largely without answers to the dilemmas exposed by the Katrina disaster.
That the political lessons of Katrina and its aftermath were not lost on African Americans is shown by table 1, registering, as of October 2005, a marked pessimism concerning the racial dynamics in the country. More than 80 percent of blacks surveyed believed that racial equality in the United States would never be achieved or would not be achieved in their lifetimes. An almost equal number believed that African Americans were owed an of- ficial national apology for slavery, and nearly two-thirds voiced support for reparations. Nearly half of the respondents viewed themselves as the Other in respect to their "fellow" Americans, with a substantial minority convinced that African Americans comprise a separate nation within the United States, as opposed to an ethnic group like Irish, Italian, or Polish Americans. A similar proportion supported the formation of a black political party, having evidently given up on the idea that their interests could be represented in a party shared with whites. In a measure that has held relatively constant since the Reagan era of the 1980s, nearly three-quarters of African Americans believed that their fate is linked to that of the race as a whole. In contrast, that is, to what might be regarded as a founding article of the American faith, a large majority of African Americans stood convinced as a group that black fortunes are not decided on the basis of individual merit.
Collectively, these results reflect substantial black ambivalence about African Americans' connection to the country in which they reside as citizens. Contemporary political institutions are seen as at least partly failing blacks, and American democracy remains a potential unfulfilled. In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. accused the United States of having bounced the check of democratic promise that had been issued to African Americans. That check, most blacks clearly felt in 2005, was still bouncing.
Another source of African American political anger in 2005 was the war in Iraq. A majority of African Americans opposed the war from the beginning (the 2003 data collection was begun the week the United States went to war in Iraq). By the time of Katrina's aftermath, support had declined to under 40 percent, as table 2 indicates. Given how strongly President Bush was associated with the war, it is no surprise that black disenchantment with the war tracks decline in his support among African Americans.
Table 2, however, tells another story as well. The gap between blacks and whites on support for the Iraq war is very large—nearly 30 percent for two of the three years, and still a very healthy 20 percent in the other year. This gap was exacerbated by a similar gap in the belief on whether anti-war protest was unpatriotic. A very large majority of African Americans believed that it was reasonable for those who opposed the war to engage in protest activities. A majority of whites believed anti-war protest was unpatriotic. Blacks and whites not only strongly disagreed on whether military action in Iraq was justified but, in some ways more fundamentally, differed on whether anti-war protest was not only illegitimate, but unpatriotic. The very large gaps between blacks and whites on questions of evaluations of war and peace, political leaders (as detailed in the next chapter), and the Katrina disaster left blacks politically isolated and bitterly disillusioned about the state of affairs in the nation.
Also consistent with blacks' view of a flawed democracy is that blacks overwhelmingly believed that the 2000 election featured massive suppression of black vote. Nearly 90 percent of African Americans believed that reports of voter suppression in Florida signaled a very important problem. However, nearly 60 percent of white Americans believed that the reports of suppression represented a not very important problem, including 37 percent who believed that the reports of voter suppression were an outright "fabrication of the Democratic Party." Blacks believed that at least in part the 2000 presidential election was rigged, and the 2000 elections provided more proof that American democracy was a myth—that American democracy was fundamentally deformed. In 2005 mainstream blacks' and whites' understandings of the status and nature of American democracy were incommensurable with each other, as was the public opinion produced by black and white political discourse in Katrina's aftermath.
White and black opinion was incommensurable because each is a product of a different worldview—the interpretive patterns by which we make sense of social and political reality. These interpretive patterns in turn are the product of what Jürgen Habermas calls the "lifeworld." According to Habermas, the lifeworld "offers a storehouse of unquestioned cultural givens from which those participating in communication draw agreed-upon patterns of interpretations for use in their interpretive efforts." It is the lack of "agreed-upon patterns of interpretations" that is so prominently displayed in the black/white cleavage in public opinion. The public opinion responses demonstrate not merely a difference of opinion between very large percentages of blacks and whites, but completely different patterns of assigning meaning to the events that followed, as well as different normative evaluations of those events.
The Katrina disaster is the most vivid recent event highlighting the continued existence of a racialized social structure in the United States, producing the racialized worldviews displayed in Katrina's aftermath and the persistently negative effects on the life chances of African Americans— particularly those of poor blacks. These different worldviews are just one product of the American racial order. The racial order structures civil society in the United States and fragments it along racial lines, producing racialized publics and undermining the democratic potential that many theorists of civil society claim is one of its central attributes. This order, as Cathy Cohen argues, produces systematic disadvantage in the distribution of life chances, and the social disadvantage can directly lead to political disadvantage as well. The racial order in the United States structures American society, politics, political institutions, and the state. Yet even in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, the majority of whites had worldviews rejecting the belief that blacks remain substantially disadvantaged by race within American society.
The mainstream white worldview has as central elements the belief that racial justice has been achieved; that blacks engage in endless special pleading about imagined slights or ancient events irrelevant to contemporary America; and that a critical task for the nation is the conservation of a righteous social order or, for some liberals, to instead rely on incremental change to correct some "anomalies" in the functioning of American democracy. Michael Rogin argues, and I agree, that this worldview can only be sustained through a conscious act of political amnesia.
Another central element of mainstream white discourse is the demonization of blacks who challenged this worldview. Historically, the mainstream black worldview had as central elements a realist assessment of contemporary racial subordination, deep memories of past injustices, and the conviction that in the United States there exists neither racial justice nor true democracy. The corollary to that set of elements was the view common in African American discourse that the claim that America was already a just democracy was a dangerous illusion. To borrow the title of the book by the late philosopher Richard Rorty, for blacks, "achieving our country" would only come about by the radical transformation of American society, the economy, and the polity.
One of the reasons that American democracy has remained deformed is because of liberal and progressive complicity in whitewashing American history. Many commentators, like Rorty, truly desired to see a just democracy established in America. They could not and cannot face the truth that American democracy is unachievable until racial subordination and exclusion are eliminated from state practices and civil society. They refuse to face this truth and prefer to live with comfortable whitewashed lies about everything from the history of American progressive movements to the current status of blacks in the United States. The failures of progressive movements are due to their inability to escape these comfortable lies. Instead, progressives effectively reinforce neoliberal insistence that discussions of race, like discussions of political regulation of the economy, have no place in modern America. Racial conflict, much like politics, is messy and cannot be reduced to the sanitized mathematical models preferred by the neoliberal technocrats running the country's economic, governmental, and increasingly academic institutions. Messy social movements are replaced by organizations that play by the "rules," thus reducing movements insisting on social justice to largely ineffective organizations that lobby on "behalf" of the disadvantaged. Liberals and conservatives both reject the prospect of fundamental transformation of American society and politics—continuing to embrace an outlook that remains raceless through exclusion—one in which both the right and left demand that blacks submit and subordinate their interests for some whitewashed greater "good."
Real democracy requires facing the truth. In the United States, one truth is that full democracy will not be established unless the racial order is dismantled, not just in order to achieve racial justice, but American democracy itself. Historically, black visions constituted one of the most robust, egalitarian, and expansive of American democratic visions. In the first several years of the twenty-first century, African Americans became increasingly despondent about the potential for achieving racial justice in the nation as they saw their views on the country's central issues—such as the 2000 presidential election, the Iraq War, the legitimacy of anti-war protest, and their evaluation of the Katrina disaster—overwhelmingly rejected, ridiculed, and demonized by white Americans.
Black opinion in 2005 reveals another facet, one that suggested a potential for the revitalization of black politics. A substantial segment of the black population seemed available for political mobilization by organizations centered on issues of racial justice for blacks. Over a third thought it was necessary to form a black political party. On the other hand, black grassroots views on reparations and an apology for slavery (as well as for Jim Crow and to the survivors of the anti-black pogroms conducted against the black communities of Tulsa and Rosewood early in the twentieth century) were considerably more radical than either the great majority of black leadership or the remaining black civil rights organizations. For a variety of reasons, all of which highlighted the weaknesses present in black politics, this opportunity was squandered. These weaknesses included failures in black leadership—due in no small part to an ever-increasing fraction of black leaders' embrace of neoliberal ideology; the deinstitutionalization of black civil society; and the demobilization of mass black politics, particularly its nationalist, leftist, and feminist wings. Structural changes—such as the erosion of the economic fortunes of the black poor, working, and lower-middle classes, due both to shifts in the American political economy and government policies, as well as mass incarceration and the disinvestment in poor black communities—also contributed to growing weaknesses in black politics.
Excerpted from NOT IN OUR LIFETIMES by MICHAEL C. DAWSON Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1. From Katrina to Obama
2. Katrina and the Nadir of Back Politics
3. The Obama Campaign and the Myth of a Post-Racial America
4. Black Political Economy and the Effects of Neoliberalism on Black Politics
5. The People United?
6. Conclusion: Toward New Black Visions
Epilogue: Taking the Country Back