The New Raw Deal

BY WILLIE LEGETTE



Invariably, a discussion regarding the material well-being of black Americans leads to a conversation about black leadership, or the lack thereof. The current leadership vacuum is the result of black political elites who do not use their power and resources to improve the quality of life of working-class and poor blacks. These elites include blacks holding leadership positions in traditional civil rights organizations and in public office.

The crisis of leadership in black politics stems from the new consensus on race supported by both liberals and conservatives. It has three major components. First, that the era of big government is over and that the social programs of the 1960s were ineffective and unfair to whites. Second, that the market is the solution to unequal economic development. Third, demonize the dispossessed and advocate punitive social policies for those who do not conform.

For white liberals, the new consensus on race means a retreat from pursuing racial equality. They distance themselves from "black issues" and a political agenda featuring government social programs. This creates a dilemma for the black political elite. Supporting the consensus threatens their legitimacy in the black community, but opposing the consensus threatens their relationship with whites in the Democratic Party, a relationship from which they derive personal and political benefits.

Still, black elites have accommodated the new consensus, which has forged a new racial accord between blacks and whites in the Democratic Party. This accord requires very little from whites; they generally support affirmative action (but not "quotas") and remain slightly left of the Republican Party on social programs and government regulation. In return, the accord requires that black elites:

  • Support Democratic Party policies (with the option to criticize policies that hurt blacks) but do not mobilize the black population to ensure implementation;
  • Advocate self-help to deal with the problems faced by the black dispossessed, and manage this population to prevent political disruption;
  • Support Democratic Party candidates regardless of their policy positions or how insulting their politics may be to black sensibilities;
  • Advance black middle-class interests; and
  • Rely on the private sector to reduce racial inequality.

The accord reduces the black role in Democratic Party politics to getting out the black vote. Because Democrats try to keep the black vote without really addressing black concerns, the black elite misrepresents the differences between candidates and overstates the danger Republicans representócreating a sense of fear among blacks.

Limiting black political engagement to protecting the "gains" of the 1960s or citizenship rights that others take for granted denies black Americans the chance to fully participate in the political process. Instead, they negotiate for second-tier appointments while the best slots are reserved for whites, mostly men.

South Carolina offers a classic example. In the last gubernatorial campaign, the concerns of blacks were largely ignored, yet about 42 percent of Gov. Jim Hodges' votes came from black voters. After the election, black legislators seemed cautiously optimistic that better days were ahead. The State attributed this optimism to the "strong black vote."

But was the black vote strong enough for them to get their fair share from Hodges? Shortly after the governor took office, he did what all Democratic Party officials do: he consolidated his white base and left blacks with the crumbs.

Some black legislators have publicly indicated their disappointment with the governor's appointments, and suggested that they indicate "business as usual." But most blacks fail to understand that the message the governor wants to send is that white privilege will not be challenged.

In 1998, Gov. Hodges' spokesperson explained his position by saying, "He's looking for the best people to fill jobs in his administration and he doesn't have any quotas, any set numbers that he feels he needs to meet." The message was that the governor was not going to be held hostage to black interests.

How can the governor and other political elites get away with it? Because blacks have limited their options to the two-party system and the new consensus on race. For 20 years in South Carolina, blacks have tried to persuade the legislature and big corporations to support black business development through low-interest loans. These opportunists use the deplorable condition of the black population as leverage to negotiate corporate deals for black businesses. This is trickle-down economics. It was reactionary for President Ronald Reagan and it is reactionary for the black political elite.

Black elites do address some of the issues that affect blacksóracial profiling, for example. But compared to other problems faced by black people, does racial profiling deserve the attention and resources it receives? Does it deserve more attention than the fallout from welfare "reform"? Does it deserve more attention than the crisis in public housing? It does not.

The reason racial profiling has gotten the attention that it has is because it affects the black middle class. As Al Sharpton said, "The fact of the matter is, you can be the richest Negro in L.A. tonight and still get pulled over in Beverly Hills." The narratives regarding racial profiling are so often framed to reveal a class bias.

The truth is that the problems faced by the dispossessed sectors of the black population are not beyond the reach of black elites, but simply beyond their will.

Willie Legette teaches political science at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.


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