Posted by: kokoro | 17th Feb, 2009

Countryman Lecture

Countryman provided a lecture on the history of black politics, including their influence on Obama’s campaign.

Following the Civil War and Emancipation, white politicians eventually realized that blacks were an important constituency. A system of plantation politics emerged where blacks provided support for parties, but received little in return. For their votes, blacks were given bread crumbs of the party, without a say in decision making.

Following World War II, the black population increased in cities as a result of the Great Migration and white flight. These cities were more likely to have black executives in office as mayors; however, even into the 1960s, white politicians were reluctant to support black politicians taking anything more than a few legislative positions.

Inspired by the victories of the Civil Rights Movement in legal reform, black leaders were determined to make economic changes as well. In order to make economic changes, blacks worked towards controlling the institutions in their own neighborhoods. To gain community control, blacks needed to maintain strength in the Democratic Party in order to enact class change. Black politics are based on a revolution through the ballot box, in which black solidarity leads to political power which then leads to economic change.

Black power principles have basis in three main political strategies. It works from the assumption that racism is inherent in American society, that enacting change must be beyond a legal level, and that racial unity in necessary and progress can only be accomplished through the improvement of the entire community.

Black politicians recognized that they had to address the concerns of all their constituents in order to be elected to office. Harold Washington in his run for mayor of Chicago, ran his first term exaggerating anxieties in the white community and simply wouldn’t have won without the support of the black community. However, in his second run, he realized he would have to make it clear that he intended to govern the city as a whole in a way that would benefit everyone. He was reelected with far more support from the white community than in his first run. Black power grew into a stronger movement as it became a wider coalition able to gain support from blacks, while at the same time maintaining support from white and immigrant groups.

Obama has run his campaign based around black politics to a degree, based on race relations and ideas of change. However, the biggest difficulties for Obama will probably come from his job of governing institutions that are meant to maintain the status quo, while working with a policy of change.

Many of the ideas surrounding black politics are similar to what we have discussed emerging from the labor movement in the 20th Century. Black politics running on the belief of change through the ballot box is very similar to the ideals and goals of the Socialist Party. Certainly the labor movement has long been based on community solidarity and unity, much like black politics. More importantly, I think, is the recognition that expansion beyond one particular group is necessary to reach power and enact change. Unity must extend beyond race, nationality, gender, or skill. The labor movement realized and began to integrate it into their strategies it in the ‘30s, and black politicians followed that strategy in the ‘80s and beyond. For both the labor movement and black politics, political power is gained through unity and solidarity of the community and beyond, which can then lead to change- legally, economically, and socially.

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