The State of African American Politics

By Kilson, Martin L., Jr. | The New Crisis, January/February 1999 | Go to article overview

The State of African American Politics


Kilson, Martin L., Jr., The New Crisis


African Americans and most white ethnic groups have both gone through three distinct stages of political development: a Protest Stage, an Electoral Empowerment Stage, and a Power Consolidation Stage. The first involved sharp cultural cleavages, sometimes leading to violence, between the ethnic group and America's dominant White AngloSaxon Protestant (WASP) majority. The second stage involved the ethnic group's seeking and gaining political influence and office through various kinds of alliances with other ethnic groups and with at least some WASPs. And the third stage occurred through the group gaining a full-fledged inclusion into the political mainstream.

Among most white ethnic groupsexemplified by the Irish-American experience-the Protest Stage and the Electoral Empowerment Stage occurred simultaneously. the former acting as a de facto spur to the latter. However, the rigid, racist barriers to advancement whites constructed against blacks in the century after the Civil War prevented African Americans from experiencing the same movement. This rigid structural exclusion meant that while white ethnic groups were making significant political progress, black Americans -a community of 12 million persons by 1i0 and 20 million by 1950-were almost completely limited to protest politics. It was only when the successes of the civil rights movement-and the massive federal intervention on the side of African Americans-broke the racist legal barriers against black advancement in the 1960s that blacks could advance beyond the rudiments of the Electoral Empowerment Stage. In the mid-1960s, there were less than 300 black elected officials in the U.S. and only six black members of Congress. By 1972, there were around 4,000 black elected officials; now, there are around 8,000 (about 1.5% of all elected officials). Adding on the much larger number of appointed and civil service officiaLs and administrative technicians, the full size of the African American political class is at least 30,000 strong.

However, African Arnericans have found it quite difficult to translate that growth into viable political clout and public policy outcomes. Unlike white ethnic groups, who rose to power when-and because-public policies were being used to advance their social mobiliS blacks have had to struggle against just the opposite ideology; an anti-Federal government and supply-side economic view,point that is heavily laced with racism. An additional burden was waging that struggle when the once vibrant medium-size and big-size industrial cities to which millions of working class African Americans emigrated between the 1950s and 1970s were themselves declining sharply.

These combined obstacles have left the African American political class able to produce only a low-to-moderate level consolidation of their political power-both for the 40 percent of African American households who are in among the poor and working poor, and those who are solidly blue-collar, middle class, and affluent. One reason for that is the weak-coalition legitimacy whites accord black politicians and voters. Black candidates for office-stilltypically gain relatively few white votes. But when white politicians and interest groups need the strategic cluster of votes controlled by African American legislators (legislators who are elected mainly by Black voters) they quickly and diligently pursue them. The exchange is deeply unequal. White interest groups and voters disproportionately get the best of the trade-off, claiming significant public policy benefits for themselves, while black politiclans and interests groups generally get little help on policies basic to African American interests.

The major issue facing black leadership in general and the political class especially is gaining more political clout and effective public policy capability through biracial coalition politics-that is, along political lines that involve equal opportunity for African Americans to hold offices that white voters control through their votes, not just offices that black voters control. …

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