With the election just a few days away folks have begun ruminating on what Obama's election means for African Americans.
Coates' work is the most impressionistic of the lot, with Cobb bringing up a close second. Harris' work, a short version of his book length treatise, waxes nostalgic. [foot]In full disclosure I not only consider Cobb and Harris friends, I don't think I'd be doing what I do without their support over the years. And through Cobb I know Coates a little bit.[/foot]
What I find striking about Coates and Cobb's pieces is how little they (and by extension we) remember from the seventies.
Their joint conclusion–that Obama's presidency combined hope and tragedy in the same package–we already knew. Or some of us did at any rate.
Beginning in the late sixties and continuing through the eighties we saw a marked increase in black elected officials. People like Richard Hatcher, Coleman Young, Maynard Jackson, and Marion Barry became the first in a long wave of big city black mayors. People like John Conyers, Charlie Rangel, Shirley Chisolm, and others were elected to Congress. (For a while we've located the beginning of modern black politics with the passage of civil rights legislation. I now think it a better idea to locate the beginning of modern black politics with the creation of the CBC.)
The youngest voters to cast ballots in these historic elections are about 58 or so now, so many of them are still around.
Ask them what electing someone like Coleman Young was like.
What you'd find is the same hope and excitement that accompanied Obama's election. And just like Obama capitalized on this energy during the campaign, candidates like Coleman Young did. And when they finally broke through? Their black supporters felt like anything was possible.
But the excitement didn't last long.
Because what the big city mayors swiftly realized was that the act of governing required much more time, patience, and consensus building, than the act of running for office. So even though Coleman Young was able to increase the amount of contracts women and black owned businesses received from 25 grand to 250 million, and was able to increase the percentage of black police officers, he wasn't able to even dent racial inequality rates in general.
And this had turnout consequences. Not for him–he held office for another four terms after his first one. But black turnout never came close to the historic numbers of that first election. And research suggests this is par for the course.
When Cobb and Coates write about Obama, they write as if we don't have a model to understand what blacks feel, to understand Obama's constraints. But we do. Coleman Young didn't have a nuclear arsenal, granted. And he didn't travel with a caravan with enough offensive weaponry to take over a small nation. Yet and still.
Harris almost singlehandedly put religion back on the map as far as black politics research goes. But he too ignores the lessons of the big city black mayors and also commits another error–he romanticizes the recent past. From reading Harris one would think that black intellectual critique was at a high point the last time we had a democrat in office. That every time Clinton turned his head he was met by black pastors using the Word of God to condemn his policies on the one hand, and black intellectuals on the other.
He was not.
In fact it was the opposite.
With a couple of notable exceptions, black elites lied down when Clinton repealed welfare. And they did the same when he signed draconian crime legislation putting more black people behind bars than any of his predecessors. They were nowhere to be found when Clinton used the occasion of a speech celebrating MLK to go off on black communities.
Years before Obama, Toni Morrison wrote that Bill Clinton was the blackest president she was likely to see in her lifetime given his background and given the way conservatives attacked him.
This, we remember. Or at least have heard of.
What we DON'T remember was that Morrison wrote the piece to attack the Clinton impeachment. And that she more or less ended the piece with a call to march on Washington. She didn't make this call when Clinton repealed welfare. She didn't make this call when Clinton signed the crime legislation. She made this call to defend CLINTON, not to defend black people FROM Clinton.
Now one could argue that the Clinton era saw the largest gathering of African Americans in recorded history in the Million Man March.
But it's worth considering the content of that event. Rather than gathering a million black men to protest policy–we marched on WASHINGTON, remember?–the Nation of Islam gathered a million black men to protest ourselves.
If Cobb and Coates forget the lessons of the sixties and seventies, Harris forgets the lessons of the nineties.
To our collective detriment.