The day before being sworn in, Atlanta's new mayor Kasim Reed pledged to the Chamber of Commerce he'd deal with downtown panhandlers in what he called a more "muscular" fashion. The hopes and predictions of white pundits that black political life would come to look like the rest of America have come true. But not because the inequalities in health, wealth, incarceration rates and other indices of disparity have narrowed. Black politics are looking a lot more like white politics because the black political elite no longer believes its mission is to fight for peace and justice. The newer, more cynical black elite are unmoored from their peace-and-justice-loving base. They are focused on their own careers, and the corporate largesse that makes those careers possible. Make no mistake about it, the black politics of a previous generation, in which black candidates and public officials were expected to stand for something beside their own careers, is over.There was a time not so long ago, when black politics, both in the minds of black voters, and in the public aims of black politicians, differed from the politics of white America.
Black politics were different because black unemployment was chronically twice as high as white unemployment, because black infant mortalities were much greater and life expectancies shorter than in white America. Black politics were different because African Americans were more likely to live in segregated, inferior housing, attend segregated, inferior schools, and due to the enormous gap in family wealth between white and black America. Black politics were different too because even though many African Americans were in the military, black communities were far less supportive of America's imperial wars around the world than their white neighbors. And most of all, black politics were different because black voters expected black politicians to use their political careers to advance social and economic justice. Dr. King's last projects hadn't been about affirmative action. They were about a strike of sanitation workers for decent wages and benefits, and a Poor Peoples Campaign.
It was an expectation that a generation of black politicians felt obliged to fulfill, or at least pretend to. Every year for a generation in the seventies, eighties, nineties, and into the first years of the new century the Congressional Black Caucus,put forward its own alternative version of a national budget always with billions for job creation in urban and rural America. White mainstream pundits bemoaned and decried the differences between black and white politics, accepting it for a while as the inevitable relic of centuries of exclusion of black faces and black voices from the halls of power. They devoutly hoped that soon, the difference would disappear. And now it has.
Black unemployment is still double that of whites, and the white-black wealth divide is something like eleven to one. Black infant mortality is still higher than that of whites, and life expectancies are lower. Tens of millions of African Americans still live in segregated communities with tax structures rigged to prevent them from adequately funding roads, schools, and public services, and most black children still attend segregated, inferior schools. Black America remains the most solidly antiwar and pro-peace constituency in the nation.
What's different is that black voters no longer demand, no longer imagine that black politicians can or want to make a difference. What's different is that black politicians, and African Americans in public life, in government at all levels no longer feel the obligation to stand and fight for economic justice.
We now have a black president who feels no special need to address black joblessness or black mass incarceration. The Congressional Black Caucus made no special demands on the First Black President, either before or after his election. There's a black man on the Supreme Court who as head of the Office of Economic Opportunity in the Reagan era violated the law and sat on thousands of discrimination cases till the statute of limitations ran out on them. There are black ambassadors and generals directing drone bombings in Somalia, training murderous Ugandan and Rwandan puppet troops, protecting oil kleptocracies, initiating and snatch and grab kidnappings and assassinations throughout Africa. There's a prominent black Chicago politician and megachurch pastor, a chair at Operation PUSH, who calls the Chicago Teachers Union the city's most dangerous gang. There's a newly sworn in mayor of Atlanta who used to call himself a civil rights lawyer, even though his "civil rights" practice was defending corporations accused of violating people's civil rights.
Four years ago, in the Failure of the Black Misleadership Class, I wrote that
The cohort of black business people and politicians who pass for African American leadership is at an impasse, and so is the rest of black America. Our leaders have failed to produce economic development models for inner cities and poor black enclaves that benefit the people who live there now.
Not only is the black leadership class unable to create jobs at living wages for the hundreds of thousands of black families that desperately need them, they can't even describe to the rest of America how such a thing might be done.
This is not a mere failure to communicate. It is a failure of vision, of democratic imagination. Our black political elite can't describe how to create jobs or save public education, or end mass incarceration because they no longer believe it's possible to improve the quality of life and for millions of our people at a time. They don't believe it's possible to develop urban neighborhoods for the people who live in them now, and they see no alternatives to gentrification, to mass incarceration, to yawning economic and social disparities stretching far into the future. What they do see is their own careers. The elected among them see campaign contributions from corporate America, and some of the same career paths and revolving doors for themselves and their immediate families that the white elite become accustomed to.
If the black elite can't stop gentrification, they can at least get paid. Thousands of black politicians and ministers were heavily engaged in peddling sub-prime mortgages to black people, after failing to protect their previous neighborhoods from demolition. If the black elite won't help us oppose wars, they can at least get paid. The last two Congressional Black Caucus legislative summits have featured numerous workshops on how to do business with the Pentagon and Homeland Security, but next to none on how to make the antiwar, pro-peace sentiments of our communities heard in anything like their actual number. Black politics, and the black elite that practices them, have become unmoored from democracy. Getting paid, and in some cases, getting elected are all that matters.
Atlanta, which billed itself as Black Mecca for a generation, is a great illustration of the cynical bankruptcy of the black political elite. Although proudly ruled by a black elite for a generation, and with an unbroken string of black mayors going back to 1973, a full one third of black Atlanta is below the poverty line. The city has the fifth highest rate of black poverty in the nation, surpassed only by Cleveland, Portland, Long Beach and Milwaukee. Atlanta's once-proud Grady Hospital which served all comers in Fulton and Dekalb counties has been privatized, and many of its services ended after state officials withheld its funding to deliberately provoke a "crisis." A court recently dismissed the cases of dialysis patients who sued Grady hospital when it ended the life-sustaining procedure, because the plaintiffs had died. Thanks to the Belt Line real estate scam, Atlanta's public school revenues have been compromised twenty years into the future to subsidize yuppie shopping and residential construction. Republicans and Dems on the state level, along with the bipartisan chamber of commerce types have been agitating for the state seizure and eventual privatization of MARTA, the regional transportation authority.
Atlanta's new mayor, Kasim Reed pledged to the chamber of commerce the day before his election that he would deal in a more "muscular" fashion with downtown panhandlers. The new administration is only days old. But Reed was campaign manager to the previous mayor Shirley Franklin. Reed's first major appointment was his pick of Peter Aman as the city's chief operating officer, responsible for overseeing the police, fire, parks, public works and other vital municipal operations. Aman is not a man who knows how to make jobs and justice and transit and education happen in Atlanta neighborhoods. Aman is a partner at the global business consulting firm Bain and Co. Aman wrote the previous mayor's transition report, which called for the "monetization" a fancy word meaning privatization --- of every city service in sight during Franklin's first term. The only reason it didn't happen was that the highest profile privatization engineered by the black mayor before Franklin unraveled in spectacular fashion in Franklin's first few months.
Black politics, in the sense of elected officials that work to uplift the black community, is over. It's not over because inequalities are gone, or even lessened much. It's not over because we have achieved anything like economic or social justice. Black politics as we knew it is over because our elected leaders have given up on economic justice, and many of us have given up on them. It's been a long time coming.
A new politics is possible, but there are many barriers to its emergence. Our laws guarantee corporations, amoral, immortal, immensely wealthy and utterly irresponsible, the final say on who we can elect and often what laws we may enact. Those laws will have to be circumvented, violated, or changed. Corporations own our media, and thus decide what is worth our notice. They dictate the very content of our conversation. That too, has to change, and when it does, justice and peace will again be real possibilities and real places upon which to stand for a new generation of black leadership.