"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Black Middle Class & the Political party of the Poor
By Amin Sharif

One of the themes briefly mentioned at the recent Millions More March by Brother Minister Louis Farrakhan was that of a political “party of the poor.” For several days prior to the march, Rudy Lewis and I were struggling with the question of why in the face of so much poverty and desperation, as evidenced in New Orleans, there has been no suggestion that the black and poor should form there own political party. Perhaps, the most obvious answer is that among middle Black class, there has been reluctance to break with the Democratic Party.

For the Democratic Party has for decades defended black middle-class aspirations in the form of support for Civil Rights and other anti-racist measures. And, it is also through the Democratic Party that members of the Black middle class have been able to rise to positions of political power as elected officials. This historical relationship between the Black middle-class and the Democratic Party was established in the New Deal progressive politics of Roosevelt in the 1940s and cemented during the Johnson administration of the 1960s.

Black middle class leaders were so highly identified with Roosevelt—especially Eleanor—that many were referred to as “Roosevelt’s niggers.” Yet this term belies the sometimes contentious relationship that exists between the Democratic Party and the Black masses. In 1964, the Democratic Party in Mississippi was controlled by an openly white racist leadership. Though the national Democratic Party was well aware of the degradation and oppression suffered by the rural black masses, it did nothing to curtail the racist policies of the Mississippi Democratic Party.

As chronicled in Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s book, Black Power, so outrageous were the actions taken against Black people that, a momentous struggle began to wrestle power from the entrenched racists of Mississippi. The struggle began in 1963 when SNCC organized the “Freedom Vote” in which “80, 000 people in the black community cast ballots” for their own candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor in that state. Then:

“After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Law, SNCC decided to devote its resources to building grass-roots political strength. The decision was finally made in February, 1964 to establish a new political entity in the state of Mississippi. Formally constituted on April 26 in Jackson, it took the name of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party (MDFP).”

The history of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party is one that should be closely studied by anyone seeking to establish a black political party or, as suggested by Farrakhan, a party of the poor. The MDFP was organized by African Americans who lived in the South when the poverty levels were staggering. There were no food stamps, no social service, and no medical assistance in Mississippi in the mid 1960s. Most blacks were sharecroppers who planted and picked cotton and lived under a system of segregation that was as brutal as slavery.

Yet, with only the idea of securing justice for themselves and their children, these poor Black Mississippians put together their own political apparatus and challenged the political status quo. While the history of the MDFP is too convoluted to layout at this time, it should be noted that the MDFP never became the official Democratic Party of Mississippi. The national Democratic Party attempted to co-opt the MDFP. And then when that didn’t work it adopted a myriad of tactics to keep the racist white Mississippians in power.

But the real story of the MDFP was that it gave birth to the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama. As pointed in Black Power, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization’s name “does not carry the word ‘Democratic,’ for the people of Lowndes did not intend to depend on the national Democratic Party—or any other—for recognition. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization gave Black folk a fighting organization which successfully changed the political landscape of Mississippi forever. These examples make it clear that in the middle 1960s, there was considerable momentum for Blacks to “search for and build new forms outside of the Democratic Party.” The question now pondered by Rudy and me is why hasn’t that happened?

There are many reasons why there has been no effort to build a political apparatus controlled by the Black people outside of the confines of the Democratic Party. The first reason involves how the American power structure decided to defuse the furious and dangerous activities of black and other progressive forces in the last decades of the 1960s. The wholesale destruction of Black militant organizations and their leaders was first among many tactics used to stop Blacks from effectively challenging the status quo.

The second tactic was the co-optation of the Black middle class, and to a lesser extent the Black intellectual class, by use of economic incentives derived from the Civil Rights laws. As the legal gains of the Civil Rights era took hold doors were opened to the Black middle class that were heretofore closed. The Black middle class who under segregation derived its status from providing goods and services exclusively to the Black urban masses was now free to offer their services to a newly desegregated America.

And, as urban Blacks could not compete with America for the purchase of these goods and services, they soon found themselves devoid of them. Black teachers, doctors, lawyers, and the common shop owners—all headed for greener economic pastures. The Black intellectual class was fractured into academics who sought tenure in the white Academy and those who stayed true to the cause of educating Black students at predominately Black institutions.

It may be said that white flight, especially after the urban rebellions of the 1960s, devastated the economic base of the black urban centers. But black middle class flight from these urban centers has left the Black urban poor to fend for themselves. And, as the distance between the lack middle class and the black poor has increased, so too have the problems of the urban poor multiplied.

This is not to say that the urban poor have not at times been their own worst enemy. Drug abuse, the lax attitude toward education and other issues of personal responsibility—all are issues that urban Blacks must wrestle with on their own. But, even the affect of these issues might have been lessened to some extent had the Black middle class not deserted the inner cities. Can there be any doubt that the Black middle class would not have stood by and watched the near total destruction of the educational system without putting up resistance?

It is precisely because the Black middle class is bound more and more to the economic issues outside of the inner-city where the masses of the Black working and poor classes reside that make it less likely to challenge the political status quo in America. In fact, the black middle class has no incentive at all to see a black political party or party of the poor emerge in America. Progressive politics might have been acceptable to the black middle class when it was held down by the chains of segregation. But with the removal of these chains, what incentive do they have to change the political status quo?

Indeed, we find that the black middle class has become the most conservative force in Black political life today. We even find that a small minority of the black middle class has joined the Republican Party and tout the blessing of the American economic system. That this same system is the one that holds a million of their black brothers and sisters in prison cells and dooms the rest to poverty seems lost on these Black Republicans. Nor does the fact that several thousand sons and daughters of the poor have died in a bogus war give them any pause.

Brother Minister Farrakhan has said that the black middle class must use its wealth and skills to help the Black and poor. But he may want to reconsider this notion in light of the growing conservative nature of the black middle class. Minister Farrakhan sees the need for Black Unity across classes as a vital component of his Million More Movement.

He is a spiritual man filled with optimism. But those forces who seek the political transformation will need more than sheer optimism. They will need to be aware of who is for the poor of America and who stands against them. Am I saying that there are no middle class blacks that will be useful in building a Black Political Party or Party of the Poor? No.

There will always be those Black middle class individuals who are ready to lend assistance to the poor. To characterize the entire black middle class as an obstructionist element to black progress would be as foolish as saying that all whites are obstructionist to black progress. What I am saying is that as a whole the Black middle class cannot be counted on as a whole to defend the interest of the black and poor. They do not have the incentive or motivation for such action.

Here we come to the real reason why there has been no effort to build a black or political Party of the poor. There is no effort to build such a party because the working and underclass of the minority and poor communities have not willed one into existence. They have not seen the need to break with their own conservative middle class political leadership and strike out on their own—at least not yet. There can be no more apparent example of this misguided loyalty to conservative middle class political leadership than in the Black Community.

The Black masses are prone to vote Democratic despite the fact that the Democratic Party candidates, Black and white, fail to act in its interest. Black Democratic mayors like the one in New Orleans routinely seek to attract businesses to the inner-city without demanding a living wage or unionization that could secure a living wage for inner-city workers. And, why should urban mayors have any real interest in whether black folks can feed their families when their own families feed at the tables of white power?

Why should Black mayors provide affordable housing for the poor when they are elected by interest groups who want the poor cleared out of the way? And, the problem gets worse at the Congressional level where it may take hundreds of thousands of dollars to run for office. Who is the source of all this money? Certainly, not the black and poor. The source of this money is forces that have little interest in what happens to poor people.

I can already hear the cry raised across the land by black politicians who say that they are only playing by the rules of game. Why play, at all, if you must be beholding to forces other than those who elect you? Would you have black people not represented in the hall of power, they ask. Yes, I would rather there be no black congressmen or women in the halls of power than ones who cannot or will not act in the interest of the weakest ones of my brothers and sisters.

Do not bring to this argument the time worn slogan about it being better to choose “the lesser of two evils.” Choosing the lesser of two evils only, in my mind, ensures that some form of evil will always prevail. Who would tell his child that it is permissible to shoot heroin and not smoke crack cocaine? The result would still be addiction though one would seem preferable to the other. The choice between a black Democratic candidate who will not support the interest of the poor and any other candidate that is of the same disposition will only ensure that the interest of the black and poor will never be addressed.

It is time put an end to these false choices. The lack and poor must come to see the necessity of building a new political apparatus that will defend their interest. Some will say that what I advocate is class warfare within the Black community. To these I say that I am not at war with the black middle class or even black politicians. I am at war with poverty, hunger, and hopelessness. If the black middle class and its politicians are not for the eradication of these conditions, it is they who are at war with the poor and those who argue for the black poor.
posted by R J Noriega at 10:42 AM | Permalink |


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