The following is an exchange on one of my favorite blogs, Jack and Jill Politics:
The blog entry is entitled "What "Diana Ross and Mahogany can Teach Us about Oprah and Obama."
In case you weren't paying attention, the civil rights struggle migrated from politics to the board room sometime in the 1980s and 90s. An actual historian might be able to tell us why but perhaps it might have something to do with disillusionment and impatience that political power didn't translate as quickly into gains for ordinary African-Americans as climbing the corporate ladder as affirmative action began to open doors and fill wallets. The best and the brightest African-Americans seemed less interested in running for office or leading protests and more interested in leaping over loosened barriers to get Harvard MBAs and socially climb. Progressive meant sitting or speaking in all-white boardrooms and proving your intelligence and equality as many times as it took to get promoted.As part of the generation that was a child when Martin Luther King was killed, yet heard these Civil Rights war stories from my parents (who thought Jesse Jackson was nothing more than a hustler even back in the 60s), I saw the logic of Jill's arguments, but I've also dealt with the likes of Harold Ford, Jr., Artur Davis - those brothas on Capitol Hill who are 40 and under (in other words, my age or thereabouts) who should be able to both appreciate the Civil Rights vets, yet be savvy and respectful enough to not flat out diss their contributions by their willingness to collect a check from the corporat masters, hastily pick up their lanterns and take up their positions on the lawn, for their own personal gain.
To gain financial muscle, many leading African-Americans appeared to feel they had to cloak their political leanings behind a friendly, harmless smile. To appear as "safe Negroes", people like Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Al Roker and Jay-Z strove to show America that the most important color to them and other mercantile blacks was not black but green, baby. Whether you were conservative or liberal, white, black, brown, whatever -- you could love your favorite black celebrity/mogul without resentment or guilt. Even Queen Latifah and Whoopi Goldberg toned down their images to appear safer. The message was all about sameness and minimizing difference. At the same time, awed whites began to make jokes about how rich Oprah had become and blacks started worshiping at the alter of prosperity, reading books like "Girl, Get Your Money Straight!". Mercantile blacks had taken over.
That all started to change in reaction to the Bush Administration. It started in hip hop with Russell Simmons and the Hip Hop Political Summit and Sean "P.Diddy" Combs and his Vote or Die voter registration campaign. It was prima facie non-partisan but if your target audiences are young people and minorities, we all know the demographics are going to skew Democratic.
Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Barack Obama of Illinois are a flashback to the optimism and determination of Billy Dee Williams. They represent the best and brightest that chose not to work for Merrill Lynch for example where they might make more money or become world-famous doctors like Ben Carson MD but take what many middle-class African-Americans would see as the riskier route of politics as their road to success.
What's different from the 60s and 70s is that their message is the hope of a brighter future not for African-Americans but for all Americans in their states no matter the color of their skin nor the size of their pocketbooks. They've taken the language of sameness pioneered by the mercantile blacks and have adopted it as a canny political strategy to cross socio-racial lines. They are the new Black Panthers, moving stealthily through the jungle of a new era.
What's different from the 70s is we may be on the verge of another alliance between mercantile blacks and political blacks. Oprah Winfrey has stepped out of the political shadows out of her neutral comfort zone to throw her voice and her money behind Barack Obama. She knows she may lose some of her audience and doesn't seem to care. She's willing to trade the The goals of mercantile blacks and political blacks are becoming re-aligned. In part out of desperation to push the people who have sent our relatives to maiming and death in Iraq out of office. This force -- last seen during the struggle for civil rights in the 1940s-60s -- is what drove incredible progress and prosperity in America and not only for African-Americans, dig. It introduced lasting change from which we continue to profit as a nation today.
I've been telling people not to sleep on the Oprah/Obama combination for almost a year now. We'll just have to see how powerful this force really is and what it might mean for the relationship between mercantile and political African-Americans in the new millennium.
What happens when the Black Crusaders meet the new Black Panthers -- watch out!
So, before I decide if I'm going to comment or not, I find that my colleague, Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report, has his own ideas on the subject:
Well, I have to say, since I've made my government career as a Civil Rights/EEO Specialist for the last 20 years, my sentiments are more with my colleague, but to Jill's credit, she made good points as well. Which is why I'm thanking both of you for writing my blog post today; you made it very easy.
I would fundamentally disagree with the author's statement that “the struggle has “migrated” from the street to the board room,” though that's precisely the way some of the black faces in the board room like to tell it. More accurately, at the end of the sixties, the board room doors swung open for the few that were already prepared to enter. On their way in the door they turned around to the rest of us in the street. They assured us that this was the next phase of the struggle, that marching, boycotting, grassroots organizing, and nearly everything that violated the law was obsolete, to buy from Black businesses, and that they'd be back to tell us how to vote every year or two.
A second generation of conscienceless black politicos followed at their heels, folks like Greg Meeks of NY and Artur Davis of AL and of course Harold Ford of TN, whose crossover to the realm of shills for big business has been so thorough as to leave room for only the most cursory nod to the train that got them there, let alone the sacrifices of ordinary folks who laid the rails and what motivated them.
The ascendancy of Obama, Patrick and the rest is a kind of fork off that branch, a slicker and more privileged generation who seek to renew their legitimacy by cynically evoking the ghost of movements past to cloak the fact that they offer nothing of substance policy-wise that would line up with the goals of those movements. This generation of co-opted “black leadership” relies on a a compliant media and the absence of black radio news to keep its place in the front pew among black folks, at the same time it sends messages to whites assuring them that it has nothing to do with those loud black folks in the street who make them uncomfortable.
Thus Obama helped register a six figure number of Illinois voters in 1992, but as a senator would not stand up to oppose the disenfranchisement of Black voters in Ohio in 2005. Thus he is for “universal health care” but against single payer, which is the only practical way to achieve it. He is supposedly”the peace candidate”, but vows he will not bring home the troops till at least his second term in office, intends to add another 100,00 bodies to the military and has advocated bombing Iran and Pakistan to show how tough he is. Thus he campaigned against the Patriot Act when running for the US Senate, but voted for it once in office, and voted for so-called tort reform that keeps ordinary citizens from suing wealthy corporations.
The alliance with Oprah makes eminent good sense for Obama, whose career at this moment is now built on the endorsement of corporate media who sell for him the PR packaged personae --- the celebrity, the non-threatening Negro to some whites, the “Joshua generation” guy to some blacks. It's a marketing proposition that dovetails with the practice of a master marketer, like Oprah, and appeals to large parts of the same audience.
It must be said that the corporate mainstream media are not fools, and they do not boost the folks who work in OUR interest. They boost the candidates who work in THEIRS. If Barack has, in their pages and broadcasts, metamorphosed into their darling “rock star” he has indeed been anointed. Some baton has definitely been passed to him. And not by us.
The above discourse is proof that African-Americans are no longer a monolithic race and we should never have been approached in that way, be they Republicans or Democrats, because at this point, both parties are really two heads of the same snake, looking to strike for any thing that gives them the advantage. It's a mistake the Borg Queen (aka Hillary Clinton) is making at this very point in her campaign, when she had front-runner status before she even declared her candidacy.
If her campaign had only spent $3.00 to rent an old DVD of "Mahogany" instead of James Carville trying to bust his best KKKarl Rove impersonation, we'd still have respect for her, and we'd return to asking Obama to prove himself. The fact that no politician, not even John Edwards, has bothered to take their "Mahogany" class on how to approach African-Americans as a voting block, will all be to their detriment.
We have clout. It's way past time we acted like it, especially on the journey of political influcence.