The Search for New Directions During A Conservative Era, 1979-1991
Finding a Place in the Political System.
Michele Wallace sympathized with the civil rights movement and admired Black Power advocates. But in the late 1960s she was transformed by the emerging women’s movement. In Black Macho (1979) she challenged the black militancy that equated black liberation with a violent assentation of black manhood, exposing tensions between black men and women and other conflicts among African Americans in an conservative era.
After Andrew Young, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, met informally with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization, objections by Jewish-American leaders forced his resignation. The episode bred distrust of the Democratic Party, as President Carter seemed willing to forego black support for Jewish support. Black leaders had more to fear though, from incoming president Ronald Reagan, a conservative who exploited anti-tax sentiment and white resentment of black “welfare mothers.”
A Black Alternatives Conference in 1980 revealed disillusionment with governmental programs like affirmative action, and heralded a new black conservatism. Some black conservatives advocated self-help in the tradition of Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey. Others, like libertarian economist Thomas Sowell, claimed that government action to combat discrimination was counterproductive, producing a debilitating “culture of poverty.”
This “culture of poverty” passed down through generations, and created what sociologist William Julius Wilson called an “underclass,” falling behind the rest of society. Though Wilson argued that the black middle class benefited from civil rights reforms and affirmative action, Sowell’s influence marked the beginning of a broad shift away from the liberal assumptions underlying the social policies of Roosevelt and Johnson.
Reagan, elected with little black support, indicated that his administration would be les responsive than Carter’s to civil rights concerns. He reduced funding for welfare and other programs that supported the poor, with the result that black unemployment and the number of African American families below the poverty line grew. After he appointed Clarence Thomas, a critic of busing and affirmative action, as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency’s budget and staff declined. In Reagan’s second term, Martin Luther King’s birthday was made a national holiday.
Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Presidential Campaign
Jesse Jackson’s forceful criticisms of Reagan contributed to his emergence as the nation’s most influential black political figure. Building on the anger over Young’s forced resignation, Jackson traveled to the Middle East, meeting with PLO leader Arafat, thus further offending Jewish leaders. He returned to support Harold Washington’s successful campaign for mayor of Chicago by emphasizing voter registration.
In 1984, he decided to run for president, figuring that if African Americans could gain the balance of power in the Democratic Party they could force it to support progressive politics. Jackson expressed strong support for civil rights, labor unions, women’s rights, and environmental causes. His campaign received a boost when his negotiations secured the return of a black Navy pilot shot down over Syria following the failure of the State Department to do so.
But his earlier successes collapsed following an anti-Semitic remark magnified in comments by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Though Walter Mondale got the party nomination and Reagan won the lection, Jackson with his “rainbow coalition” appeal, demonstrated that a black candidate could draw white support.
In Washington, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mary Frances Berry, and Walter Fauntroy founded the Free South Africa Movement, and repeated protests at the embassy strengthened the campaign to force South Africa to end apartheid. Campus activists compelled universities such as Stanford and Columbia to divest endowment funds from companies that did business in South Africa.
The Popularization of Black Feminism
Ultimately, Congress overrode Reagan’s veto to institute economic sanctions against South Africa, the first time since the 1960s that African Americans had spearheaded a national campaign of nonviolent direct action.
Alice Walker, a participant in the Free South Africa movement and a qualified defender of Black Macho, attracted a controversy with her best-selling novel The Color Purple.
Like Zora Neale Hurston, Walker focused on relationships within black families rather than on external black-white relations, revealing the brutality of gender oppression and the indomitable spirit of a woman who endures and ultimately prevails. The book’s film version made stars of Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover, but director Steven Spielberg was criticized for turning male characters into caricatures.
Walker’s success built on a foundation established by earlier black women writers, including Hurston. Maya Angelou’s autobiographical I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was widely studied as a metaphor for women’s oppression. The fiction of Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor, together with the works of influential black women poets, blended militant feminist advocacy and intimate revelation of black women’s perspectives on male-female relations.
Their criticisms of black males made them vulnerable to charges of racial disloyalty, and all faced a dilemma as they sought to depict African American life accurately but also positively.
TV dramas featuring black families were primarily sit-coms, and Hollywood produced formulaic black characters who ties to realistic black communities.
Following The Color Purple, black actors increasingly moved into primary or co-starring roles. Although hit movies of the 1980s, such as Trading Places, used predictable racial culture clash themes, a few films, such as A Soldier’s Story and Glory, made serious attempts to illuminate African American life and history. Director Spike Lee demonstrated the possibilities for significant African American films outside the studio system.
August Wilson’s plays were praised for their sensitive portrayal of African American family relationships. Meanwhile, the popularity of hip hop and gangsta rap indicated a competing black cultural trend with lyrics that sometimes degraded women and celebrated an outlaw lifestyle of sex, drugs, and violence. But rap was also controversial, and a large segment became highly politicized, the most overt social agenda music since the urban folk movement of the 1960s.
Racial Progress and Internal Tensions
Jesse Jackson’s second presidential campaign, in 1988, garnered greater support than his first, but it also exposed growing divisions among African Americans. Many Democratic leaders saw him as a liability, believing the party needed to distance itself from the causes he championed. Republican George Bush won the election, in part by inciting racial prejudice in TV attack ads.
The Democrats’ defeat reinforced the party’s tendency to veer away from its tradition of civil rights reform.
Despite black conservatives arguments that affirmative action and other racial preference programs were no longer necessary, the nation continued to be beset by racial problems-all unaddressed by the Reagan and Bush administations.
Colin Powell’s appointment as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff indicated that individual African Americans could excel, but when Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, a new controversy erupted. Already opposed by civil rights and feminists groups, Thomas was accused by Anita Hill, an EEOC lawyer when he headed the agency, of sexual harassment.
Her testimony set off a contentious national debate on issues of class, gender, race, and an ideology that marked the convergence of the past decade’s cultural and political trends. By a slim margin, Thomas’ nomination was confirmed, but Norton credited Hill for the upsurge in political activity among women that helped make 1992 “The Year of the Woman,” in which a record number of women were elected to national office.
Continuing Struggles Over Rights And Identity 1992-2004.
A New Day for African Americans?
In 1992, Oprah Winfrey took her popular show to Los Angeles, so viewers could see the violence following the verdict in the Rodney King beating case. The riot was an indicator that serious racial and economic problems remained unsolved. Oprah’s interviews, which encouraged residents and viewers to understand the perspectives of others, revealed the diversity of African American lives and opportunities following the civil rights movement and the rise of black feminism.
The poem Maya Angelou presented at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993 was both patriotic and provocative, referring to the “wretched pain” of American history for those who “arrived on a nightmare praying for a dream.” Clinton’s invitation to a black poet reflected his desire to reach out to African Americans. Like Jimmy Carter, his victory was due to the overwhelming support of black voters, and he responded by appointing an unprecedented number of African Americans to high posts.
But like other Democratic presidents, Clinton was reluctant to take controversial stands on racial issues. When Lani Guinier, his nominee for head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, was attacked by conservatives for her views on political representation, Clinton failed to defend her. She saw Clinton’s capitulation as “an unfortunate metaphor” for the way black people continued to be defined, and misrepresented, by other people.
While the civil rights movement seemed to be a part of history, civil rights issues had not gone away, as the King beating and controversies over affirmative action indicated. Cornel West’s Race Matters (1993) pointed to the widespread mistreatment of black men by law enforcement agencies. Marion Wright Edelman pointed to the widespread poverty of African Americans that disadvantaged black children.
The issue of welfare reform revived old debates about whether black poverty derived from enduring racial inequalities or from deficiencies in the values and attitudes of poor people. Clinton’s comprehensive welfare reform put many on welfare into the expanding workforce, and poverty rates for African Americans fell from 33 percent in 1993 to 24 percent in 2000. But even for the working poor, poverty was a reality.
Race and the Criminal Justice System
Rodney King inadvertently became a symbol of the troubled relationship between inner-city African Americans and predominantly white police forces. The issue of police brutality rose again to the forefront when popular football star O. J. Simpson was tried for murder. Johnny Cochran, Simpson’s lawyer, transformed the proceedings from a murder case involving a black celebrity to a public indictment of racism in law enforcement.
Knowing from experience that the Los Angeles police could not be relied upon to conduct an unbiased investigation involving a black man, Cochran planted seeds of doubt in the minds of jurors, who acquitted Simpson. Polls revealed that most African Americans agreed with the verdict, while most white Americans did not. Clearly the legal proceedings left larger questions unanswered-about different racial reactions, the sympathies of the predominantly female jury, and the centrality of money and class, as a black millionaire was set free by the efforts of a highly paid defense team.
The Prison System of Racial Control
Angela Davis, herself imprisoned during the 1970s, led a campaign against what she termed “the prison industrial complex,” claiming that Americans used “mass incarceration” as a solution for unemployment and a substitute for social justice. The total prison population topped million, disproportionately large compared to other nations and disproportionately African American.
More than one-quarter of black males in their twenties were in jail. The consequences-for individuals, families, and voting rights-were significant. The persistence of black poverty and explosion of drug use contributed to the increase in the prison population, as did law-and-order politicians who strengthened the hand of the police. Following civil rights reform, police bias was subtle rather than overt, indicted by slow response times for black neighborhoods and longer sentences for black criminals.
Racial profiling by police and increased surveillance increased the probability that African Americans would be arrested. Even affluent black men were subject to police checks for what was termed “driving while black.”
Following the assassination of Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan was the somewhat unlikely inheritor of his legacy.
Farrakhan reestablished the Nation of Islam under his leadership, and his controversial statements reflected the anger and frustration of many disaffected African Americans. In October 1995, he provided inspiration for the Million Man March, the largest gathering of African Americans in the nation’s history. Revealing the widespread concern among African Americans about the problems affecting black families, organizers promoted
the march as an opportunity for black men to atone for past misdeeds and to commit themselves to take responsibility for their families and communities. Jesse Jackson, the primary black leader of the previous decade, was reduced to delivering a preliminary speech for Farrakhan.
Rethinking the Meaning of Race
In 1997 President Clinton called on eminent black historian John Hope Franklin to lead a national “conversation about race.” The challenge was enormous, given the racial controversies that burst into public view during the 1990s. The large question was the significance of race in American life. Shelby Steele and other black conservatives complained of the deleterious effects of a “victim- focused black identity.”
West and others insisted that racial prejudices and discrimination still shaped the lives and identities of African Americans. Franklin’s panel concluded that the most pressing racial problems no longer involved overt acts of violence but were indicated in subtle practices that kept African Americans in subordinate economic positions despite civil rights laws.
Among the challenges Franklin’s panel faced was how to deal with the contemporary consequences of past racial injustices. Legal challenges continued to narrow affirmative action programs in university admissions even as proponents argued that diversity itself was of value. Reparations as a means for compensating African Americans for slavery and discrimination made little headway.
A few local settlement case were successful, and all Americans were increasingly aware of historical injustices.
Marlon Riggs’ films contributed to the national dialogue on race, especially for promoting a unity based on “talking to each other” and understanding the diversity and complexity of African American lives.
His work reflected a trend in African American thought toward recognizing that racial identity was not permanent but constantly changing. Though being black was an identity forced on all Americans with African ancestry, it was also chosen by all who came to see themselves as a group not only oppressed but struggling against oppression.
Another theme of popular culture highlighted individuals crossing cultural boundaries.
As white Americans became more African American in cultural outlook and African Americans became more like other Americans, African American identity became more conflicted. When the 2000 census allowed people, for the first time, to choose more than one category to identify their ancestry, more than 7 million Americans did so.
As the meaning of race continued to be debated, African American historical memory became more essential. Rather than being rooted in African ancestry or the shared experience of oppression and resistance, African American identity came to be increasingly rooted in understanding African history.
Democracy and the Legacy of Race.
Martin Luther King II charged that the presidential election of 2000 was a distortion of democracy, pointing to the removal of more than 94,000 Florida residents from the voter registration rolls. King’s complaint about the erroneous disqualification of voters was only one way the contested election highlighted the continuing relationship between African American history and American democracy.
The Electoral College system, which advantages sparsely settled states, was another, as the election raised Guinier’s concern that an electoral system should accurately reflect the votes of all adult citizens.
Though George W. Bush became president with minimal black support, he appointed African Americans to high poste, including
Colin Powell as secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as national security advisor. Their prominence was atypical, however, and in the war on terrorism that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001, and especially the invasion of Iraq, African American critics of America’s foreign policy reflected their distinctive experiences and awareness of the struggles and sacrifices required to achieve freedom and democracy at home, much less abroad.
Barack Obama and the Promise of Change, 2005-Present
Barack Obama’s Call for a New Direction
In 2000, Barack Obama was badly defeated in his attempt to unseat Democratic Congressman bobby Rush, a former Black Panther. In 2004, Obama surprised the party by declaring he would run for senator. His campaign raised millions of dollars with his motto, “Yes, we can.” His keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention put him in a national spotlight. He won the senate seat, even though Kerry lost.
The Congressional Black Caucus felt they did not have access to President Bush, thus could not influence legislation in a Republican controlled House and Senate. Ohio voting-rights activists claimed that faulty voting machines and Republican election officials prevented several thousand voters in Democratic-leaning and predominantly black areas from casting votes that might have caused Bush to lose the election.
The Uncertain War Against Terrorism
Popular support for the war in Iraq waned, especially since no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, the major claim for invading the country. Osama bin Laden continued to elude capture. Bush now encountered domestic challenges against his domestic policies. Obama, Barbara Lee, John Conyers, and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus strongly criticized Bush’s belated response to Hurricane Katrina.
The devastation in Louisiana cased by the hurricane severely impacted black residents and communities. In the fall of 2008, the unregulated sales of securities backed by housing mortgages nearly caused a complete collapse of America’s financial system. Bush’s massive tax cuts worsened the growing budget deficit, gave Obama grounds for his political campaign for president in 2008.
Secretary of State Colin Powell’s resignation shortly after the 2004 election placed his conflicts with Vice President Dick Chaney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom stressed military force over diplomacy in the war against terror, in the public eye. Bush’s nomination of National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, as Secretary of State meant that a loyal confidant would head the State Department.
Rice, the first African American woman to serve as secretary of state, also had problems with Chaney and Rumsfeld when she argues against military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The disclosure that Iraqi prisoners had tortured and abused by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison weakened Rumsfeld’s influence. The Congressional Black Caucus called for Rumsfeld’s resignation. Bush asked Rumsfeld to stay.
Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” failed to provide more funds to schools and did little to improve the quality of teachers or schools, especially for black and Latino children living in poor urban areas. The Bush’s administration expansion of Clinton’s policy of minority home ownership relaxed federal regulation of the home mortgages allowed low income families to buy homes, but with adjustable interest rates causing little equity in homes when interest rates increased.
Eventually, this policy would wreak havoc in the mortgage system. Bush’s proposal to allow Americans to invest some of their Social Security monies met with an immediate outcry against this. Congress rejected the plan, and Bush failed to gain Republican backing for his immigration legislation that would reduce illegal immigration while providing new ways for undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship.
Hurricane Katrina’s Challenge to a Conservative Government
When disaster overwhelmed local, state, and federal emergency officials, Lt. General Russell Honore was thrust into the role of leading the military response to Katrina’s devastation. Having graduated from HBCU Southern University in 1971, he was familiar with the New Orleans area. He was the highest ranking African American military officer, but was little known outside of the military.
That changed as reporters noticed how his firm leadership brought some order to the chaos.
The greatest destruction came from the flooding due to broken levees. The low-lying poor black areas suffered most. Help did not arrive to evacuate residents from these areas for several days. Kimberly Rivers, an aspiring hip hop artist began filming the destruction around her in the Ninth Ward.
Her film became part the award-winning film Trouble The Water (2007). Spike Lee’s four-part film, When The Levees Broke (2006) documented the lack of governmental readiness for disaster and the lack of support following the flooding.
Honore’s no-nonsense approach to the problems was a visible contrast to the feeble efforts of government officials and institutions. Although he evacuated thousands and brought some order, he could not help the poorest residents.
The fact that most of those pleading for help were black served as a reminder that race continued to affect the opportunities for Americans. Lee’s film indicted all levels of government from Michael Brown to the president to the Nagin, New Orleans’ mayor. Exaggerated reports of armed black men fueled racial tensions. Honore ordered police and soldiers to help victims, not point their guns at them.
Some noted that news photos showing whites taking items from markets were described as needing provisions, while black flood victims doing the same were described as looters.
The hurricane caused more than 1800 deaths, a minimum of $100 billion in damages, and the forced relocation of more than a million residents. Those residents were seen as refugees in their own nation. Before Katrina, 37 percent of New Orleans residents were identified as black.
A year later, only 22 percent of New Orleans’ residents were identified as black. There were many indications that the hurricane was used as an opportunity for a lasting change in the racial and class composition of a major American city, despite Mayo Nagin’s call to rebuild a new “chocolate New Orleans.” The long-lasting mixed and black population of New Orleans would probably change.
Obama and the Longest Presidential Campaign
Obama was often sought out by reporters for his ideas about national issues and on the New Orleans tragedy. He realized he needed to prove himself to Illinois voters by accomplishing something in Washington. He also wanted to avoid excessive partisanship. While Jesse Jackson and rapper Kanye West charged Bush with abandoning black people, Obama was more restrained, yet he claimed that the government was detached from the problems of inner city life.
As a result of his 2004 keynote address and his published memoir, Obama became the nation’s most famous black elected official. The 2006 election demonstrated that the nation’s political climate was turning in Obama’s favor. The Republican Party suffered a resounding defeat and Democrats took control of both houses of Congress. Democrats believed they could win the presidency with the right candidate.
Obama decided to run for president in 2007. he understood the historical significance of his candidacy but knew it would be a battle. The presidential campaign drew a large slate a candidates, but Hilary Rodham Clinton was the strongest contender, also historically significant as a woman running for the Democratic slot. African American leaders supported Clinton, in part because of their support for her husband, Bill Clinton.
Young black leaders supported Obama; they felt America’s racial climate had changed enough to elect Obama.
Obama’s prospects were threatened by his association with his black Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who delivered sermons that seemed to blame the terrorists attacks on American policies, and by rumors that claimed he was secretly a Muslim.
Obama delivered a major speech about race that saved his campaign. By early June, he won enough delegates to force Clinton to concede the nomination.
The November general election, pitted John McCain against Obama. McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate galvanized the conservative Republican base. Palin became the voice of the attacks against Obama and liberals.
A Historic Election
The economic collapse of America’s financial system shifted the focus of the campaign from foreign affairs to domestic policies. Tying McCain to Bush’s policies, Obama led in polls and secured enough electoral votes to win the election.
Obama and Biden received almost 53 percent of the popular vote and 365 electoral college votes to McCain’s 173. His acceptance speech in Chicago was delivered to a racially diverse crowd.
Tears of joy showed on the faces of Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey and thousands of African Americans across the nation. Obama’s skilled campaign organization contributed to his victory and he received the support of 43 percent of white voters. He also won the votes of record numbers of nonwhite and young voters. His victory resulted from gradual changes in white racial attitudes and a dramatic change in the racial composition of the American electorate.
The Obama Presidency and African Americans
Two million American gathered in Washington for Obama’s inauguration and African American were a visible component of the crowd. Obama stressed a theme of political unity in his speech.
Unfortunately, Obama faced a slate of pressing concerns when he took office. Economic decline, a threatened recession, war on two fronts, and the growing partisanship all contributed to the problems.
Although Democrats controlled Congress, Obama could not control defiant Republicans and conservative Democrats. His initiatives did not address African American concerns and did little to reduce black-white economic inequality. Some black leaders criticized Obama for stressing the middle-class and not helping the poor. Although his healthcare act passed, it faced many judicial challenges.
The mid-term elections of 2010 was shaped by Tea Party candidates and their agenda of reducing government and lowering taxes. Obama was blamed for all the domestic problems Americans faced, especially the huge budget deficit. Despite his successes, Obama was criticized by Republicans and the Tea Party movement. And there was still racial issues dominant among Americans.