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Is Black Nationalism Relevant in the Age of Obama?

August 28, 2009

As stated by well known scholar Harold Cruse is his seminal work, “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,” African American political philosophy historically has been divided into two camps: The Assimilationist Camp and the Black Nationalist camp. Perfect examples of the Assimiliationist philosophy range from the work of Dr. WEB DuBois through his attempts at obtaining political and social liberty for Blacks with the Niagara Movement and the founding of the N.A.A.C.P., to the legal challenges started by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1930’s with its desegregation cases. Moreover, the traditional Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and assisted by James Farmer and Roy Wilkins further illustrates assimilationist activity. The main purpose of all these movements was to gain full inclusion into American society for Black citizens regardless of their color and ensure their ability to participate in the democratic process while fully integrating themselves into the fabric of American life. However, that form of integration would still require Blacks to depend on the mechanisms of White society to create all the institutions needed for survival such as educational, political, economic and otherwise.

Black Nationalism argues that the tools for African American liberation lie in the hands of the Black Community. Its basis stems from the importance of cultural and economic self-sufficiency espoused by Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington, later heightened by the activity of Malcolm X, then illustrated in some elements of the Black Panther Party. The constant goal of Black Nationalism is to get Blacks to work on a level of collective consciousness that allows them to build social, economic, and educational institutions for their edification exclusive, and regardless, of the dominant White society. Black nationalism assumes the participation in liberal society which assimilationists seek to obtain is bankrupt because the foundation and key tools needed to function in society will always be in the hands of Whites unless African Americans work together to amass power in an effort to ensure their communities’ collective well being in spite of the over arching White power structure.

Furthermore, Black Nationalism argues for a political agenda where candidates are chosen from within the community who have a vested interest in assuring the well being of their African American constituents above all else. Allegiance to the communities’ concerns are primary and the goal of that politician would be to serve his position with fairness overall, but with special attention to his Black supporters. Politicians who have done this effectively in the past have been former Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta and former Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago. These men were politically savvy enough to not deem their political agenda as “Black Nationalist” politics. Instead they functioned in a way that was fair to all their constituents, while making sure the Black community, which traditionally recieved the short end of the stick, and was often left out to pasture now had an important seat at the bargaining table. In every major city in America White ethnic groups have wielded political power with municipal leaders in ways that ensured benefits to those ethnic communities while working to the disadvantage of communities of color. The goals of Black Nationalist politics in the context of municipal and national elections would never seek to mimic that paradigm, but instead to ensure that the Black electorates hopes and aspirations would never be disregarded.

The Current State of Affairs

In America the sense of cohesion once shared by the African American community has been lost in part because in many ways the Assimilationist philosophy gained ascendancy over the last 45 years. Integration is the law of the land and the ability to galvanize the Black community into collective consciousness is difficult when we even have some renowned Black journalists arguing that ” there really is no more singular Black community.”

In spite of such rumblings, African Americans still participate in mutually beneficial professional and cultural associations out of a desire to address issues particular to their community. Many of these organizations are named in a way to ensure that their cultural emphasis on the Black community still remains.

Furthermore, though Black Nationalism may not have gained currency as the main vehicle for Black liberation over the last 45 years, we cannot assess whether the Black community is better off as a result. One of the many consequences of integration has been the demise of several institutions in the Black community that severed it well prior to integration. This is due to many Blacks abandoning such institutions for their White counterparts. This has led to a great loss in the amount of wealth that is generated and stays within the Black community.

Today we have America’s first Black President who stated while still a Senate Candidate at the 2004 Democratic Convention that “there is no Black America and no White America….there is a United States of America.” Such lofty rhetoric may do well to assuage White fear of angry recriminations for past suffering of the Black community, but it does nothing to ensure the cultural integrity of a people who for almost 400 years tried to maintain some level of self determination in a society which for the majority of that time has shown them nothing but scorn and abuse. Furthermore, Mr. Obama chose to make “transcending race” and becoming “post racial” his mantra while failing to realize how that discounted the history of oppression African Americans experienced in this country, simultaneously dismissing the powerful institutions Blacks created in spite of that oppression.

So it is in that light we must ask: Is Black Nationalism Relevant in the Age of Obama? Or is it still relevant at all?

What are your thoughts?


10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 28, 2009 1:49 pm

    I think the values of Black Nationalism are more relevant today than ever before. It is very difficult to be self sufficient as prescribe by Black Nationalist doctrine, when the black communities across America have been financially decimated. According to most economists it’s been estimated that over $120B of wealth has evaporated from the black community. The economic based on the community the “homes” are practically worthless, which means no line of credit to tap for black children to college, retire and invest in our communities. I don’t foresee any change underway under the Obama administration. Like most politicians, Obama only answers to the corporate interest that placed him power.

    May god helps us ALL.

  2. JdaMoor permalink
    August 28, 2009 1:58 pm

    Great question. A question far too few of us are asking. Black nationalism will ALWAYS be relevant in this country, under the current paradigm. As long as this society is divided and pitted against one another primarily along the lines of race, instead of class. It’s easy to dismiss Black Nationalism as a thing of the past, because of it’s demise among the collective consciousness over the last 45yrs. For reasons that don’t need to be stated, i’m sure. But subconsciously, I believe Black Nationalist threads loosely weaves us together. Subconsciouly, we (Black ppl) know we’re in this together. Obama hasn’t changed that fact, and he’s not an indicator of White acceptance for the entire Black community. Obama is a line in the sand. Since Obama was elected, this country has seen a spike in racial violence & racist rhetoric, not seen since the 60’s. Quite as it been kept.
    Black Nationalism, in order to be effective, needs to grow underground. Off the radar. It needs to be understood and not talked about. If you know what I mean.

    • September 8, 2009 11:24 pm

      So you agree that there is a need for Black Nationalism, but it should function under the surface. Not in the public view. I’d like you to further elaborate why you feel those steps need to be taken. Do you feel that a Black Nationalist agenda implemented by the African American community is innately subversive? This is a perception that those on the political Right traffic in. There is a historical paranoia of Black collective action, as well as a history of government intervention to sabotage it via COINTELPRO and the like. Please flesh out your thoughts on this subject. Interested in your perspective.

  3. Joy I. Green-McGann permalink
    August 29, 2009 1:10 am

    I have long that Black Nationalism is the only way the black community will thrive. I was born under segregation and am part of the first generation to live amongst white people post it. My father was hired by I.B.M. in 1969 and as a result, I grew up in some towns that where were the ONLY black family. I attended high school in Greenwich, CT where I now reside again, and went to college in MA at an elitist, very, very WASPY liberal arts college. This is what I’ve lived and learned in a nutshell. White people are racist. What began with slavery continues undaunted. Racism exists on a continuum and racists exist on a scale. The scale ranges from very little to a whole lot! I’m saying that white people are taught to fundamentally believe each and every stereotype that exists about us. We were all socialized in this racist nation. The imagery pumped into our brains on a daily basis by the media and all institutions reeks with the stench of it. All you have to do is watch your local news. Why are all the criminals black? Hell, what are we 12% of a nation? Are you seriously trying to tell me that we make up the majority of criminals and welfare recipients? How is that numerically possible? We are all fed this all day long, how could it not inform them (us). My husband is white. He says as a child, adults would say really racist things and his first memory about it was instinctively feeling that it was wrong. He said he was quite young and that they said it in a way that made you feel you couldn’t say anything back or even change the expression on your face. It was super overt, it was more subtle. He said it continued until he was a teen, and then no one ever said anything at all until I popped up in the picture. All hell broke loose! I looked back at my years in the WASPY elitist college,and this is my summary of how the brightest of the bright white people teach each other generationally how to maintain their power. Freshman year: Teach all white people that black people are just as smart as they are. Sophomore year: Spend half the year reaffirming that inferiority of the black man is that mythology of power used to justify enslavement and long taken as truth by the ancestors of the enslavers. Spend second half scaring the shit out of white students with the truth about the debunked inferiority myth. Junior year: Make it clear that this equality may pose a threat to power if access is granted. Senior year: Get everyone to repeat after you “I will not share! I will not share! If I give an inch, I could lose the whole thing!” I know that I’m actually smarter than many of my white college counterparts. I know, I’ve lived, I’ve heard, and I’ve had gotten the nod by the white husband that this is a dead end street. This is a capitalist nation. People don’t share! People have power which is garnered through economic infrastructure. If we want to have equality, we have to take it. We have to join together to create economic force. We must help each other and create our own “old boys network”. That is the only way to attempt parity and force respect.

  4. rene permalink
    August 29, 2009 7:59 pm

    Absolutely. Obama is a puppet, and will do nothing to help us.

  5. brae permalink
    August 30, 2009 11:46 am

    Your examples of successful Black Nationalist politicians are both city mayors. Given the country’s current demographics, how would you advise someone to successfully campaign and govern on the national stage as a Black Nationalist candidate/ politician?

    • August 30, 2009 2:28 pm


      That is a serious and very good question. One could argue that Mr. Obama in understanding the racial politics of America, and being aware of how a Black candidate who showed he catered too much to African Americans would gain little national traction among Whites, played the perfect balance between racial messaging and token symbolism for Blacks while simultaneously using race neutral language and even post-racial language towards Whites. Hence some would say that Obama presents the only possible successful paradigm. I disagree.

      The key to a National Black candidates ability to gain enough White support possessing certain Black Nationalist tendencies lies with having a progressive enough platform that allows him to build allegiances from the traditional political parties with groups or factions that feel they have been undeserved by the activities of that dominant political party.

      Therefore, if the Black candidate were a democrat he would have to maintain core progressive positions to the left of the traditional DNC and speak with soaring rhetoric of social justice enough for his coalition to actually overcome the more mainstream DNC candidates. Hard to believe, but Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 is the closest Black candidate to achieving this. Jackson in fact did win some important Democratic primaries in his run for President. My vision for such a candidate would be one who was much less racially polarizing than Jackson, and maintained a strong amount of good will in progressive segments of the White community. Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco, but on a national scope illustrates a better example. I hope I answered your question.

  6. N. Parrish permalink
    August 31, 2009 9:59 pm

    First, I think that the term “Black America” should speak more to the issues that disproportionately affect Blacks than it does to the collective body of Blacks living in America.

    But to your question, in order for Black Nationalism or any other movement to be relevant, there needs to be a properly defined agenda that addresses relevant issues. Economics and Education would be two issues on which to build a relevant Black Nationalist movement in the age of Obama.

  7. September 1, 2009 1:43 pm

    Interesting read brotha. It is indeed a question more of us should be asking but first I think most of us need to get a deeper understanding of what Black nationalism is and is not. I think because of the iconography of the 60s and 70s people believe more myths about Black nationalism than realities. You’ve done a pretty good job of getting at the core of it, in my opinion. I am surprised at you using Jackson and Washington and the seat at the table. Because as brother Malcolm said, “Having a seat at the table doesn’t make you a diner.” Overall like the post and I’ll have to check back on your blog more often. In fact, you may even inspire me to finish a post i started months ago on the question of blk nationalism in the age of Obama.


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