The Politics of Redemption and Black Leadership Revisited
“Ethiopia will soon stretch forth her hands onto God, that Africa’s redemption shall soon be accomplished…”—a common quote of 19th Century Black Nationalists found in The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, by Wilson Jeremiah Moses.
A major aspect of Black political history stems from a concept that has maintained a profound and lasting position in the discourse of Black leadership, as well as racial diversity discourse relative to Black politicians. The concept is called “The Politics of Redemption.” The politics of redemption is a direct consequence of the perverse relationship Blacks had to White slave owners in the United States upon their arrival after the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Because the African was denied any vestiges of his identity and culture, he was given a new identity by his White masters. His station was defined by his master, as well as his purpose in the context of plantation society. The consequence of this horrid reality created a need for validation from his White master and at times a desire for approval. Hence, the politics of redemption is premised on the need for Blacks to constantly seek the validation and approval of Whites.
It is a doctrine held by many good men, in Europe as well as in America, that every oppressed people will gain their rights just as soon as they prove themselves worthy of them; and although we may justly object to the extent to which this doctrine is carried, especially in reference to ourselves as a people, it must still be evident to all that there is a great truth in it.–Frederick Douglass, 1848 from a speech, “What Are the Colored People Doing for Themselves?
Upon emancipation, this tragic dynamic manifested itself in Blacks often feeling the need to prove their humanity to Whites, to give evidence of their capacity, and show clear signs of Black value. This is the basis of the politics of redemption. It is premised on the notion that Blacks must always work to show Whites that they are worthy and can redeem themselves from their “wretched African backwardness.” The concept has a more damaging assumption that Blacks must illustrate they can be trusted to govern their own affairs, perform fundamental tasks, and engage like any other citizens.
Besides being terribly humiliating as a construct, the politics of redemption is a bankrupt world view, and an even more repellent political strategy for several reasons. First, the concept is innately defeatist, demobilizing, and counter-intuitive to progress towards human liberation. As long as the oppressed group views its oppressor as the fountain from which all approval and validation comes, there can never be any true achievement of justice based on eliminating the authority of the oppressor in that power relationship. More bluntly, as long you accept as Black people that we need to first “prove” our worth and capacity to white people before they inure us with rights as equal citizens you officially give credence to Whites being the barometer by which your freedom is measured, and furthermore, in what increments your freedom is doled out. Moreover, the politics of redemption is void as a political construct because it causes the type of empty feel good politics that leads to elections of “symbols” of achievement that end up being “examples” of status quo oppression. The presidency of Barack Obama is a perfect example of this. So much aspirational tripe was spewed about how his presidency would not only show America what Blacks could achieve, but serve the other purpose of “redeeming” America from its legacy of racism and slavery. After Obama’s 2008 election victory a most interesting statement was made by a renowned Black Harvard University professor:
Henry Louis Gates Jr. appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s celebratory post-election special. After learning the news, Gates says, “we jumped up, we wept, we hooped and hollered.” It is hard to overestimate the historical significance of the election of the first black U.S. President. For many blacks, and certainly for much of the country and world, Obama’s victory is an extraordinary step toward the redemption of America’s original 400-year-old sin.
This thinking, which is still common among some of America’s thought leaders, enables insipid aspirational wish fulfillment and feel good politics while obscuring the noxious bone crushing status quo agenda Obama has administered and continues to deliver.
The third and perhaps most damaging aspect of the politics of redemption is that it never ends!! Status quo forces of oppression do not concede rights and political viability to those they oppress because token symbols of achievement and demonstrative humanity have been shown by those on the margins. The oppressor simply keeps dangling the carrot, moving it farther and farther down the road, as you continue to do every seemingly morally upright thing he demands to achieve that coveted “equality.” Such politics are rancid, and the fact that after 150 years of emancipation, Black folks have encapsulated all that is repugnant and wicked about this politics of redemption into the symbolically aspirational yet pragmatically crippling presidency of Barack Obama is proof positive of collective Black political demobilization and actual regression. The Black community must wake up out of the “hope and change” induced stupor in order to mobilize effective oppositional politics that challenge the planned global order of neoliberal privatization, corporate finance hoarding of wealth, and deadening global austerity under the guise of things like the current sequester. We have no choice, and the future will not wait.
“The majority of Negro political leaders do not
ascend to prominence on the shoulders of mass support.
Although genuinely popular leaders are now
emerging, most are still selected by white leadership,
elevated to position, supplied with resources and
inevitably subjected to white control. The mass of Negroes
nurtures a healthy suspicion toward this manufactured
leader, who spends little time in persuading them
that he embodies personal integrity, commitment and
ability and offers few programs and less service.
Tragically, he is in too many respects not a fighter for a new
life but a figurehead of the old one. “
Martin Luther King, Jr.