Considering Canaries: Reconceiving of African-American Social Movements and How the Power Elite Influence the Racial Narrative

by Shaun Terry

While many Americans rightly complain of a lack of political options, African-Americans are essentially left to choose between Democrats, who do a poor job of fighting for African-American issues, Republicans, who make no attempt at fighting for African-American issues, and abstaining from political participation altogether, but this has not always been the case1.

There is a high degree of social cohesion among African-Americans, informed by shared realities, but also by social interaction2. When Max Weber describes the role of cultural consumption in determining social status, it may not have been with the African-American experience in mind, but his conception of social status bears some relevance on the relationship between socialization and institutional perceptions among social groups3. Michael Dawson and Melissa Harris-Perry each make the point that the black church plays a key role in African-American society—its efficacy lying both in its position as a central social hub but also as a vehicle for forming and refining black thought4,5. The black church is unique in this role, as non-black Americans have been leaving the church in a way that African-Americans mostly have not, albeit there is at least some anecdotal evidence that black men have been decreasingly present in the black church6,7. African-American church participation, media designed for African-Americans, and residential segregation (some residual, some self-determined, and some due to systemic discrimination) give us some suggestions as to why the African-American voting bloc can be monolithic. Indeed, there seem to be mitigating factors that keep working class African-Americans from expressing political differences from middle class African-Americans to the same degree by which working class whites and middle class whites express differences in political views.

As African-Americans have joined the middle class in greater numbers, their interests have diverged somewhat from those of working class African-Americans8. There is no African-American capital class to speak of9. Class polarization has led to middle class African-Americans sometimes fighting for different issues from working class African-Americans—even, occasionally, at the expense of working class African-Americans, as in the case of Dearborn Park’s schools10. That said, African-Americans have basically lined up behind the only party that speaks to their issues: the Democrats11. It is worthy of note that African-Americans are affected more greatly by economic cycles and downturns, so economic factors have weighed more heavily into African-Americans’ political calculi than they have for whites12. More affluent African-Americans may have different ideas about political strategy, but the effects of this are mostly felt around the margins13. Essentially, what Dawson shows is that African-Americans seem to view their race as playing a bigger role in their fates than the role of their classes. Why do African-Americans express themselves politically in ways that are different from how other races do?

The legacy of negative treatment of African-Americans in the United States is horrific. The founders of the republic laid the groundwork for a society in which race relations would remain highly contentious and mistreatment of African-Americans would be found justified by the Power Elite14,15. Means for oppression of African-Americans were sought and implemented, even including the manufacturing of negative characterizations of African-Americans as criminal and less-than, for examples16.

Confirmation bias and socializing factors have created distortions in rhetoric around race and what appears to be mimicry of some manufactured stereotypes. This has even led to backlash against certain segments of the African-American population by other African-Americans. In recent years, statements by John McWhorter, Bill Cosby, and Steve Harvey have reflected disdain for some modern conceptions of young African-American men and the degree to which some young African-American men have openly embraced elements of this often manufactured culture17,18,19. How do we explain this infighting, while keeping in mind that African-Americans seem to unflinchingly vote Democrat?

The fact is that the African-American middle class may be growing, but it remains relatively small20. This may seem like a fine point, but it tells us something about at least a portion of the African-American middle class: they are likely self-selected. In this context, what that self-selection means is that, while it is not the case that poor African-Americans are selected through a lottery to join the middle class, it is also not the case that those African-Americans who join the middle class from the working class all fit a very specific profile. That said, it might be that some African-Americans who manage to move up the social ladder do so by displaying an intentionality to get ahead, along with a willingness and/or ability to do what some African-Americans might not be willing and/or able to do.

To put this in less vague terms, I suggest that perhaps McWhorter, Cosby, and Harvey have had to do things that some African-Americans would not want to have had to do and have had to deal with a number of particular challenges in achieving their successes. For example, if any of them had been especially defiant when facing obvious unfairnesses, this might have jeopardized some success. If any of them had made a point of producing a cultural product that was particularly Afrocentric or counter to some conservative elements within American culture, this might have jeopardized some success.

It has been my experience that some actions that lead to success can be criticized as “selling out,” and it has also been my experience that, in some circles, especially among younger African-Americans whom I have known, selling out can be an especially negative reflection on someone’s character21. That is all to say that perhaps McWhorter, Cosby, and Harvey have had to justify their doing things that some other African-Americans would not do, in some cases, and have felt that they had to adhere to an ethos that was necessarily compliant in order to achieve the successes that they might have sought after. This may have led to some projection upon African-American youth of the ideals that these cultural figures have had to uphold, creating these conflicts.

African-American political thought and social behavior is, in many senses, diverse and complex22. In fact, the reality for the African-American community is that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have necessarily provided much in the way of substantial improvement for the African-American community23. The African-American vote for the Democratic party has largely been based on rhetoric and economic concerns, but this has not always been the case24.

Black separatist movements may seem like a foreign concept now, but as recently as the 1970s, there was real momentum among such movements. We can see Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. DuBois, with their Pan-African ideals; Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and Louis Farrakhan’s involvements with the Nation of Islam; as well as the actions of the Black Panther Party as reflective of a desire among some African-Americans to create a political system for themselves in order to separate from what could often be rightly viewed as the oppressive systems of White America25.

It may be that black separatist movements were stunted some by efforts toward integration. Following the Niagara Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights victories in the 1960s achieved more for African-Americans than black separatist movements ever had26. Perhaps these successes were a blow to black separatist movements, as we have not seen the kind of black nationalistic activism in the past 30-40 years that we did previously in the 20th century27. Instead of focusing on working outside the system, it seems that efforts among many African-American intellectuals and political leaders have focused on fighting for greater liberalism: higher wages, higher employment, greater redistribution efforts, universal health care, improved education, etc28. The days of disillusioned, Marxist, feminist, and/or separatist African-Americans have often been replaced by incrementalistic approaches and appeals for government expansion in hopes of improved conditions for African-Americans29.

Interestingly, this trend may be turning around some, insofar as Fourth Wave Feminism has been notably intersectional and notably solidaritous with movements like Black Lives Matter30. In particular, Michael Hardt has noted the emergence of what he calls the “Multitude,” by which divergent social movements have recognized common opponents in the neoliberal formations of the Power Elite: transnational corporations, politicians, the police, and the financial class, to name some of the most important31. Under this conception, a black separatist movement need not necessarily overwhelm a population to a point of breaking down the status quo, as it need only create a critical mass among the solidaritous movements in order to effect change.

Still, the African-American voting bloc that supported Jesse Jackson (to say nothing of the notable Shirley Chisholm campaign before his), helped elect Harold Washington, and voted for Harvey Gantt over Jesse Helms, has a relationship to the Marxist movements supported by DuBois, the American Federation of Labor, King, the Black Panther Party, and The Combahee River Collective, to name a few32. While radical left sentiments and the organizational powers that have been inspired by them have lain relatively dormant in recent decades, there is nothing to suggest that they cannot be efficacious in the near future, especially as tensions mount over police violence, income and wealth inequality, joblessness, gender and LGBTQIAPK+ rights, endless war, climate change, racism in politics, and a host of other issues that leave the disaffected proletariat wondering when change might come33.

It is important to understand African-American political behavior because it informs the direction of African-American politics and American politics writ large, as well as possible trends in the international community. As trends mount and as political inclinations change within the African-American community, the landscape and the outcomes are subject to change. But where do these trends come from? What shapes these landscapes? Of course the answers to these questions are complicated. The African-American church, the media, the education system, and the Internet all play large roles in helping to shape and reshape political discourse and social mores in the African-American community34. Differing ideas about liberalism and conservatism, redistribution efforts, intersectional concerns, America’s role on the global stage, full employment, and systemic and political violence, among other factors, add nuance to an African-American political ideology that is often seen merely as a monolith that votes Democrat, only serving to play the role of turning out to help elect Democrats when inspired or playing the role of spoiler in absentia35.

Further, it seems that there is something to Melissa Harris-Perry’s idea of the canary in the mineshaft36. African-Americans experience deeper forms of oppressions than many groups do, and certainly have done so historically. It is no wonder that America stands in contrast to much of the developed world in terms of unequal outcomes while also being on the cutting edge of progress in terms of the demands and awarenesses expressed by American social movements37.

If we accept that power distributions are important to consider in modern societies, then understanding how African-Americans relate to the political realities they face can tell us a good deal about social movements and broad relations of power, and hopefully, they can tell us something about how we are to move toward a more equitable and healthier reality.

  1. Michael Dawson, Behind the Mule.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Max Weber, Economy and Society.
  4. Michael Dawson, Behind the Mule.
  5. Melissa Harris-Perry, formerly Harris-Lacewell, “Righteous Politics: the Role of the Black Church in Contemporary Politics.”
  6. Pew Research Center, “Religious Landscape Study.”
  7. A Google search returns results that show that black men are leaving the church, but there does not seem to be sufficient research. Notably, articles on the subject all seem to state that mass incarceration plays a key role.
  8. Michael Dawson, Behind the Mule.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. The Constitution of the United States of America.
  15. Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.
  16. Ibid.
  17. John McWhorter, “How Hip Hop Holds Blacks Back.”
  18. See Bill Cosby’s “Pound Cake” speech from 2004 NAACP Awards.
  19. See almost anything Steve Harvey ever has to say about African-American men.
  20. Michael Dawson, Behind the Mule.
  21. This is admittedly purely anecdotal. I grew up in a very diverse town (Killeen, TX) and have always had a very diverse set of friends, but my friends are selected by me and likely demonstrate some of the same values that I do. That said, among popular media outlets that market to African-American audiences, I have noticed that there seems to be more made over the concept of selling out. This may only be confirmation bias, however. More research needs to be done.
  22. Michael Dawson, Behind the Mule.
  23. Taken from lecture notes.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. The only counterexamples that I can recall are when Spike Lee’s, Malcolm X came out and when everyone’s Wu-Wear made me, in my young naïveté, think that a broad separatist movement might have been forming. I propose that Nixon’s and Reagan’s wars on crime and drugs (read: black people) played a major role in undermining black social movements, as Ehrlichmann alluded to.
  28. Taken from lecture notes.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Fourth Wave Feminism is often described as intersectional feminism promoted over the Internet. Also, note that Fourth Wave Feminism and Black Lives Matter seem to share a good deal in common and tend to have similar goals, similar opponents, use similar means, and often have overlapping memberships.
  31. Leonard Schwartz’s “A Conversation with Michael Hardt on the Politics of Love” and Hardt’s talk, “Love in the Multitude” can serve as good resources. Note that this convergence likely concerns agape over eros.
  32. Taken from lecture notes.
  33. Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s conceptions of the Multitude are fitting here. See their
  34. Somewhat informed by Michael Dawson’s Behind the Mule.
  35. Somewhat informed by lecture notes and Michael Dawson’s Behind the Mule.
  36. Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.
  37. Americans experience a very poor GINI coefficient, as an example, and also imprisons more people per capita than any other country does. Meanwhile, the most progressive ideas on social justice often come from the US.