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The Poverty of Identity Politics

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Imagine if the current President were a Republican, and if during the second half of his second term, after having been elected both times with record turnout by blacks, the black unemployment rate remained stagnant at 11 percent while the black poverty rate hit a record high of 27 percent. What would black politicians be saying about that Republican President?


We don’t really need to answer that question, do we? But for arguments sake, let’s imagine that almost seven years after the great recession the country was basically back to work, with an official unemployment rate haven fallen from almost ten percent at its height to around 5.5 percent (let’s save the argument about the real rate for another debate), while again the black community, which had overwhelmingly supported the Republican President (again let’s suspend belief for a moment) was experiencing rising poverty rates.

Furthermore imagine if under a Republican President there was a virtual epidemic of incidents of police brutality in predominantly black neighborhoods. Record civil settlements over police brutality claims were paid out by the City of New York. And yet not one police officer was ever brought to trial in any of the incidents. Furthermore, despite a bunch of official hoopla, the Federal Government did not see fit to step in and bring civil rights lawsuits. What do you think the reaction of so-called black leaders would be?

Let’s take this a bit further. Let’s say that black unemployment was in fact highest in the cities with the most conservative Republican Mayors, like Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland (stay with me here). What if in Chicago, the Presidents’ home town, his right hand man had carpet-bagged his way to a mayoral win mostly on the backs of the black supporters of the president? Let’s imagine for a moment that in that town, under the president’s hand-picked mayor, the black murder rate were to spiral to almost genocidal proportions. How do you think the black leadership would respond to such a situation?


These rhetorical questions are worth asking because under a Republican administration the implications of such a dire record of addressing the needs of African-Americans would be unsettling to say the least. In all likelihood there would be marching in the street, with Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and the like talking about how this administration was the worst for blacks since before the civil rights era. And of course they’d be right.

According to a scholarly paper published in March 2014 by University of San Diego political science professors Zoltan Hijnal and Jeremy Horowitz entitled Racial Winners and Losers in American Politics, over the past fifty years black have fared significantly better under Democratic administrations than Republican Administrations. According to an empirical study of census data between 1948 and 2010, “African Americans tend to experience substantial gains under Democratic presidents whereas they tend to incur significant losses or remain stagnant under Republicans.”

But that trend has not held true under the current Obama administration. In all three measures covered under the study – poverty, income and unemployment – blacks have fared worse under the Obama administration than under the previous administration. And yet the rallying cry of Democrats has been to resort to fear-mongering, essentially arguing that Republicans will deny black the right to vote and rescind social welfare programs popularized since the civil rights era. The fact remains, however, that the Obama administration has failed miserably at preserving civil rights era legislation (for the first time in 50 years sections of the voting rights act were struck down), and miserable at preserving black wealth and economic opportunities.


We are finally at a point in this country where the civil rights era politics have worn too thin to serve as a freedom suit. First, they are not as relevant to today’s political realities. No one is talking about taking away anyone’s vote or instituting a system of de jure segregation. And yet in practice, blacks have found themselves isolated and gerrymandered on the local level – ultimately unable to build coalitions to advocate for broad-based change within the Democratic Party ghetto. Furthermore, blacks are starting to fall behind economically – and not just at the lower levels of the socio-economic spectrum. Even black college graduates have fallen prey to intractable unemployment in a rapidly changing economic climate for all Americans.

The point here is that the price of identity politics may have proved to be too high. That is, by overcommitting to the Obama administration the black leadership may have failed to strengthen and develop relationships in the business and corporate community that have generally considered Obama’s economic policies inimical to growth. But then there is the cost of the Obama presidency itself. Obama has generally gone out his way to seem race-neutral with respect to black issues in a way that no prior president would ever have to. He has not spoken out forcefully against systemic factors that have kept blacks mired in poverty and unemployment – specifically the system of local governments over-fining and criminalizing citizens for minor infractions as a fundraising strategy. The Justice Department’s report on the police and court system in Ferguson provides a scathing condemnation of these practices. It is worth noting that these draconian practices – which are frankly reminiscent of something out of a Dickens novel - have taken hold in states like Ohio and California, which have liberal Obama-supporters in the governor’s mansions.


But the situation in Ferguson pales in comparison to the state of affairs in Chicago, Cleveland and New York– also Democratic strongholds. The well-publicized shooting of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, the record sums being paid out by the cities over police brutality claims are all taking place under the cover of the Obama administration. Again, I take you back to the hypothetical posed above – what would the reaction be from the black community if these travesties occurred under a Republican president?

With friends like Obama, who needs enemies? His administration has provided cover for some of the worst civil rights abuses in recent history, and failed miserably to stem the downward spiral of black unemployment and wealth destruction. It is really time to ask whether the price blacks paid for symbolic representation may have been too high.

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