The Coming Betrayal of the Black Poor

Marcellus Andrews is an economist and writer on economic policy and economic justice issues. He wrote a searing essay in the Black Commentator titled “No Exit in Black/ Trapped by the Economy and Politics” after the 2004 elections that really really scared me. And you might be very very afraid too once you’ve read it.

His main point:

(O)ne gets the sense that black America is at a breaking point in matters of politics. The old alliance between blacks and the Democrats is about to end while the war between blacks and conservatives is going to get much worse. Most of all, the unique solidarity between the black middle class and the black poor will soon end as the pressure of economic survival turns former allies into enemies.

Poor black people are about to become the victims of a great political betrayal that is as predictable as it is awful. This betrayal is due to the unyielding logic of modern economic life, which has slowly but inexorably destroyed the basis for black unity.

Andrews comes to this conclusion based on conflicts between rich and poor, and Republicans and Democrats… conflicts that place the the black middle class right in the middle, to the point where the need to protect themselves means they must leave poor blacks defenseless.

Here is the economic problem:

The harsh reality of American economic life is that the blue collar road to the middle class has collapsed in the face of a world economy dominated by trade and technology. A large fraction of the American work force have been stranded in the declining sectors of the American economy, even as their luckier counterparts in the growing sector are experiencing a sustained economic boom. The majority of black American workers have been stranded on the wrong side of the economic divide between skilled and unskilled labor, a far larger fraction than among the white majority. Even skilled workers face job and employment threats from trade and technology, so they are in no mood to help people in even greater need then themselves.

Here’s the political problem:

The Democrats have no reason to champion real equal opportunity because it is expensive and would take at least a generation to achieve. The problem with the Democrats is that they do not have a common program of economic reconstruction that can unite the poor and the middle class. The fact that there are millions of people who cannot make it on their own, no matter how hard they try, will not convince Middle America to help out their struggling countrymen unless they see something in it for themselves. This sense of looking out for number one is not just selfishness or even racism, but is also rooted in the politics of economic survival.

So why do black people stay with the Democrats, even if the party has no real program for creating genuine equal opportunity that can command enough support from Middle America to counter opposition from free market conservatives and their racist allies? A different politics of survival: the black middle class needs the Democrats to protect them from white nationalist animus, while the working class and poor black majority are just holding on for dear life.

Black America is in an existential bind between a party that will tolerate their presence so long as they support business liberals and the fierce white nationalist wing of the Republican Party bent on pushing blacks back into society’s basement. White nationalists in America are convinced that black people are an inferior sub-race that could never rise above a lowly station without help from misguided liberals. But the black middle class believes that the only way it can resist the onslaught of white nationalism is to make common cause with the Democrats by offering to deliver the votes of the black poor to the ballot box.

Of course, black people are in a terrible bargaining position vis-à-vis the parties. The Democrats can plausibly insist that black people fold some of their interests under the party’s general program – and shut up about whatever else they need – in exchange for limited protection from racist bullies. Republican entreaties for black support are cruel jokes since the right has no intention of dealing with the economic sources of black distress, nor do they intend to exchange their white nationalist coalition partners for a smaller, poorer and darker group that does not command the respect of a large portion of the white population. President Bush’s appeals to blacks to vote Republican amount to a vicious mockery of a people caught between an indifferent liberal protector and an eager conservative assailant.

Andrews suggests that black Americans could address these issues by embarking on a path of economic independence and self-reliance.

Middle class black Americans could, if they choose, create a culture of academic and commercial achievement and success based on a shared understanding of the black American experience that thrives in the face of white nationalist assault. Indeed, the marriage of conservatism and racism that is the modern Republican Party might recommend just such a strategy provided that the concept of racial solidarity undergoes a subtle shift…

Suppose that black American middle class families begin an aggressive intellectual and cultural movement that sees learning, savings, competition and development as the primary weapons in the war against white nationalism. Imagine a situation where black Americans not only accept the marriage of free market conservatism and white nationalism as a fact of American life, but as an assault that must be resisted through independent development rather than relying on American liberals. Suppose that the number and density of middle class blacks has reached critical mass so that they are able to sustain independent institutions – schools, media, publishing, churches, businesses – that can support a vibrant, diverse, but defiantly black intellectual and cultural universe capable of sturdy interaction with the wider world.

This black world would be able to insulate black children from the noxious influence of white nationalism over schooling, media and character formation – perhaps by insisting on a high degree of racial segregation in housing, schooling and inter-personal association, perhaps by the evolution of communities that are racially diverse but which share a common and positive view of black intellect and ability…

The emergence of an assertive black middle class in response to the victory of the right in American politics will bring a very heavy price in terms of national unity. (This) solution is, by its very nature, based on the perception that the United States is so tainted by race hatred that black self-sufficiency is the only way for people of African descent to survive. This solution would not be a liberal program – in large part because it is would grow out of the failure of liberal politics to create a genuine post-racial society. Instead, (it) would be a sophisticated, multi-generational, non and even anti-governmental movement aimed at creating a secure place for black Americans, and those who would band together with them, to live, work and grow.

The problem from the standpoint of black unity is that, this self-reliance based method of progress is great, provided you’ve got the education, skills, and wealth that are required to survive in today’s economy. However, poor blacks don’t have those things – hence, the coming of the “great political betrayal” that Andrews spoke about earlier:

The hard truth of our time is that the economic needs of poor black people are much closer to those of other poor Americans than they are to those of middle class blacks. Poor blacks, like all poor people in America, need an immense array of social goods and services that they cannot pay for – from health care and education to safe streets and housing. Middle class blacks, like all middle class Americans, want high quality public services balanced against low taxes in a society of self-reliant individuals.

Middle class black people support greater degrees of regulation and redistribution in economic life because they are poorer than whites and are still subject to discrimination. But the black middle class does not need or want government to the same degree as poor blacks because they are no longer trapped in the basement of the American job market. Many middle class black people are no more interested in paying taxes to support poor people than their white counterparts, not least because they see themselves as proof that hard work and perseverance in the face of white nationalism can pay off in still all-too-racist America.

Some people will say that the black middle class’s slow abandonment of the black poor is a sell out to white America, the act of selfish Uncle Toms who have forgotten what it is like to suffer as racial and class outcasts in this society. Nothing could be further from the truth or more irrelevant. Black middle class abandonment of the black poor is perfectly consistent with a strong sense of racial pride that nonetheless blames poor black people for making their bad situation worse. It is perfectly possible for middle class blacks to be angry at conservative white people and poor black people at the same time.

In the end, the black community would become divided, and the prospects for the black poor would be vastly diminished:

What would become of poor black people who were abandoned by their former middle class partners? They would slip further into the shadows of American life, suffering ever greater poverty, sickness and early death like their white, brown and yellow counterparts. If they struck out at middle class blacks in the usual way that poor people strike at society – through crime – they would find themselves assailed by a rainbow coalition of middle class folks insisting on “law and order.”

Indeed, one can imagine a situation where the (black self reliance) solution would lead to ever more punitive approaches to crime and punishment once the black middle class stopped tying the fate of the black poor to the nation’s history of slavery and apartheid. Sympathy would shrivel still more for the poor and social outcasts, with no segment of the middle class coming to the defense of those in society’s basement. The United States would become an even meaner place than it is now.

An ascendant, angry, confident and successful black population in a cold war with conservative America; the abandonment of the black poor by the black middle class; a permanent war of words and images, and maybe worse, between successful blacks and whites who waited too long to jettison their racist partners or who treated blacks like permanent junior partners. This is the bitter legacy that two decades of conservative victory and liberal dithering has in store for America. The racist right and the feckless left are not remotely ready to reap the harvest of what they have sown.

All of this sounds like the worst case scenario for the future of African Americans… but Andrews’ concerns did strike a chord with me. Please spread the word on this and discuss.

2 thoughts on “The Coming Betrayal of the Black Poor

  1. When has the black and middle classes EVER been in solidarity with the black poor?? I’m old enough to know this is a myth. The middle class, as a collective, and with exceptions, has always had the “whats in it for me attitude”. The class, color divide has always existed. Solidarity was a civil rights stragedy more than it was any heartfelt racial solidarity.

    • At one time, we had no distinction between middle class and poor in our community. We were all one prior to the late 60’s and early 70’s and even then we were still together, looked out for one another, and cared about one another and we have always been kind and giving to the less fortunate among especially own family members. But through the break down of the family structure and the influx of drugs, especially crack, many of us have lost our values. Crack tore apart families and neighborhoods and left millions of children with no structure and no safety net, and made our neighborhoods unsafe and unlivable tearing apart the moral and spiritual fiber of our communities. This has lead to the erosion of basic life standards of dignity and decency we see in many of our neighborhoods today. Because our youth have no one to guide them and care about them which leaves them out of control and headed on the pathway to death. Most inner city blacks are decent, hardworking, and law abiding people, its just a few knuckleheads that mess it up for everyone else. That’s the truth. We as a people deep down inside love one another. But we hate the criminals among us and right fully because they terrorize the community and hurt their own people. Forget Middle Class and Poor Class, cause no one likes a criminal, no one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s