On Jan. 20, 2009, barely 40 years after the dismantling of the racial caste system that followed slavery, a black man became the 44th president of the United States. The moment resonated across the country and around the world.
But what did it mean?
(Oxford Univ.) - ‘The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and Rise and Decline of Black Politics’ by Fredrick C. Harris
As Barack Obama completes his first term, Fredrick C. Harris counters the powerful symbolism of Obama’s election with a critique of how African Americans have fared over the past four years. Harris, a professor of political science and director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, argues that as a consequence of Obama’s historic presidency, issues of racial inequality and injustice have been pushed further to the margins of national politics.
“The Price of the Ticket” considers the evolution of black politics “during the transition of the civil rights and black power movements to the practices of mainstream American politics.” The fundamental question since the 1970s, Harris writes, was: “What is the best strategy for black communities to pursue their political interests?” But a different if related question emerged once formal barriers had fallen, and it became a controlling factor in electoral politics, which is the focus of this book. Namely, what was the best strategy for securing power within the Democratic Party, the political home of black Americans, and electing black candidates to office?
The book carves a narrow path through the history of the past four decades, highlighting pivotal campaigns — such as the presidential runs of Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson; Harold Washington’s mayoral victories in Chicago; and the 1989 successes of black candidates in largely white districts, from David Dinkins in New York City to Douglas Wilder’s historic gubernatorial win in Virginia — and tracking the development of the race-neutral style of politics that prepared the way for Obama’s ascendancy to the White House.
Harris devotes two chapters to trends that might help explain why important segments of the black electorate were receptive to a political agenda that played down the structural causes of racial inequality and its consequences. He discusses the appeal of the “prosperity gospel,” with its emphasis on individualism and material success, and the “politics of respectability,” a strain in African American thought that emphasizes personal responsibility as key to the uplift of the black poor.
But Harris gives little attention to the forces that produced an increasingly racialized political climate, such as the racial codification of welfare,busing, quotas, poverty and crime, developments that helped forge the new Republican majority that elevated Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Black activists aligned with the Democratic Party were not at the forefront of the strong progressive coalition that activist Bayard Rustin imagined in his seminal 1965 essay, “From Protest to Politics”; instead, strategists seeking to elect black candidates outside black-majority communities had to develop ways to neutralize white bias.