The Next Generation

Posted in Issues

From the standpoint of individual choice, one interesting thing about the aftermath of 9/11 is that the only American caught fighting for the Taliban was a white guy from northern California, John Walker Lindh. Given the strength of Islam among African-Americans, why is it that there was nothing in Afghanistan even slightly reminiscent of the Lincoln Brigade — the band of Americans who fought for the Republicans in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War? What, if anything, does that say about political and economic life in the United States? What does it have to do with the overwhelming preference among black voters for the Democratic Party?

The beginnings of answers to these questions — and to many others like them — can be found in a new book, Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies by Michael Dawson. Amid the ruckus over the threatened departure of up to three members of a “dream team” of scholars from the Department of African-American Studies at Harvard University, little attention has been given to the team that Harvard will field next year no matter what happens next. Dawson is its newest member — “the leading scholar of black politics in the world,” according to department chair Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the threatened departees.

A University of Chicago professor of political science who quietly agreed in January to move to Massachusetts (the negotiation had long been in the works), Dawson is one of several quantitatively-oriented social scientists who have come to Harvard in recent years. Others include the sociologists William Julius Wilson (also from the U. of C.) and Lawrence Bobo (from UCLA.) Given that in any fast-moving field of scholarship, a generation lasts only about five years, Dawson is almost as almost as far removed from those who have been threatening to leave Harvard — literary critic Gates. religion professor Cornel West and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (who has already agreed to go to Princeton) — as is Denzel Washington from Sidney Poitier, even though, at 50, Dawson is roughly the same age as the other scholars.

It was the year seminal 1968 that accounts for the difference. That’s when Dawson left the South Side of Chicago for college at Stanford University. The Bay Area was far too turbulent for a politically alert 16-year-old. (Dawson was the nephew of long-time Chicago US Rep William Dawson.) He spun out, worked for a time in a Neighborhood Youth Corps, sampled the wildly disparate grass roots politics of the time, then gravitated to the fringes of quite a different revolution. He assembled printed circuit boards, wrote code and tested prototypes for Silicon Valley start-ups, remaining all the while a trade unionist and community organizer. When he did return to college after nine years, it was to Berkeley. And when he went off to graduate school in government at Harvard, things had changed. The African American experience had become a mainstream topic in social science.


Dawson’s first book, Behind the Mule: Race, Class and African American Politics showed the influence of his years as a faculty member at the University of Michigan. He relied on public opinion surveys to test the proposition that, because information about life’s possibilities is costly and blacks were mostly poor, they relied more than most others on group identity to form their political opinions — with the result that they showed significantly greater solidarity across class lines than whites. Even doctors and lawyers thought of themselves as somehow remaining “behind the mule.” That wasn’t enough, however, to account for the vigorous differences of political opinion to which Dawson had been witness year after year. He decided that it would be necessary to disentangle the multiple and competing black ideologies that gave rise to those differences of opinion.

The result is Black Visions, a detailed — but not too detailed — survey of the contours of black political thought. For all its sophisticated opinion-sampling methodology, the real value of the book has to do with the sorting through and grouping of the thought of black political leaders: W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunche, Martin Luther King, Elijah Muhammed, Malcom X, Angela Davis, Louis Farrakhan — not to mention Miles Davis, Jackie Robinson, James Baldwin, Paul Robeson and Ice Cube.

Dawson divides black ideologies into five broad clusters. The oldest tendency in black political thought is liberalism, he says — the integrationist faith of Frederick Douglass, now tempered by experience into varieties of many sorts. The second oldest tendency is black nationalism. From Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to Louis Farrakan, separatism (and the related idea of pecuniary reparations for slavery) has possessed a durable attraction to some large fraction of the black community. In its “community nationalism” variant, seeking to build an independent economic base, as espoused by Farrakhan, Boston’s Rev. Eugene Rivers III and others, it remains a powerful force today.

Not so Black Marxism. Though a relatively strong communist movement flourished in Detroit in the late 1960s, and though the Black Panthers moved towards Marxist-Leninism in California in the 1970s, the best-known black critics of capitalism today — Cornel West and Manning Marable — shape black public opinion only modestly, says Dawson. More electric is black feminism, if only because gender oppression is at least as ubiquitous as race consciousness, and often cuts at cross purposes to it — as a long line of activists from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to Ida Wells and Alice Walker have pointed out.

That leaves black conservatism, which Dawson treats as a variant of disillusioned liberalism, dating back at least as far as Booker T. Washington, the prophet of black education at the turn of the 20th century. Conservative pundits today such as Alan Keyes and Thomas Sowell receive disproportionate attention in the media, but command very little public support among blacks, he says. The exceptional figure, he notes, is Secretary of State Colin Powell. And the fact that African-American experiences in the US military and professional sports go undiscussed suggests the limits of Dawson’s reconnaisance.

No matter. Black Visions clearly is a landmark work — a map of the slowly-changing continent of African-American political opinion whose details will be further elucidated, but whose outlines are likely to remain the same for decades. What African-American Studies needs now, at Harvard and elsewhere, are some good economists. These historical disagreements over strategy and tactics that Dawson delineates are susceptible to testing, after all.