For all the discourse around Black Americans, there is not much of a sense of the part played by Black people in American politics and society. Social and political discourse is overburdened by dichotomies like conservative vs liberal, moderate vs progressive, identity vs class that don’t fit most Black voters particularly well. The main questions usually posed are whether trends in Black voting help or harm the Democrats. Is Black turnout up or down and what percentage of Blacks are voting for the Democratic candidate? Is that enough for the Democrat to win or lose?
I get it!
On the presidential level, huge Black turnouts and 90% of the Black vote are the only ways for Democrats to win. But the role of Black voters, politicians, and celebrities in shaping contemporary American life and history goes far beyond that and I’d like to briefly suggest ways Black people are the driving force by which the Democrats are defining a new kind of national political culture.
Most of the social movements informing the Democratic Party values and policy are permutations of the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. That includes feminism, disability rights activism, LGBT rights movement, and immigrant movements all of which have long been dominated by the civil rights principles and language. As a result, Democratic Party and American discourse is permeated with a language of diversity, inclusion, anti-discrimination, social justice, equity, abortion rights, contraception rights, and salary disparity. There is also a continuous stream of Black, women’s, LGBT, Native, and Hispanic “firsts” which represent civil rights milestones for each group as well as individual achievements. The discourse of “firsts” is one way but an important way in which Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, Pete Buttigieg, and Deb Haaland have broad historical significance. The language and the values embedded in civil rights discourse are also personified by the most iconic figures of the last 60 years. A short list includes Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Barack Obama, and John Lewis but also reaches back to W.E.B DuBois, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and others. Likewise, works like the #1619Project are indications that the conditions and perspectives of Black Americans are becoming central to the historical sense of American identity.