He’s Black and We’re Proud

How Obama, of all people, is benefitting from a resurgent black nationalism.

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It is supremely ironic that Barack Obama, the candidate who seeks to bury race as an issue in this campaign season, owes his overwhelming support among blacks to the continued power of black nationalism. For a century and a half, black nationalism has provided the main ideological challenge to the liberal, social democratic sensibilities that have always dominated black politics.

It is likely that Senator Obama's support among African Americans would have remained divided without the continued ideological influence of black nationalism.

First, we need some definitions. To start, let's define black nationalism. Black nationalism is the political ideology which takes race as the fundamental dividing line in the U.S. Black nationalists believe that the first political, cultural, economic, and/or social priority is for black people to come together. Further, Black nationalism calls for various degrees of political, economic, cultural and/or social separation from white people. Race becomes a primary determinant for making political judgments.

Black nationalism is not equivalent to black solidarity. While black nationalists call for black solidarity, black people coming togther to defend each other and engage in collective action, so do black activists of other ideologies. Black liberals such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all called for black people to come together to struggle for justice but were not black nationalists.

Black liberalism is a broad political ideology that emphasizes support for individual rights, is generally pro-capitalist, and claims to be inclusive and tolerant of others. The black variant of liberalism is also much more egalitarian than that found in mainstream America (for probably way more than you want to know about black political ideologies, see my book Black Visions).

While Obama himself falls in the liberal ideological camp, the black movement that is developing in support of his campaign has some of the markings of black nationalism.

Earlier in the campaign Obama and Clinton were dividing the black vote. That changed with the caucuses in Iowa and the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Black support for Obama swelled for several reasons.

First, as many observers have noted, African Americans earlier this year were much more skeptical than whites about Obama's ability to attract sufficient numbers of white voters. This began to change after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Second, like many Americans, African Americans were unfamiliar with Obama.

While these two factors would have undoubtedly increased Obama's share of the black vote relative to Sen. Clinton's (and, in the early stages, to John Edwards'), they do not, even taken together, fully explain the massive swing to Obama among African Americans.

Two decades ago, Jesse Jackson did not receive the type of support from blacks that Obama is now achieving until his second campaign in 1988. Jackson was better known and more warmly perceived among blacks in the 1980s than Obama was before his recent surge in popularity. Yet according to exit polls, Jackson received "only" 77 percent of black votes in the Democratic primaries nationwide with a low of 68 percent in Southern states and a high of 82 percent in Northwestern states. It was only in the 1988 primary campaign that Jackson dominated like Obama does now—routinely pulling 90-plus percent from black voters. So why has Obama outperformed Jackson among blacks his first time out? In both cases there, was a sitting Republican president that opinion polls showed blacks intensely despised (Reagan and the junior Bush).

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