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).
In both cases, substantial numbers of black political elites had pledged their support to a white Democratic leader with reasonably good ties to black communities (Senators Mondale and Clinton).
It was the attacks against Obama by the Clinton campaign and its surrogates — like Bob Johnson and Andrew Young — which first sparked massive black outrage that evolved into broad African American support for Senator Obama. Closing ranks around an African American leader perceived to be unfairly under attack has been a long and honorable tradition since the 19th century.
Black solidarity need not be a nationalist response. That said, the support for Obama after the South Carolina, primary has evoked more than a hint of nationalism.
As my former colleague, the philosopher Tommie Shelby argues, one of the strengths of black nationalism as an ideology is that it provides a way for blacks to take collective action and defend African American political leaders under attack.
Black nationalist ideology is also the source of some dangerous tendencies which are beginning to show up among some Obama supporters. First, several of them are suggesting that to be "authentically black" means that blacks must support Obama. One dangerous feature of black nationalism is that difference of opinion is often suppressed in the name of the twin nationalist shibboleths of authenticity and unity.
A second concern is closely linked to the first. Nationalist campaigns tend to severely limit discussion and dissent. In other words, "we can't criticize the brother, because that would harm the brother." This line of thinking reduces the collective critical discourse about Obama's campaign. And there is much to be critical of.
My friend and colleague Larry Bobo has argued on this Web site that one of Obama's strengths is that he has pulled together a "center-left" coalition, one which has been increasingly marginalized in Democratic Party politics. Bobo's claim is probably true.
What is not true is that Obama himself represents the "center-left" in terms of his own politics. Whether we're speaking of his plan on healthcare, or his plans for reducing carbon emissions, his domestic program is generally located at the center of the American political spectrum, and the center-right of the black political spectrum.
The same can be said of his foreign policy. Obama's politics are considerably to the right of most African Americans, and progressives more generally. Yet, the nationalist surge in support of his campaign has had a dampening and chilling effect on the willingness to criticize Obama, particularly from the left.
None of the above means that blacks should not vote for Senator Obama. Nor, does it mean that even a majority of blacks are voting for Obama due to nationalist sentiments. For me, the candidates' stances on Iraq are sufficient to tip the scales away from Clinton. I am more serious than facetious when I suggest it is our internationalist duty to severely rebuke politicians who voted for war against Iraq.
There is, however, a disturbing tendency in some quarters to argue that his race should trump policy considerations. While obviously Obama's politics are much closer to mainstream black America, than that of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the structure of the argument of some Obama supporters resembles that used to justify support for Thomas during the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings.
Why is this nationalism a new black nationalism? Here we need to turn back to Shelby. The current nationalism is a nationalism, which for the first time within the mainstream of black politics, fuses nationalist discourses with liberal philosophy—which is why it can coexist relatively comfortably with the politics of traditional liberals such as Ted Kennedy.
This is a middle-class black nationalism that, if we are not careful, has the potential to provide substantial benefits to the black middle class without delivering any clear benefits to the large segment of black America that continues to be severely economically disenfranchised. This is the sector for which the "American Dream" still largely remains an "American Nightmare."
Just as black nationalism has historically served as an effective critique of black liberalism, the black left has historically served as the most effective critic of black nationalism. This duty is doubly important given the current fusion of black nationalism with liberalism.
It is important for those on the black left not to abandon politics in disgust as we have too often in the past. Instead, it is the duty of progressive blacks to remain involved in black united fronts, including those that support Obama, while continuing in the tradition of Du Bois and Dr. King to provide a trenchant critique of both America and its political leaders, while fighting for a black politics that continues to struggle for social justice.
Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.