We Are In the Midst of a Black Power Renaissance

Under Trump, we are seeing a return to collective Black consciousness.

Salim Muwakkil July 13, 2017

Muhammad Ali gives a Black Power salute before a fight at Madison Square Garden in 1971. (Santi Visalli Inc./Getty Images)

A new iter­a­tion of Black pow­er is bub­bling up in Black Amer­i­ca. Per­haps it’s a com­pen­sato­ry reac­tion to the dis­ap­point­ment many African-Amer­i­cans felt with their lack of progress dur­ing the eight-year tenure of America’s first Black pres­i­dent. It could be fall­out from the height­ened activism churned up dur­ing this Move­ment for Black Lives era. Or it may just be the inward impulse trig­gered in Black Amer­i­ca when­ev­er U.S. pol­i­tics takes a con­ser­v­a­tive turn.

“Our history has taught us that we must create our own agenda, we must implement it, and we must hold elected leaders accountable.”

What­ev­er the gen­e­sis, this revived sen­si­bil­i­ty is man­i­fest­ing in many are­nas of Black activism. Groups like the Black Is Back Coali­tion, cofound­ed in 2009 by Glen Ford in the name of Black self-deter­mi­na­tion, and the Insti­tute of the Black World 21st Cen­tu­ry (IBW21, a revival of a ven­er­a­ble 1970s orga­ni­za­tion by long-time activist Ron Daniels), are mak­ing explic­it­ly ide­o­log­i­cal cas­es for a return to col­lec­tive Black con­scious­ness. The theme of an IBW21 con­fer­ence in late 2016 was It’s Nation Time … Again,” echo­ing a pop­u­lar 1960s slo­gan. The con­fer­ence attract­ed pop lumi­nar­ies like Dan­ny Glover and move­ment vets like Kwan­zaa cre­ator Maulana Ron” Karen­ga, draw­ing crowds to Newark, N.J., the site of the first Black Pow­er con­fer­ence in 1967.

These efforts focus most­ly on Black eco­nom­ic sol­i­dar­i­ty and polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion to police racism, but also urge increas­ing con­nec­tions with Africa and the Caribbean. Sev­er­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives from CARI­COM, a coali­tion of Caribbean nations, attend­ed the IBW21 conference.

Even the Move­ment for Black Lives coali­tion adopt­ed nation­al­is­tic rhetoric in its 2016 man­i­festo. Cit­ing a long tra­di­tion of Black covenants for free­dom, from the African Nation­al Con­gress Free­dom Char­ter to the Black Rad­i­cal Free­dom Agen­da,” the group wrote, Our his­to­ry has taught us that we must cre­ate our own agen­da, we must imple­ment it, and we must hold elect­ed lead­ers accountable.”

Coex­ist­ing with this activist turn is a less ide­o­log­i­cal Black move­ment more con­cerned with equi­tably extract­ing goods and ser­vices from the sys­tem, rather than chal­leng­ing the system’s eco­nom­ic premis­es — a kind of prag­mat­ic nation­al­ism, or Black Pow­er 2.0. The notion is per­haps best summed up in the catch­phrase of Maze Jack­son, a pop­u­lar radio per­son­al­i­ty for Chicago’s WVON radio (which also broad­casts my show) and one of its most artic­u­late expo­nents: What’s in it for the Black people?”

This racial reduc­tion­ist sen­si­bil­i­ty has tak­en root in Chica­go, where grotesque street vio­lence besieges many neigh­bor­hoods and the unem­ploy­ment rate for Black youth is the high­est in the nation. There is a hard edge to this non-ide­o­log­i­cal nation­al­ism that can clash with pro­gres­sive groups, includ­ing on right-to-work poli­cies (favored) and sanc­tu­ary poli­cies for undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants (opposed).

Jack­son says his posi­tion grew out of the frus­tra­tion that lib­er­al whites always seemed to know what’s best for minori­ties or peo­ple of col­or, a group they like to lump Black folks in when it is con­ve­nient for their nar­ra­tive, but cut us out when it’s time to dis­trib­ute the resources.”

We may have for­got­ten, but there were sim­i­lar move­ments toward a kind of prag­mat­ic nation­al­ism when Reagan’s sup­ply side eco­nom­ics were wreak­ing hav­oc on America’s inner cities. In 1986, res­i­dents of Boston vot­ed down a ref­er­en­dum propos­ing to secede a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Black, 12.5‑square-mile area from the city and cre­ate a sep­a­rate munic­i­pal­i­ty called Man­dela, in hon­or of Nel­son Man­dela. e mea­sure failed spec­tac­u­lar­ly but was seri­ous­ly dis­cussed by a wide spec­trum of the city’s Black leadership.

In Mil­wau­kee in 1986, a coali­tion of Black lead­er­ship backed a pro­pos­al for a sep­a­rate school sys­tem for the city’s pre­dom­i­nant­ly Black school dis­trict. The coali­tion argued that high dropout rates and low achieve­ment could be best addressed by allow­ing Black res­i­dents more con­trol of their children’s edu­ca­tions. The effort fiz­zled but forced atten­tion on egre­gious inequal­i­ties. Both strands of Black nation­al­ism are wel­comed by some activists as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to expand poli­cies of self-deter­mi­na­tion, while oth­ers, such as polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Lester K. Spence, warn they are plow­ing the ground for the tri­umph of neolib­er­al­ism, allow­ing a per­for­mance of Black­ness” to dis­guise poli­cies that boost eco­nom­ic inequality.

How­ev­er it’s employed, this Black nation­al­ist turn is a cycli­cal dynam­ic linked to larg­er polit­i­cal cur­rents. Trump is in. Black is back.

Sal­im Muwakkil is a senior edi­tor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Sal­im Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s his­toric black radio sta­tion, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Pho­tographs from the Harold Wash­ing­ton Years.
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