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Michael Dawson on the Biggest Gulf in American Life

This is the fourth interview in the Black History Month series “Perspectives on Black Politics in the Age of Obama.” It has been selectively edited for print, but the full audio will be available at The other interviews can be found at Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur distinguished service professor of political science and the College at the University of Chicago, as well as the founding and current director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the university. In collaboration with a number of colleagues, Dawson has directed or co-directed a series of survey studies from 2000-2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010 that have probed racial attitudes in the United States.

This is the fourth interview in the Black History Month series “Perspectives on Black Politics in the Age of Obama.” It has been selectively edited for print, but the full audio will be available at The other interviews can be found at

Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur distinguished service professor of political science and the College at the University of Chicago, as well as the founding and current director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the university. In collaboration with a number of colleagues, Dawson has directed or co-directed a series of survey studies from 2000-2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010 that have probed racial attitudes in the United States.

His newest book is “Not In Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics.” His previous two books, “Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics” (Princeton 1994) and “Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies” (Chicago 2001), won multiple awards, including “Black Visions” winning the prestigious Ralph Bunche Award from the American Political Science Association. Forthcoming are several books including “Blacks In and Out of the Left: Past, Present and Future,” and “Reflections On Black Politics in the Early 21st Century.”

Rakim Brooks: I’ve just completed “Not in Our Lifetimes,” and what is most striking, and left me feeling a little marginalized, is how out of touch I was with mainstream white American opinion, and how out of touch white Americans seem to be with mainstream black American views. Could you talk about this facet of American public opinion?

Michael Dawson: I continually am amazed by how wide that gulf is. Whether we’re talking about what the role of the government is, what you think of the United Nations, political leaders – Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, President Obama – or how to respond to [Hurricane] Katrina and whether it had anything to do with race, across a wide variety of issues we see differences between mainstream black and white American opinion that dwarfs anything in American public opinion, period. Democrat versus Republican, men versus women, conservative versus liberal, the black/white divide is the biggest, one of the biggest in the world, and certainly the largest gap in the United States.

RB: Why is that the case? In your book, you refer to Jurgen Habermas’ conception of different “life worlds,” but it seems to be so much more than that. You talk about political and historical amnesia among Americans, but why is it that the majority of white Americans can’t see that Katrina had everything to do with race and the institutional manifestations of race; why did only 38 percent of whites, as compared with 90 percent of blacks, agree that the disaster showed that racial inequality remains a problem?

MD: When I wrote these numbers into statistical equations, class disappears, region disappears, age and gender disappear, and the only thing that remains statistically significant is race. Controlling for all the things that sociologists, economists, and political scientists say you should control for, we find that what drives one’s views [most significantly] is race.

And to answer your first question, “what’s behind this is?,” we are starting with views of the world that are fundamentally different. A large majority of white people thought, as early as 2000, that black people had already achieved racial equality and in the same poll 80 percent of black people were saying not in my lifetime or maybe never in the United States. Go back to a survey that many of us conducted in the mid-1990s and you get the majority of whites saying several things that are of interest, one of which is that black people had caught up in housing, healthcare, health outcomes, and unemployment, all areas where when you look at statistics black people are really lagging.

In another survey that [Harvard sociologist] Larry Bobo ran, white people were saying, in smaller majorities but still the majority, that black people were intellectually inferior and a larger majority saying that black people were prone to crime and welfare. So on the one hand you have the view that black people had caught up or are doing better than white people overall (in fact, in another survey recorded over the last few months, many whites think they are the most discriminated against) and [on the other hand] there is the feeling that black people are whining [and are actually criminal and dependent on state handouts]. All this while black people are saying that “we’re behind, that we have a lot of catching up to do, that this society still sorts by race.” You couldn’t have two more firmly different ways of viewing the world.

RB: A second point I wanted to take up in the book, which follows from this discussion, is about the ability of black people to influence mainstream understandings of racial problems. You use Katrina as the focal point for testing this ability because, in the midst of a national disaster that should demonstrate the persistence of racial inequality, black political institutions were unable to galvanize and influence policy reform. Why were they so unable to make a dent in how the Nation perceived Katrina?

MD: There are a couple of things going on. One, there’s a long history in American political discourse of black opinion being marginalized. We saw a little bit of it during the political campaign when Reverend Wright, whose ideals may be somewhat radical but are certainly not outside of the mainstream of black political discourse, was marginalized. But what we saw very specifically done during Katrina was that when people argued that the response to Katrina showed the problems of racial inequality, that indeed the fact that vast number of people were stranded in New Orleans was symptomatic of an overall breakdown at the local, federal, and state levels in government’s responsibilities to citizens, we found that in the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and NY Times we see opinion piece after opinion piece saying that black people are playing the race card, that there are a few left wing blacks are misleading the entire black community, that Katrina had nothing to do with race, that black people don’t know what’s good for them. To even mention race was taken to be an unacceptable position in American public opinion. So it wasn’t just that the great majority of white people disagreed with this, but to even try to enter the debate and put forward a mainstream African American view of how to think about Katrina, one was demonized – and that’s actually a technical term from the literature. The speech itself was illegitimate and to try to relate that point made you illegitimate. That’s one of the ways we were marginalized. It’s not just that we were losing the debate, we can’t even enter the debate with our own opinions without being insulted, marginalized, and told to shut up.

That is not necessarily a new phenomenon, but what is unusual is that in the past, let’s say in the mid to late 20th century or in the early 20th century, when that happened black people were sufficiently organized to say “You better damn well listen to us.” The slogan, No Justice, No Peace, had some teeth to it. Whether it was the silent marches of the NAACP against lynching at the beginning to the 20th century, or the Civil Rights demonstrations throughout the United States, starting in many northern cities after World War 2 and then taking off in the 50’s and 60’s in the South, and the urban uprisings in the 60s and 70s, there was just a massive amount of organizing going on. Black people were sufficiently organized to be able to say you may not respect me, but you will listen to me, and you will talk about me. That’s what we’ve lost: the political power to force the issue.

RB: Here’s a point you don’t bring up, but that seems germane to the conversation. Many people in my generation read the work of Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson and the whole cadre of black public intellectuals. Where do they fit into the black counter-public, and are they generally effective in pushing mainstream black opinions into the center of conversation?

MD: Not all of us are as effective as we could be, should be, or need to be, but some of the [most important] issues are slowly starting to be taken up again within black communities [because of their contributions], when we’re not obsessed with personal attacks against each other. But what is also different is that, in the history of black public intellectuals (with or without academic credentials) … is that the people who play that role today are not linked to a movement or a wide and diverse strata of black Americans, and because they’re not linked to those organizations or movements, a lot of black people particularly poor and young black people are saying, “what relevance does this have to my life?” I think the answer is certainly not enough right now.

RB: I certainly don’t mean to demean the work of any of these people, but I agree with you that this is a common refrain among African-Americans generally and those who have grown up in poor or working-class communities. But let’s take up the relationship between black intellectual life and mobilization. You have several sections of a chapter devoted to the idea of the post-racial black politician, where you mention Cory Booker, Harold Ford Jr., Michael Steele, you provide a case study of the Illinois State Senate race for then Senator Obama’s vacated seat. In that space, you discuss the “new black realism.” What is the “new black realism?”

MD: Actually, that’s not my phrase. It was coined, I believe, by white conservatives to describe the black politicians that they like, including at least a few of the people you just mentioned. But what it means is several things. First, I connect it to the neo-liberalism that pervades world politics that is tied to a rapacious economic system that minimizes politics. Black Realism or cosmopolitan black politician is a code word to say this is a black person that is not tied to a civil rights/black power traditional black politics.

Second, it means these are politicians who have very good credentials, including standard [elite] academic credentials; they take a technocratic view: we need a balanced budget, we need to make sure that the financial and business sectors are taken care of, and even to the extent that have a concern about the redistribution of wealth, that’s not their highest priority by any stretch of the imagination; the Democrats among this group [tend to be involved] with the DLC, which is the conservative but powerful wing of the Democratic party; they also believe that politics should be narrowed to electoral competition between elites, and that there isn’t a role for grassroots politics; and they try to work at the margins rather than in the traditional mode of black politics, which is to say this is an unjust system that disadvantages people and it is our job to figure out how to bring justice to all of us.

RB: If this new black realism abandons a systems analysis, then what potential does it have to redress racial inequality in this country? For example, if you leave aside that the prison industrial complex is built up systematically through policy decisions and a conservative ideological wave, what do you have left?

MD: I think what you have is a class politics within black politics, which we haven’t seen in a couple of generations. What it means is more contracts for affluent African Americans, more high level positions at elite universities, Fortune 500 companies, leading law firms, or on Wall Street. It means we see a black middle class that is larger, more affluent, and more influential than we’ve ever witnessed. And you also see if not the abandonment then the relegation of any agenda that speaks to the 70 to 80 percent of African American who are struggling to make a living or aren’t making a living. The consequence is that a regime that’s not bad, but not great, for the black upper middle class and elite, but sacrifice a large segment of the population to the status quo.

RB: I had an earlier interview with former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Field Secretary Charlie Cobb about two weeks ago, and he called this class of people “moneyed blacks.” And when we reached the conversation about President Obama, who he acknowledged was a member of this class, Cobb said, “I don’t doubt his sincerity.” This was a fascinating phrase for me. I don’t think anyone doubts the sincerity of – and let’s put the president aside because, as you write in your book, the mere mention of his name stirs nationalist/protective sentiments – someone like Harold Ford, Cory Booker or Michael Steele, but it makes me wonder what their view is of the more traditional forms of black political engagement. Do they believe they are ineffective, or don’t pursue the goals of racial justice, or both?

MD: I’d say that I still have a little bit of my skepticism from my youth. Some of these people, I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt. Some have just sold out and then others are sincere, but misguided.

I think people fall into two classes. One is represented by one of the great political figures of the 20th century and one of the few African Americans to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Ralph Bunche. What people don’t know about Bunche is that in the 1930s, he was a Marxist and he wrote all sorts of things about Marxism and race, he had a critique of the Communist Party, but he was very much a left wing intellectual. And someone asked him, after World War 2, if he had changed his opinions about his analysis of capitalism. He said, “Well no, not really, but I realized [fundamental change] wasn’t going to happen in my lifetime so I decided to get on with my life.” So I think there are some people who say we do have these structural inequalities that systematically disadvantage people in real ways but there’s not much I can do about it, except a few small things but I’ll continue to do what I can.

[The second group] does view the old black politics as ineffective, or at least ineffective for a globalized market economy that makes the politics of the 20th century irrelevant. I’m willing to believe that, but the question then becomes, what is the alternative? Here the neo-liberalism that permeates the black upper class and the affluent around the world, leads affluent blacks to believe that structural explanations of black poverty and disadvantage are, at most, radically incomplete and that there are cultural reasons that the black poor are not doing better.

RB: Let’s conclude by talking through some of the solutions you mentioned at the end of the book. James Rucker and Van Jones founded ColorofChange in response to the inability of black political institutions to respond to Hurricane Katrina. What’s your take on their model of online organizing?

MD: One of the problems of some of the traditional Civil Rights organizations is that the national headquarters were twenty years behind in the 1990s in terms of normal business, let along political organizing. Some of my background, working with Silicon Valley for nearly ten years, leads me to look more seriously at how groups from the left and right, groups for immigration rights, or the Arab Spring are using technology in order to mobilize. ColorofChange and similar groups are on target. Other organizations that do online/offline organizing, combining old fashioned, meeting in people’s houses but using online technologies to draw people together so that traditional modes of organizing work with 21st century technology, I think these are the way forward.

RB: The interconnectivity of this generation leads me to think about how radically disconnected my generation seems to be from the struggles of other people’s of African descent around the world. If you look at the vibrant black public spheres of the past, they were considering the mobilizations of black folks around the world or, at minimum, the most active intellectual voices are attentive to what’s happening elsewhere. What’s your assessment of (1) black American political organizations and their connections outside of the US, and (2) whether this generation is as engaged as it could be in pursuing intercontinental racial alliances and progress?

MD: I’m more optimistic on this question than one might suspect. We’ve had organizations around like TransAfrica that have tried to keep African Americans aware of what’s happening in continental Africa and other parts of the Diaspora. But it’s also the case that younger academics are paying attention to black political movements in Columbia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, places that we don’t typically think about [in relation to black political struggles]. But one problem is how these conversations have become segmented by class so that on college campuses you see blacks, both from the US and elsewhere, engaged with blacks outside of the United States, but you don’t see that inside [poor and working-class black] communities.

And I think these conversations are very important because one of the things we’ve lost as blacks in the United States is imagining different ways the world could be organized, how this country could be organized, how politics could be organized. By keeping in contact with other black political movements, we can say people have dealt with these policy issues in a very different way then we’ve thought about them here and their solutions might apply here. So you could look to Kenya’s large urban areas for keys to understanding micro-lending to the poor. That’s a big reason to think [across borders].

Another is, and this is something Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, the Black Panthers, Du Bois, and others understood, that when you start pressing for change inside the United States, it is very helpful to have people outside of the country paying attention. We see this in other parts of the world. Without external pressure, things might have gone very differently. That has always been true for African Americans; the better we’ve been at raising international awareness, the better off we’ve been at realizing solutions to our own problems.

RB: That was fantastic, Professor Dawson. Let me end by making a final plug for you. You stress in your book that for the American left to do well politically, black politics has got to revive itself because African-Americans have historically been the most progressive group in the United States. I think that’s something the left needs to remember because it too often tacks to the middle for political gain.

MD: Absolutely. Thank you.