Black Politics

The African-descended population in the Americas originated primarily from the practice of slavery among European colonies in the Western hemisphere. In North America, colonial politics developed extensive legal systems classified as slave codes. After American independence and the subsequent adoption of the federal Constitution, the constitutional system built and sustained a racial hierarchy as a foundation of national governance. According to this system, seats in the US House of Representatives designated for white residents were augmented by three-fifths of the enslaved population within each state (a stipulation that gave southern white populations more per capita representatives than their northern counterparts). Presidential elections were determined by an electoral college based on this disproportionate representation. A provision of the federal Constitution, moreover, prohibited amendments to abolish the slave trade before 1808. Additionally, individual states converted colonial slave codes into state law or otherwise established legal codes governing enslaved people within their jurisdictions as well as non-enslaved people of African descent.

As much as their circumstances allowed, black people challenged this system. One form of black organizational resistance consisted of “Negro Conventions.” These were generally statewide or regional meetings outside the South at which people of African descent, concerned with their collective welfare, met to document their grievances and call for redress, primarily in the form of declarations and petitions delivered to their state or territorial governments, and to the national government.

Black abolitionists were present in the United States before the Revolutionary War. Both before and after the Revolution, particularly in the North, they petitioned their governments to outlaw the slave trade and abolish the institution of slavery, and they created antislavery societies. When white opposition to slavery emerged in the form of militant abolitionism in the 1830s, black women and men who had long been organized to banish slavery joined this movement. These abolitionists were instrumental in founding the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Nevertheless, as a whole, the political system in the United States persisted as a force dedicated to the oppression of African descendants.


Foundational black political organizations were not recognized as political. After the collapse of Reconstruction, black people continued the practice of irregular political conventions at local, state, and national levels. Those events had no legal standing and served only to express the hopes and fears of the attendants. The Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Niagara Movement, and Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Machine all had political aspirations but no standing in any statutory form.

Later organizational prime movers in the civil rights movement, such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the Council of Federated Organizations, acted politically, but they were outside the system and turned to protest tactics— marches, sit-ins, and boycotts—that were acts of civil disobedience aimed at pressuring white lawmakers to change the law. The institutions that could make laws— city councils, state legislatures, the US Congress—did not yet represent black Americans. The only way blacks could exercise political influence was outside the formal structures and procedures of governance.

The black population during the pre–civil rights era was often characterized as “a nation within a nation.” This conception was a primary impetus for the development of black nationalism, one of the most enduring features of black politics in the United States. The black nation, however, was absent a state, and was governed by the white nation.

African descendants in the United States created default structures to circumvent their exclusion from those institutions largely reserved for the white population. These exclusionary institutions were civic as well as political. Professional associations illustrate the practice: black medical doctors, excluded from the American Medical Association (AMA), created the National Medical Association (NMA), and black lawyers, not allowed in the American Bar Association (ABA), founded the National Bar Association (NBA). This practice extended throughout the variety of professional associations.

Although the black church is the best-known independent black organization, what it represents in the religious arena is replicated across every field of human endeavor. Hence there are black colleges and universities, hospitals, holidays and celebrations, and so on. These aggregations are notably diverse and tend to be stratified by class.

African Americans have always been a richly divergent population. That is represented in its politics. Because Republican President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Radical Republicans passed the post–Civil War amendments abolishing slavery, granting citizenship to African descendants, affording them equal protection of the laws, and extending the right to vote to black males, the initial political loyalty of the overwhelming majority of black people was to the Republican Party. Some became Democrats, yet there were always black people who eschewed identification with either major party and became communists, socialists, and members of fringe movements.

With the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt's election in 1932, black political loyalties began to shift from the Republican to the Democratic Party. By 1936, a majority of black voters supported the Democratic Party at the national level, a connection that was cemented during the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency and the passage of the civil rights acts of the 1960s.


Perhaps the most dynamic, and certainly the most intensely studied, black political phenomena are the civil rights movement and, to a lesser degree, the black power movement. Both were extremely diverse despite an illusion of cooperative solidarity. Their marches, rallies, boycotts, nonviolent resistance, speeches, publications, court battles, hostile takeovers of public and private spaces, and radical resistance to entrenched racial discrimination in the South dominated the mass media's domestic agenda for the better part of two decades. The groundwork for these startling and innovative politics was laid by the painstaking legal work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

A meeting of prominent civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. (back right), at the NAACP offices in New York, 1964

A meeting of prominent civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. (back right), at the NAACP offices in New York, 1964

Not until the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 did black people regain the access to formal political participation they had experienced during Reconstruction. Yet, as with Reconstruction, federal law only provides formal, legal access, with occasional enforcement; de facto participation was a long-fought struggle that took decades to realize.

Many assessments of black politics, even among political scientists, have been based on counting output, such as the numbers of black voters and those chosen for positions of power, either elected or appointed. But that is only a small part of the picture. The bulk of black political activity has consisted—and consists today—not only in the organizational and electoral mobilization that made their incumbencies possible, but also in the organizations, institutions, beliefs, practices, and networks that enable a whole world of human associations.

Robert Smith, in “Ideology as the Enduring Dilemma of Black Politics” ( 1993 ), distinguishes three major traditions in black political thought: nationalism, liberal integrationism, and radicalism. Smith contends that these traditions persist in the post–civil rights era, despite the phenomenon of deracialization.

Both black nationalism and black radicalism are diverse, as illustrated by such nationalist variations as the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Nation of Islam, the Republic of New Africa, Kawaida Culture, and the National Black Independent Political Party. Nationalists, however, share one overriding conviction: that the United States of America will never become a political system dedicated to the well-being of African-descended people, and that such people must rely primarily on themselves to build a future consonant with their own public good.

The black radical tradition is less influential than the nationalist, but the two share a deep distrust of the country's political apparatus. The radicals' thrust harkens back at least to the Haitian and French Revolutions, but later was linked to Marxist influences, including the Italian Marxist politician Antonio Gramsci ( 1891–1937 1898–1976 ), the sociologist, civil rights activist, and author W. E. B. Du Bois ( 1868–1963 ), and the writer Amiri Baraka ( 1934–2014 ), and with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Its adherents contend that black people can be saved only as part of a radical movement that overturns the state and establishes a whole new political and social order.

The concept of deracialization was initially introduced most systematically in Georgia Person's edited volume, Dilemmas of Black Politics ( 1993 ). The term was posited primarily as an electoral strategy used by black political candidates to prohibit anyone in a given election from playing the race card. It was also seen as an agenda-setting strategy, in the sense that candidates used it to proclaim universalistic rather than particularistic goals. Hence, it incorporated both electoral and governing dimensions. In electoral terms and in governing terms, blackness disappeared. Elections would not be about race, but about competence and vision.


Most observers have depicted the period from 1965 to 2015 as one in which liberal integrationism drove black politics, by emphasizing and strengthening the power of the black vote in electoral politics. This period differs most starkly from earlier eras by the extent of black participation in conventional politics. A harbinger of what was to come was the 1966 election of Massachusetts Republican Edward Brooke ( 1919–2015 ) to the US Senate. His election was a lonely marker. No other black candidate was elected to the Senate until 1992, when Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, from Illinois, won her seat. Much more frequent were elections of black mayors. Gradually the electoral trend spread to state legislatures. In 1989 in Virginia, Douglas Wilder became the first African descendant to be elected a state governor. There was yet another long wait, until 2006, for the election of the nation's second black governor, Deval Patrick in Massachusetts.

Jesse Jackson's runs for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988 radically increased the voter registration rates of black voters, particularly in the South. By 1996, the African-descended members in the US House of Representatives numbered thirty-nine, or almost 10 percent of the total.

These electoral victories were owed primarily to black voters who mobilized and voted in unprecedented numbers. The election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago in 1983 is an example. Washington's chances for election were seen as so unlikely that no national Democratic leader endorsed him in the primary. Yet Washington not only won the primary, he won the general election, even though the leaders of his own party in Chicago endorsed the Republican candidate. Underlying such victories was a deep, broad-based, and densely interconnected black infrastructure.


The racial dimensions of this infrastructure can best be understood by references to black professional associations. Once white professional associations accepted people of African origin as members, most black professionals joined them. But they continued their membership in counterpart black professional organizations, and created more black organizations, so that by 2015 there were more black organizations of all types than there were in 1965. This hyper-organization of the African-descended population not only increased the numbers of elected black officials but enhanced the vitality of black politics outside the electoral arena, in areas of black politics invisible to the national population at large. Most of the scholarly community and the popular media remained unaware of the black infrastructure ( which was why Washington's mayoral win in 1983 blindsided them ). The election of Barack Obama as president in 2008 was first seen as a miracle and only later as owing in no small part to work within the black infrastructure. Equally unaccounted for in national analyses are the impact of the black infrastructure on the decline in gangs and the illegal drug trade from the mid-1990s on, or its effect on K–12 schools thereafter. The declines in homicides and in crack use have been widely noted, and remain just as widely unexplained. Innovations among black-led charter schools are likewise described but not accounted for. These lacunae may arise because many policy makers and academics are unfamiliar with the internal dynamics of the black population. The black middle class, including the black working class, drives the black infrastructure; participation by the black underclass, either in established organizations or in creating independent organizations, is minimal.

Though their influence has long been overlooked, black women have made notable contributions to the vitality of black politics, both to its understandings and practice. One powerful analytical and practical insight has been the notion of intersectionality, which holds that people's various identities (for instance, black and female) have significant political impact on their lives. Wendy Smooth ( 2012 ) points out that, proportionally, the greatest contributors to President Obama's election and reelection were black women, yet neither the media nor political experts have given them just recognition. Both black women and the engagement of the black underclass may be moving to the forefront as a result of the 2014 mobilization of black communities in response to the police killings of black men and boys.

Black politics is a vast and complex subfield of political science. Although scholars in the field employ the whole range of methodologies practiced by political scientists at large, they are more inclined than most of their counterparts to use interdisciplinary approaches, especially those found in black studies, ethnography, geography, sociology, feminist studies, and LGBT studies.

For all practical purposes, the subdiscipline of black politics did not exist before 1969, and since then it has increased exponentially. In 1969 the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), a useful proxy for the development of black politics, was formed. The NCOBPS hosted annual meetings at which scholars could share their work in particular areas, interact, and develop collaborations, and it also developed a journal, the National Political Science Review, as a vehicle to get their work into print. The field began to establish its own canons, and its findings were published in journal articles, edited books, and monographs. Dissertations and masters' theses were written and defended. Newly minted PhDs entered the field. As markers of the quality of this scholarship, three members of NCOBPS were elected president of the American Political Science Association (APSA), and NCOBPS members have been elected to lead each of the major regional political science associations. The organization's scholars have been pioneers and foundational thinkers in areas such as social and political movements, diaspora studies, intersectionality, women's studies, feminist studies, LGBT studies, and interdisciplinary studies. The organization has been a major contributor to the creation of the Race, Ethnicity, and Politics section of the APSA, and to the creation of the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics. One of the most influential changes that NCOBPS brought to the study of black politics was shifting the weight of its scholarship from comparisons of black politics with white politics and other demographic groups to focusing on the internal politics of the black population.

The substantial findings of black politics scholars have been largely overlooked by the broader discipline. That has resulted in an unfortunate lack of acuity in understanding not only politics within the African-descended population but also American politics as a whole.

SEE ALSO Social Movements ; Abolition Movement ; Civil Rights Act of 1964 ; Civil Rights Movement ; Civil War Amendments ; Democracy ; Douglass, Frederick ; Du Bois, W. E. B. ; Jim Crow ; King, Martin Luther, Jr. ; Malcolm X ; Nonviolent Resistance ; Obama, Barack ; Race Discrimination ; Racism ; Republicans ; Self-Governance ; Slavery ; Voting Rights Act of 1965 ; Washington, Booker T.


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David Covin
Sacramento State University