The New Black Politics

The preliminary statistics from the 2000 Census have been released, and it appears that America is rapidly being transformed into a nation of color. Thirty-one percent of the total U.S. population consists of non-whites: African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders, American Indians, Native Alaskans, and other racialized minorities. Many black Americans, however, may also find some reasons to be disturbed by the demographic data.

Two generations ago, most Americans perceived the color line in simplistic, monochromatic terms: black vs. white. The massive struggle to overturn legal racial segregation across the South in the 1950's was essentially that of the African-American people. "Blackness" and "whiteness" have been the core paradigm from which America's oppressive social hierarchy was constructed ever since 1619.

The Census of 2000, however, indicates a fundamental departure from that traditional black-white paradigm of racism. The percentage of Hispanics -- who may identify themselves to be of any racial background -- is now slightly larger (12.5 percent) than black people (12.1 percent) of the total U.S. population. Asians and Pacific Island Americans, at 3.6 percent, are the fastest growing racialized minority group. Within 20 years, about 20 to 24 million Asians will live in the United States, at current growth rates.

The most striking growth statistics are those of multiracial Americans, people who identify themselves as belonging to two or more racial groups. The 2000 Census found that 1.6 percent or seven million Americans, claimed to be "multiracial." Significantly, blacks who are 17 years old or younger are four times as likely as African Americans 50 and over to identify themselves as belonging "to more than one race." Today, about 10 percent of all black men marry white women, and about one-third of all Hispanics marry non-Hispanics. There were even more than 8,000 Americans who claimed that they belonged to five racial groups!

This proliferation of racial and ethnic identities has profound implications for traditional race-based politics practiced in African-American communities. In my 1995 book, Beyond Black and White, I predicted that black politics would soon have to negotiate new terms for coalition-building and civil rights advocacy, especially relating to Asians and Latinos. That time has now arrived.

The traditional tendency for African Americans to approach multicultural politics as a "zero sum game," with only winners and losers will frankly get us nowhere. A rigid black-only politics that refuses to acknowledge for example, that one out of every six Americans now speaks a language other than English at home, will not have the political flexibility required to build new kinds of multicultural protest movements. Although there is tremendous cultural and political diversity within the Hispanic population, increasingly blacks in most urban centers will find themselves to be "minorities" in predominantly "Hispanic neighborhoods." Retreating into race-based political denial won't change these demographic facts.

One strategic approach to the construction of a new multicultural democratic politics may be found in a new appreciation of history. For example, any political dialogue between blacks and Asians in the U.S. should begin with the historical kinship between African and Asian civilizations. Historians have long established the links of economic trade between China and eastern Africa bordering along the Indian Ocean. Islam created a transnational faith community that extended from Nigeria to Indonesia.

One also finds parallels and connections between Asians and Africans in the development of the Americas and Caribbean societies. About 15 million Africans were violently transported as slaves to the western hemisphere between the years 1550 and 1870. People of African descent, working in sugar cane fields from Bahia (northeast Brazil) to the South Carolina and Georgia coast constructed cultures, traditions and societies that drew from their African past but that also reflected their new material conditions and social realities.

Similarly, European colonialism and imperialism was responsible for the international coolie trade, the coerced migrations of Chinese and Indians into Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. As ethnic studies scholar Lisa Yuri has observed, sometimes the same ships that were used to transport enslaved Africans across the notorious Middle Passage of the Atlantic were later utilized to bring coolie labor across the Pacific.

W.E.B. DuBois's famous 1915 essay, "The African Root of the War," documenting the centrality of European imperialism and colonialism as the driving force behind World War I, is echoed in the revolutionary writings of Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh. Mohandas Gandhi brought nonviolent civil disobedience and the philosophy of satyagraha or "soul force," to the struggle against racism in South Africa and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adopted Gandhi's strategy to the conditions of the U.S. South. The political project of Third World nonalignment in the aftermath of World War II was essentially an Asian-African collaboration, uniting Sukarno of Indonesia, India's Nehru, Nkrumah of Ghana, and Nassar of Egypt. Both Malcolm X, and later Muhammad Ali, in different ways became heroes in the Afro-Asian and Islamic worlds. The struggle against French colonialism of non-European people linked Vietnam with Algeria and both with the 18th century Haitian revolution of Toussaint L'Ouverture.

It is time for us to conceive of the concept, "black politics," in a truly global context. Contradictions and major differences between blacks, Asians and Latinos certainly do exist. But in any politics, the central task of the oppressed is to "unite the many to defeat the few."

Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies Columbia University.

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