Political Ideologies

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Political Ideologies

Black political ideologies are sets of beliefs, values, and ideas that assist people in understanding the complicated world of politics. These ideologies work as shortcuts that help individuals determine what it means to be black in the American political system; identify the relative political significance of race compared to such other personal characteristics as gender and class; determine the extent to which blacks should solve their own problems or look to the system for assistance; and determine the required degree of tactical separation from whites necessary for successful advancement of group interests. Ideology lets black people answer the political questions of who or what is the enemy, who are friends, what is America like, what is the nature of whites, and what strategies with regard to whites are necessary or desirable. Among the most important political ideologies in African-American intellectual history are black nationalism, liberal integrationism, feminism, and conservatism. These ideologies motivate social movements, inspire academic works, and structure individual beliefs.

Black Nationalism

Black nationalism is a political worldview that insists on some form of cultural, social, economic, and political autonomy for African Americans. Some nationalist thinkers articulate an international agenda and press for the goal of a separate black state. Other nationalists look toward racial self-determination within America. Scholars have identified at least five manifestations of black nationalism: cultural nationalism, educational nationalism, religious nationalism, community nationalism, and revolutionary nationalism. Each of these nationalisms emphasizes the immutable and unique relevance of race, perceives whites as actively resistant to black equality, articulates a language of self-determination and racial pride, and insists on African-American self-reliance through the creation of separate institutions such as schools, churches, political parties, and businesses.

Modern black nationalism is rooted in the social and political movements of Marcus Garvey in the early twentieth century and in the Black Power movement of the mid-twentieth century. Marcus Garvey promoted nationalism through the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which was the largest mass-based movement of African Americans in the twentieth century. Garveyism identified the international and historical bases of black subjugation and declared the right and necessity of black separation from oppressive polities by developing separate political representation, cultural icons, and economic institutions. In the 1960s black nationalists from organizations such as the Black Panthers advocated the development of distinct and black-controlled centers of politics, economics, and culture as the central strategy for addressing black inequality. Some scholars suggest that black nationalism is the most prevalent political ideology among masses of African Americans today. Nationalism is apparent in the artistic, religious, and political choices of many ordinary African Americans that reflect a preference for supporting autonomous black institutions.

Liberal Integrationism

Liberal integrationism is the most widely recognizable alternative to nationalism. Liberal integrationists want a society in which African Americans enjoy the political, economic, and social freedoms and rights of other citizens. Integrationist thought accepts that liberal democratic tenets of representative democracy, liberalism, and capitalism are the most appropriate ways to order society, but they argue that the current American system only works for privileged members of society. Integrationism is an ideology that seeks to access that privilege for African Americans by pursuing a strategy that effectively argues that the interests of the larger society are intimately bound up with the destinies of African Americans.

Liberal integrationism is closely aligned with the liberal tradition in American political thought, but has a greater emphasis on equality, collective rather than individual rights, and a reliance on a strong central government. This ideology emphasizes not only equality of opportunity but also equality of outcome. Electoral participation, federal litigation, pressure for government-based economic redevelopment, and support for race-targeted government programs are the hallmarks of liberal integrationist strategy. These policies and strategies seek to bring people together across racial lines to jointly pursue common political goals.

The contemporary civil rights movement was largely initiated within a liberal integrationist framework. This movement cited the historic, categorical exclusion of blacks, and therefore argued that redress could only come through similarly collective-oriented strategies and policies. Liberal integrationism is an ideological tradition that encompasses aspects of the political philosophy of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Bunche, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Today, many black elected officials from the Democratic Party and leaders of civil rights organizations such as Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters, and Kweisi Mfume continue to work for black equality within the liberal integrationist tradition.

Black Conservatism

Black conservatism locates the source of black inequality in the behavioral or attitudinal pathologies of African Americans and stresses the significance of moral and personal rather than racial characteristics to explain unequal life circumstances. Conservatives stress self-reliance, hope for a colorless society, and shun government assistance. Core concepts of black conservatism include an appeal to self-help, an attack on the state as an overly intrusive institution, and a belief that the free market is nondiscriminatory. It stresses that political strategies are inferior to strategies of economic development and rejects policy strategies that diminish the honor of African Americans by allowing a perception of undeserved benefits for blacks. Black conservatism is rooted in a history of racial uplift, a belief that African Americans must fortify their moral and economic strength in order to compete in the American meritocracy.

Twentieth-century black conservatism is grounded in the work of Booker T. Washington. His accomodationist philosophy found institutional expression in the Tuskegee method of industrial education designed to instill a work ethic and manual skills in post-Reconstruction blacks with the promise of making African Americans profitable and pliable members of society. His work planted the ideological roots of the emphases on thrift, industriousness, and moral character. Many conservatives are willing to acknowledge that there is a history of racial discrimination in the United States, but most argue that the external factors of black inequality have been largely addressed and that in contemporary America, black pathology is the true perpetrator of inequality. Because of this they are often maligned as "Uncle Toms," but like adherents to other black ideologies, not all conservatives agree with one another. Some point to the continuing legacy of racism operating in the lives of African Americans, while others argue that even historical racism is not a significant explanatory variable in black life chances. In the contemporary era such black Republicans and conservative media personalities as Clarence Thomas, Armstrong Williams, Alan Keyes, and Colin Powell continue the black conservative tradition.

Black Feminism

Black feminism focuses on the intersection between race, gender, class, and sexuality and seeks gender equality within the African-American community as well as racial equality within the American state. Feminism both stakes out a new intellectual ground and maps a unique political strategy through a diverse set of ideas that are variously attentive to issues of class, religion, private/public dichotomies, interracial alliances, and sexual identity. Many black feminists prefer to use the term Womanism to distinguish that black feminism is not simply an articulation of white feminist thought by black women. Womanism emphasizes that black women make unique contributions to the understanding of relations of power, domination, and resistance. Central tenets of this ideology include a blurring of identity politics, an unwillingness to ignore either race or sex in pursuit of political goals, an insistence on insurgent political action aimed at liberation of broad categories of people, and a centering of often-ignored persons within political movements.

Black feminism emerges from the experiences of African-American women in the middle of the twentieth century who were engaged in social and political action. These black women confronted patriarchal domination by men in the black liberation movement and the paternalist racism in the women's movement. These black women activists often found that their political agenda was sacrificed on the altar of unity, so they articulated a new agenda that made the issues of black women equally important as the issues of black men. This ideology derives from an attempt to address real material circumstances and to create a way to understand how race, gender, class, and sexuality intersect in black people's lives to create unique forms of political, economic, and social oppression.

Writers like Michelle Wallace, bell hooks, and Alice Walker are among the best known black feminists. Their work tells the stories of black women, which often include the challenges that black women face within African-American communities. Their work also analyzes how those experiences reveal the failures of the American democratic promise. Black feminism has also had an important influence on legal theory through such authors as Kimberle Crenshaw and on black religious thought through such scholars as Katie Cannon and Jacquelyn Grant. These writers have shaped new directions in their fields of inquiry by showing how black women's experiences do not fit neatly within existing frameworks of knowledge.


These traditions within black thought are common ways that African Americans organize political ideas. Most individuals have worldviews that are some combination of elements from multiple political perspectives. These ideologies allow African Americans to understand persistent social and economic inequality, to identify the significance of race in that inequality, to determine the role of whites in perpetuating or eliminating that inequality, and to devise strategies for overcoming that inequality.

See also Politics; Universal Negro Improvement Association


Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. New York: Random House, 1967.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Dawson, Michael C. Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Faryna, Stan, Brad Stetson, and Joseph G. Conti, eds. Black and Right: The Bold New Voice of Black Conservatives in America. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.

Gaines, Kevin. Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Harris-Lacewell, Melissa V. Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Pinkney, Alphonso. Red, Black, and Green: Black Nationalism in the United States. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

melissa v. harris-lacewell (2005)

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Political Ideologies

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