Black politics refers to the collective struggle of people of African descent to gain power and influence in the processes and institutions of government as a way of securing and protecting a diverse array of interests that allow them to attain and maintain the rights afforded them as American citizens. It includes not only the actions of black people to assure these rights but also those of other individuals and collective groups with whom these interests and outcomes are negotiated. Research throughout various disciplines of the social sciences have sought to understand the conditions in which black politics have emerged, as well as the wide array of problems, challenges, successes, and failures that have resulted from its pursuits.
Insofar as it is at its core a struggle for and negotiation of power, black politics was initiated within the American institution of slavery. Though dictated for them by both law and custom, African slaves’ identity, status, and relationship to America’s white citizenry represented the beginnings of blacks’ struggle for recognition, power, and legitimacy within the confines of plantation life. While there was no real sense of slaves’ involvement in the formal governments of the nation, slavery was a system in which blacks, though stripped of power generally, nevertheless used means available to them (religious gatherings, informal and secret attempts to educate themselves, underground escape from plantation life, insurrection, and even forging relationships with their white slave masters) to achieve their first steps toward a more perfect realization of a good life—freedom, and recognition as full and equal citizens of America.
However, blacks found that the freedom granted in law by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did little to guarantee their equal status as full citizens. The years immediately following emancipation were years of uncertainty regarding the status of blacks, particularly in the South—years in which black codes extended the same system of subjugation blacks experienced throughout slavery. Yet soon, the project of Reconstruction, with its Congress-led protections and opportunities for blacks, would show signs for hope and optimism. W. E. B. Du Bois characterized blacks’ political struggle for equality during this period (1867–1877) as the “mystic years”; blacks seemed to be on the fast track toward equality. Newly instituted policies such as the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865–1866, the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment the same year and ratified in 1868, and others granted legal protections and opportunities for blacks to participate in American life. Blacks were afforded educational opportunities through public schools, some of which were integrated. Perhaps the greatest opportunity for blacks to forge their own political destinies was the granting of the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870 (giving them the ability to determine election outcomes) and the inclusion of blacks in state and federal elected office, including the 1870 election of both Hiram Revels as America’s first black senator and Joseph H. Rainey as the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
However, the promises of Reconstruction would prove hollow after a few short years. White violence against blacks was rampant among such groups as the Ku Klux Klan and in historic riots such as those in New Orleans and Memphis in 1866 or the 1876 Hamburg Massacre in South Carolina. Informal and state-sanctioned barriers to black education and voting became prevalent, black elected officials were either stripped of their power or were made to support policies counter to their interests, and black political and social leaders were cast as buffoons, carpetbaggers, and unscrupulous opportunists in the American imagination, in large part through the white press of the time. By the end of Reconstruction, blacks found themselves stripped of many of the freedoms, opportunities, and means for political engagement they had received a brief taste of in the preceding few years. However, despite the beginnings and persistence of the Jim Crow era in the South that followed Reconstruction, blacks continued to mount considerable political and social influence: through the educational leadership of those such as Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, among many others; through the legal profession and such prominent legal figures as Thurgood Marshall and organized legal/political groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909; and through the institution of the black press (which had its roots in the pre–Civil War and Reconstruction eras), which spawned more than 500 newspapers between 1880 and 1890.
The 1950s and 1960s ushered a new era of black politics—one born of new struggles and resulting in new political, economic, and social opportunities. Through a variety of “unlawful” channels and struggles engaged in by Martin Luther King Jr. and organizations such as the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and others, blacks gained much in the 1960s that would lay a foundation for the continued pursuit of black politics. This included landmark legislative initiatives passed in three consecutive years: the Civil Rights bill brought before Congress in 1963, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Although this legislation opened doors previously closed and locked to black Americans, they did not completely ensure full access to and fulfillment of the rights enshrined on its pages. Yet it was these victories, along with the beginning of a cultural shift in American society to what political scientist Tali Mendelberg refers to as a “norm of racial equality” (2001), that made possible the growth of the idea, movement, symbols, and actions of black political life.
Following these legislative gains, the late 1960s saw a marked increase in the numbers of black representatives in Congress. With the addition of three representatives to the six already seated, the 1970 Congress had the most concurrent black members serving in its ranks. This watershed of black representation led to the eventual formation of the Congressional Black Caucus, which, according to William Clay, “constituted a power-bloc deserving respect within the institution” organized around the idea of a “solidarity of purpose and program [that] would enable the nine of us to wield a significant amount of influence in the House” (1993).
Outside of this official body, a host of other individuals and organizations were working to secure a sense of black solidarity to help ensure that the earlier legislative victories were not hollow. These ranged from “militant” groups such as the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and the Black Muslim movement to a host of black pride and similar movements that sprang up within the academy. Included were movements to form the first department of Black Studies by sociologist Nathan Hare at San Francisco State University in 1968. Soon, similar departments were begun on college campuses across the country, aimed at understanding the culture and politics of African Americans. Their inauguration would spawn similar departments geared to study the social, political, and cultural life of other American ethnic groups—departments of Latin American Studies, Asian American Studies, and others under the general rubric of ethnic studies. Each of these movements worked in formal and informal ways to secure the idea and trajectory of black politics that developed into a sense of black solidarity and collective action around securing black interests. And although the nature and substance of these interests and means of securing them have changed, the fundamental nature of black politics remains to this day.
There are a number of what might be called “core concerns” related to black politics. Many of these areas of scholarly investigation are related to what is perhaps a single most central concern: equal representation. Despite its presence and protections in civil rights legislation, it is an ideal that many feel has yet to be reached. Social scientists have generally focused their attention on this issue by investigating two broad related areas: the drawing and redrawing of legislative districts in ways that either allow or prohibit the election of blacks to legislative office, and the persistent nature of racial prejudice as it impacts the political process designed to ensure black representation.
Initiated by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the practice of racially gerrymandering congressional and state legislative districts became a legal way of creating districts with a majority black population, thereby increasing the election hopes of blacks running for political office. Social scientists investigating the effectiveness of such policies have demonstrated strong arguments on both sides of this issue. Scholars who suggest the persistent need for racial redistricting policies focus on a number of research findings: the propensity for white voters to harbor deep-seated prejudices; resentments and fears of blacks; the reality that when primed by racial appeals, whites are likely to be less sympathetic to African American public-policy interests and infer that such would be the case in evaluating black candidates; and that, in general, whites tend to evaluate black political candidates less favorably than their white counterparts. The implication of such studies is that public-policy guidelines such as ensuring “safe” districts for black politicians may be necessary to mitigate the white prejudice that erects a barrier to what political scientists refer to as racial crossover voting.
Scholars whose research suggest that racial gerrymandering is not needed and may even hinder the pursuit of black political interests point to a different set of conclusions: studies of recent elections that demonstrate that white voters are sophisticated enough to sublimate racial attitudes when making voting decisions; research indicating that political ideology and political party affiliation— not negative racial attitudes—are the primary cause for whites’ unwillingness to vote for black candidates; and arguments that suggest that racial redistricting provides for a modicum of “descriptive representation” but does not likely translate into “substantive representation.” This is to say, it ensures that someone who is black will quite likely be elected, but it cannot ensure that the person elected, though black, will necessarily work in the interest of his or her black constituents.
This array of competing conclusions by political scientists, sociologists, and legal and communication scholars writing in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries suggests that both the ideal of equal representation for African Americans and the most effective means for securing it are still an open question, persisting as one of the most significant debates within the arena of black politics.
Beyond research surrounding the principal concern of equal representation, much research from the early 1990s to 2006 has demonstrated some interesting trends that have a direct bearing on the present and future state of black politics. These include the shift in policy concerns of African Americans, the growing number of blacks elected to government bodies, and the nature of black participation in the political process.
According to political scientists and communication scholars such as Donald Kinder, Nicholas Valentino, Katherine Tate, Michael Dawson, and others, public opinion on national public-policy concerns continues to be divided between blacks and whites and, increasingly, among blacks themselves. For instance, studies in the early 2000s demonstrated waning—barely a majority—support among blacks for affirmative action policies in hiring practices. Research shows that diminished support from earlier decades has been influenced by gaps among blacks in terms of economic class, levels of in-group identification, and out-group racial resentment. In addition to this, public-opinion surveys conducted around the same time period by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think-tank that has researched trends in black politics since the early 1970s, show that although blacks still by and large support policy issues that have long been central interests—social welfare policy, affirmative action, education, and others—few of these concerns rate highly in terms of what blacks say are the issues that most concern them. Thus, it seems that while the public-opinion divide between blacks and whites persists, there is a growing fragmentation of black policy interests and concerns. This has led to a number of related developments, including, but not limited to, waning (although slow) affiliation of blacks with the Democratic Party (always overwhelmingly supported by blacks) and renewed interest in and strategies by the Republican Party to recruit black political support.
Along with these public-opinion trends, the country has also seen an increase in the number of black elected officials since 1980. While most of these increases have been in state legislative bodies, there has also been a rise in blacks elected to Congress, as well as an increase in the number of black congressional hopefuls running against white opponents (some successfully) in non-majority-black districts. The increased numbers at the state level are likely to translate into continued increases in the numbers elected to higher levels and add to the debate about equal representation and the effectiveness of strategies used to ensure it.
A final area of social science scholarship has paid close attention to trends in black political participation. Research by many scholars in sociology and political science, particularly, has shown that generally the level of African American political participation has steadily declined in the years following the dawn of the civil rights movement. Research has sought to determine the precise causes and consequences of this declining participation. One set of arguments among many supported by the extant literature demonstrates that neighborhood isolation, in conjunction with states of extreme poverty, leads to political isolation—the feeling of being disconnected from the political system and of having no or little political power, which therefore sublimates motivations for political involvement. Other research suggests that a declining sense of black racial group identification has led to decreased interest in black political participation. Much of this research also relates to the increased socioeconomic stratification existing in black communities—a result, to some extent, of affirmative action policies that dramatically increased the size of the black middle class in the 1970s and 1980s.
However, there is much social-scientific evidence to suggest that black political activism and participation in social movements that coalesce around black interests— and increasingly shared interests with other minority groups—is still relatively strong. In this arena, much of the literature has focused on the issue of religious participation, most specifically on the continued relevancy of the black church as a motivating factor for, and conduit of, black political life. The influence of the church has been seen to impact the nature of black political participation in explicitly political activities such as voting and political campaign involvement, as well as less explicit forms of political participation such as volunteerism.
Social science research in the arena of black politics has tackled many significant and controversial issues in the more than four decades since the beginning of the civil rights era. While focusing on specific issues and problems, this area of scholarly inquiry has served to create and influence larger discourses about race in America. It has influenced American public opinion as well as the policy-making decisions that have occurred at every level of government that seek to protect the highest ideals of American democracy.
SEE ALSO Attitudes, Racial; Bunche, Ralph Johnson; Civil Rights; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Desegregation, School; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Education, Unequal; Education, USA; Gerrymandering; Immigrants, Black; Immigrants to North America; Politics, Asian-American; Politics, Gender; Politics, Latino; Politics, Southern; Politics, Urban; Politics: Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Bisexual; Race; Racism; Reconstruction Era (U.S.); Slavery; Terrorism; Violence
Clay, William L. 1993. Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1991. New York: Amistad Press.
Kinder, D. R., and N. Winter. 2001. Exploring the Racial Divide: Blacks, Whites, and Opinion on National Policy. American Journal of Political Science 45 (2): 439–453.
Mendelberg, Tali. 2001. The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Peterson, Paul E., ed. 1995. Classifying by Race. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Valentino, N. A., V. L. Hutchings, and I. White. 2002. Cues That Matter: How Political Ads Prime Racial Attitudes During Campaigns. American Political Science Review 96 (1): 75–90.
Charlton D. McIlwain