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American Racial and Ethnic Politics in the 21st Century: A cautious look ahead 2

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It is virtually unprecedented for a newly successful group of Americans to grow more and more alienated from the mainstream polity as it attains more and more material success. One exception, David Mayhew notes, is South Carolina’s plantation owners in the 1840s and 1850s. That frustrated group led a secessionist movement; what might embittered and resource-rich African Americans do? At this point the analogy breaks down: the secessionists’ actions had no justification, whereas middle-class blacks have excellent reason to be intensely frustrated with the persistent, if subtle, racial barriers they constantly meet. If more and more successful African Americans become more and more convinced of what Orlando Patterson calls “the homeostatic…principle of the…system of racial domination”–racism is squelched in one place, only to arise with renewed force in another–racial interactions in the political arena will be fraught with tension and antagonism over the next few decades.

In that case, ironically, it may be working-class blacks’ continued faith in the great national suggestion that lends stability to Americans’ racial encounters. If most poor and working-class African Americans continue to care more about education, jobs, safe communities, and decent homes than about racial discrimination and antagonism per se, they may provide a counterbalance in the social arena to the political and cultural rage of the black middle class.

But if these patterns should be reversed–thus returning us to the patterns of the 1960s–quite different political implications and questions would follow. For example, it is possible that the United States is approaching a benign “tipping point,” when enough blacks occupy prominent positions that whites no longer resist their success and blacks feel that American society sometimes accommodates them instead of always the reverse. That point is closer than it ever has been in our history, simply because never before have there been enough successful blacks for whites to have to accommodate them. In that case, the wealth disparities between the races will decline as black executives accumulate capital. The need for affirmative action will decline as black students SAT scores come to resemble those of whites with similar incomes. The need for majority-minority electoral districts will decline as whites discover that a black representative could represent them.

But what of the other half of a reversion to the pattern of 1960s beliefs, when poor blacks mistrusted whites and well-off blacks, and saw little reason to believe that conventional political institutions were on their side? If that view were to return in full force, among people now characterized by widespread ownership of fiirearms and isolation in communities with terrible schools and few job opportunities, there could indeed be a fire next time.

One can envision, of course, two other patterns–both wealthy and poor African Americans lose all faith, or both wealthy and poor African Americans regain their faith that the American creed can be put into practice. The corresponding political implications are not hard to discern. My point is that the current circumstances of African Americans are unusual and probably not stable. Political engagement and policy choices over the next few decades will determine whether affluent African Americans come to feel that their nation will allow them to enjoy the full social and psychological benefits of their material success, as well as whether poor African Americans give up on a nation that has turned its back on them. Racial politics today are too complicated to allow any trend, whether toward or away from equality and comity, to predominate. Political leaders’ choices, and citizens’ responses, are up for grabs.


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