In a packed Convention Center conference room escaping D.C. humidity one recent week, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) posed a central question: “In the 21st century will Black Power look like it looked in the 20th century?” Panelists invited to answer the question included usual suspect Dr. Michael Fauntroy, an Associate Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, with new school additions like Ms. Shani Hilton, the Associate Editor of CampusProgress.org and staff writer for the Washington City Paper and Dr. Roderick Harrison, the founding director of DataBank, an online clearinghouse of data on African Americans.
Norton prefaced her question by highlighting two recent migratory trends among African Americans. The first now dubbed the “backwards migration;” the second more controversial-trend: the “suburbanization of African Americans”.
But, it’s not “Backwards” migration or suburbanization among African Americans that threatens the idea of Black Power. It draws attention to a disadvantage in using racial identity as the sole identifier for a political agenda. How does one identify core social, political and economic issues for a politically, socially and increasingly economically diverse group of people?
The First Great Migration
Dr. Harrison provided extensive historical census data on the migratory patterns of African Americans in the 20th century, highlighting the once bubbling Chocolate City as one of the few cities to gain substantial numbers of African Americans during this period. Now, there is predominate wave of Latinos. Before the mass migration of Blacks, the District of Columbia was populated by mostly Whites. As more Blacks left the city for the surrounding suburbs such as Prince George’s County (affectionately nicknamed “Ward 9″ as an extension of the city’s eight wards) there has been a strong Caucasian influx, which is why the city is on its way to majority White status. Racially, the city has come “full circle” explained Harrison.
In the past century, DC was not the only city to see massive numbers of African Americans move in. Major cities across the nation saw their numbers increase due to the mass migration of African Americans attracted to economic incentives.
Currently, Atlanta is the largest urban area outside of Chicago as the nation finds itself in the midst of an enormous population shift. The numbers of people moving are astounding as 1 in 4 Blacks are involved in a reverse migration.
Has Black Power lost its relevance in the 21st century? And is it only a consequence of urbanization, thus an expectation of decreased Black political power as the Black presence in key cities diminish? “Black power [was] about moving political resources and population helped to develop political critical mass,” noted Fauntroy. The impact of massive population movement on Black access to political power are undetermined.
The discussion following Ms. Shani Hilton’s presentation on her controversial article, Confessions of a Black Gentrifier could be taken as a creative, albeit long-winded answer to the Congresswoman’s question on “Black Power.” Based on the diversity of perspectives discussed and the heated exchanges that followed a short answer might be conflicted.
In her article, Ms. Hilton describes herself as a young professional, originally from California who came to DC looking for opportunities in her career field. In her own words, she wants the Starbucks and the wine bars that stay open late – and she can afford to do so. She welcomes the aesthetic changes in her LeDroit Park neighborhood because the changes match her tastes and interests. She read an excerpt from her article, illustrating her perspective more clearly,
“By 2004, they were regularly spotted making their way to and from the Shaw–Howard University Metrorail station. And by the time I graduated, white people were jogging up 4th Street NW through the campus, and walking their large dogs on the green lawn of Howard’s Louis Stokes Health Sciences Library—something longtime black residents never did.
More disconcerting, though, is that five years later, I walk my own large dog on the library’s green lawn.”
Contrary to popular notions, many African Americans are playing a role in the gentrification of American cities — which for the record, is defined as the acquisition of property by wealthier people in low income and working class communities. Still, more African Americans are fleeing cities for the outer area suburbs more often than arriving, a trend that some have called, “Black flight.”
Fauntroy argues that houses in rapidly gentrifying areas in DC are being sold in some cases by African American owners unwilling to retain them. Among other factors, this creates opportunities for real estate purchases that did not exist prior. “Black folks start making some money [and they] go out and buy a mini mansion in PG,” says Fauntroy. “People want more space, better schools, less crime and a higher quality of life. There are more people who can afford the houses [in cities] than are choosing to buy them.”
What About The Actual Issues?
How indeed will “Black Power” be defined in the 21st century, considering the dispersion of African Americans to suburbs and the South and the presence of Black gentrifiers in urban spaces? Truly, the issue may be that the physical locus of Black power is the only thing that is in fact changing, or perhaps “Black Power” is not THE issue at all. “My district used to be majority Black and now it is majority Hispanic,” says one elected official from Dallas, TX. “All of the Black people relocated to the suburbs, where the education system is better. I have to represent the issues that are important to the people in my district and those issues are (1) Education (2) Jobs and (3) Housing—in that order.”
The Black majority in that district was instrumental in electing an African American city council person. While the ethnic composition of her constituent base has changed, the commitment to represent her district and the issues they care about remains the same. She also said that many of the issues that were important to the African Americans who used to inhabit the city are the same for Hispanic Americans moving in.
“The issue is not the color of the electorate but the policies—policies that support affordable housing,” argues Harrison. “These are the policy challenges.”
Fauntroy and others echoed the idea that “Black power is defined as whether or not Black, Hispanic or Whites vote together on issues relevant to Black people.” The emphasis has to be on education and on coalition building.
“Electoral power/politics stems from the willingness of people to turn out and vote, some of the issues can be challenged by high electoral turnout,” observes Fauntroy.
It can be said that “Black Power” was intended to convey the ability of African Americans to mobilize political resources toward issues relevant to that demographic. The fact is that the issues relevant to African Americans are more diverse now than they were 50 years ago.
Considering the shift in the nations’ ethnic composition where African Americans are no longer the largest population of color in the United States, building coalitions across ethnic designations is a meaningful paradigm for African Americans. Location and economics will determine which issues are more important for Black depending on the spaces they inhabit. Ultimately, political power will depend on participation and the existence of coalitions that have the capacity to mobilize political resources.