Freedom Dreams

Freedom Dreams

Blacks In and Out of the Left
by Michael C. Dawson
Harvard University Press, 2013, 256 pp.

Contemporary African-American scholars across the humanities and social sciences share a preoccupation with posing big questions about the dilemmas of black life in the United States. Under the historic presidency of Barack Obama, the relevance of tackling African-American thought and action in the post–civil rights period has only grown. One of the leading voices among a cohort of black political scientists considering these themes has been Michael C. Dawson, whose new book, Blacks In and Out of the Left, takes on the question of strategy for contemporary left black politics.

Dawson has long been concerned with the potential for solidarity within a black American population increasingly diverse in class and culture. In Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics, which appeared in 1994, he explored how African Americans retained a strong sense of group identification despite becoming more economically differentiated. Dawson’s Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies, published in 2001, continued in a similar vein. While reaffirming the thesis of black group interest, however, he investigated how heterogeneous ideological tendencies have shaped competing interpretations of group linkage among African Americans, as well as their competing models of political strategy and tactics. In Not in Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics (2011), Dawson turned his attention to the juggernaut of neoliberalism (rampant deregulation, privatization, social welfare retrenchment, and the atomization of the individual) and its acceleration of class schisms and new divisions in public opinion among African Americans. Such developments, he argued, have subverted the basis of both black civil society and a national black community of interest. Further, he showed that despite a brief moment of optimism generated by the election of President Obama, African Americans’ sense of political efficacy has plummeted, with many despairing that they would never witness meaningful racial and economic reforms in their lifetimes.

In his latest work, Blacks In and Out of the Left, Dawson addresses the prospects for reigniting a vibrant, mass-based black politics—without which, he asserts, no larger progressive, democratic U.S. movement can truly succeed. Dawson looks to the complicated legacies of the black left. What resources lend themselves to creating a robust African-American counterpublic?

Dawson maintains that “black progress has been greatest when there was an organized, independent black political movement” rooted in a strong black civil society, entangled in broader labor and internationalist forces external to black communities, and linked to black radical networks. He characterizes t...

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