When news broke that President Barack Obama would be receiving a $400,000 check for delivering a speech in September at a corporate healthcare conference, it provoked a public uproar, coming a few months after the Obamas had signed a lucrative book contract worth a staggering $30 to $65 million. In Congress, right-wing partisans threatened to reintroduce legislation to limit or block presidential pensions (a bill Obama once vetoed as president); on the left, critics argued that Obama’s speaking fee was a reflection of a president far too comfortable with the monied interests of Wall Street, to the detriment of the working class and the poor. Within days, Obama announced he and Michelle planned to donate a hefty portion of their millions to charitable anti-poverty and social justice organizations, including the Obama Foundation; $2 million alone would go to summer jobs programs in Chicago. The Obamas’ philanthropic move quieted much of the pushback—at least for the moment. And yet, though most of the country has moved on from that brief public outcry, the complex tensions of race and class that underscored that moment still simmer, ready to bubble over again at a moment’s notice.“Obama offered the nation a vision that assumed a shared belief in capitalism as the bedrock of our country’s ‘liberal’ ideals.”
At this stage, after eight years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and more than 100 days as a private citizen, it should be clear that Barack Obama is a social justice capitalist. Despite the doomsday warnings of America’s right wing, the president’s notion of “Hope and Change” was not a socialist one or even a radical one. Instead, Obama offered the nation a vision that assumed a shared belief in capitalism as the bedrock of our country’s “liberal” ideals. During his time in office, the president saw a regulated free market as a critical solution to addressing the nation’s economic, social, and racial ills. Indeed, his post-presidency embrace of the market and the monetary “value” of his expertise within the marketplace illustrates this point explicitly. In short, Obama is getting paid extraordinary sums to speak not only about his life and the presidency, but also to discuss racial inequality and social justice. Obama’s commitment to reform wasn’t about revolution; it was—and still is—about pragmatically and practically reforming institutions from within and playing by the existing rules of the game.
As we think about this intersection between race, justice, and capitalism, it’s crucial we highlight an important but neglected aspect of these overarching tensions: the argument that Barack Obama had earned his post-presidency money because the nation’s first black president deserved financial restitution for having endured eight years of racialized and racist vitriol and abuse. For those adopting this line of argument, Obama’s command of private sector money was a kind of free-market reparations or black capitalist recompense.1For example, see this article from The Root and the subsequent commentary. His payday was something to be applauded and celebrated. It also was something that often elicited a wink, a nod, and a smile from those who believed the former president had beaten the system at its own game.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this rationale is that it rests on an understanding that capitalism is an exploitative system, disproportionately rigged against minorities and marginalized communities. At the same time, the argument rests on an embrace of the celebratory excesses of capitalism as a mode of individual retribution against the very structures that have excluded black, brown, poor, and working-class people, while profiting from their labor. Adherents of this approach see it as a form of racial and social justice, insisting that an individual can manipulate his or her racial capital in the market so as to “game” a broken system while reaping monetary rewards in the process. To borrow a phrase from Beyoncé: “The best revenge is your paper.”
Edward Brooke and the genealogy of black neoliberalism
This is not a new concept.2Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003More Info → Historically, black people have long viewed the upward redistribution of wealth via individual success in the free market as a solution in the broader black freedom struggle. It’s an idea that informs aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century black conservatism and liberalism; and as Michael Dawson and Megan Ming Francis argue, it’s a concept that’s critical to understanding the modern “black neoliberal order.”3Michael C. Dawson and Megan Ming Francis, “Black Politics and the Neoliberal Racial Order,” Public Culture 28, no. 1 78 (2016): 23–62. This complicated “richness” of black ideologies, past and present, is of special interest because of the role they played and continue to play in black communities, across class groups. In this instance, neoliberalism is a perspective that emphasizes individual success while neglecting traditional liberal notions of the collective, de-emphasizing the role of the state in uplifting black people. And, although racial inequality is still a concern in the black neoliberal order (at least in the “celebratory” and “progressive” forms), the model still roots solutions in the free market. “Anti-racism becomes a public principle,” writes Lester Spence, where the “key distinction is that under neoliberalism the most effective means of combating racism are developing entrepreneurial capacities in populations, institutions, and spaces deemed as ‘non-white.’”4Lester K. Spence, “The Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics,” Souls 14, no. 3-4 (2012): 139–159. In other words, a black neoliberal approach claims that, though the market may be flawed and discriminatory, it still represents the most efficient and feasible pathway to black equality.
How did we get here? That’s a key question for black politics and history, particularly as scholars tease out the dynamics and nuances of modern black neoliberalism. In order to answer this question, we need a genealogy of black neoliberalism that expands our understanding of how black politics has adapted or transformed, created hybrid ideological strains, and, in some cases, remained consistent over time. And, while any number of areas and time periods are ripe for exploration, any comprehensive genealogy must include Edward Brooke’s oft-overlooked book The Challenge of Change: Crisis in Our Two-Party System.5Edward William Brooke, The Challenge of Change: Crisis in Our Two-Party System (Boston: Little Brown, 1966). In some ways, Challenge feels like an odd choice. First published in March 1966, the book is now out of print. Few people today have heard of it, let alone read it. Though a relatively well-known political figure, Brooke’s political affiliation as a Republican can be difficult to square with his racial identity as a black man committed to civil rights and public policy. The grim reality of the present-day GOP makes it even harder to contextualize Brooke and his work.“Challenge also offers a historical window into a particular strain of ‘everyday conservatism’ that manifested not only among black elites irrespective of partisan affiliation, but also within black communities on the ground.”
So, why focus on Challenge? Because the philosophies articulated by Brooke laid the ideological groundwork for modern black neoliberalism. The black politician’s theory of “progressive conservatism” was a theoretical and practical precursor to the neoliberal ideas, policies, and theories that would redefine a class of black political elites in the 1970s and 1980s. Challenge also offers a historical window into a particular strain of “everyday conservatism”6New York: Routledge, 2013More Info → that manifested not only among black elites irrespective of partisan affiliation, but also within black communities on the ground.
The irony of Challenge influencing modern black neoliberalism is that Brooke wrote it for a Republican Party in the midst of a public racial crisis. The book was his attempt to make a name for himself as an outspoken pragmatic centrist—a liberal Republican counterbalance to the extremism of the GOP’s right wing. Centrism was the hallmark of Brooke’s concept of progressive conservatism, a theory that insisted racial liberalism, justice, and traditional conservatism could and should be reconciled. In linking ideas of social justice and civil rights to ideas of individualism, free-market enterprise, and individual success, Brooke carved out an ideological space distinct from the Goldwater right-wing conservatism of the Republican Party and the New Deal and Great Society liberalism of the Democratic Party. Embracing this ideological niche also meant extolling the virtues of limited government except on matters related to race and civil rights. As he wrote in Challenge, the goal of progressive conservatism was to create a centrist ideological path in order to uplift the “disadvantaged” through equal access to the economic benefits of the free market and the social advantages of the “American Dream.”
“Green Power” and desegregating capitalism
A closer reading of Challenge also reveals an ideological outlook that shunned black radicalism and remained skeptical of the transformative power of collective civil disobedience. Brooke certainly benefited from the various successes of these movements; but he also learned from them—appropriating some of the softer tenets of Black Power (black pride, black history, attention to black health and welfare, repurposing “Black Power” to mean black capitalism) as he denounced the movement’s more vocal adherents. Similarly, Brooke embraced the moral symbolism and righteousness of the civil rights movement, even as he argued that reforming flawed systems from within was the most efficient way to ensure substantive social and economic change. Thus, the solutions proposed in Challenge were positioned within existing structures and institutions. For Brooke, progressive change didn’t necessitate revolution or the abolishment of unjust systems; it simply meant democratizing and desegregating them. As such, many of Brooke’s proposed policies emphasized free-market solutions, public-private partnerships, and entrepreneurial efforts as the remedy for racial inequality.
In an interview conducted many years later, wherein Brooke recounted a discrete private meeting with H. Rap Brown7H. Rap Brown, born Hubert Gerold Brown and also known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, was a civil rights activist in the 1960s, serving as fifth chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the late 1960s. He is currently serving a life sentence after killing one Georgia sheriff’s deputy in 2000. held in the late 1960s, the politician offered the most succinct account of the economic and social philosophies outlined in Challenge. “You talk about Black Power,” Brooke declared while arguing with a skeptical Brown. “You’re living in a capitalist society whether you like it or not… Green Power is what counts… this is a free-enterprise, capitalist society and it’s money that talks.” By the end of the session, Brooke and Brown would only agree on one point: American institutions and structures were flawed, exploitative, and biased against minorities and the poor. But where Brown advocated for a nationwide revolution of race and class, Brooke insisted that revolution was neither feasible nor desirable. Instead, black people and the poor could reform and manipulate those broken structures through free-market solutions and strategic assistance from the federal government.“Brooke’s arguments reflect the very early stages of a broader shift among black political elites toward neoliberal ideas of the ‘market.’”
Brooke and Brown’s conversation captures some of the ideological tensions between black elites and black radicals, highlighting many of the critical distinctions between social justice capitalists and social justice revolutionaries. In one vision, capitalism and individual success are seen as the means to achieving black freedom; in the other, collective freedom means a commitment to overturning capitalism. Moreover, Brooke’s arguments reflect the very early stages of a broader shift among black political elites toward neoliberal ideas of the “market.” Although Brooke identified as a Republican until his death in January 2015, most of his beliefs—including his faith in capitalism as a mode of uplift—were never outside the mainstream of black political thought. In 1966, his “pragmatic” positions on any number of issues—including the need to focus on legislative solutions, public-private partnerships, entrepreneurship, and individual black success—were nearly indistinguishable from the views of black middle-class communities, moderate civil rights leaders, and black business and civic leaders. Likewise, the successful launch of Black Enterprise in August 1970 further captured the emerging shift among black political elites.8Founded by Earl Graves in 1970, Black Enterprise was among a crop of new black organizations and journals devoted to capitalism and the free market that materialized in the early 1970s. Graves aimed BE at an “upwardly mobile” black audience and argued that his magazine would engage ideas of private industry, free-market enterprise, and civil rights in new ways. See chapter four in Leah Wright Rigueur, The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); see also, “Board of Advisors,” BE, August 1970. In the inaugural edition, the twelve-member advisory board (which included Ed Brooke, Shirley Chisholm, Julian Bond, and John Lewis, among others) collectively wrote of their bipartisan belief that racial uplift could be achieved through inclusion in the “economic mainstream.” They closed by expressing their enthusiasm for exploring private industry solutions, building black wealth, and helping black people become full participants in the “American marketplace.”
Progressive conservatism today
Challenge offers a lens for examining these early neoliberal ideas and the budding cohesion of black political elites around ideas of individual success, racial uplift, and capitalism. Indeed, in order to “talk” to white Republicans, Brooke drew on black notions of respectability, self-reliance, and capitalism that had long proliferated within black communities. In turn, in publicizing and advancing ideas of pragmatic centrism and progressive conservatism, Brooke reinforced and legitimized these ideas within the American mainstream. His ideas began to carry even more weight among certain elites when, a few months after the publication of Challenge, he won a landslide victory in the Massachusetts senatorial race and became the first black person to sit in the Senate since Reconstruction.“Challenge is a book that offers us a glimpse into the theoretical underpinnings of black neoliberalism.”
In this respect, Challenge is a book that offers us a glimpse into the theoretical underpinnings of black neoliberalism. Many of Brooke’s “progressive conservative” theories and solutions look remarkably similar to the neoliberal philosophies advanced by black politicians right now, especially those adherents of “progressive neoliberalism.”9→Michael C. Dawson and Ming Francis, “Black Politics and the Neoliberal Racial Order,” 23–62.
→Fredrick Harris, The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and Rise and Decline of Black Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). In fact, we should be asking if black neoliberalism is distinct from the “progressive conservatism” articulated by Brooke more than fifty years ago. If it is distinct, how is it different? The answers to those questions have critical insights into the transformation of black politics. For instance, at times, Brooke’s brand of progressive conservatism was more liberal than modern strains of black neoliberalism. This is especially true during those moments where Brooke lobbied the Republican Party for a more robust role for the federal government on matters of civil rights, racial inequality, and poverty. Though Brooke remained a centrist and a capitalist for his entire life, he grew increasingly critical of the belief that the free market was a panacea for racial and economic inequality. During his twelve years in Congress, the black senator grew increasingly liberal in marked contrast to the rest of the GOP, which grew more conservative. During a speech to a group of black activists in Chicago in 1978, he contemplated this shift, bemoaning those politicians that all too often “latch on to the glories of private enterprise, extolling its virtues before starry-eyed audiences… For some of them, private enterprise seems almost like a religion.” Here then, Ed Brooke offers a frame for examining black politicians and the culture of social justice capitalism in the present.
Ultimately, reading Brooke and assessing his politics and ideas presents a revealing picture of the aspirations and limitations of social justice capitalism. A genealogy of the “black neoliberal order” forces us to wrestle with the fluid boundaries of liberalism and conservatism, irrespective of partisan affiliation. It also forces us to assess the interplay of race, ideology, and capitalism over time. In this case, a genealogy reveals that even as pragmatic centrists and social justice capitalists (both past and present) offer public and private displays of “wokeness” on issues of race, economics, and inequality (including critiques of the “market”), they nevertheless continue to privilege market-based solutions. Consider too that this is not simply a nuance restricted to black political elites; a genealogy of black neoliberalism hints at the ways in which “progressive conservatism” and progressive and celebratory neoliberalism travel through black communities and across class lines, coexisting and intersecting with various strains of liberalism, radicalism, and progressivism. One need not guess what Brooke or Obama would say about the comparison; both men explicitly spoke about the first black popularly elected senator’s influence on the first black president. Throughout the 2008 campaign season, Obama repeatedly drew on Brooke’s legacy, publicly and privately thanking the senator for “paving the way,” while Brooke described Obama as a “worthy bearer” of the liberal black Republican’s political “torch.” And yet, though Brooke undoubtedly saw a younger version of himself in Barack Obama, he also understood the challenges and shortcomings in advocating the free market as a trusted solution to racial inequality. Fantasies of racial revenge rooted in capitalism do little for tangibly uplifting the collective racial community.
→Fredrick Harris, The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and Rise and Decline of Black Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).