University of Rochester

Economic Downturns Stifle Black Activism, New Study Shows

April 5, 2006

Can political equality for African Americans be achieved in the absence of economic equality? A new book examining the political activism of African Americans since the 1970s shows that black political power succeeded in encouraging blacks to become part of the political mainstream, but has not been enough to sustain grassroots activism over the decades.

Negative economic forces such as unemployment, inflation, and the growing income gap between poor and affluent blacks have undermined grassroots participation in black communities since the activist 1960s.

Countervailing Forces in African-American Civic Activism, 1973-1994, is the first longitudinal study assessing black civic participation during the post-civil rights era. Authors Fredrick C. Harris and Valeria Sinclair-Chapman of the University of Rochester and Brian D. McKenzie of Texas A & M University describe black political power and economic distress in black communities as having a "tug-of-war" effect on grassroots activism.

"As blacks gain greater access and influence within the political system, the competitive forces of empowerment tug favorably toward increasing levels of black activism while downward spirals in the economic and social conditions of black communities pull toward less civic engagement," they write.

Opportunities inside the political system since the 1970s gave African Americans a new voice as part of the political mainstream, they say. However, economic distress in black communities over the decades has stifled activism, leading to an unanticipated form of political inequity today.

"Although they are not the same as the legal barriers that once barred blacks' participation," the authors report, "structural barriers that derive from forces in the economy and society may be as effective barriers to civic and political life for many blacks as the legal barriers of the past."

As the nation debates whether Congress should renew key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, Countervailing Forces (Cambridge University Press, 184 pages, $19.99) provides an assessment of how the act has encouraged grassroots activism by facilitating the election of blacks to public office. The findings, however, also highlight the limitations of the act in sustaining grassroots activism in black communities.

Looking specifically at the political activism of poor African Americans, the authors discover an even more troubling trend. In general terms, black activism suffered during times of high inflation and unemployment. For most blacks, increasing numbers of black elected officials, to some degree, helped offset declines in activism during tough economic times; however, this was not the case for the black poor. Unlike activism levels for more well-off blacks, activism among poor blacks was unaffected by the rise of black political power. Thus, for the most marginal population in black communities, there are even greater barriers to having their political voices heard.

The study concludes that the "viability of African-American civic life lies in the uncertainty of social and economic fortunes," and that "growing levels of inequality among blacks, between blacks and whites, and between working-class Americans and wealthy Americans suggest that civic life throughout American society may be in crisis."

Countervailing Forces has been selected as this year's winner of the W. E. B. Du Bois Outstanding Book Award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.

Harris, associate professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of African-American Politics at the University of Rochester, also is the author of Something Within: Religion in African-American Political Activism (Oxford University Press, 1999). Sinclair-Chapman is assistant professor of political science at the University of Rochester and coauthor (with William D. Anderson and Janet M. Box-Steffensmeier) of "The Keys to Legislative Success in the U.S. House of Representatives" (Legislative Studies Quarterly, 2003). McKenzie is assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester's Center for the Study of African-American Politics.

Note to editors: A jpeg image of the book's cover and review copies are available by request. Please call (585) 275-4128 or send your request to