About 30 people gathered Friday to listen to and engage with Political Science prof. Matthew Platt on the state of Black politics in the modern world.
The event emphasized what Platt described as a need to continue to think critically about the strategy the Black community employs to fight for change.
Throughout his lecture, Platt argued that holding protests and drawing on Black representation in politics both fail to effectively advance the “Black-issue agenda,” which he defined as matters pertaining to anti-racism, culture and social welfare.
As part of a research project, Platt examined every bill introduced in Congress from 1947 to 1998 and concluded that the vast majority of Black-issue bills have been introduced by non-Black representatives. At the highest point, he said, only five Black members of Congress chaired committees. He said due to this statistic, among other factors, the power of change falls to non-Black representatives.
Platt also touched on two popular strategies the black community has used to gain recognition from non-Black members of Congress: protests and politics. Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Platt said there has been an inverse relationship between the number of protests and legislative impact.
“Representation has become weaker post-political empowerment in terms of getting Black issues recognized by Congress,” Platt said. “After Black enfranchisement, both protests and politics are less effective tools for gaining white recognition of Black issues. This is what I call the normalization of Black politics."
Platt added this lack of congressional impact has little to do with the Black candidates elected. Even those Black members of Congress who Platt labeled as “ambitious” in his research, meaning those who formed an exploratory committee for higher office or ran for a higher office, are no more likely to further a Black-issue agenda.
In a similar vein, Platt said the most important part of progressive politics is not about the votes, but rather about pushing an agenda to make change.
"If you are defining Black politics by how many white people you can get to vote for you, I fail to realize what is Black about that,” Platt said. “Instead we need to think about Black politics in terms of how you move forward a Black policy agenda.”
Platt did acknowledge, however, that even if race does not matter in Congress, it does matter in terms of ideology — his research demonstrates that in general, Black people in Congress are extremely liberal.
After his remarks, Platt’s audience, a mixture of undergraduate students, graduate students and professors, engaged critically with him on several points.
Audience members challenged Platt on his research surrounding protests, citing the success of the Black Lives Matter movement and the harsh backlash surrounding the sick-outs in Detroit, when teachers called in sick in protest of the poor school conditions.
Hakeem Jefferson, Ph.D. candidate in political science, said he didn't fully agree with Platt’s stance on Black politics.
“Matt’s work is provocative. It is a re-telling of a story about Black politics that many of us are familiar with,” Jefferson said. “Much of the work in representation suggests that representation matters, that a sort of descriptive representation matters. Of course what Matt is suggesting is that it doesn’t matter all that much. We can quibble about the parts I agree with and disagree with, but at least for me it reminds me that movements like Black Lives Matter and other radical progressive movements, despite Matt’s pessimism, are really useful."