Power Move

Charles Blow wants Black people to reverse the Great Migration and form majorities in the Southern states.

One day in 2013, New York Times columnist Charles Blow was at a conference on civil rights, when he heard 86-year-old Harry Belafonte ask “Where are the radical thinkers?”

On the walk back to the Times’ Midtown offices, … it occurred to me that maybe I had been thinking too small, all my life, about my approach to being in the world and conceiving my role in it. I had to remember that a big idea could change the course of history.

The result was The Devil You Know: a Black power manifesto, which came out in January but had somehow escaped my notice until recently. Blow’s big idea is indeed big: Black Americans in the North, particularly young adults looking for a place to establish themselves, should move to the South, for the purpose of forming a Black majority in several Southern states.

This would be bigger than just electing a Black mayor or governor somewhere. The entire political power structure would know it was answerable to a Black majority. For the first time in American history, Blacks could focus on ending White supremacy through their own power rather than on compromising their goals to get White cooperation.

Those same majorities could elect two senators per state, and those senators would all know that they could not stay in office without maintaining their Black support.

I am not advocating for a Black nationalism, but a Black regionalism — not to be apart from America, but stronger within it.

Blow is very frank about the reason to take this radical approach: If the issue is achieving true equality, everything else has been tried and hasn’t worked. Abolition didn’t do it. Moving north during the Great Migration may have opened some economic opportunities and allowed an end-run around Jim Crow, but the North had its own forms of racism. The civil rights movement achieved an on-paper legal equality, but all the major gaps remain in wealth, income, education, home ownership, incarceration, and even life expectancy.

He describes at length the generations of effort to form majority coalitions with sympathetic Whites: from Booker T. Washington’s attempts to promote Black virtue and education in order to convince Whites that his people deserved their favor, to W.E.B. Du Bois’ vision of a “talented tenth” that would blaze a trail into the professions and into positions of power, all the way up to Barack Obama’s audacity of hope. Blow wants to be done with waiting and hoping; he wants Black people to have the power to shape their own destiny.

Black colonization of the South isn’t a philosophy or an intellectual posture. It’s an actual plan.

Blow grew up in a majority-Black town in Louisiana and went to college at Grambling, an HBCU. Throughout his formative years, being Black felt normal to him. He was not an outsider or an interloper or someone who had to prove he deserved to be wherever he was. He then went north to achieve success in White-dominated institutions like The New York Times before returning south to live in Atlanta. He sees the South as a cultural homeland, not just for himself, but for American Blacks in general. The South, horrific as its racism has been at times, is the devil they know.

His logic often resembles that of Nikole Hannah-Jones, who chose historically Black Howard University over University of North Carolina after a tenure battle, and brought Ta-Nehisi Coates with her.

I really wanted to take my talents and the resources I could bring and bring them to an institution that was actually built for Black uplift and Black excellence, that wasn’t built in opposition to the work that I want to do and me as a human being.

Like Hannah-Jones, Blow seems to be done with proving himself to Whites, and wants a plan for Black equality that doesn’t rely on convincing Whites to overcome their racism.

For me, that was one of the most fascinating aspects of reading this book. Blow is writing to convince other Black people, so I am not his target audience. I suspect that’s why the book is as short and readable as it is: He can appeal to Black common sense — about the police, about the centrality of racism in America history and culture, about the role of the South in African-American consciousness, etc. — without marshaling arguments to help Whites catch up. So I can be a fly on the wall as Blacks talk to each other.

This in itself is a lesson in White privilege: It’s strange and even shocking that an NYT columnist would write a book not targeted at us. But those outside of privileged classes must have that experience every day.

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  • AC  On August 30, 2021 at 12:16 pm

    I live in a wealthy, liberal city in the western US that’s overwhelmingly white. At a forum on race in our city, a panelist said that a fellow Black friend moved from here back to the US South for this “devil you know” reason. There, at least, this person felt like she knew who to avoid. Being here was unnerving because she never knew who to trust.

  • Elaine  On August 30, 2021 at 5:12 pm

    This may sound like a grand idea. But to me it sounds like self segregation. A Black region? The culprit remains GOP gerrymandering. Blacks should be able to live wherever they want.

    • weeklysift  On September 4, 2021 at 5:39 am

      I compare Blow’s proposal to what the Mormons have done: There are Mormons everywhere, and individual Mormons live wherever they want. But they have a power base in Utah, which means there’s always a Mormon in the Senate.

  • Dale Moses  On August 30, 2021 at 6:01 pm

    This has been tried before with libertarians moving to New Hampshire and White Supremacists moving to the north west. It wasn’t effective then and i don’t think it will be effective now, not because its a bad idea per se, but because its still exceedingly difficult. Moreover I am not sure that the “problem” of a lack of political power in the south can really be attributed to a lack of black people.

    So the “devil you know” reasoning is far better than the “for to establish regional strength” reasoning. If you want to establish regional strength you should move to Wyoming. Alabama may be 25% black. But in order to be 50% black you would still need to add 50% of the population. Which is almost 2.5 million people. Wyoming even at roughly 0% black would only need to add 100% of the population, about 600k people. You could get 50% in all of ND/SD/WY for less than the people needed to get 50% in Alabama. And you would get 6 senators out of it instead of 2.

    But still, the collective action problem of getting 2.5 million people do anything, regardless of what % of the pop they are, is pretty steep.

    • Kit  On August 31, 2021 at 5:58 am

      For years I’ve been saying, a tad facetiously, that liberal states such as New York and California should fund a program to settle Wyoming with the goal of bringing civilization to the white man. Perhaps the unemployment rolls might include some brave pioneers. As few as 100k extra votes in each of five different states would put them in play. And after less than a decade, enough laws could be changed that such shenanigans would no longer be necessary.

      • Anonymous  On August 31, 2021 at 6:13 am

        I like this idea. If people moved there and started business that benefited the western states, they might even be welcomed.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On October 9, 2021 at 8:24 pm

      The problem with your proposal is that there’s no reason for Black people to move to Wyoming. The reason to move back to the South is because it’s culturally friendly and historically significant. Many Black people in northern and western states have family in the South, for example. Also, Georgia is proof of concept, where Black people who moved to Atlanta from northern states over the past decade, along with white liberals, were able to elect two Democratic senators and award Georgia’s electoral votes to Joe Biden. The same could be replicated in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, and possibly North Carolina.

      Blow presents some startling statistics. While the South has a higher level of incarceration than the rest of the country, the incarceration rate for Blacks is actually lower there than it is in supposedly liberal northern states. In San Francisco, arguably the most liberal city in America, Blacks comprise 5% of the population, but over 50% of prisoners.

      Blow also points out how the large numbers of white liberals who moved to Vermont in the 1970s turned it into a progressive state. He doesn’t mention the white supremacists in Idaho, but northern Idaho has certainly become a power center for them.

  • Anonymous  On August 31, 2021 at 5:55 pm

    Does Blow recommend moving to any states in particular?

    How does he envision dealing with the voter suppression tactics that would likely get worse if there was a noticeable influx of new black residents?

    • weeklysift  On September 4, 2021 at 5:45 am

      He lists nine states, including two slave state not usually considered the South: Maryland and Delaware. The other seven are Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia.


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