Category Archives: Politics
I heartily recommend an article in today’s New York Times entitled “Beyond Low Vaccination Rates Lurks a More Profound Social Weakness” (the original title, in the print edition, was “What Causes Vaccine Hesitancy?”). Authored by Anita Sreedhar and Anand Gopal, it makes non-vaxxers, who I still think are illogical and not looking out for themselves and others, a lot more understandable. It also makes a very important point about what’s lacking in our public health system (the same as what’s lacking in our system as a whole). There’s still some connection to Trump’s disastrous politicization of the pandemic, but that’s not the whole story. He was/is capitalizing on some big holes and weaknesses in our society as a whole, a result, I think, of the two-party political system dominated by the corporate elite (the 1%). A system like this that doesn’t work for so many can’t and won’t meaningfully address big things like disease, climate change, resource depletion, etc. And it’s a worldwide system, dominated by a few “successful” countries, as the global migrant crisis, criticized by Pope Francis this weekend, shows. What the 1% and those hanging onto their coattails don’t realize is that they and their families will eventually suffer from the big problems, too. We’re all ultimately one, standing or falling together.
The forcible attack on the Capitol on January 6th of this year was a coup attempt set in motion by former president Donald Trump and others in an effort to nullify the 2020 presidential election and keep Trump, an aspiring autocrat, in power indefinitely. By acquitting Trump on impeachment charges related to his direct instigation of this attack without calling witnesses, Democrats and Republicans deprived Americans of a chance to delve into the truth of what happened and who was responsible. They did this, because, whether they supported Trump or not, they’ve all been involved in their own dirty tricks and want to be able to repeat them in the future. They don’t care about being real leaders, who’d give their followers an accurate map of reality; they don’t care about the truth; they don’t care about our country; they only care about their own personal power (getting re-elected, being appointed to powerful positions in Congress, and getting top-level corporate jobs and/or writing bestselling books after leaving office).
Is this a new phenomenon? Did Trump begin the wholesale coverup of truth with “alternative facts”? No. He was and is a master liar and obfuscator, but, at least in my lifetime, our government, represented by its egocentric, power-hungry non-leaders and supported by the mainstream media, has lied to us consistently. I became aware of this during the Vietnam War, which I opposed with all the intensity and energy of youthful idealism; and I’ve been aware of it ever since.
We all, as human beings, have a instinctive desire for the truth, knowing that our survival depends on it. What do you do when you can’t trust your government, or other supposedly trusted entities, to tell you the truth? You look for it elsewhere. I turned, and still turn, to “radical,” “leftist” sources of information, mostly in books, for what I consider to be the truth. As a student of history and historiography (how history’s written), I ask myself who hopes to gain by various versions of what happened or is happening. This makes me distrust government, politicians, and mainstream media, where much is to be gained. Others have turned elsewhere — on the opposite end of the socio-political spectrum from me — to demagogues like Trump and rightwing Christian fundamentalist preachers.
Our society and our country are now completely polarized by these competing visions of the “truth.” But where did that start? With the lies and half-truths of regular, mainstream politicians like the ones now in office. They’re continuing the smokescreen that protects their careers and keeps all of us from having an accurate map of our world…the map we need to create successful policy, a well-functioning government…and, ultimately, to survive.
Believing that Trump chose Tulsa, OK and 6-19-20 as the place and time to kick off his 2020 presidential campaign deliberately, Robin D. G. Kelley, professor of American history at UCLA, described it in a 6-24-20 interview on The Intercept podcast as a “white rally,” opposing black emancipation, celebrated on Juneteenth, and mocking the killing of over 300 black Tulsans in “the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. Choosing Tulsa wasn’t an accident. Just like choosing Juneteenth, June 19th, as the original date for this event wasn’t an accident. Tulsa has a very interesting story, not because of what we typically talk about – the destruction of the Greenwood community in 1921, which was a Black community often called Black Wall Street. After destroying this community, including hospitals, libraries, and churches, with the support of the police and deputized white men, the city interned 7,000 Black people in camps and held them there through the winter of 1921-1922. So imagine you’re rendered homeless and you’re forced into internment camps for the crime was being Black. Trump’s choice of Tulsa is a slap in the face to that history.
Juneteenth also represents emancipation as the date, June 19, 1865, when Galveston, Texas was occupied by the Union army and there was a declaration that slavery had come to an end. Juneteenth is a day of celebration of abolition, but also, historically, at least for the last century and a half, a day of reflection and organizing on the part of Black communities. There’s a long history of Juneteenth representing the opposite of what Trump tried to claim, and his trying to turn that date into a reassertion of his authoritarian rule.
Oklahoma as a whole is an interesting place for another reason, which is that the Homestead Act of 1862, a means of dispossessing Indigenous peoples, also created an opportunity to have all-Black towns, and Oklahoma had more all Black towns than any other state in the Union. Many of these towns were, like the Greenwood district, places of Black autonomy and economic independence, and they were subject to racial pogroms and violence. Many of them were razed, destroyed. So, in some respects, Oklahoma has been a battleground state between Black freedom and white supremacy for a long time. During the late 19thand early 10th century period of Black disfranchisement, Oklahoma was also one of those places where many poor whites were disfranchised. That’s something that few of the 6,000 people at Trump’s rally have an understanding of – that even in the framework of white supremacy, class rule can lead to the disfranchisement of poor white people.”
Scahill added that “at that same rally in Tulsa, Trump claimed that Democrats want ‘rioters and looters’ to have ‘more rights than law-abiding citizens.’ How is Donald Trump using that word ‘looters’ in this instance? Set it in the historical context of this country.”
“The tradition in this country has been to identify looting as criminal behavior, which justifies the state’s relentless use of lethal violence against episodic political violence by people trying to fight back or take advantage of a temporary crisis to try to get commodities. In 2020 this is happening in a context where over 40 million people have applied for unemployment. In the 1960s, the same question was posed. Why do people loot? The answer’s always wide-ranging: it’s economic, political, criminal, senseless, normative, deviant, all these things. But one thing that came out of the ‘60s articles on the subject became the prevailing theory of law enforcement. Looters were identified as hard-core criminals, thugs who just hadn’t been caught yet – an expression of latent criminal tendencies in Black communities rather than people acting during a lack of restraint or responding to a crisis. This became the basis of the broken windows theory, now repudiated, that ignored the structural racism creating horrific conditions in these communities, suppressing home values, and the divestment of services for working people, people of color, and the poor in urban communities. In some ways, it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You create policies that quite literally kill people, deny them basic goods and services, deny them employment, deny them a livelihood, and then you police them at that level of desperation with a fascist structure of violence, rendition, and torture. You’re criminalizing a community rather than dealing with crime, allowing the police to function with almost no boundaries on the basis of a racist untruth. To me, that’s part of the story of looting. Another part is to flip the question of ‘What’s a looter? Who’s doing the looting?’ And what we’ve seen, often, is that it’s the system of racial capitalism.”
Scahill’s asked him to explain that term, and Kelley said, “Racial capitalism is the idea that capitalism isn’t distinct from racism, that racism is a by-product of capitalism, a way to divide workers. It’s a way to extract greater value from, say, enslaved people, Indigenous people, etc. But Cedric Robinson argued that the ground of the civilization in which capitalism emerges is already based on racial hierarchy. If you think of race as assigning meaning to whole groups of people, ideologically convincing others that some people are inferior to others, that some people are designed as beasts of burden, what you end up getting is a system of extraction that allows for a kind of super-exploitation of Black and brown people. Racial capitalism also relies on an ideology or racial regime that convinces a lot of white people, who may get the crumbs of this extraction, to support or shore it up, even though their own share of the spoils is minuscule.
If you think of capitalism as racial capitalism, you realize that you can’t eliminate or overthrow it without the complete destruction of white supremacy. The main function of the police is to protect capital, property of all kinds, including slaves. The whole system of policing is organized around property, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the violent acts of the police are supported by capital, which needs force to terrify people. When we look at the relationship between the cost of police, police budgets, and the amount of money being shelled out to settle police misconduct cases, we’re talking about billions. In my city, Los Angeles, $880 million was shelled out between 2005 and 2018 over police misconduct suits, wrongful death suits, these kinds of things. Why do we let that happen? Companies like Target and Walmart give money to police foundations to make sure the police are operable. Wall Street benefits from police violence. You’d think that capitalists trying to be as efficient as possible would say this has to stop. But imagine if you have a police force that’s not a terror force. A police force that says, ‘of course, labor has a right to strike and to occupy a workplace. Of course, people have a right to protest and to protest freely and engage in forms of civil disobedience that disrupts business as usual.’ That’s not going to work. And we allow ourselves to be mentally deputized, brainwashed into calling the police whenever we think something, however minor, is amiss. And, too often this results in police killing someone, most often a Black man. Part of defunding the police is a recognition that the police, as constituted, make life more dangerous for vulnerable populations even as it creates a false sense of safety for white people. Part of what we have to think about is, how do we get out of the habit, or the reflex, of calling the police to solve issues that should have evoked simple compassion, neighborliness, and other thoughtful responses. Unless we learn how to care for one another, we’re going to continue to have this situation where we call the police and the police continue to kill us.”
Scahill mentioned Kelley’s new book, Black Bodies Swinging, in which he wrote, “‘Reverend William Barber [one of the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign] is right – we’re living through a third Reconstruction, and the great rebellion of the summer of 2020 marks a moment of reckoning between real freedom and fascism.’ Can you expand on that?”
“There are two things I’m trying to deal with in this book. One is to amplify the fact that this generation of abolitionists have the most visionary conception of abolition in history. The first Reconstruction in the 1860s, an effort to expand social democracy to include everyone, faced a backlash, and was crushed under the weight of racial terror, Jim Crow, and disfranchisement. The second Reconstruction, responding to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, an attempt to expand the democracy we had to include all people, and deal with some of the social justice issues of housing and police violence, was based on the idea that the constitutional basis of our system was sound; we just had to tweak it to include everyone. This generation is saying it’s not sound and never has been. It’s been based on dispossession, white supremacy, and gender violence. This vision of abolition isn’t better jails, better police, and better training. It’s no police, no jails, and no prisons. It’s creating a new means of justice based not on criminalization, but affirmation and reparation – trying to repair relationships that have been damaged and destroyed as a result of five centuries of warfare against Indigenous peoples, Africans, poor white people, Asian-Pacific Americans, and Latinx populations. It’s an opportunity to transform not just the nation, but the entire world.
In the 1970s, after the second Reconstruction, the Klan was resurrected and the prison-industrial complex expanded – another backlash and retrenchment. After 2020, we’ll see either more fascism or true abolition. This is a very exciting time, and what the book tries to do isn’t so much predict what’s going to happen, but understand that 500-year history through the stories of particular individuals who have died over the last few years and recognizing what’s unique about the generation that’s emerged since the late 1990s.”
Scahill asked for Kelley’s “big picture thoughts on what that says about our society that Trump and Biden are the two major-party candidates at this moment in history.”
“It says something about the failure of electoral politics to solve this problem. Because, imagine a political conundrum that leaves us with the choice of going back to Clinton-era policies that stripped us of the protections of Glass-Steagall, expanded the prison-industrial complex, and criminalized immigration even further than before. Biden represents that, and if we see this as ‘elect Biden by any means necessary,’ I think we’ve lost. A continued Trump White House, with the backing of the apparatus of state violence, is a much more difficult place to fight these fights, but at the same time, I think that this radical generation sees that no matter who is elected, the fight has to continue because it isn’t just a fight to restore an old democracy, but to create a new one. We can’t silence the critique of Biden and the Clintons and Obama or continue to have a foreign policy built on war and drone strikes, the same kind of violence that’s replicated in the cities of the United States, in the Arab world, and elsewhere.”
Schahill then brought up Kelley’s “book from a couple decades ago, Hammer and Hoe, which tells the story of how in the 1930s and ‘40s, coming out of the Great Depression, Communists took on Alabama’s repressive, racist police state, and engaged in a battle not so different from the analysis that you’re offering now from this newer generation of radical abolitionists. I’m wondering if you could share with people an overview of that book, and share some of the stories that you researched and brought to life in it.”
“That book told the story of a party made up of overwhelmingly Black working people in rural areas, as well as in cities like Birmingham and Montgomery, who fought for the right to organize, for relief for the unemployed, against home eviction, and ultimately for democracy in the South and throughout the country. It preceded the civil rights movement and it had a vision of social democracy that even the civil rights movement didn’t. The Communist Party in Alabama had some white membership, and organized white working people. It actually tried to organize former Klansmen into the organization and got some in there. They saw themselves as a multiracial movement that could create a democratic, anti-capitalist society – true abolition for the entire United States, in solidarity with what they saw as a worldwide movement.
One of the things that made the Communist Party in Alabama different than, say, other movements was the confidence that they had that they were part of a global insurgency. I interviewed people, like a man named Lemon Johnson. When cotton pickers went on strike in 1935, he believed that any significant violence from the planter class would be met with the possibility of Stalin sending troops through Mobile, Alabama to protect them, to engage in class warfare against the planter class.
There are many lessons to be learned from the Communist Party of Alabama, but there’s also a lesson about how movements can be wiped out, and how their history can be destroyed, because by the Cold War, by 1948, though individual communists continued to do their work, the party wasn’t simply outlawed – it was crushed under the pressure of Bull Connor and his regime. We need to come to terms with that history, because I think that the best of this generation is an echo of that moment, and it proves to me, and this is a really important lesson, that anti-racism and class solidarity are not mutually exclusive. It shows the importance of fighting all forms of oppression – not just race and class, but gender oppression, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and ableism – that none of these things can be separated off and left to the side, that a truly, fundamental abolitionist future requires that they all be held together. And the Communist Party of Alabama shows that that actually could happen.”
Scahill: “Arundhati Roy, the great Indian writer, described coronavirus as a portal, and I’m wondering what your assessment is of the racial capitalist system at this moment in an election year with this rebellion that shows no signs of ceasing, with Trump in power and with so many people having their lives and their livelihoods put in the sniper scope of the government and the pandemic.”
“The pandemic is a portal. And as a portal, it’s just an opening. And as an opening, nothing’s guaranteed, but it’s an opening because it exposed the structure of racial and gendered capitalism and the violence meted out to the people who are most vulnerable. The fact that people are already dying from Covid-19 and then dying from state violence, with the video of Ahmaud Arbery, for example, the killing of Breonna Taylor, that these kinds of things exposed both the underside of the health crisis, but also the top side of it – the continuation of racial violence, state-sanctioned violence. So when folks carry the sign around a protest saying “Stop killing us,” that’s a slogan we’ve been carrying for centuries. In some ways, it’s aimed at ending state-sanctioned racist violence, but also ending the violence of poverty, the violence of an unequal health care system, the violence of dilapidated housing, and the violence of economic strangulation. It’s not an accident that these things converge. The question is: What are we going to do in this portal? Do we have the political will to basically recognize the fact that all these conditions are inseparable, that with all these conditions, you can’t simply reform your way out of it? They have to be destroyed and a humane society created that cares about human beings and life itself, over wealth accumulation and property. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen. But I don’t think many portals open up. And this particular portal wasn’t simply rendered open by Covid-19. It was rendered open by what Covid-19 revealed in terms of the contradictions of society that claims to be a democracy and claims to care about people, but actually cares more about property and wealth accumulation than the lives of the most vulnerable. Inequality was foundational to capitalism, and as long as we hold onto those ideas and as long as capitalism exists as a means of accumulating wealth through exploitation, those ideas aren’t going to go away. To me, this is not a matter of a kind of slight redistribution, like let’s give more crumbs to the poor. Nor is it about just ending poverty as we know it. It is about creating a structure of caring and repair in which we can all benefit from our labor and our kind of collective generosity and create a whole new ethos, not just for the United States but for the world.”
This is the point made by Kali Akuno in “From Rebellion to Revolution,” published on the Progressive International website, 6-18-20. Here’s what he had to say (edited, as always, for clarity and brevity):
“The Floyd rebellion is changing the world before our very eyes. What type of change and to what degree it will shift the balance of forces between rulers and ruled, haves and have-nots remains to be seen. What is clear is that there is an active and open political contest to shape the outcome. For the moment, the right wing and the Republicans have been relatively sidelined in this debate, which is mainly between liberals and Democrats on one hand and the radical mass that’s taken the streets all over the country and the world. That radical mass is increasingly examining and advancing critical left demands emerging from anarchist, communist, and socialist analytical and organizing traditions, such as police and prison abolition, economic democracy, and decolonization.
The debate is being played out in the streets, in mainstream media, and through social media, and following trends in these venues, it appears that the liberals and Democrats have gained significant ground in the narrative war on several points. One critical point is making distinctions between “good protestors” and “bad protestors.” Democratic-liberal dominance of this narrative will have negative consequences, some of which include: (1) narrowing the focus of the rebellion, (2) reasserting the myths of “democratic” reform and capitalist correction that only reinforce the perpetuation of the system, and (3) limiting the scope of the revolutionary possibilities and potentialities of the current rebellion.
The net effect of the positional gains of the liberals is that the rebellion is showing some clear signs of being defused, such as the serious policing of the movement on the streets that’s occurring in many places. This is starting to isolate the left in many critical ways and put it and its proposals on the defensive. This is best expressed in the hardcore efforts to water down the abolitionist demand of “defunding” and “abolishing” the police, to which we will return shortly. The aim of the liberals and the Democratic party is to redirect the mass movement towards electoral politics, particularly the 2020 elections, and a limited set of cosmetic corrections and reforms.
Where the liberals and Democrats appear to have made the most significant advance is narrowing the scope of the rebellion in the mainstream media. If you believe them, this is fundamentally just about reforming the police and the articulation of an obscure iteration of the “Black Lives Matter” demand framework. This downplays clear calls to eradicate white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and settler-colonialism, and fails to make sense of the removal of all statues and symbols representing settler-colonialism and enslavement, as well as targeted acts of redistribution that have occurred, and the forced dismantling of the institutions of repression, exploitation, and gentrification. Liberals and Democrats don’t support revolution, and have no interest in dismantling the systems of oppression that confine humanity. All they’ll ever do [as with FDR in the New Deal] is what’s necessary to preserve the existing capitalist system. To this end, they are willing to bend a few things, as long as it doesn’t fundamentally break or alter the social relations that shape society, particularly who owns and controls the means of production. The distorted “Black Lives Matter” framework they’re pushing is about trying to shore up their electoral base for the 2020 elections, particularly among Blacks and Latinos, who they have to rely upon to have any chance of winning. Thus, they support [cosmetic] police reform, while condemning the effort to dismantle the institution and its social function as absurd.
On the demand of “defunding the police” or “abolishing the police,” it must be noted that this question is being raised in the absence of a revolution — which the current moment is not, not yet anyway. Most of the responses are being cast in this light as well: “What will happen to communities without police?” This question assumes that capitalist relations of production and social reproduction will continue to exist — i.e., the same ole shit. Neither capital nor the state have been dismantled or destroyed, and few are proposing this possibility (i.e. revolution) or preparing for it in the present moment. If the fundamental social relations don’t change, however, this reform would only be a temporary appeasement measure, to be quickly attacked and undermined the operatives of the state. Anything the ruling class giveth, it can take away.
I think the demand for abolition should be raised to heighten the contradictions. But, it must be accompanied by the call for revolution, and organizing to dismantle the entire system.
Remember: state agencies all over the country are waiting for the rebellion to subside so they can hunt down thousands of young partisans and put them in jail in the name of justice and restoring law and order.
We on the left – anarchists, communists, indigenous sovereigntists, and socialists — must resist the elevation of liberal and Democratic party narratives and positions, and assert a counter-narrative in all arenas — one that aims towards transforming the Floyd rebellion into something potentially transformative. This must include upholding autonomous action, diversity of tactics, the sanctity of life over property and profits, and the building and execution of instruments of dual power [look it up] to transform social relations and the balance of forces.
A pathway to revolution currently exists, following a strategy anchored by the further politicization of the mutual aid, food sovereignty, cooperative economics, community production, self-defense, people’s assemblies, and general strike motions that already existed and that emerged in embryonic form in the midst of the pandemic. This could be harnessed through democratic efforts to federate these initiatives on a mass level to lay the foundations of dual power.
Cooperation Jackson and the People’s Strike coalition we’ve been working to build with various organizations and allies are working to advance a program of this character to interject left counter-narratives into the mass movement. One of the central things we’re proposing as our next contribution to the movement is the call for mass People’s Assemblies. Building on experiences from the Occupy movement, Assemblies have started spontaneously developing in New York city, Oakland, Portland, and Seattle. These are groundbreaking developments. But, we need more. The People’s Strike is calling for Assemblies to be held everywhere, and in particular calling for a first strike national day of action on July 1st. What we’ve been proposing, and will offer in this process, is that we organize and build towards the execution of a general strike. The beginning of a general strike under current conditions starts with People’s Assemblies in the streets debating and voting on having a general strike. This is how a largely street protest movement can blossom into an instrument of dual power that could radically transform society.
Kali Akuno is the co-founder and executive director of Cooperation Jackson, and co-editor of Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, MS.
In his 2016 book Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. notes that “matters haven’t changed much since 1967” when Martin Luther King Jr. noted that “most whites in America proceed from the premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement.” Glaude says that “when thought of in this way, racial justice gets reduced to a charitable enterprise – a practice by which white people ‘do good’ for black people. That is not equality.”
Like Taylor, Glaude believes that “the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and so many others shattered any notion we might have had about a post-racial America.” He also takes Barack Obama to task for selling “black America the snake oil of hope and change in both 2008 and 2012, joining Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, other Democratic confidence men who presented themselves as people who would challenge the racial order of things. But neither Carter nor Clinton changed the racial habits at the heart of the country. In some ways, they reinforced them.
Obama isn’t alone in falling short of a real response. Most black liberals (elected and otherwise) have stood silently by as economic devastation swallowed black America. Our choice now, as we leave behind the confidence men and their false hopes, is either to wake up and give everything to ‘achieve our country’ or to remain asleep as America burns.”
Focusing on “the Great Black Depression of 2008,” Glaude notes by 2011, black families had lost 53% of their wealth. This wasn’t just the loss of homes – the primary source of wealth for most African Americans – but lost retirement savings and jobs. By November 2010, national black unemployment reached the stunning level of 16%, while white unemployment stood at 9%. Some cities, including Detroit and New York, reported unemployment among black males that close to 50%. For all these reasons, poverty is growing in black America. One out of three black children grows up in poverty, while only one out of 10 white children does. One out of five black children is growing up in extreme poverty. In 25 of the 50 states and in the District of Columbia, at least 40% of African American children are poor. The implications for future generations of African Americans have yet to be calculated. Many young African Americans in this country will have to start economically with a little or no help from the previous generation, because social and systemic barriers have severely limited economic mobility for black folk.
Such crushing poverty not only dashes the dreams of millions of children, but it almost ensures that they will lead less healthy lives as they grow up and be more than likely to drop out of high school. They will also experience some form of violence in their lifetime and likely find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system, raising their children in the same horrifying conditions they grew up in. What’s really scary is how little anyone outside black America seems to care. We are rearing a generation of black children, as we have done for so many previous generations, to believe that their lives, unlike others who have money, aren’t worth as much.
Many black communities are opportunity deserts, places of tremendous hardship, joblessness, and what seems to be permanent marginalization. Opportunity deserts are those communities, both urban and world, that lack the resources and public institutions that give those who live there a chance to reach beyond their current lives. They’re characterized, in part, by the absence of social networks pointing out pathways for professional and educational advance, and heightened police surveillance that increases the likelihood of someone’s landing in the criminal justice system. These areas are the underside of a society that has turned it’s back on poor people, especially poor black people. This indifference to the poor allows most white Americans to be willfully ignorant of what happens in such places and to ignore the history of racism in this country that has consigned so many black people to poverty with little or no chance of escaping it. People who live in opportunity deserts, Americans think, have done something to deserve to be there. Economists Alberto Alesena, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote have shown that the primary reason we don’t have a European-style welfare state is because the programs are seen to benefit black people.
Overtly racist acts are increasingly rare in this country; rather, inequality comes from the habits we exercise daily – like responding to black faces with alarm or suspicion when none is warranted. A host of assumptions about who black people are and what they are capable of shape everything about how we live in this country. What researchers call the racial empathy gap is reflected in the fact that hundreds of thousands of black children struggle every day to eat and attend failed schools without raising a national alarm. In a study conducted at the University of Milan, white participants reacted differently to white people in pain then they did to black people. This wasn’t a matter of disregarding the pain of black people, but an assumption that they didn’t feel pain.
We as a nation must be in a continual crisis of racial awareness – aware of the ways we continue to consign large numbers of fellow Americans to the shadows for no other reason than because the color of their skin.
White fear is the danger, not black people, and it’s shadowed American life ever since we reconciled our commitment to democratic principles with the institution of slavery. Slavery affected and deformed the character of slaveholders by creating habits of mind that distorted their moral sense. These habits were passed along to children. But white fear has never motivated people to look for solutions that would involve ameliorating the conditions that produced the fear in the first place. Instead, the response has been to eliminate the fear by eliminating black people (either we needed to get rid of black folk physically or make the country colorblind).
White fear seems to require that black people make whites feel comfortable about race. If we’re angry we have to express that anger in away that white people find acceptable. If we talk directly about black suffering in this country, we risk alienating large segments of white America. This approach to race matters acknowledges the long-standing and dangerous racial habits lurking beneath our politics. And Barack Obama’s election did little if anything to uproot them. In fact he conceded to their terms.
The model for talking about racial justice in this country is a sanitized, cherry-picked version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Every year when we celebrate his holiday, every Black History Month when we recognize his accomplishments, every time we dare take up the thorny issues of racial inequality, people invoke Dr. King, his commitment to nonviolence, and his dream as the best example of black struggle. It’s always a particular version of King – the King of the March on Washington who dreamed, not the radical King who marched with garbage workers or understood the connection among the evils of poverty, racism, and militarism, or called attention to the fact of ‘two Americas.’ This whitewashed King often gets in the way of frank and fearless discussions of black suffering, because his words, in the hands of far too many, are used to hide racial habits and sustain the value gap.
In 1966 Dr. King and movement veterans faced a rising tide of white resentment based on the fear that true justice for black people meant robbing white Americans of something. At the same time, many young African Americans had grown impatient with King’s calls for nonviolent, direct action in his invocations of love in the face of white violence. Leaders like Stokely Carmichael said that what black folk needed was real political power to secure and protect their interests, not an idea of love dependent on the transformation of white people’s hearts.
In Grenada County, Mississippi, King saw, once again, the capacity for evil in those committed to white supremacy. As 150 black students entered John Rundle High School and Lizzie Horn Elementary, an angry mob gathered outside. White students were dismissed at midday. A half hour later, Black students walked out of the school and found themselves surrounded. The mob attacked the children with fists, feet, pipes, and tree limbs. Grown men descended upon 12-year-old Richard Sigh and broke his leg with pipes while others, laughing, pummeled a pigtailed girl.
Two years later, King would lie dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In the short time between his bout with depression in Grenada and his murder in Memphis, Dr. King came to understand the depths of American racism. He had underestimated how deeply rooted white supremacy was in the habits of American life. In August 1967, King stated plainly, ‘The vast majority of white Americans are racists, either consciously or unconsciously.’ King remained committed to the moral power of his call to the nation – he never stopped being a preacher – but he now understood that something far greater was required if America was to be redeemed.
Just two months after struggling to get out of bed in Grenada, he offered this analysis at an SCLC retreat in St. Helens, South Carolina: ‘the fact is that the ultimate logic of racism is genocide. If you say that I am not good enough to live next-door to you because of the color of my skin or my ethnic origin, you are saying that I do not deserve to exist.’ Few, however, were listening. In 1967, for the first time in a decade, Dr. King wasn’t listed on the Gallup poll of the 10 most admired Americans. Young African Americans in ghettos throughout America now looked to the words of Malcolm X and the example of the Black Panther Party. King had fallen from the heights of the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered a speech that would become a crucial document in the history of our country, to the status of the lone voice in the wilderness: a voice marginalized by many white liberals, castigated by white conservatives, and dismissed by black militants.
This period of King’s career remains in the shadows of our contemporary celebration of his legacy. The fact that he spent his last years dismissed and demonized because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and his fearless criticism of the triple evils of racism, capitalism, and militarism, gets buried under the fragment of his body of work that corroborates the illusion of color-blindness. The man who sacrificed his life to dislodge the precious ideals of democracy from the stranglehold of white supremacy has now become the lead actor in the last staging of the tragedy of race in this country. Our yearly celebration of Dr. King is a ritual act of disremembrance.
The American emphasis on individualism means that if racism rears its ugly head, it’s not a reflection of racial habits, but of individual prejudice – prejudice that can be expressed in anti-black and anti-white attitudes, both equally abhorrent. In other words, black peoples’ anger and suspicion about white folk is as damaging as white racial prejudice. Any attempts to call attention to race in public policy debates, to acknowledge the significance of racial and cultural differences, is subject to claims of reverse racism and denounced as polarizing rhetoric, leaving racial habits unchecked in public deliberations.
The election of the nation’s first black president has been, ironically, a reversal of sorts: a black president who uses the language of black struggle in the service of Wall Street, and who is lauded for his celebration of black culture and his performance of black cultural cues, but whose policies leave much to be desired. Barack Obama is, of course, not the reason we are between two worlds. But his presidency hasn’t helped anything; rather, he is emblematic of the problem. ‘We ended up with a Rockefeller Republican in blackface,’ Cornell West said in 2012. Obama refuses to engage directly the crisis sweeping black America. As he has said, ‘I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood. I think much of what ails the intercity involves a breakdown and culture that will not be cured by money alone, and that our values and spiritual life matter at least as much as our GDP.’
For most of the 20th century, African American politics consisted of a wide range of ideologies that challenged white supremacy in this country. The kind of black liberalism informing Obama’s politics was just one option among many. In the early 20th century, The NAACP, the National Urban League, and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs stood alongside organizations like Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, the National Negro Congress, and the Council on African Affairs. Black liberals struggled alongside black nationalists and Communists, people who conceived of black political life beyond the borders of United States and who pushed up against any easy embrace of the belief that, no matter our practices, America was a place committed to freedom, equality, and the rights of every person. Black nationalists and Communists seriously questioned the American Idea. Black left activists like Cyril Briggs, Hubert Harrison, Harry Haywood, Claudia Jones, and Paul Robeson (names we rarely hear anymore outside of college classrooms) offered a radical critique of the nation, and linked that criticism with the conditions of black and brown people around the world. They joined with the venerable W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, in insisting on a deeper understanding of the relationship between capitalism, white supremacy, and empire. Their presence (many were West Indian immigrants) enriched the black political landscape as they worked with and alongside black liberals to challenge white supremacy at home and abroad.
Much of this radical energy would fall victim to the Cold War and the push for consensus. McCarthyism led to the persecution of figures like Du Bois and Robeson. Du Bois was arrested as ‘an agent of a foreign principal’ in February 1951, handcuffed and fingerprinted at the age of 82. Robeson was robbed of his ability to travel abroad and to perform, dying broken and alone. The upshot was that any hint of communism or socialism shaping black politics had to be purged, and the radical elements of black political life were marginalized. Black liberalism had to stand alone.
This trend has continued, and all we are left with is ‘tinkering’ with the system. Blotted from view are the complexities of Malcolm X, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panther Party. These were people and organizations who sought to uproot white supremacy in every facet of American society. They insisted that black was beautiful and that poor black people should participate fully in the democratic process. They also challenged economic arrangements that exploited black communities. Malcolm and groups like these come to us now in movies like ‘The Butler’ and ‘Selma,’ where they represent an irrational, angry politics that seems completely out of bounds because it heightens white fear and fails to understand how ‘real’ politics works. We imagine what’s possible within a narrow band of options provided by a political philosophy that’s bankrupt when it comes to fundamentally changing black lives. No wonder we green-screened Obama. We wanted so much more, but he was our only choice…
The underlying political philosophy of black liberalism is that it takes broad-based inclusion of black people into American life as its aim without closing the value gap. Liberals in general are committed to the rights of individuals rather than the needs of groups…
We don’t want to integrate into America as it is. We don’t believe white people possess something of intrinsic value that we need or want…
For young Black Lives Matter activists, the black liberal idea of a single male voice representing the interests of all black people is a dead option. We have to break the racial habits that give life to the value gap, and that starts with changes in our social and political arrangements. A revolution of value would seek to uproot those ways of seeing and living that allow Americans to support racial equality and yet live in ways that suggest they believe otherwise. It involves three basic components: A change in how we view government, a change in how we view black people, and a change in how we view what ultimately matters to us as Americans. These shifts are not abstract considerations. They get to the marrow of what blocks away to real change in this country, and they will require political mobilization and massive disruption of the status quo.
Since the death of Trayvon Martin, young people have been doing just that. They have engaged indirect actions in which they’ve stopped traffic, held citizens in state capitals, staged die-ins in places of business, interrupted brunch among the 1% in New York, and challenged the police from Ferguson to Oakland. Alongside these young people are other Americans, like those in the Forward Together movement in North Carolina and people who are organizing with fast food workers and Walmart employees for a livable wage, doing the hard work of democracy. They are in the streets, in voting booths, in courtrooms, and in their communities, block by block, challenging our view of government and black people, and laying the foundation for a true revolution of value. These activists force us, whether we agree with them or not, to think about how we currently live our lives. In short, they shed light on our racial habits and create the conditions, however fleeting, for us to change them.
Change how we view government
For more than three decades, we’ve been told that big government is bad. It’s inefficient, and its bureaucracies are prone to corruption. Even Democrats, especially since Clinton, have taken up this view. For some on the right, big government is bad because it aims to redistribute wealth to those who are lazy and undeserving – all too often coded language for race. From this perspective, government plays no role in changing our racial habits. But government can pass laws that create new patterns of interactions, and ultimately new habits. Neither Obama’s election to the presidency nor my appointment as a Princeton professor would’ve happened were it not for such new patterns and habits.
The civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the policies of the Great Society had just started to re-shape our interactions when they started to be rolled back. We barely had a chance to imagine America anew – to pursue what full employment might look like, to let the abolition of the death penalty settle in, to question the morality of putting people in prison cells, and to enact policies that would undo what the 1968 Kerner commission described as ‘two Americas’ – before the attack on ‘big government’ or, more precisely, the attack on racial equality was launched. Now we can’t even imagine things like full employment for the abolition of prisons.
We have to change our view of government, especially when it comes to racial matters. Government policy ensured the vote for African Americans and dismantled legal segregation. Policy established a social safety net for the poor and elderly; it put in place the conditions for the growth of our cities. Our racial habits are shaped by the kind of society in which we live, and our government plays a big role in shaping that society. As young children, our community offers us a way of seeing the world, letting us know what’s valuable and sacred; what stands as virtuous behavior and what doesn’t. When Michael Brown’s body was left in the street for more than four hours, it sent a clear message about the value of black lives. When everything in our society says that we should be less concerned about black folk, that they are dangerous, that no specific policies can address their misery, we say to our children and to everyone else that black people are less than, that they fall outside our moral concern. We say, without using the word, that they are niggers.
One way to change that view is to enact policies that suggest otherwise. For example, for the past 50 years African-American unemployment has been twice that of white unemployment. The 2013 unemployment rate for African Americans stood at 13.1%, the highest annual black unemployment rate in more than 70 years. No matter how we account for the numbers, the fact remains that most Americans see double-digit black unemployment as normal. However, a large-scale comprehensive jobs agenda with a living wage designed to put Americans, and explicitly African Americans, to work would go a long way toward uprooting the racial habits that informs such a view. It would counter the nonsense that currently stands as a reason for long-term black unemployment in public debate: black folk are lazy and don’t want to work. In addition to a jobs agenda, we need a comprehensive government response to the problems of public education and mass incarceration. We have to push for massive government investment in early childhood education and in shifting the center of gravity of our society from punishment to restorative justice. We can no longer believe that disproportionately locking up black men and women constitutes an answer to social ills. Those of us who don’t give a damn about the rules of the current political game must courageously organized, advocate, and insist on the moral and political significance of a more robust role for government. We have to change the terms of the political debate.
The remaking of America won’t happen inside the Beltway. Too many there have too much invested in the status quo. Neither will a more robust idea of government emerged from the current political parties, both beholden to big money. Substantive change will have to come from us. We’ll have to challenge the status quo in the streets and at the ballot box. In short, it will take a full-blown democratic awakening to enact this revolution.
Consider the five demands of the Forward Together movement in North Carolina: secure pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that ensure economic sustainability; provide well-funded, quality public education to all; stand up for the health of every North Carolinian by promoting health care access and environmental justice across all the state’s communities; address the continuing inequalities in the criminal justice system and ensure equality under the law for every person, regardless of race, class, creed, documentation, or sexual preference; and protect and expand voting rights for people of color, immigrants, the elderly, and students to safeguard their democratic representation. Each demand carries with it and expectation of the role of government in safeguarding the public good and an affirmation of the dignity and standing of all Americans. If we were to embrace these demands as policy, we would be well on our way to a revolution of value.
Change how we view black people
Most Americans see African Americans as failing, dependent on government instead of being self-reliant, and unwilling to hold ourselves responsible for our own failures. The truth is, much of the hell black people catch in this country today is rooted in the enduring legacy of racist practices in education, housing, the labor market, disparities in health, and in the rate of poverty.
The belief that white people matter most is the trap. That belief, to paraphrase Susan Sontag, is the aggressive cancer of modern human history.
Change what matters to us as Americans
We have to tell better stories about what truly matters to us. We have to release democracy from the burden of American exceptionalism, the idea that we are ‘the shining city on the hill’ or ‘the Redeemer Nation.’ This will involve confronting the ugly side of our history and sacrificing the comfort of national innocence along with the willful blindness that comes with it.
This will require a radical reordering of value. I’m not suggesting that we discard our cherished notions of success and self-reliance, just that the value of human beings should never be diminished in the pursuit of profit or in the name of some ideology. We need to envision a beloved community in which all Americans do more than just go to work and attend their individual gardens, but experience a deeply felt interdependence in a jointly shared effort to reimagine American democracy.
The phrase Black Lives Matter isn’t about asserting our humanity to folks who deny it; it’s to remind white people that their lives don’t matter more than others. It’s a direct challenge to white supremacy.
We have to turn our backs on contemporary black liberal politics, which gets in the way of the kind of democratic life we seek. Black liberalism and its various forms today reflects the price that white supremacy demands: either we have the leaders who undermine how black people participate in the democratic process, or we have to translate black experiences into more palatable, universal claims in order to maintain political consensus and continue the lie of colorblindness. We must disrupt how society responds to black suffering and imagines black political participation. We also have to challenge our own sense of who and what the black community is. In other words, we need to shut down the traditional circuitry of black politics and reboot how we engage the democratic process.
The protests in the streets of Ferguson exposed the predatory practices of the municipal government. The city manager and the chief of police have resigned. Police tickets have decreased. The Missouri Supreme Court called for the immediate transfer of all Ferguson municipal cases to St. Louis County. This didn’t happen because of an election; it wasn’t the result of aligning the demonstrations with the Democratic Party. Nor did it happen because of traditional black leadership. As one of the organizers said, ‘it started because regular people came outside and said enough was enough.’ Our protests put the government and traditional black leaders and organizations on notice. As Brittany Packnett put it, ‘We have to be serious about not allowing established people in organizations to choose comfort. We operate with the authenticity to the real struggle of the people that we say we’re serving.’ When Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri urged Tef Poe of Hands up United to run for office and, most important, to vote, his response was telling: ‘What do you say to those of us that are politicized? I voted for Barack Obama twice and still got teargassed.’ It was a stunning dismissal of the power of the ballot.
Voting and direct action aren’t mutually exclusive, but we need to understand voting as a tool of protest that potentially goes beyond putting people out of office. In the novel Seeing by José Saramago, for example, people cast blank ballots in a direct challenge to the democratic process. Similarly, in 1998 Puerto Rican voters chose ‘none of the above’ in a referendum about the status of the island. The vote signaled a refusal to accept the given options; it was a political act – a refusal to play the game as scripted.
In 2016 we should call for an ‘electoral blank-out,’ leaving the ballot for president blank or writing in ‘none of the above.’ The core of the campaign would be a coordinated effort, a networked coalition of grassroots organizations whose primary task in the run-up to the election would be to focus attention on particular issues in the black community. These organizations would urge black voters to leave the presidential ballot blank or write ‘none of the above.’ After the election, the coalition and organizations would do grass roots work on relevant issues.
Some might say that this would give the presidency over to Republicans and their extremist base. The Supreme Court would turn red for the next 30 years. We would see the undoing of the healthcare law in the further erosion of the social safety net. And the country would be left in the hands of libertarians and corporate terrorists. But these same people who shout doom and gloom fail to advocate for dramatic change to take back the country from these folks. By this logic, we’re imprisoned in a political cage, forced to accept matters as they are. I want to choose another path. I want to remake American democracy, because whatever this is, it ain’t democracy.
The idea of politics I’m suggesting here assumes a different kind of leadership. It insists on the capacities and responsibilities of ordinary black people and urges them to reach for a higher self even in opportunity deserts. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee did this in the bowels of the deep South at the height of Jim Crow segregation. Its members dared to claim that black sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta were not only worthy of participation in the democratic process, but that they could lead themselves in doing so.
One of the core values of the Black Youth Project 100 is to be radically inclusive of all black people. As its coordinator Charlene Carruthers says, we have to lift up not only the A student and the college graduates, ‘but also the ones who never graduated from high school, the one who was incarcerated, the one who doesn’t speak well, and the one who doesn’t follow some gender binary. Until we’re able to do that, how we see justice will be limited.’ Young people are leading the way. Young men and women, queer and straight, are on the front lines, using Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat, leading this democratic awakening. All black lives matter. And until the value is no more, we will not rest; no one will rest.
Generations before faced their difficulties. We will face ours, with courage and the conviction that American democracy depends on us. With a revolution of value, the blank-out campaign of 2016, continued grassroots organizing, and ongoing direct action in the streets, we can set a new course for this nation. Black people have done it before. In our resistance against slavery, we offered a new path for the country. After the devastation of the Civil War, we put forward a more expansive idea of democracy as we legislated in state houses throughout the Reconstruction South. We changed the course of the nation by leaving the South and moving into cities in search of freedom. We connected our oppression at home with the effects of empire abroad and directly challenged US foreign policy. This is the heart of democracy in black – efforts to imagine a democratic way of life without the burden of the value gap or the illusion that somehow this country is God’s gift to the world.
There are those among us willing to turn their backs on democracy to safeguard their privilege. We won’t allow it. No more sweet-talking. No more dancing. No one can be comfortable. And no individual or organization can say they alone represent black people. If we fail, and if there is a God I pray that we don’t, this grand experiment in democracy will be no more.