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.