If They Take You in the Morning, They Will be Coming for Us That Night

I spent inauguration day not in front of the television but with my wife touring the Metropolitan Museum’s extraordinary exhibition by the artist Kerry James Marshall. The retrospective ranged from Marshall’s diverse depictions of black interior life to his sometimes playful and often searing considerations of various aspects of American history. For me, it was a powerful and necessary alternative to the shameful spectacle unfolding in Washington that morning.

Yet try as I might to take my mind off of the installation of the new president, and all that his ascension represented, it was impossible to fully escape from the looming dread of our new collective reality. As I neared the end of the exhibition, two sets of images in particular spoke to me about the need for vigilance and sustained, principled resistance under the new regime.

In the first, a triptych entitled Heirlooms and Accessories (2002), Marshall takes a well-known photograph of the 1930 lynching of two African-American men in Marion, Indiana, digitally “whitewashes” the gruesome scene, and isolates individual white bystanders captured looking directly towards the photographer’s lens. Marshall frames each of the women’s faces within a locket-like necklace. Though I teach about lynching in my courses and invite my students to dwell on questions of both individual and group complicity in the horrors of systemic racial terror, there was something about the guile with which Marshall highlights these “accessories” to the crime that stopped me in my tracks.

Beyond the artist’s statement regarding a specific historical moment or any simple condemnation of distant actors long ago, I was compelled by what I took to be Marshall’s challenge to the viewer: To what crimes against our common humanity are we all accessories?

Just around the corner from these images another of Marshall’s works delivered a message seemingly tailor-made for this fateful moment. The large scale abstract painting Red (if they come in the morning) (2011) dates from just a few years ago, yet it conveys the weight of decades of black struggle. The phrase that appears in large block letters filling the sweeping red canvas bookended by narrow black and green borders was immediately recognizable to me as an adaptation of the words of that signal American prophet, James Baldwin. In November 1970 Baldwin penned an open letter to activist intellectual Angela Davis, then incarcerated and charged with capital crimes for which she would later be exonerated following an international grassroots support campaign. Baldwin ends his letter with apotent statement about the need for people of conscience to act.

It is not enough, Baldwin insists, simply to be aware of a moral crisis. “If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name,” he writes. Baldwin then concludes:

If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.

I have read that letter often, shared it with friends and students. Encountering Baldwin’s caution, via the work of Kerry James Marshall, on the day an unrepentant xenophobic, misogynist, white nationalist took the oath to assume the nation’s highest office was auspicious.

Exactly one week later, the illegitimate president signed yet another immoral and unconstitutional executive order – the latest in a series of cruel, punitive, and profoundly short-sighted measures meant to consolidate his power, punish the vulnerable, and isolate the United States from the rest of the world. As promised, they had come for the refugees, the immigrants, the Muslims.

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated,” the human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson reminds us. If I were to heed the lessons my mother had taught me, if I were to honor those freedom fighters who had made possible the considerable privileges I enjoy, if I were to be true to the history I write and teach about, then there was only one choice. I boarded the subway for the hour and a half journey underground through Manhattan, Brooklyn, and eventually out to Queens: John F. Kennedy International Airport, Terminal 4.

I joined the protests in solidarity with the vulnerable populations targeted by this capricious decree; with the immigrant workers whose labor allows this city and this country to function; with the activists, organizers, and lawyers struggling on the front lines; and with my fellow New Yorkers wishing to embody and make manifest genuine compassion, democracy, community, and resistance. I joined the protests for my students – past, present, and future – who dare to speak up and speak out. I joined the protests for the migrant diaspora that is my father’s family, originating in eastern Nigeria and now residing in three countries and at least seven states. I joined the protests for my children who are (thankfully) too young to understand the viciousness and hatred of the current moment but to whom I will one day have to answer.

I have been to scores of demonstrations in my life in support of a wide range of causes. I have felt the euphoria of standing tall and “doing something” and the nagging despair that says that clever chants and razor-sharp slogans are meaningless in the face of entrenched power. I know well that protests and marches are not the only valid forms of resistance and that, for many people, participation in a mass demonstration is not an option. Letters and petitions, phone calls to elected officials and business leaders, strategic voting, investigative reporting, lawsuits, boycotts, strikes, slow downs, walk outs, sit ins, the full range of art and human creativity. We need it all.

But on this cold Saturday in January I knew I needed to be shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people of like mind, signs, fists, and camera phones in the air, voices raised in unison — facing down the agents of the state, demanding justice, and refusing to accept the unacceptable.

“Resist, fight back, this is our New York…”

After Dallas, Black Lives Matter is More Important Than Ever

Over the weekend, after a tumultuous few days, thousands of protesters returned to American streets to demand an end to police killing black men, women and children.

In some ways it was a surprising development. The shocking murder of five police officers in Dallas threatened to upend the momentum of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which had been building in response to the killings of two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. From Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago to West Palm Beach, Florida, to Atlanta, ordinary people refused to be cowed into silence by those who sought to connect Dallas gunman Micah Johnson to the peaceful and determined activists of BLM.

Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, using thinly veiled racist language, declared BLM to be a “farce” saying, “shame on politicians and pundits giving credence to thugs reacting against police officers and the rule of law in the name of ‘peaceful protests’”.

The lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick said he blamed “former Black Lives Matter protests” for creating the conditions that led Johnson to act.

It was not only conservative commentators who desperately tried to connect the movement to the tragedy in Dallas, but police organizations as well. New York City’s largest police union argued that it created an atmosphere of hostility towards police. Patrick Lynch spoke of “erroneous information and inflammatory rhetoric put forward by groups and individuals whose agenda has nothing to do with justice … As we go forward, we need to take an honest, hard look at everything that wrongfully inflames emotions against police officers if we are going to be able to bring police officers and the community together.”

All of these attacks on BLM are intended to create the impression that it’s the activists and organizers that are riling up otherwise placid people. But they have it backwards. The movement does not exist because of its most prominent personalities or spokespeople. It exists because of police brutality and misconduct. In other words, it is not “erroneous information and inflammatory rhetoric” that has inflamed people; rather it’s the regular abuse and racist harassment that sometimes results in the murder of innocent African Americans at the hands of the police that gave birth to the movement.

The brutality of American police, however, does not exist in a vacuum. We are a deeply violent society where in one breath elected officials decry “senseless” shootings and other acts of violence while in the next they justify the use of drones to bomb people in faraway places.

We tend to view the spheres of domestic and foreign policy separately. When Barack Obama delivers pleas for calm in the streets of the United States while he attends a Nato summit in Poland detailing the extent of US military commitments across Europe and the decision to maintain the American occupation of Afghanistan, those two spheres begin to overlap. But when Dallas police used a robot to place a bomb near Micah Johnson, foregoing any due process and summarily executing him, it completely merged those spheres, bringing the “war on terror” home. Deploying the hardware and tactics of the military in domestic policing situation establishes a dangerous precedent.

But perhaps American violence is most acutely evident in the extreme inequality that exists here. This is not a tangential point. It is directly related to the antagonistic relationship police have with the mostly black and Latino communities they monitor and patrol. Much crime in this country is a product of poverty that is then aggravated by the absence of a welfare state that could mitigate its most pernicious effects. Police are deployed to respond to the consequences of poverty and our crumbling civic infrastructure. Black and brown people experience disproportionately high rates of poverty and unemployment, putting them directly into the crosshairs of police departments.

The tensions between communities of color and the police are stoked especially where police are increasingly asked to ticket, fine and arrest in order to generate income in the cities they work for. Philando Castile was stopped at least 52 times by police for a variety of minor driving infractions including speeding, driving without a muffler and not wearing a seatbelt. More than half of the violations he was stopped for were eventually dismissed but he still amassed over $6,500 in fines and fees as a result. Police brutality should not just be measured by physical abuse, wrongful arrest or even by simply counting the dead. It is also evident when black people are seen as sources of municipal funds and not as citizens. When you mix into this cauldron the fact that there are more guns in America than there are people, events like this last week’s are less shocking and more depressingly predictable.

All of this points to the necessary continuation, not the end, of the Black Lives Matter movement. As cautious and concerned as people may be today, we should not let the horrific killing spree in Dallas blind us to the unprecedented rate at which American police kill its own people. Since the beginning of 2016, the police have already killed 571 people with no apparent end in sight. The struggle must go on.

Why is the Black Lives Matter Movement Happening Now?

Eight years ago, at the dawn of the Obama era, pundits seriously debated whether the election of the nation’s first black president would mark an end to the country’s long history of racial inequality. Weeks after Obama was elected, Forbes Magazine jubilantly published an editorial headlined “Racism in America is Over.” While few others went quite so far, seven out of 10 Americans did believe that “race relations” would improve as a result of the Obama presidency.

What happened? How did we get from the optimism of the Obama presidential run to the eruption of a protest movement calling itself “Black Lives Matter”? Perhaps the optimism itself is to blame, or rather the contrast between Obama’s promise and the reality of his tenure.

There were sky-high expectations for Obama when he became president. This was especially true of young black people who gave Obama an unprecedentedly high share of their vote, twice. Expectations were also high because the conditions were so poor. The Obama Generation had come of age in the shadow of Hurricane Katrina, a decade of never-ending war in Iraq, and the instability of economic crisis, home foreclosures and growing student debt. In 2006, 52% of black youth aged 18 to 25 described the U.S. government as “unresponsive” to black needs, while 61% said they experienced discrimination when looking for work.

But instead of championing government initiatives that could attend to the crises of poverty and under-resourced institutions in black communities, the president maintained that he was the president of the United States, not the president of Black America. When Obama did intervene, it was to champion a measly public-private partnership known as My Brother’s Keeper that focused on poor and working-class black boys while ignoring the plight of their girl peers. More important, MBK was not public policy, but a program based on the generosity of other nonprofits and corporations.

With each passing year, it became more obvious that Obama could not live up to the promises of change that animated his presidential campaign. Indeed, by the summer of 2012, in the heat of Obama’s reelection campaign, black unemployment had risen to more than 14%, and 38% of black children were living in poverty.

Nor did Obama move to reform the criminal justice system. Almost two years in to his administration, legal scholar Michelle Alexander published her best-selling book “The New Jim Crow,” which provided a language to capture the devastating effects of mass incarceration on the African American population. Obama didn’t run with it.

Indeed, two moments highlighted Obama’s paralysis on this subject: his lackluster response to the Troy Davis campaign, and to the George Zimmerman trial.

Obama did not run on “yes, we can (if I have a Congress to my liking)” or “hope and change (if the 2010 midterm elections go my way)”.

Davis, a black man, was convicted in 1991 for the 1989 murder of a police officer and sentenced to death. But Davis maintained his innocence and many believed him. Leading up to his September 2011 lethal injection date, an international group of luminaries, including the pope, the head of the European Union and a former director of the FBI, pleaded for a retrial or clemency. Black college students in Washington, D.C., marched on the White House and the Supreme Court. But Obama never even made a statement regarding Davis. Instead he left it to his spokespeople to say that he had no jurisdiction over the matter. Davis was executed.

In the summer of 2013, when Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin, Obama was less quiet, but equally disappointing. Young black activists hoped Obama would use his position to elevate their concerns about inequality in policing and the judicial system more broadly. Instead Obama reminded the American people that “we are a nation” of laws, ignoring how the laws do not always apply to everyone equally.

Nearing the end of Obama’s historic presidency, what can honestly be said to have changed in the lives of young, working-class and poor African American youth? Unemployment and rates of poverty remain high, wages remain low and police violence and abuse continue unabated. When the political establishment and the political institutions of our society fail to improve people’s lives, they begin to lose their legitimacy and people either tune out of politics and society altogether or they find other means to compel the changes they seek. Often this is through political activism.

Thus we arrive at the most recent eruption of demonstrations against police violence in the aftermath of the highly publicized killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Although activists have met with federal officials, including the president himself, Obama’s apparent inability to rein in brutal police while repeatedly lauding their supposed heroism reinforces the perception that the only way to transform these conditions is to vigorously protest them.

We can, of course, debate whether it is realistic or fair to expect a president to effect real change in a scant eight years. But Obama did not run on “yes, we can (if I have a Congress to my liking)” or “hope and change (if the 2010 midterm elections go my way)”. And if it was unrealistic or unfair to expect Obama to succeed, then surely it’s worth asking why it was so important to elect him in the first place. Rarely will African Americans publicly criticize the nation’s first black president, but their frustration with the status quo can be measured by the intensity of the protest in his final days in office.

The Base

In spite of Bernie Sanders’s primary win in Indiana and favored status in West Virginia, recent voting in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and a handful of other states appears to confirm what has long been anticipated: after a spirited campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Vermont senator is falling to earth. One would not want to write off a campaign prematurely—after all, dismissal of Donald Trump by the press and his fellow Republicans paved his road to the GOP nomination—but Sanders himself is retrenching. Staff cuts and campaign statements suggest he is now focused less on the presidency than on dents he can make in the Democratic Party platform at July’s convention.

Thus it is fair, at this stage, to ask what will become of the political fervor Sanders has unleashed. Supporters of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, hope some of that excitement can be funneled toward her general election run, securing a decisive victory and the legislative mandate believed to result. Especially if Trump is on the general election ballot, as seems all but certain, there is no doubt that a significant portion of Sanders backers will vote for Clinton in November.

Yet this lesser-of-many-evils approach only emphasizes the cynical calculus that Sanders’s supporters yearned to escape: the Democrats promise as little as they can get away with and hope the troglodytes parading in the Republican Party are enough to get the base out to the polls.

Bernie Sanders advocates redistributive government, which puts him at odds with the last twenty-five years of Democratic common sense.

But now some activists wonder whether the class anger orbiting Sanders’s campaign can transform the Democratic Party into a tool for movements against economic and racial inequality. An older generation remembers when the Democratic Party brandished its liberal credentials instead of being terrified by them. For these activists, Sanders’s surprising run yields nostalgic visions of “taking back” the party, reviving what they believe was a grassroots politics representing ordinary people.

Like much nostalgia, however, this is naïve. One need look no further than Clinton’s candidacy to appreciate the Democratic top-brass’s aversion to policies and politics centered on social justice. Instead of thanking Sanders for activating new voters and reinvigorating those still sleepy from the underwhelming presidency of Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton accused him of wanting to “shoot” people on Wall Street. Last December, instead of accepting responsibility for the security of its own data, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) smeared Sanders and falsely accused him of breaking into Hillary Clinton’s campaign secrets. Clinton has reluctantly appealed to Sanders’s supporters by referring to herself as progressive and declaring that the middle class needs a raise. But mostly she and the Democratic hierarchy have mocked Sanders for supposedly promising “free this and free that and everything”—a criticism she rejected when it came from Jeb Bush’s lips. Clinton has campaigned relentlessly on the improbability of universal health care and criticized Sanders for suggesting that there be free tuition at public universities and colleges.

This is not just a case of Clinton failing to detect which way the wind is blowing in American politics. As a steward of American capital, it is her responsibility to attack the idea of social entitlement. It was her husband and campaign surrogate who clearly articulated the politics of the “new Democrats,” when he declared that the “era of big government is over.” Sanders advocates redistributive government, which puts him at odds with the last twenty-five years of Democratic common sense. Hillary Clinton is not fundamentally opposed to the use of the government treasury for any and all social entitlements, but her refusal to embrace serious redistributive policies for the benefit of poor people shows that she sees her future job as her husband saw his in the ’90s: to crush, or at least ignore, the proposition that the public should provide for people’s needs.

This does not make Clinton a conservative Democrat; it just makes her a Democrat. Since her husband’s first term, the Democratic Party has successfully molded itself into a small-government, pro-privatization, law-and-order party. As then-Senator Joe Biden put it while celebrating the 1994 Crime Bill:

Let me define the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties. That is what is in this bill. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has 70 enhanced penalties. . . . The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 125,000 new state prison cells.

Today the Black Lives Matter movement has compelled the party to walk back some of that rhetoric. But there is little reason to believe this is a genuine retreat rather than an exercise in political expediency. Biden was speaking to a deeper truth about how the party wanted to be known: as tough as the GOP, not socially liberal or especially concerned with the interests of minorities.

This is not just old news. Decmocratic veterans nationwide continue to push a regressive agenda. Consider Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, once a party kingmaker and now one of the most reviled public officials in his city. He earned his ignominy by covering for police criminality and attempting to dismantle public education, a process that included thelargest mass school closure in American history, in 2013. Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles has cracked down on the homeless, confiscating their property, including the “tiny homes” that were doing what the city wouldn’t—house homeless people. In New York City, mayor Bill De Blasio betrayed his supporters in the criminal justice reform movement bypledging to hire 1,300 more police even as crime continued its historic downward trend. In San Franciso, Mayor Ed Lee promoted a “Twitter tax break”—a payroll tax exemption lasting six years and intended to keep tech companies in San Francisco—which cost the city $34 million in 2015 alone. Meanwhile, San Francisco faces a $100 million budget shortfall, and Mayor Lee is calling for across-the-board spending cuts from city agencies. With Democrats scaling back services—excepting, of course, law enforcement—and pushing trickle-down economics, who needs Republicans?

One might protest that Democratic officials have generally been more critical of the latest excesses of campaign finance law than have been their GOP competitors. But these words don’t reflect principle. When it comes to absorbing corporate money and accompanying influence, the Democratic Party takes a back seat to no one. The party’s largest corporate donors embody the greed that courses through the financial and industrial economy: Goldman Sachs, AT&T, Bank of America, JP Morgan, and General Electric hedge their bets by giving almost equally to both parties. Lockheed Martin and Walmart veer toward Republicans but still give millions to Democrats, just in case. In the midst of the primary season, the DNC changed the party’s rules to allow presidential candidates to accept more money from lobbyists and political action committees.

The corrosive influence of money in politics is hardly a revelation, but it is sobering to observe it at work in an organization that claims to champion the welfare of the downtrodden. Take the Congressional Black Caucus, which used to refer to itself as the “conscience of the Congress.” The CBC PAC and its politicians politicians have received some of their largest donations from Walmart, General Motors, and Coca-Cola. Is it any wonder that the caucus has been almost absent in the fight for a higher minimum wage, even as more than half of black workers make less than $15 an hour?

Citizens angered by inequality and injustice should not be stifled by the pressure to organize through the Democratic Party.

Indeed, this campaign season has been a lesson in just how conservative the Democratic Party actually is. Hence Clinton’s unofficial campaign slogan of “no we can’t” and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s calm admission that unpledged superdelegates “exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists.”

The two-party system itself preserves the Democrats’ conservatism, which suggests that the party is not likely to change before there is a legitimate challenge from its left. Until then, the Democratic leadership can remain confident that its base has nowhere else to go. Thus, even when Democrats push policies that harm their constituents, they can expect little protest from the major liberal organizations. For example, when the Democratic Party promotes so-called education reform policies that are hostile to teachers unions and negatively affect black students, officials themselves receive almost no resistance from teachers unions or the NAACP.

In fact, the opposite occurrs. While rank-and-file teachers oppose significant aspects of the reform movement, including the Common Core standards and the intensifying regime of standardized testing, their union leadership dutifully lines up to back the Democratic Party. The American Federation of Teachers endorsed Clinton as early as July 2015; the National Education Association followed suit in October, with no debate or discussion among its members. The civil rights establishment is largely silent on education policy, but, when it does get vocal, it tends to support reformers. This is not surprising considering that the NAACP and Urban League have received millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation, which champions charter schools, standardized testing, and privatization. Notably, education reform was the key agenda item of former Obama administration Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The party’s conservatism radiates outward, as its constituency learns to fall in behind its positions.

This makes the party difficult to capture, as the Tea Party had captured the GOP at one point. Yet the appeal of such a strategy is longstanding. The same question returns eternally: How to transform protest rabble into respectable politics? In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the move to integrate the New Left into the Democratic Party was heralded as a sign of maturation for the counterculture. But as the movements in the streets subsided and activists entered the electoral arena, they imbibed party norms and became less militant. In 1984 and ’88, the Rainbow Coalition led by Reverend Jesse Jackson was supposed to get tough with the Democratic Party and demand a seat at the table for black voters. Instead, the party got tough with black and other progressive voters by insisting that they take a back seat to the paty’s conservative wing, represented by Bill Clinton. And let us not forget that it was Al Gore, running against Michael Dukakis for the Democratic Party nomination in 1988, who introduced Willie Horton into the post–Civil Rights lexicon of racial symbolism, helping to derail Dukakis’s campaign and reinforce the era’s demand for crime-control politics and policies.

Given the resilience of party conservatives, their history of both rebuffing challenges from the left and absorbing the challengers themselves, it is hard to imagine a takeover strategy bearing fruit. This brings us back to Sanders and the most unfortunate aspect of his campaign: he is running as a Democrat. As a consequence he will, at some point, be asked to throw his support to Clinton. (Already he has agreed to back her in the likely event that she is nominated.) For Sanders, who has spent his entire political life working with and on behalf of Democrats, this is perhaps no great sacrifice.

However, the intractability of the Democratic Party is not the only argument against moving from protest to polite politics. The assumption that doing so is preferable or important underestimates the critical role protest plays in generating progressive change. When activists recall a Democratic Party that cared about ordinary people, what they really have in mind are the social movements and revolts that forced the party to respond to the needs and demands of those on the streets. There would have been no New Deal without the Hoovervilles, rent riots, sit-down strikes, and Communist Party activism of the 1930s. There would have been no Great Society without Civil Rights protests in the South and rebellions in more than two hundred cities across the country during the 1960s. Even Richard Nixon, who won office appealing to a racist “silent majority,” waited out his first term before he began dismantling Lyndon Johnson’s welfare state, lest he provoke protests.

As the great activist and historian Howard Zinn put it, “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but ‘who is sitting in’—and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.” He didn’t mean that elections are irrelevant, but he emphasized what citizens do to shape their world. The anger about inequality and injustice in the United States, which has been given some voice by the Sanders campaign and most certainly by the Black Lives Matter movement, should not be stifled by the pressure to organize through the Democratic Party. It can’t be done. The movement for equality and justice should continue to organize independently and fight for its agenda regardless of what party sits in office.

Race, Class, and the 2016 Election

The 2016 presidential election will be the first to unfold against the backdrop of the national Black Lives Matter movement.  Even as the movement remains most active in local campaigns and continues to have a fractured national character, its imprint is all over the Democratic Party’s primary process.  This is, of course, of little consequence to the Republican Party, but matters greatly in the Democratic Party race where the two leading candidates for the party’s nomination—for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—attempt to position themselves as heirs to Barack Obama’s historically high Black voter turnout in 2008 and 2012.

From the earliest moments of the 2016 campaign season, Democratic Party candidates have been racing to keep up with the movement.  For example, Clinton reluctantly declared in a public setting “black lives matter,” in December of 2014 as Black protests erupted nationally after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked Eric Garner to death.

Those protests boiled over into the spring, fueled by the brutal murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina by officer Michael Slaeger that was captured on video. Indeed, the frustrations with perceptions of police lawlessness erupted into open rebellion in Baltimore, Maryland, in April when young Freddie Gray died of injuries sustained while in police custody. The struggle in Baltimore not only applied pressure on sitting politicians to reign in the police, but it also pressured those candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.

Clinton used the anxious atmosphere in the aftermath of Baltimore to speak more broadly about police violence in American cities.  She said “Walter Scott shot in the back in Charleston, South Carolina, unarmed, in debt, terrified of spending any more time in jail for child support payments he couldn’t afford. Tamir Rice shot in a park in Cleveland, Ohio, unarmed and just 12 years old. Eric Garner, choked to death after being stopped for selling cigarettes on the streets of our city. And now Freddie Gray, his spine nearly severed while in police custody… Not only as a mother and a grandmother, but as a citizen, a human being, my heart breaks for these young men and their families… We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America.”

Finally, Clinton declared, “it’s time we end the era of mass incarceration… We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance. And these recent tragedies should galvanize us to come together as a nation to find our balance again.”

Bernie Sanders, who jumped in the race after Clinton, understood that in order to have a chance at the Party’s nomination, he would have to cut into Clinton’s considerable support among Blacks and Latinos.  Sanders later traveled to the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray was picked up by police and remarked, “Anyone who took the walk that we took around this neighborhood would not think you are in a wealthy nation,” Sanders said. “You would think you are in a third world country.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has pulled Black suffering and oppression from the margins of US society right into the center of American politics in the midst of a presidential election year.

A section of movement activists initiated protests directed at Democratic Party candidates hoping to motivate a greater focus on racism, poverty and injustice in their political programs. #BlackLivesMatters activists, including founder Patrisse Cullors, stormed high profile events of Bernie Sanders and Clinton, enduring insults as a result, but the heat generated by the protests certainly forced Clinton and Sanders to adjust or even create “racial justice” platforms to stay relevant to the developing Black movement.

The immediate results were multiple meetings between well-known activists in the movement and the campaigns of Clinton and Sanders. The focus on racial politics has been a crucial aspect of the broader Democratic Party agenda to keep Black voters engaged in the political process this year especially.

In 2008 and 2012, African Americans voted in historically high numbers for Barack Obama and were decisive in his winning the presidency.  There is concern that the absence of Obama on the ticket will depress Black voter turnout, jeopardizing the Democrats’ goal of retaining the White House and potentially competing for several Congressional seats as well, as the Party also hopes to reclaim the Congress.

With the primary season in full swing, the focus on Black voters has intensified especially as Clinton and Sanders split the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire with almost no Black votes at stake.  But Clinton’s prowess among Black voters was on display as she decisively swept Southern states on the strength of African American support.

There had been some hope within Sanders’ campaign that several high profile Black activists, writers, and entertainers’ support could cut into Clinton’s lead among African American voters.  This was especially true when articles began to appear documenting Hillary Clinton’s support for law-and-order and anti-social welfare policies during her husband, Bill Clinton’s, tenure in the 1990s.

But none of it appeared to have any impact on Black support for Clinton.  The raging question in the days and weeks since has been on the meaning of Black electoral support for the Clinton campaign.  In some ways, it is not very difficult to understand.  There are three primary reasons for Clinton’s dominance among Black voters that begins with her close relationship with the Black political establishment.  The political wing of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) came out early in support of Clinton for president.  The CBC, of course, had been a close and reliable ally of Bill Clinton in the 1990s—backing even his most regressive policies like the 1994 Crime Bill in order to maintain political access to the Clinton White House.  The CBC has become even more conservative and politically cautious accepting donations from Walmart and the Koch brothers in fundraising ventures.  Nevertheless, their championing of Clinton while admonishing Sanders has been influential among a significant layer of Black voters.

The CBC’s support has been important but so has Clinton’s own ability to clearly articulate her vision of a Black agenda.  In a high profile speech made in central Harlem in New York City, Clinton pledged that ending “systemic racism” would be the “centerpiece” of her presidential administration.  She also unveiled a vague, but actual, multi-billion dollar plan that she described as key to “revitalizing economically” urban and rural Black enclaves.  The focus on Black voters is a sharp departure from Obama who could not or would not commit to a specific plan to address Black poverty and inequality.  In the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election, Obama reminded voters that he was not the president of Black America.  Clinton, however, is in need of a robust Black voter turnout and has had to actively solicit the Black vote to compensate for the lack of excitement in the coming election.  There is no reason to believe that Clinton will actually follow through on any of her promises, given the dysfunction of the US Congress and that much of her program does not actually address the racial discrimination that is the key to Black inequality and oppression in the US.  Instead, Clinton is focused on job training and other “opportunity” centered programs that do not really address the changing political economy of metropolitan areas across the country where Blacks are concentrated.  Nevertheless, Clinton has clearly tried to articulate an agenda to appeal to Black voters.

Sanders has a campaign platform that should appeal widely to Black voters, including his opposition to the death penalty, his support for a $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, and free public college tuition.  Sanders, who hails from the lily white state of Vermont and whose tenure in the Senate has been as an Independent, has not had to build political relationships with the CBC or other Black political operatives.  Thus, he is not very well known among Black voters.  In South Carolina exit polls, familiarity with the candidate and experience was rated significantly higher than “electability” in the November election.  Even still, Sanders did well among Black voters under thirty which indicates that if Sanders had more time, and had not endured a virtual media blackout until the Iowa caucuses he may have won even more Black voters to his campaign. Despite Sanders growing appeal among some Black voters, it is difficult to build the reputation and connections to Black political and civic organizations that are key to turning voters out in a matter of weeks and months compared to the twenty-five year history of the Clinton political machine.

Finally, the horror show of the Republican Party primary is compelling reason enough for some to vote for what is considered the sure bet of Hillary Clinton against whomever emerges as the Republican nominee.  In most election cycles there are withering arguments to defeat the Republican nominee as the greater evil, but this year the pressure is even more intense.  This is not the typical racism and xenophobia of most Republican Party contests, but the rise of Donald Trump as a leading figure among Republicans has generated legitimate concern.  Trump appears to adhere to his own rules, ignoring the racial codes and innuendo that have been the norm in American politics since the end of the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.  Trump calls for the deportation of undocumented immigrants, the torture of Muslims, and has played coy with his welcoming of white supremacists around the fringes of his campaign.  Clinton and the Democratic Party will be relying on the fear of a Trump presidency to motivate Black voters in the fall election.

Given the epic crisis in legitimacy facing the Republican Party, the Democrats should have no problem in the general election.  But the lingering fear remains that without a significant turnout of the Democratic Party base, including Black voters, the Democrats may not have as easy a time as polls indicate both Clinton and Sanders would have in a head-to-head contest against Trump.  While the media has been breathlessly reporting on their perceptions of the deep wells of political support for Clinton in Black communities, especially in the South, what has been less reported on is the significant drop in the number of Democrats, including Black Democrats, voting in the primaries this year compared to 2008.

For example, across the South where Clinton dominated Sanders in the primary votes, Democratic voter turnout was, in some cases, dramatically lower than it had been in 2008.  In Texas and Tennessee there were 50 percent and 40 percent fewer voters, respectively.  In Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia voter turnout was down between a quarter and a third. This dramatic decrease in voter turnout also includes the much sought after Black vote.  South Carolina, which many mark as a turning point for Clinton’s campaign, saw a 40 percent decrease in Black voter turnout.

For all of the discussion of the Clinton machine, politically she has not been able to generate the interest or enthusiasm of Obama in 2008.  Unlike Obama, Clinton has been forced to curtail expectations raised by the Sanders campaign. Where Obama’s campaign was able to activate new layers of Black voters on the promise of “hope” and “change,” Hillary has looked to temper expectations by contrasting her candidacy to Sanders who she accuses of “over promising” things like universal healthcare and ending tuition at public universities. Many of those millenials activated by the promise of the Obama administration and then dejected by the sclerosis of his administration went on to join the Occupy struggle against economic inequality and later the Black Lives Matter movement.  Clinton’s main slogan “breaking down barriers” hardly ignites the same kind of passion and excitement witnessed in 2008—especially when some African Americans believe that Clinton and her husband were responsible for perpetuating many of those barriers when doing so seemed politically opportune in the 1990s.

One can imagine that there is a formidable amount of skepticism about reentering electoral politics with the same rigor that swept many up into the 2008 Obama campaign.  If the election of an African American president, swept into office by the promises of fundamental change, could produce such small and, at times, imperceptible changes in the lives of ordinary Black people, then it would be hard to find excitement in a Clinton or Sanders campaign this time around.  This may explain how even in Sanders’ home state of Vermont, the under 30 vote in the primary was almost 40 percent lower than it had been in 2008.  Sanders has tried to tap into hope, but for all of the enthusiasm he has garnered, the Obama experience has surely left an untold number of people disillusioned with the entire political process.

The feeling of exasperation with formal politics is not only fueled by the utter dysfunction of the US Congress—from the refusal of the Senate to even entertain any Obama nominee for the US Supreme Court to the annual ritual of House Republicans voting to overturn Obama’s healthcare plan—but it is bolstered by the persistence of racism.  If the Obama presidency was intended to usher in a new era of postracial relief, the Republican primaries, the rise of the Trump mob, and the ongoing epidemic of unchecked police violence and murder exposes the limits of electoral politics in changing the fundamental nature of American society.

This exasperation is not necessarily political apathy but it can represent an opportunity for the political left to continue to build the kind of activist alternative to the stasis of the Democratic Party.  Sanders has certainly tapped into the sentiment that something more substantive than simply pulling the lever for this or that candidate in the coming election is the most important use of people’s time.  Instead, he has called for a political revolution by which he means the massive participation of the public in demonstrations and political action intended to get elected officials to act more in the interest of the public.  This, of course, is a great idea, but the notion that such a “revolution” can happen under the leadership of the Democratic Party is deeply mistaken.

In the last five years, we have seen the insurgent Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter transform the politics and discussion of economic and racial inequality in the United States.  Both movements worked to uncover the hypocrisy and hollowness of American democracy and both demonstrated direct action, pickets, and protest as the most effective means of social change in contrast to voting for millionaire politicians.  The Occupy movement would go on to suffer police repression and physical attack but the issues uncovered have not gone away.  Instead, as the anemic economic recovery sputters along, there has been a deepening of the disparity between the rich and the rest of us in the US.  Black Lives Matter continues along with police murder and violence.  The movement has done much to expose the injustice of American policing but it has also been confronted with the difficulty of transforming the systems of the criminal justice system that have their entire origins and history rooted in the oppression of Black and Brown people in the United States.  This is difficult to undo through demonstrations alone. The movement can, however, provide a home and a direction to the hundreds of thousands of voters who have expressed little interest in the pending contest for president but remain concerned about the state of the world.  The last eighteen months of protest and movement building have shown to be vastly more effective in exposing the issues entangled with police violence than the empty promises of elected officials.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a writer, public speaker and activist living in Philadelphia. She writes on Black politics, housing inequality and issues of race and class in the United States. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University.  Her book From #BLACKLIVESMATTER to BLACK LIBERATION, published in February by Haymarket Books, has received rave reviews from Michelle Alexander, Robin D.G. Kelley,  and Cornel West who says “Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has emerged as the most sophisticated and courageous radical intellectual of her generation.” We at Tikkun are honored to be able to publish this article.

Justice Scalia Should Embarrass White People

‘Scalia’s words are the latest in what seems like an all-out assault on black people in this country’

I wish I didn’t have to respond to Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent remarks during oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case over whether the factor of race in 20% of the university’s admissions decisions is constitutional. But I have to. His are the latest in what seems like an all-out assault on black people in this country, where we live, where we pray and now where we go to school. I don’t know what’s fueling the fire—whether it’s the actions of police officers or the bile of Donald Trump and those who support him—but it feels like some white people are coming unhinged.

Justice Scalia said: “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less—a slower-track school where they do well.” He went on to say: “I’m just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer. And maybe some—you know, when you take more, the number of blacks, admitted to lesser schools, turns out to be less.”

In effect, he is saying excellent schools aren’t the best places for some black students. The excellent schools do more harm than good.

Now there is little in Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence that would lead me to believe that he genuinely cares about what’s best for black students or is even mildly committed to the value of diversity. So I am not interested in responding to the substance of his claim. I will leave that to others.

What does interest me is what motivates his comments. This entire case reflects the hysteria around the perceived belief that meritless black people are stealing opportunities from well-deserving whites. Yet to believe that is to ignore the facts. Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff, thinks that bad black students took her place at the University of Texas. But 42 white students with lower test scores and grades were also offered provisional admission. Why not single them out? To challenge only the five black and Latino students with lower scores and grades suggests that, for Fisher and her lawyers, the problem is not merely the process, but certain people who benefit from it and should not.

At the heart of all of this is the unseemly and ever-persistent belief that white students matter more. Others are unworthy. This is the nature of the value gap: that no matter our stated principles or how much progress we think we’ve made in changing society to reflect them, white people are valued more in this country than others. That belief undergirds racial inequality and informs the remarks of Justice Scalia.

I hope the University of Texas prevails in this case. But my concern cuts much deeper than a defense of affirmative action. Our racial habits reflect how we see ourselves, and they are formed from what we see in the world. I think about all of those black and brown students who are working their behinds off right now in school. They face a barrage of challenges and they still excel. Excellence, they have been told, is their best armor against the value gap. And now they read the words of Justice Scalia, a white man who sits on the highest court in the land.

This is why I have to respond. I cannot let his words do harm to our babies — especially given that so much of this world conspires against them. We have to work so hard every day to keep the ugliness around us from seeping into our children’s souls, darkening their eyes, and shattering their dreams. We have to work hard to keep them from believing what people like Justice Scalia say about them. As James Baldwin put it in his essay, “The Uses of the Blues”:

In every generation, ever since Negroes have been here, every Negro mother and father has had to face that child and try to create in that child some way of surviving this particular world, some way to make the child who will be despised not despise himself. I don’t know what ‘the Negro Problem’ means to white people, but this is what it means to Negroes.

Baldwin understood the deadly implication of the value gap. And here we are facing, yet again, a challenge to affirmative action and confronting the violence of Justice Scalia’s words. I know what I am going to say to my son, who attends Brown University. “To hell with Justice Scalia; his world is dying. Keep fighting. Get your work done. And dream big dreams, son.”

What Happened in Missouri Puts the Nation on Notice

Imagine what could happen at Ohio State or UCLA or any other major university. The activists already have.

What happened at the University of Missouri has sent shockwaves throughout this country: A startling coalition of students and faculty just forced the top leadership of the University to resign. The students had had enough. A swastika drawn with human feces on a residential dorm was the latest incident in a long list of ugly incidents, which made it clear that some people believed that black students did not belong at the University of Missouri. The image and the medium spoke volumes about those who composed it.

President Wolfe’s tepid response sealed his fate, but as with every other issue involving race in America, change is never given; it must always be won. And the student protests, Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike, the faculty’s threat of a walk out, and the strike among black football students announced that a new wave of campus activism has arrived, armed with the power to bring real change. The nation has been put on notice.

We have seen something like this before. In 1968 and 1969, black students organized protests across some two hundred campuses in the United States. These were among the first significant wave of black students on predominantly white campuses, and they brought with them the energy and expectation of the black freedom movement—particularly the militancy of Black Power. They pushed for the hiring of black faculty, argued for an increase in financial aid for African American students, and pressed administrators to support black living spaces. In short, they challenge the whiteness of American universities and colleges.

These students took over buildings, participated in demonstrations, and organized campus strikes to change American higher education. As Martha Biondi notes in her wonderful book, The Black Revolution on Campus, “these student activists forced a permanent change in American life, transforming overwhelmingly white campuses into multiracial learning environments. The academic community would never be the same.”

This is not to suggest that the activists won. As the first wave of black students on white campuses their very presence changed the game, but while they could challenge the whiteness of universities, they lacked the leverage to truly uproot it. A brief glance at the demands of the black students at the University of Missouri shows how little has changed.

What Missouri’s “coalition of the willing” demonstrated, however, is that the nature of the protests has dramatically changed—especially if black student athletes join in. Campus protests didn’t end after 1970. Over the decades, students have continued to make demands and threatened to take over buildings. Yet much of this protest has had a kind of nostalgic flavor to it, reminiscent of the student activism of the sixties.

What we saw in Columbia, Missouri, was something different. There was nothing nostalgic about it.
The protests were decidedly of this moment. These students are shaped by the startling contrast of
the nation’s first black president and the black lives matter movement. They have seen the viral
videos of police brutality, and many have watched family and friends struggle to recover from the
economic devastation that has left their lives in shambles. They have witnessed, some even
participated in, the convulsions of Ferguson and Baltimore.

And they have taken to heart the lessons of those protests in making their case on campus. When the black football players joined with #ConcernedStudent1950 and in solidarity with Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike, they revealed a kind of power in coalition that shook the University to its core—a kind of power the first wave of black student activists in the 1960s simply did not have, but whose labor made possible. The combination of continued student disruption, the economic leverage of the football players (people who can’t be so easily discarded), and the administrative power of the faculty added up to a force the university simply could not ignore.

And what’s more these activists have given students at other schools a working blueprint for change. Can you imagine what would happen at Ohio State or the University of Alabama or UCLA or any major institution of higher learning if similar coalitions dared to act in a similar vein?

Well…the activists have. One even posted on her Facebook page:

Dear Predominantly White Institutions, and HBCU’s soon too:

Y’all gon learn today.

Signed by,

A former and future Black student who loves current Black students who are turning it up from ‪#‎Mizzou to ‪#‎Yale

The Nation has been put on notice. We should brace ourselves for more protests to come.

Black Lives Matter on Campus, Too

The Black Lives Matter movement has arrived on college campuses and universities with the same ferocity it brought to the streets of American cities last year, after grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, refused to indict white officers involved in the deaths of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Black students and their friends and allies protested for Brown and Garner on campuses last year too. At Princeton University, where I teach, nearly 500 students participated in campus protests following the non-indictments.

But recently, the protests have turned inward — toward a campus climate that many African-American students describe as hostile, indifferent and, at times, contemptuous of their presence. Despite vocal efforts to minimize the nature of the protests, thousands of African-American students have been protesting and demonstrating on college campuses — large and small, public and private — across the country. At Princeton, many of the same students who stood up to police violence are now confronting the administration’s continued honoring of Woodrow Wilson, the former president of both Princeton and the United States, who was also a virulent and unrepentant racist.

The responses to these campus protests have ranged from sympathy and solidarity to incredulity and anger. Some in the media have portrayed black students as coddled, fragile or entitled, always with the implication that they are overreacting to trivial issues. The common assumption is that black students, especially those on Ivy League campuses, have nothing to complain about.

But these protests are not only about the conditions black students encounter on campus. They are also shaped by their complicated experiences coming of age during the presidency of Barack Obama. When Obama was first elected in 2008, Americans of all backgrounds were tantalized by the promise of living in a post-racial or colorblind society. Unfortunately, those expectations have been shattered repeatedly.

The idea that black students should just be quiet and enjoy their supposedly privileged lives overlooks the reality that even solidly middle-class African-Americans often face economic insecurities and inequality that their white peers do not.

Under Obama, few demographics have faced more uncertainty than the African-American middle class. There are many reasons for this, but a central one is the collapse of black homeownership following the 2008 financial crisis.According to one report, a staggering 240,000 African-Americans lost their homes to foreclosure between 2007 and 2009. Furthermore, high-earning African-Americans were 80 percent more likely to lose their homes than their white counterparts. The devastation of black middle class enclaves like Prince George’s County, Maryland, due to home foreclosures was far more severe than that facing the white middle class.

The foreclosure crisis has had a domino effect on the financial health and prospects of the black middle class. The disparity between black and white net worth, driven largely by homeownership, exemplifies the differences between the experiences of the white middle class and their black counterparts. In 2011, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings compared to the paltry $7,113 for African-American families.

“Black students are not coddled or hypersensitive. Rather, they are grappling with the uncertainty and insecurity that accompanies much of black life in the United States today.”

 

This disparity directly impacts the experiences of black college students. Black families are more likely to take on the burden of student loans to pay for college than white families. In 2013, 42 percent of black families carried student loan debt, compared to 28 percent of white families.

But even the successful completion of college is no guarantee that black graduates will be afforded the same opportunities as their white peers. As recently as 2013, among graduates aged 22 to 27, 12.4 percent of blacks were unemployed, compared to 4.9 percent of whites.

The anxieties spurred by the economic disparities between African-Americans and whites reflect the broader racial inequality that remains rife in our country. We are, after all, living through a moment in history when the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” which shouldn’t be controversial but apparently is for many whites, has captured the nation’s attention. The reason is simple: The phrase succinctly captures the perilousness of being black in the United States today.

African-American students face the same uncertain future currently experienced by their parents, compounded by the potential of harassment, violence or worse by police or others who inexplicably harbor anger and resentment toward black people. One look at the comments sections or social media reactions to any online article covering the student protests confirms this. Recently, just minutes after black students at Princeton reached an agreement with the school administration, they received a bomb threat.

Even as U.S. politicians panic over the recent attacks in Paris, the nation has quickly moved on from our own experience of terrorism not even six months ago. In Charleston, South Carolina, nine African-Americans were gunned down in church by the white supremacist Dylann Roof. More recently, on Nov. 23 three white men shot five Black Lives Matter activists at a protest in Minneapolis. This is the critical context for the much-mocked student demands for “safe space,” where differences of opinion or perspective are respected and not met with fury and the threat of violence.

All of these streams feed the river of anxiety, frustration and disappointment flowing through black students across the country. These students are not coddled or hypersensitive. Rather, they are grappling with the uncertainty and insecurity that accompanies much of black life in the United States today.

It is not surprising, then, that black college students are taking the lead from their brothers and sisters in the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore and many other cities. They are also expressing disappointment with Obama, who has waited until the twilight of his presidency to at least rhetorically challenge the rough racial terrain in the country. Besides Obama, there are more black members of Congress today than at any other point in American history, and yet race continues to set the parameters for the quality of one’s life in this country.

Black students do not get the luxury of avoiding this reality, whether on campus or off. The Black Lives Matter movement has arrived on campus because protests have proven to be the only way to move beyond static conversations and status quo policies in favor of the positive action necessary to confront the persistence of racial inequality throughout the nation.