Reflections on the DNC: Part 1
I went to the Democratic National Convention on a press pass. I had secretly hoped to rediscover my desire to vote. As a Black person, my number one political issue right now is biological existence. And in the wake of the DNC, it is clearer than ever to me how little the ballot helps with that.
Vote for whomever you wish and for whatever reasons you wish. This is not an argument against voting. It is to report that what I saw clarified exactly where I and mine and all Black people stand in the electoral process of the American Babylon.
I will state my concerns as simply as I can. Nothing supersedes the fact that I can be shot down in the streets with impunity. That is priority one of any Black agenda. Period. The reality of severe suffering and death—often violent death, and often at the hands of the state that was supposedly formulated to “protect” Black people— is not a moment of crisis but rather a normal state of affairs for Black people. The crisis, such as it is, has been so ongoing that there is no point in calling it anything other than Black life in the USA. Some theorists say that our availability to gratuitous violence is a defining feature of Black existence. The DNC last week was one location where that theory became fact. As the DC-based Black women’s a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock once sang, “My soul is in a state of emergency.”
As a Black person, has my capacity to maintain biological existence ever been on solid ground? If it truly were an “unalienable right,” could my right to life be voted out of existence under a law, born of some “Remember the Alamo” fantasy, that cost Trayvon Martin his life, or ruled out of existence by a racist judge, as happened with Latasha Harlins in Los Angeles? Can I enjoy health care for a pre-existing condition if I am dead by legal execution on a case so weak that it never should have passed the “reasonable doubt” test in the first place, as happened with Troy Davis, or if my demand that a hospital relieve my ongoing pain lands me in jail, where I die from the very thing that was causing the pain, as happened with Anna Brown in St. Louis? And can my right to life matter if I can be imprisoned for defending the very fact of being alive, as Cece McDonald in Minneapolis did? Can I be a member of the middle class if being at my home gets me shot, as happened with Julian Alexander in Anaheim and Kiwane Carrington in Champaign, IL? And in the cases of Eleanora Bumpers, Kathryn Johnston, and Kenneth Chamberlain, what reprieve do our so-called twilight years hold for us when the racist, murderous might of a police force gets to us before the Medicare program expires?
Go to the Obama campaign’s web site for African Americans and see for yourself if they even speak on any of this. Or I can save you a click. They don’t. They, like your typical Black moderates, reduce the problems Black people face to the lowest common denominator that Black folks have with everybody else—access to the middle and upper classes.
This is not to poo-poo Black poverty. Not at all. Being broke or being not-middle-class certainly is a big part of our struggles, or at least of what we see of our struggles.
But there again, why do we suffer from it disproportionately? It ain’t hard to tell. It is an extension of our availability to gratuitous violence. Everybody struggles to ward off poverty (well, almost everybody), but everybody also knows that there is something else behind our unemployment that isn’t behind white people’s unemployment, which is why ours is at least twice theirs and stays there. But, more to the point, nobody truly thinks that Rekia Boyd and Trayvon Martin got shot by pigs because of the stagnation of middle-class income.
What is the value of Black life in Black mainstream politics?
From “white flight” to “school reform” to targeted extrajudicial assassinations—white people have been using mainstream politics to assert their supposedly threatened rights to life, everybody else be damned. But to let the speakers of the DNC tell it, Black people’s desires just don’t rate, and, no matter how much dying we do, we don’t deserve special consideration. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that our agenda must want what the white people have. But it is a big problem that we are stuck getting their approval for things that we need to survive while they don’t need our approval to save the sorry old entitlements and the accoutrements of their precious white middle class.
And apparently, that’s just the way it is. I asked a number of Black people at the DNC why there was no mention of all the killing in Chicago or the report that every 36 hours, police and security forces kill a Black person in the USA. Almost nobody wanted to go on record, but plenty of people gave me sideways glances, and everybody implied that bringing such things up would be a disservice to the President’s re-election possibilities. Almost no one would brook any further questions about why Black leaders were just going to let the Democrats stand pat with Black people dying in the streets and rotting in the prisons. Such was the craven cowardice, the stammering irrelevance, and the lack of ethical imagination of those who claimed to speak for us in the electoral process, that they would choose the electoral prospects of the one Great Black Father over merely talking about the actual biological lives of tens of millions of Black people too poor to speak for themselves in such august halls.
So if Black mainstream leaders can’t defend the biological existence of the people whose support is the sine qua non of their election, what can they do? What most of our high-profile leaders at the DNC can do but did not do is speak, perhaps among others but certainly among ourselves, about what unique things Black people are going through. Rather than reducing it only to the things that Black people are going through that white people are also going through, they could have directed the nation’s attention to the problems of mass biological death and mass social death suffered disproportionately by Black and Brown people. Rather than bowing to the Tea Party’s parameters on how we discuss race, they could have defied anyone to say that reports like Every 36 Hours were written by and about people who simply refuse to “stop complaining,” in President Obama’s words.
There doesn’t have to be an organized, tabulated, and bound Black Agenda for us to say that police need to stop killing Black people. I am often suspicious of those who claim to enunciate a Black agenda. A television special called “The Black Agenda” appeared on MSNBC a few years back. Ed Schulz, a white labor activist, along with special guest Al Sharpton, hosted a series of panelists who commented on the conditions of Blacks in the United States and asked what agenda among Black people would help America “lean forward.” That was the real question. Panelists repeatedly used the phrase “This is not just for Black people” when raising a particular policy or analysis of an issue. The notion that there could be a specifically Black agenda was repeatedly eschewed in favor of a “worker’s agenda,” “women’s agenda,” and especially a “middle class agenda.” All of these missed the point that you cannot have an agenda if you are being killed by a state that is supposedly your protector of last resort. It was uncanny.
On the contrary, an elder sister in J. R. Valrey’s documentary Operation Small Axe came closer than anyone at the DNC or on MSNBC to articulating a Black agenda that doesn’t apologize for directly and urgently pursuing Black people’s biological survival. The woman admonished those who would mourn the four police officers killed by fed-up Black motorist Lovelle Mixon: “While you crying and boo-hooing, remember how they [the police] slaughtered your brothers!”
We need someone to speak on how police and security guards are using us as target practice every 36 hours, how we’re dying in Chicago in numbers that surpass countries where the US military is currently at war, how the economic crisis is decimating the Black middle class, how the prison-industrial complex is profiting off of the legal enslavement of our youths, how many public schools are funneling our youths into the prison system. And if the Black unemployment is indeed at depression levels, can our leaders not propose responding to it as the USA responded to the Depression— not with skyrocketing incarceration rates but with, let us say, jobs?
Where is “the Black” in Black Agenda?
I went to the DNC’s African American Caucus. Even there, I noticed a hesitancy to mention the problems we Black people face that are different from those of others. It was as though our concerns only matter when they align with those of nonblack others, and then without regard to the priority with which we need to address them. A profound silence prevailed at the African American Caucus on what we face when the police come for us.
Speaker after speaker mentioned all the things that President Obama had done for Black people. They said things like Affordable Care Act, the economic stimulus, the President’s African American educational initiative, the President’s Historically Black College and University (HBCU) initiative, and minority business development assistance. There is a site at AfricanAmericans.BarackObama.com where you can see more. While these are serious efforts and someday, sooner or later, might expand the numbers of a so-called Black middle class, nobody seriously thinks that any of these directly and immediately address the things Black people are dying from right now. More important is the question of why poor Black people, the ones doing most of the dying, should have to belong to the “middle class” before their deaths matter.
I looked elsewhere for the Black agenda, too. In the Women’s Caucus, white women’s interests dominated, of course. Donna Brazile and Valerie Jarrett spoke. But it was never clear to me how two Black women could stand in North Carolina speaking of a woman’s right to choose without bringing up North Carolina’s forced sterilization program, to whose surviving victims the state legislature recently denied compensation. “I mean really,” I wrote in my notes. “How dumb do these politicians think that we Black people are? Can they really believe that we are so uninterested in the forced sterilization of Black women, a program that continued well into the lifetimes of most people here, that it doesn’t anger us when they speak of the present ramped-up assault as a ‘war on women’ without mentioning this program that happened in this very state?”
In actress Kerry Washington’s speech at the convention, her statement “I am an African American” was the only time Black people were mentioned directly in the convention remarks. President Bill Clinton hinted at the Black youths who integrated Little Rock High School in Arkansas. Xavier Becerra joined President Clinton in mentioning one word–“Katrina”–that is redolent of poor Black people and what this American Babylon does to us.
And Michelle Obama’s wonderfully delivered speech definitely didn’t cut it. That speech was more concerned with showing how (unlike the Romneys) her family, the Robinsons, and Barack’s family struggled. But the speech did something else that exposed its own antiblack assumptions: Coming as it did after Kathleen Sebelius hailed Barack as the son of “Kansas women” (“and I know Kansas women,” Sebelius said repeatedly at the DNC), Michelle’s speech worked via some weird transitive property of race to show that Michelle’s father and Barack’s grandmother shared the same midwestern persistence and work ethic that she wants voters to attribute to her husband. It’s subtle, but not that subtle. Nothing says “white” like “Kansas”–except perhaps “Aryan” or “Republican in 2012”–and certainly the racist American voting public is more inclined to associate hard work with midwestern origins, like Kansas (not South Side Chicago), than with the other place-names of Barack’s life—not “Hawaii” or “Indonesia,” and damn sure not “Kenya.”
Paging Reverend Turner…Reverend Nat Turner…
Obama’s trying to help out as much as he can, goes the response. But his hands are tied… People actually say that shit openly. Even if only impressionistically, and even if we understand how racist the right-wing powerholders are, isn’t this starting to sound a whole lot like a neo-slave? And doesn’t that recognition add something to our consideration of the usefulness of the electoral process in Black freedom struggle?
Obama is up in the White House as Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military that the world has ever known, sworn to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. And yet in his own backyard, he is powerless to defend against the biological and social death of the most important group of people to his having the office. And if subsequent presidents—who, in keeping with previous patterns, are sure to be disproportionately nonblack—have the Obama precedent to look back to, why would they stand up for our biological existence if not even the Black president did so?
Maybe his defenders are right and his hands are tied. Maybe the threat of not getting re-elected ties his hands. And if he is re-elected, maybe his hands will be tied by the prospect of the only legal means the Tea Party will have left to fulfill their Prime Directive: impeachment.
But then what would that mean about the usefulness of electoral politics in Black freedom struggle? If our dying in dozens by the week doesn’t get us on the DNC’s list of political priorities when a Black person is at the head of the Democratic ticket, the question is not what will it take for us to get on their agenda. Instead, what will it take for us to realize that the electoral process is stacked against us? As Hortense Spillers recently said, “[I]f Obama is imagined to have been the fulfillment of telos, then African American historical becoming is finished.” Or as Miss Roj in The Colored Museum said, “If this place is the answer, we’re asking all the wrong questions.”
Forget about what Obama or any of our supposed leaders should be doing. They aren’t superheroes. We are plenty smart enough to ask the right questions. Maybe neither Obama nor we can do anything about his predicament as the Black leader of a nation and a “free world” that hate Black people. But his predicament can serve as a lens into our own collective predicament. We Black people must come to see that when one of us has a post with the most powerful job description in the world and still is not free to protect something as basic as our biological existence, then we are not free either. Not just Obama’s hands, but all of our hands are tied. And if electoral democracy holds out no better promise than this, then there are few options that remain aside from those that Assata Shakur and George Jackson recommended.
And so it was that at the Blackest convention in some time, I watched Black leaders repeatedly miss a real opportunity to assert directly and publicly that Black life matters. Middle class or not. Employed or not. Black life matters. Even raising it as a matter of discussion, apparently, is too much to ask. But I will say it again and again—our lives do matter.
It is not too much to ask. And we will not be asking always.