Can a Radical Black Movement Find a Place in the Democratic Party?

When a party that claims to be for all people neglects black voters, it's time to “turn up the heat.”

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Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders shake hands at the start of their MSNBC Democratic Candidates Debate Feb. 4, 2016, in Durham, N.H.  

Justin Sullivan

As Democrats square off over the electability of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders, questions about the future of the Democratic Party continue to rise to the surface. Though numerous reports show Sanders as the most likely to beat Donald Trump in a general election, there are some Clinton supporters who continue to preach of “pragmatism” and “incremental change” as the only way forward for the country. 

In recent conversations after Sanders’ abysmal showing among black voters, I have even been told by several Clinton supporters that only “highly educated white voters” lean far left—as Sanders is described by some observers as being—and that it is in the best interest of the country for us to find a healthy center. The premise of this statement is fundamentally flawed in that this country needs a complete political recalibration before we can even begin to discuss what a “healthy” center looks like and who it benefits. As it stands, in this centrist political landscape that some liberals champion, people on the margins rarely reap the benefit; instead, they are just squeezed further out, vanishing into the ether of neglect.

Perhaps most importantly, the idea that so-called far-left politics is a wealthy, educated white ideology that doesn’t resonate with black voters is ahistorical and erases people of color from the narrative, including the Movement for Black Lives, which has various organizations around the country fighting for a politic that authentically encompasses the most marginalized among us. It erases the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. It erases students like Lindsey Burgess. It erases Angela Davis and Ella Baker and Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Malcolm X.

It erases the Green Party, and its 2008 presidential and vice presidential nominees Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente. It erases political prisoners such as Assata Shakur, who made this distinction between being left and liberal that seems even more relevant during these flammable political times:

I have heard ‘liberals’ express every conceivable opinion on every conceivable subject. As far as I can tell, you have the extreme right, who are fascist racist capitalist dogs like Ronald Reagan, who come right out and let you know where they’re coming from. And on the opposite end, you have the left, who are supposed to be committed to justice, equality, and human rights. And somewhere between those two points is the liberal.

[White liberals] feel sorry for the so-called underprivileged just as long as they can maintain their own privileges.

The Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, the Bayard Rustin fellow with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, has been on the the front lines of the Movement for Black Lives. When I spoke with him about radical social-justice movements in the context of American politics, Sekou said he has questions for all candidates and the state of democracy at large.

“What is the ethical ground for being in a democratic civilization? We begin there,” Sekou said. “I don’t endorse candidates. But the questions I have for Bernie Sanders, DeRay [Mckesson], Hillary Clinton and Jill Stein are the same questions for all politicians. What are the ways in which these candidates are going to reflect the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the most vulnerable? I believe it was Melissa Harris-Perry who said that ‘Race is the adjudicator of truth.’ Race puts all truths on trial. So when you add race into the context of American civilization, and the ways in which it has been a cancer affecting the possibilities of a multiracial democracy, it ups the stakes.”

And race, in our so-called democracy, is both erased and amplified as convenient. We live in a nation where politicians refuse to redistribute wealth to the descendants of people who were stolen, raped and lynched for profit and perverse pleasure; a nation where economic justice is framed as “help” that we should all be grateful to receive, instead of the righting of grievous wrongs. We live in a nation where liberal politicians seem to find it difficult to force Black Lives Matter out through the bile in their throats.

We live in a country where black, brown and indigenous citizens are targeted, stopped and frisked, raped, arrested and gunned down by police officers, yet we are still expected to live through more centuries of first steps toward equity. We live in the country of Black Wall Street, the MOVE Bombing, redlining, mass incarceration, failing schools, subpar or nonexistent health care, school-to-prison pipelines, broken windows policing and food deserts, yet we are told to be pragmatic when white liberals would have crumbled long ago beneath the brutal weight of it all.

These are facts. This isn’t complaining or crying—though those who have been victims of America are well within their rights to do so. And it is not that all black Americans are living in poverty or struggling. It is that black people were intended, as laid out in this Constitution, to be second-class citizens. It is that those who have benefited from this racist racket, despite trafficking in mediocrity, have not had to shift and contort themselves in order to navigate systems of oppression intended for them to fail.

So, when there is a politician like Hillary Clinton—a condescending, career politician who has shown time and again that she has little respect or patience for black women who question her record, a politician who supported welfare “reform” and lobbied for the 1994 crime bill (yes, which Sanders voted for, Vice President Joe Biden authored and then-President Bill Clinton signed into law), a politician who takes campaign contributions from big banks (yes, President Barack Obama did, too) while promising to rein them in—there is bound to be some reticence expressed when it comes to casting a vote of faith in her. She has earned that mistrust.

When there is a candidate like Bernie Sanders—who capitulated and voted for the aforementioned crime bill, who is soft on gun control in his home state of Vermont, who, at times, becomes defensive when his understanding of racial complexities within a capitalist framework is questioned—to the point that his campaign created the hashtag #WeStandTogether to drown out #BlackLivesMatter protesters—there are those who feel justified in not supporting him. If there is one thing that black voters have learned in the land of Dixiecrats, it is that a nice, older white man is not necessarily your friend.

“The Movement for Black Lives and others are working to put forth a radical proposition for rearranging the social inequality in such a way that all have decent housing, quality education, universal health care,” Sekou said. “Our goal in Ferguson[, Mo.,] and the movement writ large is not to endorse a candidate but to have a candidate endorse a platform.”

“Social movements should not govern, because it takes on the machinations of the state if we do that,” he continued. “Our job is to continue to turn up the heat. To paraphrase Dr. King, social movements are like thermostats. So the heat in the streets is the reason why we even have Bernie Sanders selecting black staff and talking about #BlackLivesMatter. Because he comes from that economic-determinist position that flattens out all nuances into class distinctions, which is important, but it’s insufficient.”

Let's be clear: Though corporate sponsored centrism has proven problematic, it is a position in our political spectrum that authetically reflects certain segments of society. So it goes in a diverse democracy.

It is when centrism comes disguised in leftist clothing, however, leaving those on the margins stripped bare and exposed to harsh political elements, that the duplicity of the Democratic Party must be called out and its standard bearers held accountable.

So where does that leave black voters who stand firmly on the far left, rooted in a radical tradition that this nation tries to minimize, mock and manipulate?

Only time will tell. But one thing is certain: If the Democratic Party is ever to fully shake its Dixiecratic origins, it must first reckon with the truth that the promise of a white savior has never been, and will never be, enough to shake the dust of racism, paternalism and complacency that clings to its mantle.

Kirsten West Savali is a cultural critic and senior writer for The Root. She was named to Ebony magazine’s 2015 “Power 100” list and awarded a 2015 Harry Frank Guggenheim Fellowship. Her provocative commentary explores the intersections of race, social justice, religion, feminism, politics and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.

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