Three years ago I left the Democratic Party during a visit to the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, located on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast. While filling out the application to renew my identification, I came across the question of my party affiliation. In a matter of seconds, I filled in the bubble for “independent,” as it was an action the ancestors mandated at that very moment.
At the time of my decision, my post-collegiate journalism career had gone into full swing and I wanted to prove to myself, and my readers, that I could accurately document and contextualize the experiences of the American underclass without directly peddling the ideology of one party. As months and years went on however, I realized that this change in party affiliation jumpstarted a political and intellectual transformation, fueled by disappointing experiences in the Beltway political space, a growing solidarity with people of African descent globally, and hard lessons about the forces truly at play in the national political system.
Such experiences hardened me, making me increasingly skeptical of politicians who didn’t directly indict white supremacy in their analysis of African-American economic and social hardship. Then-presidential candidate Barack H. Obama followed what I consider a calculated, cowardly path in his historic 2008 campaign, publicly cutting ties with his mentor and African liberation theologian Jeremiah Wright and constantly speaking of an America that transcended its shameful racist past. In the nearly eight years since his election, Obama’s presidency has been peppered with half-baked overtures to black people and repeated instances of acquiescence to the demands of the radical right.
In what I now see as my naivety, I voted for Obama twice, his blackness and manner in which he calmly handled Republican opposition counting among the main reasons. While I haven’t regretted my decision and consider myself a “moderate liberal”, I’ve come to abhor the political system that gives us so few choices in national leadership. I’ve also grown defiant of the celebrity of the American politician in the age of social media. Even as Guantanamo Bay remained opened, U.S. government officials raided medical marijuana dispensaries on the West Coast, and white supremacists burned churches across the South with impunity, black people of various ages gawked over Obama’s latest quip against GOP lawmakers, his jumper, or the way he parlayed with black celebrities.
By the 2012 election, my skepticism reached new heights during my stint as White House press pool intern for the American Urban Radio Networks (AURN). One humid summer afternoon during daily press briefings, I asked then-Press Secretary Jay Carney about Obama’s black voter outreach strategy in light of his opponent Mitt Romney visiting majority-black Philadelphia school just days prior. For the next two minutes, Carney stuttered and put together a cornucopia of big words before wrapping up his sorry response to my timely question.
Needless to say, that episode knocked me into a distrustful mindset of anything that’s a part of the mainstream political establishment. Subsequent experiences and an exposure to Democratic, and Republican, political actors who can’t quite grasp what’s happening on Main Street forced a radicalized change in political ideology.
A New Kind of Political Consciousness
After working at the White House, I continued working in Beltway liberal circles and writing for left-leaning media outlets, including ThinkProgress, a progressive news organization funded by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. In those spaces, I saw how a need to prove the other side wrong often overshadowed the true mission at hand: informing the people.
This especially proved to be the case in the wake of police-involved shootings of black men and women across the country. While the mainstream media has somewhat of a pulse on the events of the day, it’s still a race for “like,” retweets, and web traffic devoid of any genuine regard for the black lives lost. I feel the same way about the presidential candidates presented to the electorate. Even the Democrats who many say sound “radical” in their assault of militarized police forces, Wall Street, and the military industrial complex don’t impress me.
To the unpleasant surprise of many of my friends and colleagues, I recently denounced the efforts of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a self-proclaimed Socialist Democrat, to win the 2016 presidential race, writing on Facebook that I can’t “feel the Bern,” a clever mockery of those infatuated with Sanders take on economic inequality and police brutality. Of course, supporting the xenophobic tone of the Republican presidential campaigns was out of the question. Voting for Hillary Clinton didn’t make much sense either once I took into consideration that she endorsed laws that spurred the mass incarceration of brothers and sisters who look just like me. Additionally, her eerily racist assault of then Sen. Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries discouraged me from even considering her as a viable choice.
To any seemingly well-versed and civically engaged voter, standing behind Sanders seems like the most commonsensical route to take. While that would be the case, few have yet to understand that in my transformation during the age of Obama, I’ve taken on a Black Nationalist political consciousness out of an understanding the commander-in-chief, even if he has melanin, won’t acquiesce to black outcries of injustice without the presence of an African-centered force that utilizes political, economic, and social tools to realize change that truly benefits grassroots actors.
Seeing how Sanders operated on the campaign trail in recent months verified, more than ever perhaps, the need for people of African descent to take an unapologetic stance of this kind.
Since members of the Black Lives Matter movement interrupted his campaign event at in Oregon and session at the Netroots Conference last year, Sanders has worked vehemently to show black voters that he has their best interests in mind. After those incidents, he unveiled a strategy to combat racialized police violence, hired Symone Sanders, a black millennial woman from Omaha Nebraska, as his press secretary, and toured the neighborhood of slain Baltimore man Freddie Gray with local black clergymen, including Pastor Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple AME. While stumping on the campaign trail, he rails against corporate greed and espouses ideas that resonate with working class Americans, particularly an increase of the minimum wage that would ensure a better quality of life.
However, just as socialists did to the chagrin of W.E.B. DuBois and other black leaders, Sanders didn’t openly endorse hardcore solutions that address the issue of race, debatably the single most important factor in socioeconomic inequality. As the reel of his now infamous comments about reparations play over and over again in my mind, I was partly disappointed that he would be so dismissive in what I consider to be the first step in true redistributive justice for the Europeans’ centuries-long exploitation of African people in the United States.
At the same time, I’m relieved that I didn’t put my trust in Sanders, for he proved to be just like other politicians of any race who don’t want to challenge the status quo. At this point, it looks as though I won’t fill in the bubble for any candidate on the ballot. I’m totally fine with that.
People who often question my decision to not vote for either Sanders or Democratic powerhouse Clinton speak about the possibility of reality star and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump being president. In the past year, Trump has risen in stardom by speaking to the fears and gripes of white people watching their way of life change in an increasingly multicultural America. To them, I say that instilling fear about another candidate in me doesn’t make for an ideal campaign strategy. If Sanders doesn’t capture my imagination or earn my trust, that’s on him, not me.
More importantly, black people’s fate, as I learned during Obama’s tenure in office, doesn’t rest solely on the person who occupies the White House. Reversing the losses of the 2008 Recession and advancing our interests in the 21st century requires a revolution that goes far beyond politics. Only once Black America has truly built formidable, resourceful, and influential nationalist foundation can we truly gain leverage and advance our interests at all levels of government.
Where Obama-Era Black Millennials Went Wrong
Even with the political and economic gains in the decades after the Civil Rights Era, remnants of the United States’ racist past existed in all facets of society via the prison industrial complex, spatial mismatching in urban cities, food deserts, inequities in the healthcare and other hurdles black people face. Until the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, many people of African descent refused to acknowledge that hard reality.
Instead, many black people, especially those of us in the educated class who felt compelled to follow the Barack Obama playbook in navigating mainstream professional circles, chose to believe that attainment of political power and clout in a “post-racial” Babylon system could get us the seat at the table which our ancestors valiantly fought and shed blood.
All the while, the nation’s first black president faced heavily conspicuous racial opposition from Tea Party Republicans and other majority-white factions, even as he took on moderate positions that had a negative impact on middle and low-income people of African descent. As years went on, the hope that Obama sold us vanished. We saw him ignore black people while openly addressing issues of importance to the LGBTQ, Hispanic, and Muslim communities poignantly and with confidence. When it came to addressing the state-sanctioned assault on black bodies however, he couldn’t even bring himself to say “Black Lives Matter” during his last State of the Union address.
After cutting Pell Grant funds often used for matriculation to historically black colleges and universities, he chastised school administrators for mismanagement of funds and low graduation rates. Even “My Brother’s Keeper,” Obama’s hallmark program designed to uplift young black men faced criticism for not allocating funds to grassroots organizations and ignoring pressing indicators of delinquency and a life in and out of prison. In recent years, Obama has increased focus on incarcerated people, announcing the release of thousands of prisoners serving long sentences for low-level drug offences. Such overtures, however, do little to reverse the effects of draconian drug laws and overzealous policing in majority-black inner city communities.
If you ask people of African descent their thoughts about Obama, their responses often vary along class lines, perhaps a sign of high reverence that members of the black bourgeoisie have for the nation’s first black president juxtaposed with the dire economic situation in poor, black neighborhood enclaves throughout the United States.
For elite blacks, Obama’s struggle to stand black and tall in majority-white settings mirrors their experiences in the corporate world. Even with his faults, they respect his fight against the racist old guard. Since 2008, the D.C. millennial population has exploded, due mainly to Obama’s historic election. In recent years, young, educated black millennials have formed coalitions with other like-minded political players, often crossing racial and ethnic lines in the common pursuit of policy centered on inclusion and equality. Such has been the case in the D.C. metropolitan area chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a perfect world, such alliances would make sense. For an ethnic group that one could argue lacks a common consciousness and absolute self-determination however, such course of action always invites the possibility of political, social, and cultural assimilation. Instead of gaining real power, young, black progressives have to play by the rules of their “allies” and navigate spaces in a manner that maintains their standing in seemingly elite positions.
Most times, that means ignoring racism itself and shifting attention to its outcomes – poverty, gaps in life expectancy, uneven distribution of resources, and other atrocities facing people of African descent domestically. It even requires supporting policies that don’t take into account the intersectionality of the black human experience. For many black people who walk in those exclusive circles, it also means never taking on the trials and tribulations of their impoverished counterparts.
I’ve seen this scenario play out in the nation’s capital as a student and professional journalist. Even as they suffer macroaggressions in their majority-white spaces, black college students and transients stick their noses up at black “locals,” natives of the D.C. metropolitan area not quite plugged into national political and social scene. Along with their white counterparts, they increase the schism between those who relish the D.C. of yesteryear and those who benefit from its facelift. The division often happens in spurts, including when they advise their friends against talking to strangers or visiting areas east of the Anacostia River.
In taking on this divisive ideology, black elites have shown city leaders and developers that they value their education and comfort more than the state of their fellow man. Even worse, members of this group, in D.C. and nationally, will deride black activists and journalists who take up the cause of the black underclass and eviscerate black leaders who they feel don’t pay sufficient attention to issues concerning that group.
For instance, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West faced immense criticism for their Poverty Tour in 2011 during which they criticized Obama for what they described as his lack of action in addressing poverty in Black America. Obama supporters railed against the duo, chalking their critique up to West’s bitterness about not being invited to inauguration festivities two years earlier. The assault of West as a credible voice of opposition continued last year with the release of an essay by fellow scholar and former friend Michael Eric Dyson titled “Cornel West’s Rise and Fall.” That piece of work read less like an assessment in how West fell in stature and more like an intellectual’s personal gripe with an old colleague.
Regardless of his intent, Dyson and a contingent of the Left succeeded in shutting down a sober critic of the first black president of the United States.
To our detriment, we can’t even hold our brother accountable without pushback from within our tribe, even as he turns his back on us. Believe it or not, this type of infighting stems from chattel slavery and colonization, so much so that we jump at any change for symbolic change, rather than transformations of substance. It was no different in 2012. Unlike other constituencies, we gave our vote and support to Obama without any demands for reform and justice.
When we do come together, it’s well after he needs us. I remember having that thought in the back of my mind standing in the lobby of a hotel located blocks away from the White House as a group of black leaders penned a list of demands for Obama just days after his second inauguration. That’s not the ideal political strategizing that will ensure our liberation.
Where to Go from Here?
Before going on, I’ll admit that critiques of “Obama haters” are based in some truth.
Indeed, if black people, especially those in the lower levels of society, had a more holistic political education, they would understand that the actions of the president have little, if any, direct impact on aspects of their lives. The officials who have more authority in those affairs work on the congressional and local level.
In focusing all of our attention on President Obama, we’ve forgotten about the Democrats and Republicans in city and state government who have turned their backs on black people in their pursuit of power. It’s time learn to take neighborhood civic engagement more seriously and involve those who feel they have no voice in this kind of activism.
That’s the mindset I’ve carried with me in recent years and during this election. As a voter living in the District, my non-vote for a Democrat will more than likely have no bearing on the outcome of the election. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will get those three votes from the Electoral College on Nov. 8th. To those who still question my decision, I invite you to think about civic engagement beyond the action of voting and that of someone involving themselves in the affairs of their community.
In the aggregate, we as black people haven’t been able to do that, thanks in part to gentrification and gerrymandering. Beyond that, the weight of the oppressive forces and lack of knowledge about community leaders precludes us from going to the polls when the opportunity arises.
Indeed, voter turnout in citywide and state-level elections among black people hasn’t been too high. While they waited on the sidelines, GOP supporters acted quickly, making sure that their candidates took over the two congressional chambers during the 2010 midterm elections. While some of the blame lies with grassroots actors in not voting, President Obama and his public relations representatives have to be held accountable in selling an historically disenfranchised group a dream and making them think that he could secure their economic salvation.
The prospect of such a phenomenon happening for black people politically isn’t farfetched. There’s no denying the presence of a black consciousness as the world’s attention turns to our state of affairs. Even with that small victory, it’s a fear of mine that we’ll accept piecemeal change and not truly grasp the opportunity to unite and create sustainable institutions that work primarily in the interest of black people. Right now, there’s too much of a focus on making a symbolic statement. That’s why the capitalistic Babylon system has many of my contemporaries raving about “Formation,” what I’ve come to believe is a pseudo-revolutionary song by internationally renowned superstar Beyoncé.
Meanwhile, the powers that be continue to dominate every aspect of our lives in the manner that the late, great Dr. Frances Cress Welsing outlined in The Isis Papers. It’s my belief that regardless of who wins the presidency this year, the aggregate state of Black America won’t improve immensely. With that being the case, how are we to combat institutional racism and ensure our place at the table in the 21st Century?
Frankly, we just have to create our own table, “centralizing, organizing, and coming as one” as His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I recommended to his fellow African leaders decades ago. Just as other marginalized groups have done, we should circulate our dollars among ourselves, build grassroots business organizations that can spur job creation and fund the political efforts of people who will unabashedly advance the black agenda. This should happen locally and statewide with the mindset that we have to absolve ourselves of any institutional “support” that impedes efforts to rebuild our cities, feed and clothe our people, and change the tide in this country.
Numerous groups have done this work before us before the explosion of economic opportunity and co-optation of conscious hip-hop that placated us in the 1980s and 1990s. As controversial as they have come to be, the Nation of Islam stands as one of the last bastions of Black Nationalism, due in part to their clear-cut mission of black liberation and the financial infrastructure they’ve built to sustain their political, and social activities.
In order for something similar to materialize in this era, black people have to want to be black again. No, that doesn’t just mean posting stories and memes to social media. That requires actually putting religion, political ideology, socioeconomic status, and other divisive designations to the side and using our talents and resources in the interest of black liberation, not just an existence in a system dominated by white allies and antagonists.
For black people in elite circles, that means understanding that as long as your brethren aren’t free, you’re not free. For people of African descent not doing so well, that means realizing how you are still a part of the movement, even if you’re not credentialed. From there, we can make the hard decisions in creating our own institutions, breaking down barriers within our community and uniting as a constituency.
It’s hard work but that’s what will truly bring about real revolution, not a vote for a Democrat who knows only how to use revolutionary lingo.