A New Black Power
Most black Americans have been Democrats for at least the fifty-three years that I've been alive. What have the Democrats done for us in all that time? We have the lowest average income of any large racial group in the nation. We're incarcerated at an alarmingly high rate. We are still segregated and profiled, and have a very low representation at the top echelons of the Democratic Party. We are the stalwarts, the bulwark, the Old Faithful of the Democrats, and yet they have not made our issues a high priority in a very long time.
Why should we be second-class members in the most important political activities of our lives? Why shouldn't the party we belong to think that our problems are the most important in this land?
I'm not saying that we should become Republicans. The Republicans don't care about us either. But at least they don't pretend to be on our side. And you have to admit that, of late, the Bush Administration has put black faces into high-profile jobs that carry clout on the international playing field. I don't have to like Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice to appreciate that once a black person has been put into a position of power, the second time around is much, much easier.
We are a racial minority in a country where racism is a fact of life, a country that was founded on economic and imperialist racism. Taking this into account and adding it to the fact that our issues are regularly put on a back burner, I believe that it is not out of order to send out a call for the formation of an African-American interest group, or maybe a political unit, that would bring our issues, and others, to the forefront of American political discourse.
If we had our own political voting bloc that paid attention to issues that reflect our needs in domestic and international affairs, things would change for us. The first thing is that many more of us would be likely to vote. Imagine the interest young people would have if they felt we were organizing based on our own interests: They could work for a candidate who represented their issues; they could run for office themselves.
And even though the party would be based on the racial identity that has been shoved down our throats since the first days we came here in chains, we wouldn't work only for ourselves. We'd argue about medical care and Social Security and the good jobs that are disappearing from this nation like fleas off a dead dog's back.
America's corporations, CEOs and portfolio managers don't have to worry about the euro and the devaluation of the dollar. They belong to an international club. It doesn't matter where the most recent SUV is being produced; what matters is that my stockholders and I own a piece of the company that makes and sells those cars.
It takes many companies working in unison to make secure the wealth of American capitalism. Two of the major-interest corporations that facilitate the needs of our wealthiest citizens are the Republican and Democratic (so-called) political parties. They exonerate their actions with numbers of votes, but the wheels they run on are greased by money, and lots of it.
If we took the vote into our own hands, we wouldn't have to ask the Democrats for their support--we could demand it. George W. Bush, or whoever takes his place, will send for our representatives to come to his home to discuss his plans. This is because they have not yet figured out how to dispose of the vote in the American political system.
Imagine it. We could actually democratize America by taking power away from the two-party system and handing it over to the people. Other special parties would arise splintering off from the centrist attendants of the rich once we show them the way.
What I'm talking about here is the beginning of an American Evolution, a movement that will create a series of political interest groups that will transform our two-party system into a kind of virtual parliament. We could construct smaller political groups based on specific interests. There could be Black Party Congress members from Watts, Harlem, the Motor City and a dozen other inner-city bastions. All we have to do is have a fair representation in the House of Representatives to have an extraordinary impact on the wheels of government.
Farmers, women, the aged, angry young white men and, for that matter, true Republicans might create their own small parties/interest groups. These groups would not only have direct representation in the House of Representatives but would also begin to make deals with those people running for senator and President, police chief and mayor.
It's past the time when we black Americans can complain about how we are treated without ourselves trying to take the reins of power. A Black Voting Bloc would be a bold move. Some might say a radical move--too radical. But a country that incarcerates people of color at an eight-to-one ratio to whites played the race card way before Johnnie Cochran. If we could come together and see a way to put balance back in the American political landscape, then we should do it.
Because if we do not lead we will be led. And if those who have learned to despise, distrust and diminish us are the leaders, then our path will lead even farther away from our homes. We will wake up like strangers in our own beds. We, and our children, will be walking in uncomfortable shoes to poor jobs. We will be jeered on every corner, and every mirror we come across will distort our image.
Just so that it doesn't seem that I'm giving short shrift to this argument, let me try to explain why this kind of "political party" will be different from its interest-corporation counterparts. First, this kind of group will be a political unit more than a party. This unit should be patterned after interest groups that form around specific necessities of our particular community. As I've mentioned before, I would like to see many of these units evolve, but for the moment let me address the Black Voting Bloc.
What we need for this group is a short list of demands that define our political aspirations at any given point. These demands might change over time, but at any given moment we should have no more than eight expectations of the candidates or legislation we vote for. I am not positioning myself as the leader or even as a central designer of this group, but let me put forward a list of possible demands that our unit might embrace:
(1) A commitment to revamping the legal system and the penal system to make sure that citizens of color are getting proper treatment and that all inmates are given the utmost chance to rehabilitate and re-establish themselves in society. (This rehabilitation will include suffrage for all ex-convicts who have served their sentences.)
(2) An expectation that there be equal distribution of all public wealth and services among the citizens, no matter their income, race or history.
(3) A demand that a true accounting for the impact of slavery be compiled by all government bodies in authority over records that give this information.
(4) A universal healthcare system.
(5) A retirement system that will assure older Americans the ability to spend their later years in relative comfort and security.
(6) A commitment to assemble a general history of our nation in both its glory and its shame.
I left 7 and 8 blank because I think you should fill these out. This is, after all, a communal effort meant to bring our intelligences together. And if you don't feel that you're an affiliate of the Black Voting Bloc, write your own demands and see what kind of group you might attract. I believe that any group concerned with the rights of Americans will have at least half of these demands in common.
One last comment on the idealistic part of this notion:
All black people don't have to join right off. If we can put together just 10 percent of the voting black population, we will be wielding a great deal of power. Others will join us if our political strategy works. In time we might tip the scales against the rich and the ultra-rich. If we do that we might very well make this a better world.
I know many of you will say that we don't have the time to allow the United States to evolve politically. Like many Americans, you believe that our nation faces urgent problems that must be solved by the next election; and the elections after that. My answer is, That is just what they want you to think. Our so-called political parties want you to believe that only they can save you when, really, they have no intention of doing so. The Democrats, the Republicans--they're in business for themselves in this vast religion of capitalism. They will never solve Americans' problems, not fully. We have to strive against the system, change it, make it reflect our inexpert visions of right and good. As long as you vote Democratic, as long as you vote Republican, you will be assuring that true democracy has no chance to exist. As long as we believe in the fearmongers' light show, the world will suffer under our misguided convictions.
There's no question that a Black Voting Bloc would be a fine context for us and for people of the black diaspora around the world. It would be a forum that would express perceptions from the underbelly of the American experience. That experience, I believe, would find resonance on an international scale and help to bring our maverick nation into concert with certain other countries that would like to get along with us.
But how do we get our people to feel strongly about political unity? What in our experience will bring us together? Should we turn to a charismatic leader to guide us safely through the minefield of fanaticism? I've been told so many times that the problem in this world is that so-and-so died too young. A couple of years ago I heard another public figure say that it was because Robert Kennedy died that American liberalism lost its way. What might Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X have achieved if assassins' bullets had not cut them down in their prime?
If only we had leaders now like we did back then, so many lament. It's hard for me to write these words without a hint of sarcasm. Nostalgia belongs in the retirement home. Any organization, movement or people who rely solely (or even greatly) on a charismatic leader for their strength and their motivation are in the most precarious position possible.
"Cut off the head and the body will fall," their enemies murmur. This is a way to let those enemies dissolve your context. Just put all your belief in one leader, and sooner or later you will be lost.
Some might say that I should end this section with those words. This may be true, but I think they open the door to other considerations. We do need leadership. We have to have people who will make decisions and blaze trails; people who will stand up to warmongers and moneylenders; people who might create context, illuminate the darkness with an electronic billboard; people who could organize our vote.
I could spend a lot of time and space here criticizing our current leaders. But what would be the purpose? These leaders, no matter how much they have lost their way, are not our enemies. If I follow a man or woman who is leading me astray, then I have to accept my own culpability and blindness.
"Didn't you see the millions dying in Africa while your leaders argued about the references and jokes in the movie Barbershop?" someone in a later year may ask. And how will we answer? If we don't lie we might say, "I knew what was happening, but I didn't know how to act. I felt powerless and helpless and so I did nothing."
The truth hurts. We all know that. But if we can see that we need leadership and that we don't have the leadership we need, then we might begin to question why. I believe a vacuum in our leadership has been caused by a natural conservatism in the black community that echoes the smug confidence of America in general. This conservatism harbors a deep dread of our young people.
This problem has to be approached by using a two-tiered process. First, we (the elders) have to realize how we exclude young people from taking leadership roles in our community. Why do we celebrate the blues but denigrate hip-hop? Why don't we distinguish between the major thinkers among our youth and the thugs? What are the young people telling us when they talk about bitches and ho's, motherfuckers and niggahs and bling? These are questions we shouldn't gloss over. We bear the responsibility for the lost generations of our people. Even if we see their actions as self-defeating and self-hating, we have to take responsibility for having allowed this situation to occur.
On the other hand, why do we get so upset when young men and women of African descent also want to identify with their other racial sides? Are we afraid that they're trying to abandon us? Do we want to hold them back so that they don't have a broader and more sophisticated view of their identities? Don't we know that this is their world and it is our job to support them while they gain a solid footing?
These are only the first few questions we should ask, and answer. And as we respond we should edit out all cynicism and derogatory notions from our voices and words. These young people are our only hope. We have to liberate them where we can, decriminalize them when necessary, detoxify them if possible--but most important we have to hear what they're telling us and make way for their leadership.
And to the youth I say, You have to take the reins. You have to realize that many members of the older generation have gotten what they wanted out of the Struggle. They aren't worried about the problems of America's urban youth; at least not enough to, once again, charge the ramparts and put what they have on the line. Revolutions (both violent and nonviolent) are manned by the young. Older people have retirement accounts and diseases to support, weak constitutions and a justified fear of imprisonment. We have fallen to the rear of the column. You, the urban youth of America, must lead us.
If you, the youth, do not forgive us for fumbling, our race will be very far behind in the twenty-first century. And if we lose, the world suffers because most of America is on the wrong road already.
America has carried the notion of property and power to such an intensely negative degree that we have very little room left for humanity and art in our hearts. We work long hours, eat bad food, close our eyes to the atrocities committed in our name and spend almost everything we make on the drugs that keep us from succumbing to the emptiness of our spiritual lives. We gobble down antidepressants, sleeping pills, martinis, sitcoms and pornography in a desperate attempt to keep balance in this soulless limbo.
In a world where poetry is a contest at best and a competition at worst, where the importance of a painting is gauged by the price it can be sold for--we are to be counted among the lost. And so when I say that we need leaders and that those leaders must come from our youth, it is no idle statement. We need our young people because without their dreams to guide us we will have only cable TV and grain alcohol for succor.