Racial Justice Is the Key to Democracy Reform

Racial Justice Is the Key to Democracy Reform

Racial Justice Is the Key to Democracy Reform

It is time for progressive advocates to rethink their colorblind approach to civic engagement.


Despite the resilient forces of reaction and repression—or perhaps largely because of them—we are living in the most vibrant period for social action since the 1960s. A critical turning point occurred just over four years ago, when Zuccotti Park and other public places across the country filled up with young people and others refusing to accept the mounting signs that our economy, culture, and politics are dominated by big corporations and the superrich—in an enduring phrase, the 1 percent. Joined and advanced since then by mainstream voices, from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to Pope Francis, the national and international moment spotlighting income inequality owes much to the sense of urgency created by Occupy Wall Street. And the modest but significant gains we’ve seen in wages and working conditions owes everything to the courage and tenacity of those laborers—overwhelmingly immigrant women—who work in our nation’s fast-food outlets and megastores and even our homes, where they care for our children and aging parents.

Another moment was forged by the Dreamers, those extraordinary sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants who put their lives on the line to call for an end to the federal government’s increased deportations and forced disruption of their families. The long-overdue steps taken by President Obama to help bring these lives out of the shadows—since bogged down in courts and by an implacable nativist opposition—would never have been possible without the bravery of these young activists. By the same token, when women at colleges nationwide stood up to shame campus authorities for the shoddy treatment of rape victims, policies began to change.

And, of course, we’re living in a moment when Americans have finally begun to acknowledge the institutionalized racism of our nation’s police forces, which has produced a steady torrent of black victims: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, and far too many others. These fellow citizens were jumped, choked, hanged, or riddled with bullets while selling cigarettes on the sidewalk, or using an ATM, or driving down the highway full of hope for a new job—in short, for working and living while black. The exhausting, routinized, unfathomable outrage of it all cannot be contained a second longer.

For some years, there were two strains of civic engagement that didn’t always work well together, and race was a factor. One strain emphasized process, the other rights; one had its roots in political science, the other in social movements. I don’t want to overstate these differences, but they’ve been persistent and often, in my view, costly to our shared goal of advancing a more inclusive and truly representative democracy.

My sense is that this has changed, and is changing still. In the wake of Ferguson and similar events in which we’ve seen the close interplay between political exclusion and violence, the distinction between criminal-justice reform and democratic reform simply can’t be maintained any longer. For a democracy movement to be worthy of the name, it must recognize the fact that the criminal-justice system is a barrier to the full exercise of citizenship for many marginalized Americans.

* * *

While I believe that building a more inclusive framework for civic engagement is an urgent priority for all Americans, the issue is also personal. I have held leadership positions in social-justice and philanthropy organizations for most of my adult life, and I have spent a good deal of that time trying to persuade predominantly white and male institutions to stand up for racial and gender justice. Over the years, I’ve had to confront the racist and sexist structures that have shaped me and grapple with my own privilege while coming to grips with the institutional racism that has shaped each organization in which I have worked. I have not always succeeded, not in myself and not in the institutions.

An example from about a decade ago may help to explain what I mean: I was working for George Soros at the time, heading his US programs, of which I had been the founding director. The Open Society Foundations were early and large funders in what is now widely recognized, even on the right, as the campaign to end mass incarceration. Remarkably, in the early days, the OSF did not focus on race in this area; we had a more technocratic, problem-solving perspective. But heavily influenced by the work of Michelle Alexander—whose seminal book, The New Jim Crow, was written with the support of a Soros Justice Fellowship—we eventually got there. While the OSF’s criminal-justice strategy embraced many elements, I believe that the gains we made were fueled most effectively by our support for a burgeoning social movement of those most affected by the system: former prisoners and their families, and communities of color ravaged by the War on Drugs and oppressive policing.

The OSF was a leading funder not only of criminal-justice reform, but of democracy and civic engagement. At one point, Soros increased our US budget by $25 million a year to focus on building a comprehensive legal, communications, and policy infrastructure. (The Democracy Alliance, a network of liberal donors I helped launch in 2005, has been doing much the same thing for over a decade.) I put together a small working group to plan the expenditure of those funds. Early on, our staffers insisted that it was important to include in these discussions the groups who’d been working so closely with us on criminal-justice reform.

I was resistant. Back then, criminal justice and drug policy were almost completely absent from the progressive conversation, and I couldn’t see the connection. We missed a great opportunity to use our platform and considerable resources to change the debate.

We even supported work that explicitly connected mass incarceration and democracy, and I still didn’t get it. We made a grant to Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project that enabled them to conduct research on the disenfranchisement of former prisoners. The results showed that as many as a third of the black men in at least three former Confederate states were permanently barred from voting as a result of their criminal records. For myself and many others, that study dramatized the impact of mass incarceration. I didn’t begin to see the genuine challenge it posed for our democracy until the 2000 presidential election, when it became clear that if former prisoners had not been purged from the voting rolls, we would have been spared the ruinous presidency of George W. Bush. Elections, it is often said, have consequences. So does being blocked from elections.

Economist Brice Richard has written that disenfranchisement may have reduced public spending by as much as 18 percent: $1.8 billion in public goods that would have flowed toward high-poverty communities and those with large black populations. Moreover, mass incarceration comes with not only societal but personal costs. The community organization Forward Together, working with partner groups, found that a person emerging from prison is also carrying, on average, nearly a year’s worth of income in debt from fines and legal fees.

I’m excited to see that an increasing number of progressives have recognized that democracy reform isn’t merely a technical issue, that racial exclusion has been baked into our system from the very beginning, and that strategies to make democracy work for everyone are doomed to fail unless racial exclusion is acknowledged and named.

Photo IDs for voting, for example, might sound sensible or at least unobjectionable in a racial vacuum. But to take just one stark example, the state of Alabama, which requires a photo ID to vote, recently announced a plan to stop issuing driver’s licenses in counties where 75 percent of the registered voters are black. As unbelievable as that may sound, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency cited budget cuts as the reason why 31 of its satellite DMV offices would no longer have access to examiners, meaning that residents are forced to travel to other counties to apply for licenses. The move comes just one year after the state’s photo-ID law went into effect. This outrage is of a piece with the closing of schools and public facilities in the 1950s and ’60s to stymie integration, and for that matter with Texas’s current efforts—which could very well be upheld by the Supreme Court this term—to end legal abortions by saddling clinics with draconian regulations and restrictions. It’s a familiar story: What you can’t ban outright, you stifle or kill through regulation and funding.

Advocates who adopt a broad approach to civic engagement are steadily narrowing this historic divide by insisting that racial issues are central to democracy reform. We can close the gap even further by insisting that the way the criminal-justice system works is a core democracy issue, and by remembering that not all tactics and strategies to advance democracy and spark social change involve the ballot box.

* * *

Our framework for civic engagement must make room for direct-action tactics and acknowledge the role they play in fostering a more responsive democracy. This means recognizing everything from Occupy Wall Street, the Dreamers’ civil disobedience, and protests in the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson to the demand of Black Lives Matter activists to be heard at progressive forums.

Those of us who are the occasional allies and periodic targets of these approaches do not, should not, and cannot control them. But all of us do control our response to direct action and our reaction to disruption. To be told “this is not your time or place” by people who themselves were told the same thing for many years (and who are, in many places, still being told that) is toxic to the cross-movement solidarity that we must nurture.

My friend Pramila Jayapal, a longtime anti-racism activist now in the Washington State Senate, had just introduced Bernie Sanders and was standing next to him when his talk was disrupted in Seattle last summer. She had this to say about it afterward:

To build a movement, we have to be smarter than those who are trying to divide us. We have to take our anger and rage and channel it into building, growing, loving, holding each other up. We need our outlets too, our places of safety where we can say what we think without worrying about how it’s going to land, where we can call out even our white loved ones, friends, allies for what they are not doing. But in the end, if we want to win for all of us on racial, economic, and social justice issues, we need multiple sets of tactics, working together. Some are disruptive tactics. Some are loving tactics. Some are truth-telling tactics. Some can only be taken on by white people. Some can only be taken on by people of color. Sometimes we need someone from the other strand to step in and hold us up. Other times, we have to step out and hold them up. Each of us has a different role to play but we all have to hold the collective space for movement building together. That’s what I hope we all keep in mind and work on together. It’s the only way we move forward.

In the last several years, traditional progressive activists have reacted negatively to what they consider the failure of Occupy and Black Lives Matter activists to take a form they regard as familiar and effective. Among the questions we’ve heard: “Who are the leaders?” “What are their specific demands?” “Why don’t they work through the system and mobilize for elections like the Tea Party does?”

If a movement doesn’t emerge in a form that we easily recognize, the fault may be with us and not the movement. Moreover, the direct-action tactics of these groups have achieved at least as much impact as any other campaigns we’ve seen in recent years, electoral or otherwise. Administrative relief from deportation, body cameras on cops, the shift of the public discourse around the economy and policing—these are very real and tangible achievements, and they must not be minimized or discounted, even as longer-term campaigns and strategies develop.

* * *

I have tried to argue that it is time to rethink our notions of civic participation and engagement in order to address the criminal-justice system and the way it erodes or denies full citizenship to minorities, and also to acknowledge direct action as an important tool in the continuum of the democratic process.

Now I will offer just a bit of advice to those progressives who believe, as I do, that we need to rethink some basic premises. First, and most important, I think our analysis must be broader and more encompassing in the ways I’ve been suggesting.

Second, we all need to listen more to the voices emerging around us. At the Democracy Alliance—whose history, like that of many civic-engagement institutions, has been far from perfect where race and gender are concerned—we are bringing a race and gender perspective to our new priority areas of economic justice, democracy, and climate change. The logic is simple: If civic-engagement strategies don’t take account of the urgent concerns of people of color, young people, women, and others who have been left out of the political process for many years, and if these groups don’t have a place at every key decision-making table, how can those strategies possibly bring about the robust participation essential to progressive victories?

From the earliest days of the Republic, those who feared a democracy in which everyone fully participates have used myriad means to subvert that participation. We’ve been better at recognizing this when such forms of control are imposed at the registrar’s office or the ballot box than when they occur on the streets and at the courthouse. This must change.

One way to bring about that change is to embrace the concept of disruption. In Silicon Valley, this is a buzzword referring to the value of shaking up businesses and market sectors to bring about a more productive economy. The civic-engagement sector should start to regard the kind of disruption I’ve been discussing in the same way.

Every definition of “democracy” I’ve ever seen stipulates a system of government in which power is vested in the people. We need to ensure that the ways in which the people challenge power and exert their own are reflected in the ways we think and talk about civic participation.

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