What divides Black America?

August 27, 2014

The eruption of outrage in Ferguson has shown a spotlight on the out-of-touch attitudes and policies of Black political leaders, writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

THE FUNERAL of African American teenager Mike Brown this week marked a new stage in the emerging movement against police brutality and racial profiling in the U.S. Brown's parents insisted on a public funeral that attracted thousands of ordinary people from across the country, ensuring the continuation of this struggle, rather than punctuating its end.

Indeed, in the weeks since Brown's death, there has been a national awakening to the devastating regularity of police brutality and harassment that pervades life for almost all Blacks across the country. The persistence of the Ferguson rebellion as it has unfolded over the last several weeks forced to the surface of American society frank discussions about racism, inequality and the role of the police in that mix.

Besides Brown, there have been a succession of cases of police murder of unarmed Black men in a matter of weeks this summer--including Eric Garner, choked to death by the NYPD; John Crawford, shot by police in a suburban Ohio Walmart as he held a toy gun; and Ezell Ford, who witnesses claim was shot in the back while he lay prone on the ground in Los Angeles.

Al Sharpton at Mike Brown's funeral in Ferguson, Mo.
Al Sharpton at Mike Brown's funeral in Ferguson, Mo.

The cumulative effect of these police murders--in combination with the barbaric execution of Mike Brown, whose body was left in the middle of the street for more than four hours--has exposed to the nation what every Black community knows well: Police harassment, humiliation, brutality and even murder are the norm, not the exception.

If there were any doubt, the outpouring of stories from social media has given people across the country immediate outlets to share their stories of fraught encounters with well-armed, aggressive and often racist police.

But just as the ongoing protests have created the context for a national examination of policing, it has also been politically polarizing. Most commentators have characterized the polarization as a "generational divide" between older people who espouse "nonviolence" and younger people who apparently promote "violence."

It is not inaccurate to note that an older generation of civil rights activists, including Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, have called for "nonviolence," while a younger crowd, gathering in Ferguson at night, has been more willing to fight back against police taunts and threats of violence.

But this unfortunate narrative has helped to shift attention away from the violent and antagonistic actions of local police, who have used their military-grade hardware to harass, illegally detain and arrest local residents, journalists and anyone they deem to be in their way. It is the police who have been the instigators of all the violence in Ferguson--from the murder of Mike Brown to the repeated attempts to repress protesters.

The commentators' rather arbitrary divide also misses the more substantive division between the Black political and economic elite, with their ultimate belief that the U.S. is capable of producing a fair and equitable society--and working class Blacks, whose cynicism about American democracy deepens as the overall condition of African Americans worsens.

The real division being played out in Ferguson, and across Black America in general, is one of class, not age.

SOME WEBSITES and media outlets have highlighted the similarities in images from the civil rights protests of the 1960s and the police reaction to Ferguson protests today--focusing on police holding attack dogs to be sicced on Black protesters and the copious use of tear gas to break up demonstrations.

But there are also many important differences between then and now.

The most significant one is that not only is there an African American president and Attorney General, but there are literally thousands of Black elected officials holding office across the nation. Despite this unprecedented access to political power and office, precious little has changed for ordinary Blacks.

Thus, while pundits have pointed to a low turnout among registered voters in Ferguson as a culprit in the unequal distribution of political power in the town, they underestimate the extent to which Black Fergusonians may question whether changing the town's political operatives will stop police harassment, increase job prospects or put an end to housing discrimination and segregation.

This is not simply an expression of hopelessness or apathy--after all, 54 percent of registered Black voters turned out for Obama in the 2012 election. Instead, it is the painful result of living under the nation's first Black president and experiencing an increase in hardship, not its alleviation. African Americans mobilized in unprecedented numbers to elect Barack Obama president--twice--yet Obama's spokespeople, like Al Sharpton, gloat about the president's lack of a specifically Black agenda.

Instead, in the Obama-led Democratic Party, most Black elected officials and the ossified leadership of many existing civil rights organizations help to articulate and legitimize a perverse politics that blames most Blacks for their own condition--based, supposedly, on a litany of bad behaviors, from poor parenting, to a lackadaisical attitude towards school, to simple laziness and absence of ambition.

At Mike Brown's funeral, Sharpton launched into an Obamaesque condemnation of ordinary Black people saying, "And now we get to the 21st century, we get to where we've got some positions of power. And you decide it ain't Black no more to be successful. Now, you want to be a 'nigger' and call your woman a 'ho.' You've lost where you're coming from." Sharpton went on to chastise ordinary Blacks for engaging in "ghetto pity parties."

It's not clear what any of this had to do with the murder of Mike Brown, but the Black elite is relentless when it comes to denigrating and condescending to the Black poor and working class. As historian Peniel Joseph has observed, "America's racial underclass, the off-the-grid hustlers and entrepreneurs who many Black elites ignore or demonize, rarely sees political leaders of any color advocating for them."

This eruption of moralism and contempt for working class Black communities cannot simply be reduced to the "politics of respectability." To do so would suggest that this vitriol is only a façade intended to appeal to white people. There may be some truth to that, but it also reflects the "post-Black," "color-blind" ethos of a Black political elite that champions free-market capitalism and all the logics that are assumed with it.

These include the belief that hard work and good morals are the foundation of American exceptionalism. As Obama put it in his State of the Union speech earlier this year, "What I believe unites the people of this nation...is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all--the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead."

The hostility is also indicative of the extent to which today's political leaders either have no answers to the structural inequality that harms Black life or they are so deeply invested in the policies undergirding Black deprivation that it undermines their ability to offer solutions not involving personal transformation as the single, best way to get ahead.

In cities across the U.S., the Democratic Party champions the privatization of public services and continued attacks on government spending, standing quietly by while the regulatory capacities of the state are systematically undermined.

For example, the Democrats, led by Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, are architects of the corporate school "reform" movement predicated on shifting public tax money into the coffers of privately run charter schools. The end result has been a record number of public school closures over the last several years. Not only has this had a detrimental impact on the educational outcomes of disproportionate numbers of Black students, it also resulted in the displacement of thousands of Black teachers who historically have been the backbone of urban public schools.

And it happened with almost no protest from Black civil rights organizations. In fact, in 2009, Sharpton toured with Arne Duncan and right-wing bigot Newt Gingrich to extol the virtues of corporate control of public education.

It isn't just public education--the entire public sphere has come under attack. Public housing, public hospitals and clinics, public libraries and other institutions that served as monuments of civil society are under withering attack as local, state and federal governments ruthlessly cut and eradicate programs intended to mitigate the worst aspects of poverty.

In their place, philanthropy and private capital are induced into performing some of these services--at a cost of endless tax cuts and subsidies that guarantee participation by the wealthy with little risk to their investments. This is, and has been, a recipe for disaster. African Americans, after all, have historically called for greater state regulation and monitoring of the private sector, because the absence of this meant that discrimination went completely unchecked.

Formal Black politics is wholly complicit in the slow starvation of the public sector and the promotion of greater private-sector involvement. Not only are groups afraid of alienating themselves from a president who is averse to discussing racial inequality, but many of them--as products of a supposed "post-racial" political era in the U.S.--accept the principles of private capital over a robust public sector.

Is it surprising that the Congressional Black Caucus is absent from the daily struggles of most ordinary African Americans when the board of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation includes corporate luminaries such as Walmart, Boeing, Dell, Citigroup, and Verizon.

Traditional Black liberal organizations like the NAACP, Urban League or Congressional Black Caucus are either missing or marginal in the struggle for the $15-an-hour minimum wage in low-wage service industries, where many working Blacks make their living. Walmart, after all, is the largest Black employer in the U.S.

These same groups have been absent from the struggle to save the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), even though the USPS has historically been a stable source of higher-wage work with good benefits for Black workers. They have been absent from the fight to save public-sector pensions that disproportionately fund the retirement of African Americans. They were absent from the fight for a bailout of Detroit, with a population that is 85 percent Black--even while the car industry in Detroit was rescued by the federal government.

The idea that capital must play the dominant role in shaping society in general is so widely accepted within Black politics that the main critique of the president's most thorough policy initiative directed at addressing Black poverty, My Brother's Keeper, was its lack of inclusion of Black girls as a target group.

To be sure, the absence of any programmatic attention to the plight of Black girls is worthy of criticism. But this seems to miss the larger critique--that the only significant policy addressing racial disparities under Obama is a public-private program based on donations from Fortune 500 corporations, with little to no public oversight or input, and no long-term commitment to transform communities where poverty, violence and institutional neglect have deformed the future of the Black people who live in them.

The price of "color-blindness" is not simply the omission of racial inequality as a critique of American society. The ideological trappings of American exceptionalism are grounded in narratives of personal transcendence, "playing by the rules" and "hard work" as the foundations of "climbing the ladder of success." The opposite is also true in these narratives--if you are not successful, it must be because you have not overcome, have broken the rules and don't work hard.

This has been the one-sided narrative of Black life in the U.S. for 45 years. The Black political elite looks at its own successes and concludes that the Black workers and poor they claim to represent still have work of their own to do. Color-blindness is essentially the erasure of the historical and current institutional barriers to Black achievement. It actively dismisses racism and puts in its place a "culture of poverty" explanation for disparities between Blacks and whites.

The end result is that when the Black political elite demand "change" in Ferguson or other subjugated corner of this nation, the horizons for what change could look like are exceedingly narrow.

According to Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, a leader of the CBC, "People need to be reminded that the 2014 elections are very, very, very important. One election could be the determining factor to what kind of legislation we're able to get through."

After being told that the 2004 and 2008 and 2012 elections were the most important elections of our lives, it's difficult to imagine what life-transforming legislation will emerge from the Congress elected in the 2014 mid-term elections. But this is all Black leaders like Cummings have to offer to ordinary African Americans.

Voting is not unimportant, but the idea that we will simply vote our way out of the crisis that has exploded in Ferguson and threatens to detonate in every U.S. city is naive or specious. That which would protect the health and safety of Black communities--a fully funded public sector, an end to police brutality, living-wage jobs with health insurance--is almost never on the ballot.

Those demands are rarely found in the realm of electoral politics. Instead, they will most surely be the products of social movements and struggle. As a young man in Ferguson, Dontey Carter, said of the much-discussed "generation divide": "I feel in my heart that they failed us. They're the reason things are like this now. They don't represent us. That's why we're here for a new movement. And we have some warriors out here."

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