We all love and respect our ancestor and freedom fighter Frederick Douglass. But in the 21st century, nobody is trying to imitate his haircut or wear his 19th century clothes. So why is 21st century black America still stuck with Frederick Douglass's political strategy, 140 years later? And how's that old stuff working out for us, anyway?
Black American Politics in the 21st Century: Is It Time For A New Plan?
By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
When our esteemed ancestor and freedom fighter Frederick Douglass famously declared, back in the 1870s that “the Republican party is the ship and all else is the storm” he summed up black America's rules of engagement with the nation's political and electoral apparatus. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, nineteenth century Democrats were the Confederate party, the party of secession and slavery, with whom no accommodation was possible. So there it was. The Republican party of that era was the ship, and all else the storm.
But like rides on other ships we have taken, this one did not go to a happy place. Before Emancipation was a dozen years old, Northern white Republicans were washing their hands and looking the other way while Southern black Republican sheriffs, assessors, judges, county, state, federal legislators and other officials, were evicted from their posts amid hails of gunfire, white mob violence and ubiquitous threats. Republican voters in the South, mostly black, were driven from the polls by a reign of terror that robbed many of their lands and businesses took thousands of mostly black lives, while white Northern Republicans averted their eyes and did nothing.
But this betrayal failed to shake the rock solid political allegiance of most African Americans. For the most part, the Republican party was still the ship, and all else, the storm. Where and when they were allowed to vote at all, blacks continued to vote Republican. Over the next five decades, hundreds of thousands left Dixie for better opportunities throughout the north and west, where for the most part they remained Republicans. The Frederick Douglass strategy held sway over most of black politics till the Great Depression of the early 1930s, when black America finally jumped that Republican ship for the Democratic one.
You'd think that our political leaders of that era time might have been half as smart as LeBron James's agents, and negotiated us a sign-on bonus. They might have demanded voting rights for blacks in the solidly Democratic South, or perhaps a federal law against lynching in return for our allegiance --- it should be remembered that in the South and much of the rest of the country from the 1860s until the 1950s and 60s, white violence against blacks went absolutely unpunished by local and federal law enforcement officials --- or at least open white opposition to Jim Crow on the part of Northern white Democrats. But sadly, they did not. When black America abandoned the Republican ship for the Democratic one in the 1930s, we got the same deal we had with the Republicans. We kept the vote outside the South, where we already had it. And now the Democratic Party was designated the ship, and all else the storm.
It's been that way for more than seven decades, since anybody alive can remember. Although black America has switched parties, we have carried Frederick Douglass's 1870 rules of engagement with the US political and electoral process with us into the 21st century, picking one of the two establishment political parties, and investing all of our energy, votes and political capital there, regardless of whether the result. Why? Just ask any member of the current black political class, and they'll tell you: because the Democratic party is the ship, and all else is the storm, whether that party addresses our issues, serves our interests or not. That's the way it's been since anybody can remember, and we can still hear our black political class channeling Frederick Douglass today. The Democratic Party, in which they've invested their personal careers, 75 or 80 years of our votes and the energy of generations of volunteered labor remains the ship. All else is the storm.
So how's the 1870 Frederick Douglass strategy political working out for black America nowadays?
Black people in the U.S,, to paraphrase the old saying, may have no permanent friends or enemies, but our permanent interests are easily identifiable. These are jobs, justice and human rights at home, and peace abroad. Is our 1870 political strategy delivering us jobs, justice and human rights at home, and peace abroad? If so, it's working and we should keep it. If it's not we need to ask whether or not we're doing it right, or whether it's time to try something new, and what that might look like.
Is our political strategy delivering us peace abroad?
All of our permanent interests, jobs, justice, human rights and peace are inextricably linked. We start with the last of these, because without peace abroad, none of the others are possible. The US of A is a global empire, with somewhere between 800 and 1200 foreign military bases scattered around the world. There are no Turkish Air Force officers at corner bars in rural Alabama, or Chinese Marines with bases in Michigan, and you can't find Argentine or Nigerian sailors at any US port, unless your tax dollars are paying to train them here. But there are uniformed US armed forces in more than a hundred countries. This is what the Romans and Brits did in their day, and it's what we are doing now. It's not “foreign policy,” the US does not have a “foreign policy,” it has an empire. Maintaining and extending that empire is the “foreign policy.”
Empires are horrendously expensive. For what it costs to run the war in Afghanistan for an hour or two, you could plug all the budget holes in the transit system of Philadelphia, or Atlanta, or Chicago or Califorina's BART, or fully fund the school systems in a half dozen cities the size of Macon or Birmingham or Hartford or Oklahoma City. An entire day of war funding would plug all the holes in a medium sized state budget.
Just as Martin Luther King pinpointed the war in Vietnam as the reason the 1960s War on Poverty programs could not be funded, funding the multiple wars needed to maintain and extend a global empire will absolutely prevent the funding of jobs, education, housing and health care for the foreseeable future. And just as back in the 1960s, our political class, including its black faces, regard this as a subject not to be discussed, and utterly off the table.
Our First Black President ran saying he was going to change the very mindset that made imperial wars inevitable, (of couse he didn't use the word “imperial') but as soon as he wrapped up the nomination, he embraced fictitious Bush-Cheney war policies like “the surge,” along with the rationales for wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. The “antiwar Obama,” if he ever existed outside our imaginations, is dead, and now we have a Democratic “war president,” with all the unconstitutional powers grabbed by his predecessor and a few more, and a black face.
Our 1870 political strategy makes us unable to discern an enemy when he is a professed Democrat, all the more a Democrat with a black face.
Is our political strategy delivering jobs?
The short answer is Democratic political leaders don't even know what a program of delivering jobs would look like. Most Americans, if pollsters asked what the WPA and CCC of the 1930s were, can't tell you. It's no longer part of the popular memory. So here's the capsule version.
In the last Great Depression, the federal government revived the economy by simply writing checks and putting millions of unemployed Americans to work digging new subway lines, (the State Street subway tunnel in Chicago, for one example) building thousands of brand new state of the art public elementary and high schools throughout Southern California with features like music rooms, indoor gymnasiums and showers, and multipurpose auditoriums, things seldom seen outside wealthy private schools up till that time. They built public parks and swimming pools and nature trails along with roads and bridges.
This of course, gives the absolute lie to the currently popular saying that “government can't create wealth.” This was public wealth, created the same way as all private wealth, through labor, labor that put income in the hands of millions of families who promptly spent it and revived the consumer economy. The tax system of that time laid much heavier burdens on the wealthy and a much lighter tax burden on labor. But unlike today, when a huge proportion of people's taxes go for corporate welfare and imperial wars, people could see where there taxes went, and they were more satisfied with the justice of it than anybody has a right to be in the early 21st century.
At a time when unemployment is at a sixty or seventy year high, and the gap between black and white unemployment is growing faster than ever, are Democrats delivering jobs for black America? Our First Black President claims that government just cannot create jobs, that only private industry can do that, a self-evident and self-serving lie. And the vice president said only last week that the administration has no plans to bring back any of the 8 million jobs lost by what he calls the “Great Recession.”
Is our political strategy delivering us justice?
The answer here has to be negative again. Over the last thirty-five years the nation has implemented a policy of blatantly discriminatory mass incarceration of African Americans and other minorities including Latinos and Native Americans. It's a piece of national policy we've been calling attention to in Black Agenda Report and before that in Black Commentator for more than eight years, and what attorney and author Michelle Alexander eloquently describes in her book The New Jim Crow. In a single generation, from the 1960s when whites were a majority in the nation's prisons, the black American one eighth of the US population by the turn of the century furnished roughly half the nation's prisoners. No black drug or crime wave accounts for this policy shift. The nation, as Loic Wacquant puts it, simply decided to lock up five times as many people for the same amount of crime it had in say, 1980, and most of the locked up were black.
Our black Democratic politicians do talk about the wave of mass incarceration, but mostly in a sort of a “drive by” fashion, and rarely if ever even identifying mass black incarceration as a national policy in need of reversal. Proposals to end mandatory sentencing, to reduce prosecutorial discretion and the power of grand juries, to restore Pell Grants to prisoners and convicted felons are almost never heard, even from black Democrats. More common are black Democrats like Georgia's attorney general Thurbert Baker, who boasts of his key role in passing a “three strikes” law that nearly doubled the state's prison population in the late nineties.
Democrats, even black Democrats are not delivering on justice.
Are Democrats delivering on human rights?
Our first black president pledged to end torture, denounced secret imprisonment without trial, and promised to close Guantanamo, but not to close any of the dozens of other secret and near-secret US prisons around the world. But the US is still kidnapping, still torturing and still imprisoning citizens of dozens of countries, and Americans too, in offshore hellholes and on military bases around the world. The Obama administration has even introduced laws to make “legal” some of the horrible things the Bush-Cheney gang did without benefit of “legal” sanction.
As under Bush and Cheney, the rights of corporations take precedence over those of human beings. Obama campaigned against offshore oil drilling until he had the nomination locked up, then walked back to a position pretty much identical to his predecessors. Up until the BP disaster in the Gulf, the Obama administration handed out oil leases and drilling permits for a year and a half with no reviews and no safeguards.
One of the first things the administration did after the extent of the disaster became evident was to declare a no fly zone over and near the actual leak. Further regulations, including measures that make it a felony for reporters and camera people to get within 60 feet of a boat skimming oil, or a boom at sea or in the marshes, are clearly put there to conceal the extent of the calamity. Evidently, the corporate right to conceal crimes outweighs the human right to know those crimes, and the so-called freedom of the press.
So Democrats are not delivering on human rights either.
Why We Can't Change the Democratic Party From the Inside
That's been the plan for going on 75 years now. Those who claim they can do it now disregard the experience of generations of activists before them.
This author is one of those who invested more than twenty years as a Democratic activist in Chicago working with hundreds, sometimes thousands of brave, wise and generous people trying to change that party from the inside in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. We organized neighborhood by neighborhood around housing, policing, gentrification, Reaganomics, apartheid and unjust wars from Vietnam to Central America to the Middle East. We were always well to the left of our elected Democratic leaders, but for us, the Democratic Party was still the ship, and all else was the storm. So where we could, we established persistent neighborhood organizations independent of the Democratic Party and we tapped those networks to oppose City Hall in neighborhood elections for aldermen, ward committeemen, state legislators, for countywide offices and ultimately for congressional and mayoral candidates. The cumulative effort of those networks I played a personal role in building, and those of networks paralleling them in neighboring parts of the city are directly responsible for the political careers of current Chicago area Democratic congressional representatives Bobby Rush, Danny Davis, Luis Gutierrez, Jesse Jackson Jr., and Jan Shakowsky, and many other local figures.
We won our share of victories, including the mayor's office in 1983 and 1987. But most of the gains we won at great cost in those years were taken back, piece by piece. Arne Duncan, the current Secretary of Education, specialized in neutralizing the measure of local parent and teacher control over individual public schools by dissolving those schools altogether and establishing charter schools in their place, a policy that has gone national with the Obama administration's cynically misnamed “Race to the Top” initiative.
To varying extents, the culture of public officaldom absorbed many of the people we put in office. For some of them, it must have been like going into the US Navy and supposing you could use it more than it would use you.
The Democratic Party has made itself people-proof, and activist-proof.
In response to efforts like ours around the country, the Democratic Party, as a vehicle of corporate rule, has evolved mechanisms to protect itself against the democratic influences of its activists and voters. Both houses of every state legislature, and the federal House and Senate, have house speakers and senate presidents, whips, minority and majority leaders. These are not the legislators with the most expansive view of how government can serve their constituents. These party leaders are elected on the basis of who can attract the largest amount in corporate campaign contributions. Some of the funds are used to guarantee the re-election of the Democratic Party leader on the state or federal level, and the party leader distributes the remaining funds to those of his or her fellow legislators most loyal to the corporate agenda. At best, Democrats who listen too closely to their constituents, and to the activist base that makes their elections possible, get nothing. At worst, they find their party's leaders are funneling corporate money to right wing Democrats who oppose them in Democratic primary elections. That's what happened to former Atlanta congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, to name just one example, and it happens scores of times every election cycle on the state and local levels. Rahm Emanuel, now White House Chief of Staff, performed this duty for Congressional Democrats in 2006, ensuring that even if Democrats had a whopping majority during the final years of the Bush Administration, they would pose no effective opposition to the Iraq and Afghan wars, or the Bush-Cheney crime wave in general.
What would a new black political strategy for the 21st century look like?
Going Republican is not an option. Today's Republican party is the party of white supremacy and empire, pure and simple. If it's time to jump the Democratic ship, this time we have to build a new one that goes where we need to go.
Democrats and Republicans don't want anybody building parties outside the two party duopoly, and have constructed a maze of discriminatory ballot access laws to prevent it. Law firms affiliated with the Democratic Party caused the 2000 and 2004 Ralph Nader campaigns to spend millions defending itself in court against spurious legal challenges. If it wasn't a weak point, an obvious point of assault, Democrats and Republicans would not make putting a new party's candidates on the ballot so difficult.
There is a network of Green parties all over the world, and while the Green party in the US has internal problems, its structure makes each individual state organization virtually independent and self sufficient. On the state level, many Green parties already have won a degree of ballot access, but are nearly empty shells, buses parked by the roadside with the keys and title in the glove compartments. It's time for black activists to walk in, put our names on those titles, take the keys, and drive these buses off.
A 21st century political strategy for black America could turn these state level Green parties into red, black and green parties by doing what the Democratic Party would do if it were a peoples party, but cannot and will not. It would entail running candidates for state legislator, for sheriff and prosecutor who pledge to find ways to roll back the tide of black mass incarceration, to oppose privatization of public resources on every level, to uphold the rights of humans over the rights of corporations. I wrote two articles back in 2005, How to Make Mass Incarceration A Political Issue, and It's Time to Build A Mass Movement which examined how running campaigns in black constituencies against mass black incarceration might spark an authentic movement in black communities that would put elderly church ladies in the same rooms and in the same political formations as young people. It's still the way to go. It's the way we're going in Georgia.
A new black political strategy would have to look beyond the next election cycle or two, and advocate policy positions, like the restoration of human rights over corporate ones, an end to privatization of schools and prisons, that cannot be accomplished in the next elections. It's not that hard. People all over the world form political parties to struggle for what they believe they need even when elections are illegal. Only in the US do supposed political activists limit the dimensions of their struggle to what might be pushed through the legislature this year or next. What they have in those other places is something we lost with the slow death of the movement in the sixties and seventies, a culture of struggle for its own sake, whether the goals are achievable this year or next, this decade or the next. With such a spirit, anything is possible, even the politically impossible.
Bruce Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member since last year, of the state committee of the Georgia Green Party. Deal with it. He can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.