From a Black perspective, I am of the opinion that the 2016 presidential election process cannot be fairly evaluated unless one also examines Black history, the Barack Obama presidency and the reaction of the American political electorate to the first African-American president of the United States of America.
In making this statement, I have intentionally abstained from referring to President Obama as a Black president, because that is not a term that I can recall him using to identify himself. In addition it is acknowledged that his rearing and socialization experiences were, in his formative years, predominantly influenced by events and circumstances that were very much unlike the “traditional African American racial experience.”
The importance of this distinction is that, for me, it helps to frame the modern “American Dilemma” with respect to what we call race and the challenges that flow therefrom. To that end, the struggle today is not simply about the tension generated by the need to breathe false life into antiquated notions of White supremacy in order to facilitate the economic and political domination of African descendant people.
The struggle today is instead heavily grounded in the need for a very frightened White universe to resist the advance of African Americans, and other so called non-White people, in an effort to hold onto the political space, leverage and privilege that the strategies for White domination and White supremacy have historically provided. The blatant disrespect that has been shown to President Obama and to the Office of the President of the United States since he has occupied it constitutes a patent and un-refutable display of the fear and hatred harbored by the old guard elite class.
There is an additional distinction that we must recognize before proceeding. The distinction is that the political challenge confronting African descendent people and the political challenge facing the collective identified as “people of color” are not the same. The establishment responses are not the same in major part because the establishment responses are targeted at the sub-constituencies within the general classification. Those forces that are aligned to resist social change understand all too well the operational value and impact of the “divide and conquer” strategy. This reality continues to be a major challenge confronting attempts to create and maintain coalitions and build solidarity among ethnic groups in America—and indeed around the world.
After over a half century of engagement in political and social activist’s causes, I am totally convinced that there will be no substantive and sustainable transformative political advancement for African descendant people in America until such time as we can commit to and develop strategies and an agenda for the attainment of collective Black Empowerment. To my knowledge no serious effort at a conversation in that regard has been attempted since the Gary, Indiana grassroots political convention of the early 1970s. Why not?
Fifty years ago, it was understandable that we would be excited and perhaps even overly hopeful about the consequences that would follow the advances made by individual Black Americans who were “breaking barriers” and integrating American society. This was new ground. To see Negro/Black people being appointed to positions in the President’s Cabinet and other top-level government and private sector administrative positions was extremely hopeful. To see military people being elevated to the rank of General, and to see in northern industrial cities, Black school principals appointed, Black policemen and firefighters being hired where none had existed in modern memory; this was the real era of “yes we can.”
To see ordinary people coalesce with the will of ordinary unheralded leaders and bend the ill and resistant will of the political establishment to point in a direction of expanded opportunities for the collective empowerment and advancement of Negros/Black people was an original “yes we can moment” in our history.
In my view, a very salient point has been lost upon too many of us. The point to remember is that these changes and the creation of the then new political landscape were not primarily produced by voting. The change that we so fondly refer to today was primarily produced by bringing pressure on the system to secure the right to vote in the South and to strengthen the restricted existing right to vote in the North. This was achieved by adopting strategies to eliminate gerrymandering, organizing economic boycotts, organizing voter registration drives and employing similar tactics. We did not vote our way into the “establishment political process.” Let us not forget that.
Let us not forget that, in the beginning of the modern era of American Black political empowerment, the Negro/Black members of the US Congress were relatively few. The names were Powell, Diggs Dawson Nix, Hawkins and perhaps another name or two. However, some with whom I agree, argue that, by being racially sensitive to the needs of Black America and as astute architects of the political establishment, these political representatives were able to exert a greater degree of influence on the development of opportunities for Black and poor people than the entire membership of the current Black Congressional Caucus is capable of doing today.
Let us especially remember the fact that the celebrated 1963 March on Washington, which has become such an iconic event in America, never embraced racial integration as one of its primary objectives.
Certainly the landscape has changed, and we must be ever ready to respond to the changes in that landscape. The alternative is to re-chain ourselves to the customs, practices and pillars of the “old plantation.” This destructive re-bonding process, I am confident, will not be avoided unless we engage in a constructive self-critical analysis about who we are and who it is that we are on the road to becoming. Perhaps a “Sankofa Evaluation” of our past is in fact essential to the development of a real understanding of our present condition and an even greater understanding of what our future experience on this path portends.
In the absence of the development of our own agenda for collective empowerment, logically, one must ask who is designing the agenda that we are pursuing? How comfortable are we as Black people with the issues of income disparity, unequal educational opportunity, the existence of food deserts, and school to prison pipelines that exist within the structure of our own communities? What are the fault lines existing in “The Black Community” and why are they not identified, by Black elected officials and other community leaders, for discussion and repair?
I find it interesting and troubling that so many of our youth display more passion and interest for the political message of Sen. Bernie Sanders and so many of our African-American elders get warm, fuzzy and spastically excited at the very appearance of Secretary of State Clinton without even a discussion of the question: What went wrong and what is the remedy? What is going to be different this time? The importance of this point has been very eloquently emphasized by others.
The unasked and perhaps more disturbing question is does our psychological craving for inclusion and affirmation exist so strongly until we cannot insist upon a conversation about our needs and interests? What leadership elements representing our community are asking the serious questions?
With respect to the recent Democratic Party primary in South Carolina, where was the public conversation about repairing the “Corridor of Shame?” What is the public health care model that Clinton would recommend to address the health care needs of Black and poor people in a state where a Republican governor has refused to support expanding available health care options? What is the plan or even the conversation to repair the crumbling “institutional structure” at South Carolina State University and restore institutional competitiveness?
According to the historical record, platitudes, promises, fish sandwiches and pep rallies are a very poor foundation or predicate for hope or for the development of a platform to effect sustainable change. This we should know by now. In too many instances, the cart still comes before the horse, ensuring that the horse never needs to arrive.
As we continue to frame alliances and pledge allegiance to the efforts for the selection of the new face for the “oligarchic regime” that will most likely order the lives of most Americans for the next presidential season, I submit that all Black people carry and share a special set of responsibilities. We have an overarching responsibility to engage this process with an understanding of the history of the struggle, sacrifices and mistakes that have brought us to this place in time. We have a co-equal responsibility to maintain a conscious distinction between planning to and participating in the plan to simply “drink the king’s wine” or “eat the king’s meat.”
Instead, we have the unapologetic responsibility to engaging in a conscious and consistent effort to adopt an agenda for the collective empowerment of African descendent people. Our efforts must represent the best interest of one another or they are flawed. It is only then that we will be able to function as responsible Democrats, Republicans, Democratic Socialists, or as responsible and mature members of the body politic.
We have an obligation to accept the fact that even the brightest and most experienced among us must forever be students of the process, because the process is not stagnant. It is effusive, mercurial and poisonously swift. We must ensure, in the spirit of collective empowerment, that there is always “a voice” in the mix that is prepared to speak truth to power and recite the hurdles that remain to be cleared. This is the antidote to kick our destructive addiction to ouija board political engagement.
At this most moment, we have so much work to do and so much ground to recover. For example, according to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, we are currently living in “The Decade of Human Rights for People of African Descent.” It is shocking, how little is known about this initiative, by school teachers, clergy, elected officials, activists or others. At the end of January, a preliminary report was filed by a special committee investigating human rights conditions of African Descendent peoples in America. The preliminary report is too troubling to be ignored. The final report is due in September of 2016.
It is inconceivable that African-American citizens and leaders engaged in the 2016 presidential electoral process would not fold the findings of this report into the political discourse of this critical season. Who is developing the agenda that we are following? If we are not asking for more of the same, what is it that we are asking for? This United Nations report is not recommended reading; it is essential reading if our political options are to be maximized and our engagement is to be responsible to the condition of our people.
Dr. William Small, Jr., is a retired educator and a former member of the Board of Trustees and past Board Chairman of the Board that was recently fired by the South Carolina State Legislature.