by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
When a Black candidate that fails to gain majority Black support wins an election, is that a Black victory, or a Black defeat? The Black Is Back Coalition holds a national conference in Newark, New Jersey, on August 18, to explore the potential and pitfalls of electoral politics. “This notion of elections=politics is pervasive across the American racial landscape.” It causes Black people to abandon their historic strengths. “The rejection of mass, grassroots action is a negation of, literally, the vast bulk of the Black historical political experience.”
The Concept of “Black” Elections
by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
“The fetishization of voting is part of the larger African American imperative to ‘get in the game’ even when you know its rigged.”
A few months ago I gave a presentation at a conference on drone warfare, in a Brooklyn church. Afterwards, a Black woman in attendance engaged me in a spirited conversation. She agreed with me on all the essential points: that President Obama is savaging international law while simultaneously nullifying the U.S. Bill of Rights – and that he doesn’t give a damn about Black folks. Then she asked who I was going to vote for at the presidential level, in November. Certainly not Obama or Romney, maybe nobody, I replied. “But, you’ve got to vote,” she insisted – and not one of those wasted votes for an obscure party candidate who had no chance to win. It was a racial obligation. Too many “had died for our right to vote” – it was unthinkable not to.
It became instantly clear that, despite all his crimes, she’d be voting for Obama. The Black vote fetish gave her no alternative.
The fetishization of voting is part of the larger African American imperative to “get in the game” even when you know its rigged. It is as if history has bequeathed Blacks a racial and personal responsibility to redress centuries of social, political and economic exclusion. We must participate, because the ancestors could not. In some silly Black social circles, this means the obligation to ski.
On August 18, the Black Is Back Coalition for Social Justice, Peace and Reparations holds a national conference in Newark, New Jersey, to explore the efficacy of engaging in electoral politics in the United States and throughout the global African Diaspora. The coalition’s stance on Obama is well known. Black Is Back was formed, in large measure, as a public statement that not all African Americans were drunk on ObamaL’aid. Its first act was to march on the White House, in November, 2009, denouncing the Black president and his service to Wall Street. The coalition marched on Obama’s residence again, the next year.
The imperative to participate in the vote game, no matter how putrid the personalities listed on the electoral menu, will surely be part of the Black Is Back discussion, in Newark.”
Although there will be no repeat of what I called the “Great Black Hajj of 2009,” when a million African Americans went on pilgrimage to Washington to bear witness to the First Black President’s inauguration, there is no doubt that the warmongering corporate Democratic will garner the vast bulk of the Black vote this November. An important segment of those voters will politically resemble the lady that engaged me outside the church: folks on the Left side of a Black spectrum which, as a polity, has always been significantly to the Left of the white American spectrum on issues of social and economic justice and U.S. military adventures abroad.
The imperative to participate in the vote game, no matter how putrid the personalities listed on the electoral menu, will surely be part of the Black Is Back discussion, in Newark. Possibly the greatest obstacle, however, to organizing African Americans for their own empowerment is the belief that electoral activity is the only kind of politics.
This notion of elections=politics is pervasive across the American racial landscape, and is one of the most frightening aspects of the hegemony of capitalist market ideology, whose message is: if you’re not playing our (rigged) game, you don’t exist. For African Americans, the marginalization of non-electoral political activity – the rejection of mass, grassroots action – is a negation of, literally, the vast bulk of the Black historical political experience.
The distortion of Black political memory is seen most ominously in the concerted effort to frame Obama’s election as the ultimate expression of all the Black struggles that came before. The entirety of the Black self-determinationist and radical traditions is nullified under an all-things-led-to-Obama construct that is buttressed by every corporate media and educational/propaganda institution, with the indispensable assistance of Black intellectuals like the late Manning Marable and the upstart lightweight, Peniel Joseph. Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party and even Dr. Martin Luther King’s definitive break with President Johnson’s war policies – all are transformed into historical stair steps to Obama’s inauguration, a stairway that can lead only to the death of Black politics, of Black history, and of Black self-determination.
In this context, the Black Is Back conference will examine those electoral races in which candidates championing Black self-determination on the local level and beyond should be supported – for example, Jackson, Mississippi, city councilman and human rights activist Chokwe Lumumba’s campaign for mayor – and other such candidacies should be encouraged.
“This notion of elections=politics is pervasive across the American racial landscape.”
However, we must have an even more fundamental discussion about the way that elections should be approached. If the goal is Black self-determination, then elections should be viewed as potential opportunities to express Black people’s political will – which leads to a very different conception of what constitutes victory or defeat.
It is no victory when Black people’s votes are used against them to empower our enemies among the noxious choices on the take-it-or-leave-it menu served up by the corporate financiers of electoral politics. And it is an even more abject defeat when Black people’s political leanings and aspirations are distorted and mischaracterized due to their participation in an ever more Rightward-trending electoral game. For example, does massive electoral Black support for Obama indicate that African Americans favor drone wars and preventive detention without trial? We know that’s not true, and can prove it beyond doubt through opinion polls and other means. (Indeed, there is ample reason to believe that many, if not most, African Americans don’t know or much care what Obama’s actual policies are, or invent policies and intentions on his behalf, in order to make the Black President more palatable to the Black psyche.) Nevertheless, corporate and white political actors feel free to interpret Obama’s “popularity” among Blacks – as measured by votes – as an indicator of a Rightward drift among African Americans.
The corporate media has been trying to confirm such a drift for a very long time, on the assumption that Blacks would become more conservative as they became more middle class. This, they predicted, would lead to the emergence of a “new” Black politician: more business-friendly, less race-conscious, who rejects the “Sixties-type” politics of “confrontation.”
Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr. were the archetypes of this New Black Politico, preceding Obama. Cynthia McKinney’s losing battle to retain her congressional seat from a relatively upscale suburban Atlanta district, in 2002, became a national test of the theory of growing conservatism among Blacks. Her defeat by corporate-supported Denise Majette was heralded as proof that Black opinion had turned decisively to the Right.
But the actual election returns said different. Bruce Dixon and I concluded, during our tenure at BlackCommentator.com, that McKinney had garnered more than 80 percent of the Black vote. Majette had won the “white election,” with 90 percent of the white vote, while McKinney and her leftist and Black self-determinationist politics had handily won the “Black” election. A white political scientist at the University of Georgia found, in his own study of the election results, that McKinney had won a whopping 86 percent of her Black constituents: a landslide, from a Black perspective. Although defeated in a district that had only a slight Black majority, the election was actually an affirmation of the appeal of McKinney’s brand of politics to Black voters in the second most affluent Black-majority county in the country. Majette was revealed as the representative of the district’s whites and, therefore, not a legitimate Black spokesperson.
“Majette had won the ‘white election,’ with 90 percent of the white vote, while McKinney and her leftist and Black self-determinationist politics had handily won the ‘Black’ election.”
With Black super-majority congressional districts going extinct (largely because the Democrats want to spread Black voters around) and African Americans rapidly losing their majorities in the nation’s cities to gentrification, it becomes senseless to speak of the election of Black individuals as proof of Black political power. The Black face in the winner’s seat may represent exactly the opposite: Black defeat.
Those of us who seek Black self-determination should think in terms of “Black” elections: who won the Black vote, regardless of the district-wide outcome? Who is the “legitimate” spokesperson for Blacks – the final tally winner, or the official loser?
On this basis, New York City Councilman Charles Barron’s 28 percent share in the recent primary contest in Brooklyn’s new 8th congressional district represents about half the Black vote. The district is 56 percent Black, and former Black Panther Barron, who was demonized by the totality of the corporate media (and even the Democrats-in-left-clothing of Moveon.org), could not have picked up more than a negligible number of white votes. Hakeem Jeffries, the charter school champion whom the corporate media praised as a “new” Black politician in the Booker, Ford, Obama mold, faced a serious challenge in the “Black” election, and may have lost it, despite an overwhelming advantage in money and media.
Barron’s strong showing, and possible victory, in the “Black” congressional election means the race was worthwhile; that half the Black voters agree with Barron’s militancy and radical politics, and it might well be in Black people’s interests that Barron run, again, next time around.
The concept of “Black” elections becomes more critical as Black supermajorities disappear. Without such a self-determinationist view of electoral politics, even Black people will inevitably conclude that we have no politics of our own, that there is no broad African American worldview – that “there is no Black America,” as Obama told us in 2004.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at [email protected].