Pamela Newkirk is the author of “Spectacle: the Astonishing Life of Ota Benga” and a professor of journalism at New York University.
Black America was celebrating Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election when the economic recession hit. By 2011, black America had lost 53 percent of its wealth, while today 1 in 3 black children live in poverty — compared with 1 in 10 white children. African Americans are still reeling from a mortgage crisis that claimed nearly a quarter-million of their homes, and from double-digit unemployment rates, hundreds of shuttered and failing schools, and the disillusionment of unrealized progress in a country presided over by a black president.
Instead of becoming a hopeful post-racial nation, America has confronted a series of videotaped encounters between police and unarmed blacks that suggest the extent to which race still matters. Angry protests over racial injustice coupled with a recalcitrant Congress underscore how Obama’s election failed to quell — and may have actually inflamed — racial tensions.
Into this paradox enters Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. with his book “Democracy in Black,” a take-no-prisoners polemic against Americans’ steadfast refusal to acknowledge the elephant in the nation’s living room: “the practices and habits of white supremacy” that he says have “ensured that white people would benefit and black people would struggle.”
Glaude, who teaches religion and African American studies, argues that neither the election of a black president nor the rise of exceptional blacks such as Oprah Winfrey has fundamentally changed the habitual valuing of white lives over others that is integral to the American character. This value gap, Glaude argues, helps explain glaring disparities between black and white schools, neighborhoods, unemployment, infant mortality and incarceration rates, and the unprosecuted killings of unarmed blacks by those charged to protect them. Equally glaring is the normalization of these disparities — a silent acceptance of systemic and stark racial inequality as an indelible trait of American democracy.
“When we understand American democracy and white supremacy are inextricably linked,” Glaude writes, “we can see how tortuous our efforts have been to accommodate the value gap.”
In Glaude’s view, perpetual delusion about American exceptionalism and an uncanny ability to fetishize democracy while sustaining racial inequality keep many from confronting systemic forces at the very root of the American idea.
Obama’s election, he argues, has actually spurred the unraveling of black gains by causing many — including some members of the Supreme Court — to believe that racial equality has been achieved. Therefore, efforts to protect black voting rights, for example, are viewed as unnecessary. Meanwhile, many of the institutions that have long buttressed black America — including historically black colleges, newspapers and churches — are collapsing while Americans appear inured to black suffering.
Glaude argues that the problem is not the gap between our ideals and our practices, as many liberals maintain, but rather “our repeated failure to value all Americans.” He does not reserve his criticism for political conservatives but also finds fault with those overwhelmingly supported by blacks who nonetheless fail to address their plight out of fear of alienating white voters. He traces the dissolution of a black liberal politics that had once unapologetically addressed black concerns to 1976, when Rep. Barbara Jordan (Tex.), while addressing the Democratic National Convention, put the twin issues of racism and sexism on the back burner to appeal for party unity. Meanwhile, in a position paper for the Democratic Party, the noted black political scientist Charles Hamilton recommended a deemphasis of race in the presidential campaign to keep whites from fleeing the party. Race, then, would have to be addressed undercover.
Glaude says that even as this strategy helped facilitate the historic elections of Mayor David Dinkins in New York, Gov. Doug Wilder in Virginia and Sen. Carol Moseley Braun in Chicago, “the value gap and racial habits persisted, distorting the political process.” And the tactic ultimately failed: Four years later, white voters bolted to the Republican Party anyway, helping Ronald Reagan defeat Jimmy Carter. Glaude blames this same undercover strategy for Obama’s reluctance to aggressively address race and the crisis engulfing black America. He calls My Brother’s Keeper, the president’s most publicized initiative to address the problems of young men and boys of color, “a Band-Aid for a gunshot wound.”
Meanwhile, he says, whites have continued to undermine the national interest by opposing measures that would help a wide swath of Americans — such as steps that would address the widening income gap between the rich and the poor — because they fear they would also help blacks, Muslims or immigrants. He argues that a pervasive white fear of black revenge for past sins, and a view that racial equality would reverse white advancement, have fueled the criminalization and dehumanization of blacks. He singles out President Bill Clinton — whom “Toni Morrison had cheekily declared America’s first black president’ ” — for blaming poor blacks for their plight and signing into law a crime bill that caused incarceration rates of poor brown and black people to skyrocket to unprecedented levels. Meanwhile, Clinton’s welfare reform policies widened the gap between the black middle class and the poor. “All the while black liberal political elites, at least most of them, helped Clinton sell these policies to black voters,” Glaude says.
Neither is Glaude impressed with much of the civil rights establishment, who he sees as working to bring blacks into the fold of American life without uprooting white supremacy. “This view enables us to hold simultaneously that the principles of freedom and liberty are already a part of American life, while we experience, over and over again, habits and practices that suggest otherwise.”
He favors more disruptive movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Rev. William Barber II’s Forward Together in North Carolina that openly challenge uncomfortable truths at the heart of American life without the palatable, deracialized rhetoric of party politics. Black Lives Matter eschews traditional patriarchal leadership, while Forward Together embraces queer, straight, young, old, liberal, conservative and multiracial people. Both boldly insist on an overarching moral vision that transcends party politics and disturbs the peace without sacrificing black interests.
Apparently discounting Bernie Sanders as a viable candidate, Glaude argues that presidential contenders in both parties are beholden to big business, and he counsels black Americans to vote for local candidates this year while leaving the ballot for president blank. While that strategy could result in a victory for Republicans and, consequently, the appointment of more conservatives to the Supreme Court, Glaude argues that a more just and democratic society is, in the end, more important than political pragmatism.
However, given an ardently conservative Republican field, some may find Glaude’s presidential election strategy too risky and his critique of Obama unduly harsh, given the economy he inherited and the conservative revolt he endured. And even Glaude — who at one point invokes Malcolm X’s riposte to “stop sweet talking them. Tell them how you really feel” — concedes that Obama never betrayed the racially moderate stance responsible for his election. Likewise, Glaude is unlikely to change the hearts and minds of those determined to blame blacks — and not a legacy of slavery, government-sanctioned discrimination, stereotypes and racial habits — for stark racial disparities. However, it is difficult to argue with his palpable impatience with politics as usual or with his claim that racial inequality has been a permanent feature of our democracy.
While Glaude’s advice is primarily aimed at black Americans, others may find inspiration in his call for moral movements that challenge not only racial injustice but also the loss of livable wages, the widening gap between the rich and the rest and a bankrupt political system that represents fewer of us. Americans of all races and persuasions may find in “Democracy in Black” a clear path through the thicket of a dispiriting political status quo that, short of radical social movements, seems unlikely to serve a broad and noble public good. Like Obama before him, Glaude reminds us that change rests with us; that “we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”
By Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Crown. 274 pp. $26