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Electoral politics ≠ Black liberation

Phillip Clark assesses the current political moment and argues that Black liberation cannot be realized through electoral politics.

Our world is experiencing an unprecedented wave of social, political, and economic turmoil. A global public health crisis has altered life as we know it. COVID-19 has resulted in a catastrophic 2.5 million deaths. The United States remains ground zero for infection rates and casualties resulting from the coronavirus—horrifically surpassing 500,000 deaths. Many heaved a collective sigh of relief when the second season of Donald Trump’s administration was cancelled. However, we deserve infinitely better than the moderate complacency of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to transcend capitalist exploitation and confront America’s original sin: white supremacy.

In a world that is crumbling—literally burning—before our eyes, all signs point toward radical political leadership embracing these myriad crises as an opportunity to challenge systemic racism and a neoliberal status quo that foments injustice. The cascade of social challenges and environmental crises we face are the most defining our planet has ever confronted. COVID-19 illustrates how capitalism is unable to sustain humanity’s collective safety and security.

Last summer morphed into a season of revolutionary uprising following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless other Black victims of police brutality, galvanizing calls to defund and abolish police as institutional bastions of white supremacy and state violence. As 2020 came to a close, Walter Wallace, Jr., a husband and father who lived with mental health challenges in West Philadelphia, became yet another casualty of police terror. This year began with Trump concluding his presidency by inciting an angry, racist mob to take matters into their own hands, violently storming the U.S. Capitol and destroying federal property, as Congress certified Electoral College ballots declaring Biden his successor. Five people died as a result of the unrest. Since Biden’s inauguration, many have vociferously hailed the new administration as a beacon of progress, hope, and social justice. Not being Donald Trump is now acclaimed as a transcendent political ideology.

In reality, Biden and Harris represent the vapid facade of the Democratic Party’s neoliberal agenda—promoting the window dressing of identity politics, while justifying American interference in foreign elections, continuing deadly imperialist paradigms in the Middle East, negating healthcare as a human right, turning a blind eye to COVID-19 disproportionately ravaging communities of color, ignoring the plights of teachers and other frontline workers by prematurely opening schools and businesses to restore “normalcy,” rewarding Wall Street with cabinet appointments as millions of workers endure a financial crisis that could rival the Great Depression, and unapologetically defending the racialized terror of policing and the carceral state.

Barack Obama perpetuated the same modus operandi during his two historic terms, refusing to prosecute corporate actors who engineered 2008’s financial crisis, presiding over an economy that left Black Americans experiencing a nearly 40% decline in collective wealth, vastly escalating drone strikes, and leading the nation as the largest mobilization for Black liberation since the Civil Rights Movement burgeoned under his watch in response to police brutality, all while receiving eternal veneration as the nation’s first Black president. Electoral politics cannot be treated as the primary remedy for dismantling white supremacy.

Both Biden and Harris have built careers as political centrists, promoting corporate welfare and defending law and order. As a U.S. Senator, Biden championed the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, popularly referred to as the “Crime Bill,” signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The Crime Bill, more than any other piece of legislation, entrenched the racially disproportionate system of mass incarceration, leading to the U.S. possessing the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, confining over 2 million people behind bars, 40% of whom are Black, and destroying Black communities. Biden routinely cooperated with infamous segregationists, such as South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, and Mississippi’s James Eastland, to forge crime legislation in the Senate, proudly declaring in a 1993 floor speech, “The truth is, every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the Democratic senator from the State of Delaware: Joe Biden.”

Biden also consistently opposed busing as a means of integration throughout the 1970s, joining with vehement segregationist Jesse Helms to endorse anti-busing legislation in 1975, and introducing legislation to prohibit the Justice Department from enforcing busing as a means of integrating schools in 1976. As Biden lamented in a 1975 interview,

We’ve lost our bearings since the 1954 Brown vs. School Board desegregation case…To ‘desegregate’ is different than to ‘integrate’…I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race.

The president who forcefully condemned white supremacy during his inaugural address denied its existence as a U.S. senator.

Established media outlets conspicuously ignore the blatant hypocrisy of both the Biden-Harris administration and the Democratic Party in failing to provide $2,000 stimulus checks to all Americans materially affected by the unprecedented constraints of COVID-19. Then-Senator Harris supported $2,000 relief checks throughout the 2020 presidential campaign. Barely a month ago, while campaigning for U.S. Senate candidates in Georgia, Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff, then President-elect Biden stated, “If you send Jon and the Reverend to Washington, those $2,000 checks will go out the door, restoring hope and decency and honor for so many people who are struggling right now.” A few weeks later, the Biden-Harris administration unveiled the “American Rescue Plan” on Inauguration Day as a response to the pandemic. However, the promised $2,000 stimulus checks Biden, Harris, Osoff, and Warnock campaigned on dwindled to $1,400.

Compromising with Republicans who believe increasingly devastating California wildfires were caused by a “laser in space” is apparently more important than enacting relief to ensure basic needs are met for the poor and working class bearing the brunt of the most crippling public health crisis in a century. Neither Biden nor Harris fought for a $15 minimum wage increase, after an unelected Senate parliamentarian rejected Sen. Bernie Sanders’ efforts to include it in COVID-19 relief legislation. Money for foreign interventions and destruction abroad—most recently illustrated by airstrikes in Syria—is prioritized over providing ordinary people with what they need.

A majority of Americans support providing $2,000 checks on a monthly basis until the pandemic concludes. Failing to read the room not only negates the collective will of Black voters who propelled Biden, Warnock, and Osoff to victory, but ignores how COVID-19 disproportionately impacts Black communities. Black patients have a higher likelihood of dying after contracting the coronavirus than their white counterparts (1 in 1,450 compared to 1 in 3,350). Infection rates soar for Black people compared to the general population due to inconsistent access to health care, living in crowded housing arrangements, underlying predisposition to chronic health conditions, being essential workers unable to work from home, and being more susceptible to stress as a result of institutionalized racism, income inequality, discrimination, and violence. Black communities are depending on sustained relief from the current administration to survive this pandemic. The more beguiling saviors we elect, the more things stay the same.

We cannot place false hope in the hollow symbolism of contemporary identity politics. Vice President Harris being the first Black and South Asian woman to serve in the role is historic on a representational level. However, her background as a California prosecutor and shared zeal with President Biden for enhancing funding to police departments illustrates how Black faces in high places can never be the catalysts for Black liberation. Harris refused to challenge the the death penalty as attorney general of California, after a federal judge ruled the state’s policy unconstitutional. In the first three years of serving as San Francisco’s district attorney, Harris raised the conviction rate from 52% to 67%. She defended an onerous three-strikes law as attorney general that was unique in the country for imposing a life sentence for any minor felonies considered a third strike. Harris celebrated fining parents $2,000 for failing to send their children to school in San Francisco. Fined parents were also punished with a year in jail. She blocked releasing the names of officers involved in police misconduct as San Francisco’s DA, opposed instituting police body cameras throughout California, and fought a bill that would have forced the attorney general’s office to investigate fatal police shootings. As the movement grows in the United States for defunding and ultimately abolishing police as a driving fulcrum of white supremacy and state-sponsored violence, Harris’s record stands diametrically opposed to dismantling systemic racism.

Although politicians are elected to be public servants, no matter how earnest their campaign promises may be, they remain beholden to the interests of the corporate donors that fund their campaigns. These interests are opposed to and violently threaten the wellbeing of the working class, particularly Black people. Former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh made this evidently clear, after indicating support for a $15 dollar minimum wage increase during the campaign trail, but vetoing the legislation as mayor, after it was approved by the City Council. Pugh resigned in 2019, after being implicated in a corruption scandal. Pugh was only the most recent, and infamous, example in a pattern of Black neoliberal politicians being elected in Baltimore by popular acclaim but ultimately cooperating with corporate interests and developers to further gentrify and exploit the interests of the Black working class.

Activists in NYC occupy city hall to demand councilmembers defund the police

This does not mean elections have no purpose in strategically building political power. Khalid Kamau, Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Jabari Brisport, and Ilhan Omar were active participants in social movements before their elections and have continued taking marching orders from their communities after assuming office. Electoral politics can be strategically used to build power and solidarity with the working class to pressure, push, mobilize, and agitate for substantial change. Direct actions are also imperative to compel politicians to follow through on meeting community needs and fulfilling promises made to voters. Many members of New York City DSA’s Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus did so by occupying City Hall, demanding that councilmembers defund the NYPD by $1 billion and reallocate funds to education, social services, and mental health resources.

Even elected socialists must be pressured to take their marching orders from the movements that propelled them to office. Last year, in a post-COVID-19 Chicago, a DSA-endorsed city alderman, Andre Vasequz, voted in favor of unashamedly neoliberal Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s austerity budget, which resisted any concrete cuts to Chicago’s oversized police budget and neglected investments to rent and food support, school enrichment programs, socialized housing, universal healthcare, or free coronavirus testing. Vasquez had benefited from a socialist wave ascending to Chicago’s City Council in 2019, largely in response to rampant gentrification and normalized austerity. Chicago DSA issued a statement censuring Vasquez but then ultimately voted not to expel him. The hard truth revealed here is that electoral politics is one tool among many to be employed in transcending racial capitalism.

Grassroots social movements are the strongest incubators for modeling a better world and reconfiguring the social relations that define our society. Mutual aid groups throughout the country have already filled in the gaps of the for-profit healthcare system in responding to COVID-19. As many remain unemployed or forced to work in unhealthy conditions, mutual aid focuses on forging communal relationships and building solidarity by sharing food, monetary resources, housing, and safety needs through collective action. The Black Panther Party expertly demonstrated this tactic through their Free Breakfast Program, which was ultimately modeled by the federal government. Mutual aid transcends charity to comprehensively alter how society views relationships and our ethical perceptions by contributing to the human family. Forging and strengthening communal bonds is an infinitely more powerful method of building lasting power within the working class, as it tangibly transforms the consciousness and material realities of the collective whole.

Organizing and political education are instrumental to realizing Black liberation. When communities own and build power within themselves, affirming that it is already inherently present in communal solidarity and struggle rather than waiting for it to be dispensed on high from the ruling class, momentum is garnered to fuel ongoing mass strategies to challenge the established social order. After Republican Governor Larry Hogan recently encouraged Maryland schools to reopen, the Baltimore Teachers Union protested and demanded that all city school staff be fully vaccinated before reopening, the establishment of a testing system for symptomatic and asymptomatic students and staff, and upgrades to the many crumbling Baltimore schools lacking air conditioning or heat. Ultimately, plans for reopening were delayed, due to protests and organizing efforts.

Building power at a grassroots level profoundly transforms the collective political consciousness of oppressed and exploited communities impacted by systemic injustice. This dynamic was powerfully demonstrated in 2019 when leftist organizers and activists waged a month-long sit-in campaign to pressure Johns Hopkins University to end a contract in which the institution partnered with the Department of Homeland Security to provide medical training to U.S. Customs and Immigration (ICE) personnel. Protests also focused on reversing Hopkins’ plans to establish its own private police force in an already over-policed city that has refused to address the material conditions that drove Freddie Gray’s murder and subsequent Uprising in 2015. After Maryland’s state legislature approved the private police force, anger festered among residents, who felt elected leaders ignored their concerns about expanding Baltimore’s historic pattern of racialized policing. This underlying rage percolated throughout the community, fueling the prolonged duration of the sit-in. After sustained efforts, Hopkins abruptly canceled its contract with ICE and eventually paused its plans for a private police force. Clearly, organized communities, collectively empowered by shared demands, are the most potent force for actualizing change when the state’s political apparatus endorses white supremacy.

Neoliberal politicians are incapable of creating a world where Black people thrive. The power has always been in our own hands. Collective empowerment, strategic organizing, and political education are the keys to Black liberation. Political window dressing is so 2008.

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Phillip Clark View All

Phillip Clark is a lifelong Baltimorean, writer, and activist. He is completing a bachelor’s degree in Politics, Policy, and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore and is a member of the Baltimore AfroSocialists and Socialists of Color.