The violent insurrection by domestic terrorists last week at the U.S. Capitol was not Black people’s fight.
But make no mistake: It was all about Black people. Because white supremacy is about Black people.
The Oxford dictionary defines white supremacy as “the belief that white people constitute a superior race and should therefore dominate society, typically to the exclusion or detriment of other racial and ethnic groups, in particular Black or Jewish people.”
What else explains how people can think it’s perfectly within their rights to try to overthrow the government because their guy didn’t win?
But it was about more than an election. President Donald Trump exhorted the armed, angry and violent extremists to “fight like hell, or you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The mob went through with their plans, breaking into the Capitol with crowbars, sledgehammers and ropes, destroying property, assaulting Americans, taking selfies, gleefully posting on social media, waving Confederate flags in the Capitol vestibule,beating a police officer to death, and fully expecting to walk out with impunity. In case those actions didn’t tell the story enough, they wore Camp Auschwitz shirts and other racist and anti-Semitic branding, and hung a noose.
Had the foaming mobs gotten their hands on a member of Congress, God only knows what could have happened.
The assault on our democracy was a culmination of what the supremacists see as a larger threat: the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the first Black, Asian and female vice president. It was an election decided, in large part, by Black voters, turning out in large cities with Black populations, such as Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit and Atlanta. Not coincidentally, those were the cities where Trump sought to strip electoral votes from.
State-sanctioned racial violence to keep Black people from attaining power is nothing new. After all, wasn’t that what the Civil War was about? Black voter suppression has always been embedded into our democracy’s shameful history.
You don’t need to look any further than Philadelphia. Octavius Catto, Black American educator and activist was on his way to vote in 1871 when he was murdered by a white man who opposed Catto’s politics and very existence. The murderer was not charged, and the police were later found to be aiding and abetting the mob to keep Black people from voting.
Suppression through violence and intimidation continued throughout history: States employed tactics such as poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses, all to keep Black people from voting. In 1920, a Florida mob of white men, aided by the Ku Klux Klan, massacred as many as 50 Black people on Election Day, because a single Black man was intent on casting his ballot.
It took civil rights activists marching in the streets — some sacrificing their lives — to force Congress to enact the Voting Rights Act only 55 years ago, which was supposed to ensure that cherished right.
But even today, voting rights are under attack through restrictions of voter ID laws and polling place shutdowns.
“When you look at every portion of American history where we’ve made gains toward easing some of the burdens of that oppression, we’ve seen some type of violent backlash,” said Timothy Welbeck, a Philadelphia civil rights attorney and Temple University professor. “And because of the history of Black voter disenfranchisement in this country, I guess that allowed some whites to think that the election was rigged, even though it was fair and free.”
So, when we watched in horror as the orgy of violence unfolded at the Capitol, well, I was shocked. But I couldn’t say I was surprised.
Yes, Trump has been impeached for the second time, but it doesn’t stop there.
White supremacy will always rear its ugly head. We’ve seen it take all kinds of forms in these dangerous times. It comes in the defiant refusal of folks to mask up during a global pandemic because, well, their personal freedom is at stake, never mind they’re putting their fellow citizens in harm’s way, particularly people of color. It comes not only from far-right extremists living in rural communities, but in suit-wearing CEOs, cops, teachers, real estate agents, nurses, military men and women and even a gold-medal Olympian.
It comes from lawmakers, too. And now we’re learning it might even come from right inside of Congress, from the very people who took a vow to uphold our democracy.
Young black people have exploded in rebellion over the grotesque killing of George Floyd. We are now witnessing the broadest protest movement in American history. And yet the response of black elected officials has been cautious and uninspired.
The Congressional Black Caucus offered a familiar list of the kind of police reforms that have failed for decades to end police violence. After protesters vandalized CNN’s headquarters and set a police car on fire in Atlanta, the mayor, Keisha Bottoms, told them to “go home” because registering to vote “is the change we need.” President Barack Obama also argued in an essay that “real change” comes from both protest and voting.
Instead, organizers on the ground have provided leadership. Women like Mary Hooks from Southerners on New Ground in Atlanta and Miski Noor and Kandace Montgomery of the Black Vision Collective in Minneapolis have been at the center of articulating new demands for redistributing resources away from policing, prisons and billionaires, and back into public programs. We can also find this leadership among the ranks of black low-wage “essential workers” who have challenged Amazon and other big corporations since the beginning of the pandemic. These organizers and workers are channeling the confrontational black politics of a previous period.
Because of them, we are at the end of one era of black politics and the start of a new one.
The revolt in American cities, amid a deadly pandemic that is disproportionately killing African-Americans, suggests that people feel the political system cannot solve their problems. Many have been looking back at the urban uprisings of the 1960s to make sense of our situation. Those protests exposed a shocking degree of racism in the supposedly liberal North. A main demand from protesters then was more black political control of cities.
The black insurgency of the 1960s and the Voting Rights Act laid the basis for the pivot to black electoral politics in the 1970s. There were fewer than 1,500 black elected officials, so entering political office was part of the broader political struggle to achieve equality. A young John Conyers Jr., who would go on to be a congressman representing Detroit for five decades, weighed in on the debate:
Our own intelligence about the oppressiveness of the kind of society which would like to forget us along with other historical ‘mistakes’ should give black people a unique force in effecting change in America. An infusion of blacks into the political arena might provide the moral force of ‘soul’ which America either lost or never had. …
Some see the black American’s choice as between withdrawing from this ‘hopeless’ government or overthrowing the entire system. I see our choices as between political involvement or political apathy. America is the black man’s battleground. It is here where it will be decided whether or not we will make America what it says it is.
The Congressional Black Caucus was formed in that era. Its members called themselves the “conscience of the Congress” and saw themselves as representing the political interests of all of black America. They were “unbought and unbossed” as a founding member, Representative Shirley Chisholm of New York, said.
This independence led to confrontations, not only with Republicans, but also within the Democratic Party. In the summer of 1972, just weeks before Democrats would formally nominate SenatorGeorge McGovern for president, the caucus wrote a “Black Declaration of Independence” and “Black Bill of Rights.” These were inspired by a more militant document called “A National Black Agenda” that had emerged from the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., where thousands of African-Americans had convened earlier that year.
The caucus linked the struggles of African-Americans to the broader hardships experienced by poor Americans of all races. The Black Bill of Rights made dozens of “nonnegotiable demands,” including “free medical care for all the poor and near poor,” a guaranteed income for the unemployed, the appointment of black judges and an immediate end to the Vietnam War. The statement declared, “The torch has passed to a new generation of blacks who no longer accommodate but confront; who no longer plead but demand; who no longer submit but fight.”
To be fair, no elected official is ever wholly “unbought” or “unbossed.” It is the nature of politics to negotiate and compromise. Many black politicians represented urban areas, and governing became harder as whites and their tax dollars fled to the suburbs. The 1970s also saw the end of the postwar economic boom and the acceleration of deindustrialization. The changing economic fortunes of cities, which had been the engine of the American economy, made it harder for the ascendant black political class to carry out reforms.
Increasingly, black elected officials were seen as managing the crises in black working class communities, instead of leading efforts to root them out.
As the black movement wound down, the nation went into recession, and black legislators became more entrenched in their positions. With seniority, repeated election cycles and without a robust movement as a source of accountability and direction, black elected officials began to govern like typical politicians. Staying in office became a priority, and as black legislators, they often had fewer resources. That meant more fund-raising from entities that may have been at odds with their constituencies.
In 1994, the Congressional Black Caucus played a key role in the passage of the notorious crime bill, which is widely viewed as pivotal in the turn toward mass incarceration. Although the caucus pushed for a provision that would have allowed defendants on death row to appeal their sentences by citing statistics to try to show that such sentences have been racially biased, Bill Clinton weeded this out of the legislation. Nonetheless, a vast majority of caucus members still voted for the bill. In doing so, they had the support of African-American mayors in Denver, Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta and other major cities.
This was not just a case of selling out. As more blacks entered the middle class, political demands shifted. Black elected officials were more in tune with the needs of their middle-class constituencies, black and white, than they were with the needs of the black working class. And their middle-class constituencies were more often concerned about a rise in property taxes than in ensuring access to a local Head Start.
Perhaps the uprising in Baltimore in April 2015 marked a symbolic end to this phase of black politics. Black people held many of the city’s top leadership roles, and the nation’s first black president and attorney general were a mere 40 miles away. And yet that concentration of black political power was not enough to stop the death of Freddie Gray, who died after being detained by the Baltimore police.
Of course, the problems ran much deeper than police violence. Thousands of African-Americans lived in neighborhoods where there was no pretense of investment. Black leaders didn’t stop the chronic joblessness or the underfunding of the public schools. Instead, many of them dug into the strategy of trying to attract higher salaried workers while making poverty so uncomfortable that the poor would simply leave.
This style of governance can be seen in cities across the country, and it may be motivating the “reverse migration” of African Americans to the South in search of better housing and jobs. Thousands of blacks are leaving Chicago each year as the city has become increasingly hostile to their presence. The greatest public policy expenditures in Chicago are for the police, even as black residents have grown desperate for affordable housing and more investment in public schools. The city, which is now led by a black mayor, Lori Lightfoot, still prioritizes boondoggle development ventures like the $6 billion Lincoln Yards project.
Black electoral success has not translated into qualitative improvements in black life. This too, erodes black participation in the political process. If voting simply reproduces variations on the same overall condition of deprivation, then black people are less likely to participate.
Now, we’re tumbling toward generational and class conflict. We can already see the fault lines forming. Last winter, African-American leaders fell in line to endorse Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg as the Democratic nominees for president. The support for Mr. Biden was unsurprising given his tenure as Mr. Obama’s vice president, but the praise for Mr. Bloomberg smacked of opportunism.
Mr. Bloomberg was mostly known for his full-throated support of stop-and-frisk, which resulted in millions of needless police stops. As Mr. Bloomberg erroneously celebrated that tactic as the reason behind New York’s drop in crime, other cities sought to replicate it. That’s why stop-and-frisk and the racial profiling at its core were among the catalysts for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Young black voters supported Bernie Sanders, but he was unable to translate that support into actual votes. His policies would have been most beneficial to African-Americans; in fact, they were more enthusiastic about his signature issue, Medicare for All, than any other demographic. But black voters in South Carolina, after the endorsement of Representative James Clyburn, cast cautious and predictable votes for Mr. Biden and turned the tide of the primary.
While older black voters are paralyzed by pragmatism when faced with the potential for a second term of Donald Trump, they have also been conditioned to accept the absolute least from political representatives. At the same time, young black people are rebelling against the strangulation of the status quo. This includes a stale black leadership that regularly fails to rise to challenges confronting this generation, which refuses to accept the symbolism of black leadership without its professed rewards. Black elected officials have become adept at mobilizing the tropes of black identity without any of its political content. Case in point: Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, painting the words “Black Lives Matter” on a street headed in the direction of the White House. But she also proposed a $45 million increase in the local police budget.
In 2018, three black women sued the city, claiming that the policies pursued by its administrators served to “attract younger, more affluent professionals” and “discriminated against poor and working class African-Americans” who had lived in the city for generations. These plaintiffs, like the mayor, are black women, but their differing class positions and access to power have fundamentally impeded the possibilities of solidarity.
Mr. Trump’s smearing of Ms. Bowser as “incompetent” put black voters in a tough spot. They want to defend African-American officials from racist and sexist charges, while at the same time challenging these officials’ policies. For poor black women in Washington, the issue isn’t incompetence; it’s Ms. Bowser’s conception of development, which has left working-class blacks behind.
This doesn’t mean that representation no longer matters. It does. But we can no longer assume that shared identity means a shared commitment to the strategies necessary to improve the lives of a vast majority of black people. Class tensions among African-Americans have produced new fault lines that the romance of racial solidarity simply cannot overcome.
Today, there are more black elected officials than ever before, and that has not been enough to contain the coronavirus, which has ravaged black communities. Nor has it done anything to mitigate police abuse and violence. For most African-Americans, things have changed, but not nearly enough. While there’s no question that the Republican Party is an altogether worse alternative, in the roundabout discussion of lesser and greater evils, rarely has the discussion turned to how African-Americans get free.
Representation in the halls of power has clearly worked for some, but we must talk about those it hasn’t worked for. We have not seen, in decades, protests with the scale or scope of those that were unleashed by the killing of George Floyd. New, young, black leaders with the Movement for Black Lives are now emerging, leaders unencumbered by past failures and buoyed by their connection to the ruckus in the streets.
How the news covers activism matters profoundly to a democracy because the media can influence public support or rejection of policies that might solve social ills such as racism and police brutality. Following the dozens of uprisings that swept U.S. cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission, reported on the cause and possible future prevention of such unrest. The commission asserted that, in addition to generational poverty, housing and employment discrimination, and over-policing, the media was partially responsible for the neglect felt by black communities.
Editor’s note: On Wednesday, June 3 at 1 p.m., the author will co-host Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation. Sign up and join here.
American cities are in upheaval, awakened by the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and white supremacy, which has resulted in 40 million people out of work and the spectacle of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
Dozens of American cities are experiencing a scale of protests, clashes between police and demonstrators, and National Guard deployments not seen since the “long hot summers” of racial discontent and crisis that characterized much of the 1960s. Sympathy protests in Berlin and London’s Trafalgar Square outside the U.S. Embassy have drawn thousands of demonstrators who not only insist that “Black Lives Matter!” but reflect widespread global resistance against racial injustice manifested in the criminal justice system.
We are witnessing a level of national civil unrest that recalls the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, when 125 cities exploded in protest and violence. From peaceful demonstrations to clashes between protesters and Secret Service agents outside the White House, a national racial crisis is unfurling before our very eyes.
The public execution of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by Minneapolis police last week has sparked national protests that have, in some instances, evolved into open political rebellion contoured by violent skirmishes between police and demonstrators and the destruction of property. Racial unrest gripping major American cities, against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, reflects the contemporary magnitude of racial injustice.
A national tragedy should be turned into a generational opportunity
The inhumanity of Floyd’s death heaped further indignity on African American communities suffering disproportionately from the brutal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Black folk have been diagnosed with, and died from, COVID-19 at alarming rates. The killing of George Floyd represents a national tragedy that should be turned into a generational opportunity.
Black death at the hands of the police is not new. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests erupted in 2014, turning a hashtag commemorating the mounting number of African Americans killed, assaulted, and brutalized by the police and displayed in social media, into a social movement that combined the non-violent civil disobedience of the civil rights era with Black Power’s structural critique of white supremacy and anti-Black racism.
BLM activists argued that America’s criminal justice system represents a gateway to panoramic systems of racial and economic oppression. The criminalization of poverty has long roots, but the past four decades have institutionalized systems of punishment that have deepened and exacerbated racial inequality. During the 1980s and 1990s, as violence, crime, and poverty raged against the backdrop of the crack cocaine explosion, both Democrats and Republicans competed with each other over how best to criminalize black inner city residents. Ronald Reagan’s tough on crime rhetoric and policies begat George H.W. Bush’s use of Willie Horton and Bill Clinton’s crime and welfare “reforms” that further criminalized black communities and made it virtually impossible to successfully re-enter society by blocking avenues to employment, education, and housing after release.
The eruption of the BLM movement during the second term of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, illustrates how deeply entrenched the issues related to George Floyd’s death are. Donald J. Trump’s open embrace of white supremacists—from Charlottesville, Virginia’s 2017 demonstrations that left one woman dead to anti-government militias that marched to the Michigan state house in defiance of shelter-in-place orders armed with semi-automatic weapons—has fanned the flames of racial intolerance, police violence against black communities, and racially inflammatory.
Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history
Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history, from the 1928 “Master Plan” that institutionalized racial segregation as citywide policy, to the decades-long efforts to fully integrate the University of Texas, to the gentrification of the historic East Side neighborhood at the cost of longstanding black residents, businesses, and communities. Racial integration in Austin has since proceeded in fits and starts, with segregated public schools and neighborhoods remaining the comfortable norm. Gentrification along the city’s East Side has largely displaced Austin’s historic black residents who find themselves compelled to depart neighborhoods just as they are flooded with the kind of investment that attracts white families, creates high achieving schools, increases home owner values, and thriving communities.
As if to acknowledge this history, activists blocked Interstate-35 on Saturday, the highway serving as a barrier between black and white Austin by design, locking Austin’s African American communities from access to white spaces, properties, and power.
The problems of racial segregation, poverty, and criminal justice that have scarred Minneapolis are national, impact Austin and other major cities around the country and, indeed, the world.
Austin, one of the nation’s fastest growing, wealthiest, and well positioned urban cities, has a unique opportunity to emerge as a national leader on the issue of racial justice.
The University of Texas at Austin, with the motto that “what happens here changes the world,” can be a major part of the city’s much needed transition from its current status as an enviable hub of technology, education, venture capital, and music into a national incubator of social justice, equity, inclusion, and full citizenship for all Austinites.
On this score the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, a center devoted to research, study, and social policy impact at the intersection of civil rights, race, and democracy, will be sponsoring an event designed to build community, forge networks, and problem-solve around issues of racial injustice that reverberate from Minneapolis to Austin and beyond. Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation will feature Mayor Steve Adler, Councilwoman Natasha Harper-Madison, Councilwoman Alison Alter and be moderated by myself and Jeremi Suri, my colleague at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
The protests erupting around the nation attest to a dearth of national leadership on race matters and the very meaning of American democracy. In times of national crisis—from the Great Depression to the Second World War to Civil Rights and 9-11—we come to better understand ourselves as Americans.
The fact that George Floyd could outlive the COVID-19 pandemic only to run into the even deadlier virus of white supremacy is both a national tragedy and a generational opportunity.
An opportunity to confront deep-seated racial inequities plaguing Austin
All of us can and must do more. From civil rights and faith communities to education, political, and business leaders, we must seize the combined tragedies of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and the tragedy of another unjustified killing of a black person at the hands of our justice system as an opportunity to finally confront deep-seated racial inequities that plague this city as much as any other.
Austin can turn this national moment of grief and mourning into a marker of public shame or a symbol of American renewal, with the knowledge that our city led the way in recognizing that a full commitment to anti-racist public policy and racial justice would allow us to achieve the community and nation we dream about.
How does an anti-racist Austin look? We can start by acknowledging the stubborn persistence of racial segregation in our city’s public schools and neighborhoods, a fact that amplifies opportunity gaps in education, employment, and housing and helps to create a feedback loop of racial disparities in rates of poverty, treatment before the criminal justice system, access to electoral politics, small business loans, venture capital and so much more. We must identify and understand negative disparities as part of systemic racism rather than behavior deficiencies in black people. We must root out injustice and inequities based on race in our policies, forging a community where racial equity centers our public conversation about the larger political good. So many Austinites of good will recognize aspects of the problem, but are unsure of where to begin, what organization to join, what would be the best use of their resources.
The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy’s Justice and Equity event is the first step in what we hope will be a socially impactful, politically relevant, and politically transformative movement in Austin to not only redress past mistakes but to acknowledge, repair, and build a future Austin worthy of our citizens.
Peniel E. Joseph is an American scholar, teacher, and leading public voice on race issues who holds a joint professorship appointment at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the History Department in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.
Many would think becoming an octogenarian reserves one the right to rest on her laurels — but Florence L. Tate, 81, says, “There’s still work to be done.”
The former Civil Rights activist, Dayton Daily News reporter, and press secretary for the historic 1984 Jesse Jackson Presidential campaign has lived through seven decades of American epochs – and now she’s writing about her impressive experiences and achievements in a new memoir – tentatively titled, The FBI’s Most Wanted Press Secretary Opens Her Files on Civil Rights, the Black Power Movement, and Black Partisan Politics.
At a time when our country should be experiencing a sense of accomplishment at realizing the fruits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work — evidenced by the election of the first African American President –Tate feels instead that the racial unease and tension revealed by events like the current drama surrounding the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case signify America still has a long way to go in race relations.
“The country has gone backwards from the time of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech; we have regressed. There’s been an attempt to take things back to the pre-Civil Rights days,” says Tate.
In her memoir, Tate draws upon her extensive experience integrating major companies like Bell Telephone, and Globe Industries, working with seminal civil rights groups including SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress for Racial Equality).
As the first African American female journalist at the Dayton Daily News, she also covered current events — including the Dayton riots that occurred during the “summer of ‘68” race riots that swept across the country.
The work that brought her into close confidence with key activist figures — such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown — also eventually brought Tate, a middle class Dayton housewife and mother of three children, under the surveillance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation – evidenced by the giant file she received from the FBI when she petitioned for them decades after her civil rights and Pan Africanist work.
Tate wasn’t all that surprised by her voluminous FBI file. “We suspected we were under surveillance because, for example, we would pick up the phone, to try to use the phone, and there would be a silence there… we didn’t know, but we suspected… We suspected there would be people in the meetings, sometimes people who gave off vibes that they were not there to work with us… they were there to spy on us. And figures like Stokely Carmichael were always being followed by the FBI; they didn’t even try to hide it. They would sit outside in cars – for example, if he were at a meeting at my house, or wherever he was, they would be sitting outside my house. When I got my FBI file, then I knew exactly when they had been watching, spying…or infiltrating.”
Tate’s memoir chronicles her journey — from growing up under segregation in the South from the 30s through the mid-50s — to moving north in the late 50s…to finally become an influential figure in the small but dedicated civil rights movement ground work happening in Mid Western cities like Dayton.
“The civil rights activists were working in parts of the country other than the south – where the ground work was well publicized. Little or no publicity was given to the work being done in Mid Western cities like Dayton, Ohio,” she shares.
Related experiences — as Communications Director of the National Urban Coalition, and National Information Coordinator for ’72 African Liberation Day Coordinating Committee — landed Tate the role of Press Secretary in Marion Barry’s first campaign in his successful bid for Mayor of Washington D.C. in 1978, and Press Secretary during his first two years in office. Later she would repeat that role for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Presidential campaign — during which time she traveled with him to Damascus, Syria during his historic rescue mission to free downed U.S. Air Force pilotLt. Robert Goodman.
Tate also writes of another major life-defining segment of her journey: her experiences with mental and physical health issues. These include battling breast cancer, suffering a major stroke after the birth of her third child — and the subsequent 50-year-long battle with clinical depression triggered by that stroke.
Tate says she hopes her memoir will encourage young people – and especially young women – to understand and act on their power to impact the world around them. But like a true mother, grandmother – and now, great-grandmother — she admits her main reason for penning her memoir is for her children.
“My children and grandchildren have repeatedly asked me to write my biography — so they will know who I am…so they can