In A Time Of Climate Anxiety, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Is Paving A Hopeful Path Forward
With disasters like metal-melting, marine life-boiling heat waves across the Pacific Northwest, flash floods turning streets into rivers and subway stations into toxic lakes, wildfires in Oregon so intense they filled the New York skyline with a smoky haze. Then there's the ocean surface burning due to oil spills while companies are still trying to force oil pipelines through Indigenous lands. It's been especially difficult these days to feel hope for the future.
In a 2017 study by the American Psychological Association, researchers used the term "eco-anxiety" to describe the mental health impacts of climate change and its social and ecological consequences. Think: fatalism, chronic stress, fear, exhaustion, anger, depressive episodes, even violence. Honestly, how can you not feel that way when you doom-scroll through social media and watch the 24-hour news cycle of climate emergencies happening around the world?
Greta Thunberg, one of the youth movement's biggest voices, has talked about struggling with depression in the early years of her activism. This was brought on by her frustrations with the continued inaction of adults in positions of power. It's no surprise that the doomsday prep and emergency management industry is expected to grow by billions of dollars by 2025.
As much as we'd like to disconnect or look away, climate change and its many intersecting consequences — and the planet-damaging systems that got us into this situation — aren't going away any time soon. How, then, can we move through this collective anxiety we share about the future? How can we come together locally and globally to lessen the blows of environmental change, especially for our most vulnerable communities?
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson's tireless work as a marine biologist and climate policy advocate should be an example to us all of how to build a path forward together through education and collective action. Maybe you've heard of her, or at least heard of her work: She's written about racism as one of the biggest obstacles to stopping climate change, coastal and ocean conservation efforts across New York City (she's also a board member of the Billion Oyster Project), and how environmental justice is essential to the Black Lives Matter movement.
A co-founder of the coastal cities policy think tank Urban Ocean Lab, Dr. Johnson co-authored the Blue New Deal. This plan was released during Senator Elizabeth Warren's 2020 presidential campaign and would prioritize restoring America's ocean habitats and rebuilding coastal economies and communities impacted by warming oceans, pollution, and overfishing. Dr. Johnson's even discussed being a climate justice advocate with Billie Eilish.
But it's her current role as the co-host of Gimlet Media's podcast How To Save A Planet where Ayana's passion for climate change education and collective empowerment really shines. Episode subjects range from agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions to the history of wildfires and land management. Listeners' questions often take center stage. Think: Is the carbon footprint a helpful tool for measuring our individual action against climate change? Are electric cars really that much better for the environment? Does recycling actually make a difference? No environmental justice-shaped stone is left unturned.
Dr. Johnson, with the help of great guests including farmers, activists, and researchers, reframes these ongoing debates in a way that's refreshingly accessible. Listeners not only learn about topics left out of their science textbooks, but they gain a better understanding of how climate science terms and theories manifest in our day-to-day lives. She also covers what we may experience at our local level to big-picture changes in our regional and global ecologies as well as our economic and political systems.
Through Dr. Johnson's solutions-focused approach, the scary unknowns that tend to paralyze our discussions around climate change—and make us feel like none of our actions even matter—feel a little less scary. Dr. Johnson's intention, throughout this show and through all of her work, really, is not to shame people for not doing enough or fear-monger without offering a course of action. Instead, she engages with everyone, regardless of how much they know and their proximity to the climate movement, to build a better foundation of our environmental understanding, to challenge misinformation, and to inspire us to make change together.
The stories collected in the anthology All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions For The Climate Crisis, which Dr. Johnson co-edited alongside Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, are urgent reading. Especially in this perpetual era of environmental calamity wherever we look. Poems about the Anthropocene share pages with stories of climate migration, Indigenous resistance, stories of communities of color fighting against systems of environmental racism, and motherhood during the climate crisis.
The collection uplifts just as much as it educates. Flip through each chapter and you'll find terms defined, statistics and insights marked for your attention, offering accessible entry points into looming threats and ongoing struggles that oftentimes feel beyond our comprehension.
In her chapter on mental health and the climate crisis, climate adaptation researcher Susanne C. Moser notes how "climate grief" has sprung up in many of us. Scholars define this as an attempt to process the traumatic effects of living on a changing planet marred by overwhelming impacts of natural disasters, and forced migration and displacement. But both Moser and Johnson call for resilience as opposed to giving into the fear. As Moser writes, "Burnt-out people are less effective people. Burnt-out people can become sick people...Burnt-out people aren't equipped to serve a burning planet."
We cannot predict the future. Already, climate change has defied our modeling and our expectations, impacting communities across the world in disproportionate ways. It's understandable to avoid thinking about it until the climate crisis ends up at your front door.
Those in power who strive to continually get away with the damage we've done want us to focus on everything that's gone wrong and want us to give up. But now, more than ever, we must educate ourselves, unite, build political power, help enact community-based change, close the gaps and mend the harmful systems that have impacted frontline communities for so long.
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson's ongoing climate advocacy is a reminder that all hope is not lost. Her work suggests that taking care of our bodies and minds is critical now more than ever.
So take a step back and breathe. Remember to celebrate victories and good news and treat yourself and each other with compassion. Listen to the marginalized communities who have been and continue to be most victimized by this climate emergency. Look to them for guidance and support their fight with the resources and tools you already have. As Dr. Johnson writes, together with Dr. Katherine Wilkinson: "Roll up your sleeves. Everyone has a role to play."
Eleonor Botoman is a critic and poet based in Brooklyn, New York, whose work has appeared in C Magazine, Artforum, Sunlight Press, Interiors Journal, BUST Magazine,The Mantle, and Dream Pop Journal. A former sketchbook librarian, she now studies in NYU's Experimental Humanities program. When she's not reading science fiction or visiting museums, she's working on her newsletter, Screenshot Reliquary.
The K-Pop stars are using their platform to contribute to a broader conversation on the discrimination that breeds hate crimes.
K-Pop sensation BTS have added their voices to the concern around a recent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes in the US and elsewhere.
On Tuesday the band — who, along with their management company, donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter last summer — took to Twitter with the hashtags #StopAsianHate and #StopAAPIHate, sharing a message of unity and anti-discrimination, expressing "grief and anger" over violence and lives lost, and recounting some of their own experiences of anti-Asian racism.
The message refers to times when the group behind hit songs like "Dynamite" and "Black Swan" had "endured expletives without reason," "were mocked for the way [they] look," and "were even asked why Asians spoke in English." They expressed the harm that these experiences had done on a personal level — making them feel powerless — but acknowledged that they were "inconsequential compared to the events that have occurred over the past few weeks."
But of course, the past few weeks have only brought to light a trend that has been building since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Since that time, the fact that the virus originated in China has given bigots an excuse to target individuals as representatives of entire racial groups, and the incidents of hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have more than doubled in major American cities.
In an atmosphere reminiscent of the World War II era — when tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were treated as potential spies and forced into inhumane internment camps — American politicians have encouraged conspiratorial and xenophobic framing of the current crisis. Former president Donald Trump has been particularly guilty of this scapegoating, regularly referring to COVID-19 as "the China virus," and — on at least one occasion — as "Kung flu," openly and proudly conflating the deadly pandemic with unrelated aspects of Chinese culture.
In their effort to deflect their constituents' anger and resentment over economic and social conditions brought on by their mismanagement of the pandemic, they have highlighted false associations of the virus with people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent — despite the fact that far more white people have caught and spread the virus at this point. And they have lent credence to unfounded theories that the Chinese government created or intentionally spread the disease.
As a result, thousands have reported being directly affected by incidents of anti-Asian harassment and assault — with many likely going unreported -- and millions more have been living with the fear that they will be targeted next.
While this worrying trend had received some coverage previously — with particular attention to incidents of violence against the elderly — it didn't become major national news until March 16th of this year. That afternoon, a 21-year-old gunman in Atlanta targeted massage parlors staffed primarily by Asian employees, killing eight people — including six Asian women — at three spas, in a deadly spree which he reportedly blamed on "sexual addiction."
Yong Ae Yue Suncha Kim Soon Chung Park Hyun Jung Grant (maiden name Kim) Daoyou Feng Xiaojie Tan Delaina Ashley Yau… https://t.co/c8CpXaxMvT— Eugene Lee Yang (@Eugene Lee Yang) 1616179564.0
Despite Georgia officials' reluctance to label the murders as a hate crime — with one police spokesperson being removed from the case after telling press that the shooter had "had a really bad day" — it clearly folds into the ongoing trend and has stoked pushback and protests against anti-Asian hate. But it also points to the fact that the current trend is part of an existing history of racism and hate.
The shooter's sense that Asian women working in massage parlors are necessarily sex workers and that this was more of a "temptation" that he wanted to eliminate than, for instance, the strip club across from one of the spas he attacked, tie into longstanding issues of race, immigration, and fetishization.
Whether or not he invested in the xenophobic framing that all Asian people are somehow to blame for the spread of the coronavirus, he was playing into a notion of Asian women as sex workers that dates back to the 1800s and the first federal immigration law.
Responding to "Yellow Peril" panic, the Page Act of 1875 imposed special restrictions on women trying to immigrate from East Asia, with the belief — as expressed by President Ulysses S. Grant — that "few [Asian women] are brought to our shores to pursue honorable or useful occupations." In case that wasn't clear enough, the law required Asian women intending to immigrate to answer a series of questions about sex work and undergo a medical examination to determine their "character."
Today, despite the fact that there is no evidence any of the women who were killed were sex workers, much of the media has carried on this history — covering the shooter's supposed motives with a credulous narrative of a sex addict killing sex workers. Clearly a broader conversation about anti-Asian racism is necessary.
We Need To Talk About Anti-Asian Hate www.youtube.com
So, while it's true that BTS members have not experienced the most dramatic, violent consequences of that racism, it's vitally important that they're using their popularity and their platform — with around 34 million followers on Twitter — to keep the conversation going and call out all forms of discrimination.
Because as long as our culture makes room for depictions of Asian people as disease vectors, fetish objects, hyper-foreign curiosities, or model minorities to be used as a cudgel against other marginalized groups — as anything less than complex individuals trying to live their lives — there will be room for anti-Asian racism, hate, and violence.
We need more Black films that aren't about pain
Sometime in the middle of June, seemingly overnight, bookmarks and highlights with titles like "Sharing Black stories" and "Celebrating Black Voices" emerged on streaming platforms.
While such branding efforts are usually reserved for Black History Month, these categories appeared as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests, which rippled through the industry in demands for more representation and recognition of Black people.
Streaming platforms responded by acquiring more Black content to feature prominently on their homepages, emphasizing their commitment to sharing and amplifying what they categorize as "Black Voices."
This seems like a good thing, a sign of progress. However, scrolling through the Black categories revealed more about Hollywood's gaze than about Black people — most of the showcased films could be separated into two categories: movies about slavery and movies about Civil Rights.
From Harriet and 12 Years a Slave to Selma or any other Martin Luther King biopic, most of the critically acclaimed films about "Blackness" seem to sensationalize Black suffering in order to offer a false sense of resolution and closure — as if racism began in slavery and ended with the March on Washington.
This false representation of Blackness in Hollywood perpetuates the idea that racism is a Black issue for Black people to deal with. It shows the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow eras as experiences of Black suffering, rather than white violence and complicity — all while cementing them in the past, where they can be ignored rather than confronted.
All this is at odds with the recent pushes for Americans to acknowledge how they are implicated in the country's deep-seated racist history.
Though film has the potential to excavate deep emotional truths about the current lives of Black folks, or imagine multiplicitous and dynamic futures, Hollywood is too obsessed with cataloguing Black trauma to realize that potential.
For film to truly be a resource for antiracism and an artform where everyone is represented, the powers that be in the academy need to reach beyond historical narratives and stereotypical caricatures and instead give their money and energy to new stories.
Voyeurism of Black Trauma
Sometimes I think there shouldn't have been any film about slavery after Roots.
The six-part, nine-hour mini series, based on Alex Haley's giant novel of the same name, premiered in 1977 and catalogued the cruelty endured by one slave, Kunta-Kinte, who refused to give up his name.
Though the story is iconic and a canonized part of the lexicon (often referenced in Black art and popular culture like multiple Kendrick Lamar songs), what is most famous about the movie adaptation are the scenes of violence — the whipping, the blood, the lacerations left on the skin.
In most film representations of enslaved people, there is a focus on the violence and cruelty experienced — from physical to sexual assault. While it is important to remember the intensity of the cruelty suffered under slavery, the Hollywood gaze often sensationalizes this violence, using it as plot or character development or to establish tropes. This creates a voyeuristic dynamic which is more objectifying than empowering.
Too often, this violence serves as a catalyst for some self-determined act of escape. Capitalizing on their anger, the enslaved person finally finds the strength to run away and free themselves. Not only is this narrative incredibly reductive of the psychological horrors of captivity (insinuating a kind of Kanye West-like philosophy), but it draws on actual pain and trauma in service of a contrived redemption story.
There is no worse offender than Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained — a film which I firmly believe Tarantino wrote and directed just to cast himself vicariously saying the N-word even more times than he did in Pulp Fiction. A classic Tarantino revenge fantasy, the fact of slavery becomes the background and backstory to Tarantino's spectacle of blood, gore, and farce.
But there is no healing in this, no real redemption found in the execution of single characters without the confrontation of the institution. And yet, it's categorized as a "Black story" … not likely.
The Reign of Black Caricature
Most of the movies which fall outside of the slavery and civil rights categories still leave much to be desired: from biopics on famous athletes and musicians to outrageous slapstick comedies (like, White Chicks … really?), the leading roles Black people can play rest in pretty defined tropes.
For a while, in the late '80s to early-2000s, there was a high demand for Black, male comedians — largely attributed to the success of Eddie Murphy on SNL from 1980-1984, which paved the way for Chris Rock, the Wayans Brothers, and Keenan and Kel, amongst others.
However, while white male comedians could exist in a range of styles and did not all follow the same formula, the same was not true for Black comedians. When it comes to Black actors, often what works once is all that networks will invest in — so everybody had to be Eddie Murphy.
What ensued was a generation of comedy movies built on over-the-top caricatures of Blackness which now find themselves in these "Black Voices" categories; meanwhile, the creative vision behind the reductive characters are likely the work of white Hollywood executives, pumping out repetitive content they knew would sell.
The New Age: Prison Movies
The recent attention to the atrocity of the prison industrial complex, especially after the success of the book The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th, has spawned a new genre of Black trauma film: wrongful incarceration films.
In the last few years alone, there have been multiple adaptations of true-story accounts of Black men who were wrongfully imprisoned, then fought to prove their innocence.
From Just Mercy, starring Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, the prominent lawyer and prison activist at the Equal Justice Initiative, to Brian Banks about the story of the former football player who was freed by the Innocence Project, these accounts are powerful, but they feel reiterative of the same tropes: Black man who finds his freedom through self-determination.
They also hinge too heavily on carceral tropes of guilty-versus-innocent instead of interrogating the project of prisons at large. Hollywood, in this way, likes to claim the label of righteousness and activism, while not really moving towards radical change.
Academy Award winner, Moonlight, ushered in a new era in avant garde Black cinema
A Black Renaissance
The past few years, however, have been a sort of renaissance of Black storytelling in Hollywood.
The rise of Black-run production agencies like Lena Waithe's Hillman Grad Productions and Issa Rae's Hoorae Production Company has shown what a difference it makes when Black creatives are empowered both in front of and behind the camera.
With more Black people behind the camera, Black artists with unique viewpoints and more nuanced stories are now more likely to work with executives who understand them, and know how to support them.
In the past few years, the fruits of this renaissance have made big moves in the box office and at award shows. Films like Barry Jenkins's Moonlight and Jordan Peele's Get Out have become cultural staples, and major blockbusters like Black Panther have shown the buying power of Black audiences.
No more do Black stories have to fall into restrictive categories. No more are Denzel Washington and Will Smith the only ones who get cast in challenging, complex roles. New Black movies are more exploratory and expansive than ever — whether it's Beyonce's afrofuturist take on the Lion King in Black Is King or the upcoming intimacy of Malcom & Marie.
For true representation, Black movies cannot depend on the same canned narratives any longer, and Black people can't be the only ones watching them. Hollywood just needs to put faith in different narratives and trust that our stories are worth hearing.
The Nobel Prize committee has the chance to signal a better future for a prize with a fraught past.
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice — Dr. Marin Luther King Jr. "Letter From Birmingham Jail" 1963
Nominations have been announced for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.
Among notable nominees are Ivanka Trump's husband Jared Kushner, politician and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Depending on your political biases, you likely find at least one of those nominations offensive, though it should be noted that the list of nominees is long, and anyone can be nominated.
In this case, Black Lives Matter was nominated by Petter Eide, a member of Norway's parliament. As for Jared Kushner, he was nominated along with former Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz — the famed Harvard law professor, Trump sycophant, and defense attorney for O.J. Simpson and Jeffrey Epstein. Kushner and Berkowitz played central roles in brokering the Abraham Accords declaring, "Peace, Cooperation, and Constructive Diplomatic and Friendly Relations" between the US, Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE.
The Abraham Accords: The PR of the 'peace deals' | The Listening Post www.youtube.com
At face value many Americans would no doubt see the negotiation of a peace deal as more legitimate grounds for nomination than a protest movement that sparked violent confrontation with police and counter protesters around the country in 2020. And, if we look at the history of the Peace Prize, there is a sense in which they would be right — the prize has often been awarded for superficial diplomatic theater rather than the real and often messy work of addressing injustice.
The Fraught History of the Nobel Peace Prize
In 1928, Secretary of State Frank Kellogg received the prize for getting all the world's major powers to officially, meaninglessly renounce war...shortly before Hitler took power in Germany. Another Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, was selected by the Nobel Committee for negotiating a cease fire with Vietnam in 1973 — the same year it was revealed that he had masterminded a secret carpet bombing campaign in Cambodia, which is credited with giving rise to the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
More recently, in 2009, Barack Obama was given the Peace Prize just for being elected president — in a move Obama acknowledged as premature. And in 2020, Donald Trump's son-in-law and his buddy Avi were nominated for the award for arranging "peace" between nations that were never at war — with a substantial arms deal thrown in for good measure.
To put it bluntly, it would make nearly as much sense for Jared Kushner to win the Nobel Peace Prize as it did for a number of other recipients with dubious claims to peace work. By contrast, in 1948 the Nobel committee chose not to award anyone — rather than acknowledge Mohandas Gandhi's work in pushing for Indian independence from Britain.
Historically the committee has often erred on the side of the powerful — rewarding hollow and hypocritical displays of diplomacy over the controversy that tends to arise around grassroots struggles. So while it may be unlikely that Kushner and Berkowitz will receive the peace prize, neither would it really be surprising.
But with Black History Month kicking off, it's worth articulating not just why their diplomacy is underwhelming, but why the Black Lives Matter movement deserves recognition for advancing the global fight against injustice.
No Justice, No Peace
While extensive efforts have been made to paint the Black Lives Matter movement as violent, anti-White, and at the political fringes, in reality it is the largest and most racially diverse protest movement in American history. And considering the thousands of demonstrations that have taken place, involving many millions of individuals, the relative lack of violence from the protesters is much more worthy of note than a handful of dramatic scenes.
Compared to the January 6th Trump rally, where a crowd of around 30,000 spawned a violent insurrection — which was handled with kid gloves by the police and led to five deaths — the 15 million plus who participated in BLM marches in 2020 were remarkably peaceful. The same cannot be said for far too many of police who patrolled those marches and gave proof to the brutality that inspired them.
A compilation of videos that captures how police officers incite violence. How are they responding to protests ag… https://t.co/7rBOh3OHMP— Simran Jeet Singh (@Simran Jeet Singh) 1590893613.0
And though regrettable incidents of arson and violence have undeniably taken place in connection with BLM demonstrations, the alternative was not "peace."
What is often overlooked in discussions of peace is the reality of social and political injustice as among the most prevalent forms of violence on Earth. When millions of people, targeted through no fault of their own, are systemically dehumanized — their lives and their contributions devalued and their opportunities for life, liberty and pursuit of happiness both deliberately and incidentally truncated for centuries — that is violence that destroys lives on another scale altogether.
For Black Americans that obviously means slavery and its aftermath, as well as segregation and the continued legacies of practices like redlining. But it also means a so-called "war on drugs" that treats addiction as a crime rather than an illness and disproportionately targets and locks up Black Americans, depriving too many children of their parents.
It means racist police procedures like Stop and Frisk, as well as the implicit (and often explicit) racial biases of the officers themselves. It means making it nearly impossible for people convicted of felonies within this unjust, racist system to live within the bounds of the law, depriving them — as well as millions of Black Americans who haven't been convicted of anything — of the right to participate in democracy and change the system that treats them so cruelly.
And none of this even covers the immense wealth inequality that makes life harder for almost all Americans — though, again, the harm is leveled disproportionately against Black Americans. All of these ordinary and unacceptable aspects of American life are violence — "the negative peace which is the absence of tension."
They destabilize communities, families, and individual lives. And that violence came to a head in June, following the horrific killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer over a suspected counterfeit $20 bill.
While far from the only evidence of systemic racism in America, the murder of unarmed Black men, women, and children by police and by racist vigilantes who — more often than not — are allowed to walk free, is perhaps its most blatant and disgusting expression.
And the names of the slain — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Philando Castille, too many more to mention — have become rallying cries.
A Black Lives Matter protester carrying a counter protester to safety in London
With all the domestic resistance the protests met from people who insist on spitting "all lives matter!" (as if fighting for the value of Black lives implied otherwise) and "blue lives matter!" (as if the safety of police officers depends on their ability to shoot unarmed Black men, women, and children without consequence), it would be easy to lose sight of how much support the movement has received overseas. While the movement was started in America, the impact has been global.
"Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere"
The reality of living as a dehumanized minority in a bigoted society is sadly all too common in the world. And while not everywhere is as bad in this respect as America, the recognition sparked protests of solidarity and of common cause around the world.
Like the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Black Lives Matter has continued the fight for America to live up to its promise. Because right now "the land of the free" is home to a carceral state where more people are imprisoned than anywhere else on Earth, and citizens are killed by police at a higher rate than in any comparable nation.
Because the systems that were deliberately set up to keep newly freed Black citizens oppressed following the Civil War were never truly purged — have been covertly bolstered and supplemented ever since.
That is not peace. Only a stable form of violence.
A cartoon from the 1960s My father wasn’t beloved by America. In ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail,’ he responded to 8… https://t.co/ygwaqnWoO9— Be A King (@Be A King) 1611017549.0
In 1964 the Nobel committee opted not to side with power. It was the same year the FBI sent a harassing letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., urging him to commit suicide.
He was considered by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover — and many others in positions of power within the American government — to be an enemy of the state. There is even reason to believe that these forces were directly involved in his 1968 assassination.
His protest movement was disruptive to the normal order of American life that most white Americans were content to maintain. Many balked at the idea that it could be called peaceful. But the Nobel committee selected him for the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a serious signal that the world was watching how America handled peaceful dissent.
Did that make a difference in passing the voting rights act of 1965? Who can say? But the Nobel committee has a similar opportunity this year.
What Black Lives Matter has been fighting for in recent months is the "positive peace" King spoke of as "the presence of justice." With that in mind — and with some uncertainty remaining as to how a decentralized, leaderless movement of millions can receive an award — the Nobel committee should take seriously the option of selecting Black Lives Matter.
Martin Luther King Jr. Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech www.youtube.com
There are no doubt many nominees whom the committee could select for the Peace Prize — including Jared Kushner. And some who would even be worthy — including Stacey Abrams.
But the significance of acknowledging a grassroots fight for justice that was centuries in the making (in a nation which — for all its flaws — continues to shape culture around the world) is too powerful to deny.
In February we celebrate Black History Month in America.
For the entire month, we commemorate the vast contributions from Black people who have impacted society here and abroad. After all, we are responsible for countless inventions and innovations in art, science, athletics, business, and activism, contributions that often get overlooked because of our country's pervasive legacy of racism.
Black History Month may also be the only annual instance that this country comes close to acknowledging its racist heritage. The brilliance that Blackness has provided modern-day society is, unfortunately, also rooted in hatred and exclusion.
Recognizing the creations shaped by the hands of Black people means examining the oppressive infrastructures that sparked their genius. One of those infrastructures is slavery.
The mention of slavery prompts various reactions amongst white people. Some declare it to be our country's greatest shame, while others act as if it never happened. If the latter admits to its existence, it's to admonish others for "living in the past."
The celebration of Black History Month and the acknowledgment of slavery go hand in hand. Although a vast majority of Black History itself isn't a direct result of slavery, its ramifications are certainly a factor.
For instance, Martin Luther King Jr'.s vaunted legacy hinges upon his fight against racism and segregation. His peaceful marches and resounding speeches became the introduction to Black History and the Civil Rights Movement for most children in elementary schools across the country.
King is a lauded American hero for his fortitude. But his battle with a racist system is often romanticized. His reimagining sees him as a man standing up for his beliefs instead of a victim of a hateful construct who was forced to rise up against his oppressors.
The irony resides in Black people being labeled as world-changers and trailblazers in the eyes of history but only being allowed to access a small portion of it in order to apply their craft.
Similarly, Black people becoming a dominant force in sports and entertainment hasn't been without their share of obstacles. Unlike today where they have access to a worldwide audience to entertain, Black musicians and athletes' sole audiences used to be people who looked like them.
Sports pioneer Jackie Robinson made history as the first Black man to play professional baseball. His breaking of the color barrier instituted a new day in American sports, but the country's prejudicial temperament remained the same. Robison received death threats from angry white fans, players, and even owners.
Furthermore, musicians like Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, who are pioneers of Rock and Roll, are credited with inspiring The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. But during the '50s, their sound was classified as "race music." Conversely, that same "race music" was acceptable when taken and repurposed by white artists.
They and others like them persevered in the face of adversity to open doors for Black people today. Their struggles are reminders of the resiliency of Black people that changed the world and the unnecessary roadblocks they had to overcome to do so.
Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry
The observance of Black History Month in today's racial climate in America feels insincere. When entities are dedicated to oppression the other 11 months of the year, it's hard to believe their calls for racial unity in February
We voice our grievances about the government and law enforcement's wanton negligence daily, only to hear how stuck in the past we are as a race. Yet, that same past is responsible for the evolution of civilization as we know it today. Without Black people, America would not be the culturally rich place it is today.
Still, many feel sentiments like "Black Lives Matter" are radical movements, when in actuality they are an ever-present reminder of the conditions Black people had to navigate to pull off these incredible feats.
America cannot sincerely immerse itself in the celebration of Black History Month until it confronts its history. Racism is the beating heart beneath the floorboards of privilege. But as the beating grows louder, our country continues to disregard its pulse.
So much of Angela Davis's work is still relevant and urgent now
When you think of the Black Panther Party or Black women revolutionaries, one of the images that likely comes to mind is of Angela Davis and her giant, unapologetic afro, fist raised to the sky.
One of the foremost activists and revolutionaries of the time, Angela Davis is a blueprint for race theory and radical politics. Long before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term "intersectionality," Angela Davis was living it.
An activist during the concurrent Civil Rights Movement and the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and '70s, Davis made no compromises in her rhetoric for gender or racial equality. Her ideologies were also informed by Marxist analysis and fervent belief in the interlinked oppression of race, gender, and class as a product of capitalism.
Almost 60 years later, the same fight remains and Davis is still at the forefront. Her work, from her speeches to her books, are similarly potent sources of theory and inspiration. It's safe to say that Angela Davis should be required reading — not just as a resource for anti racism work, but just as a model of how to live.
Since so much of her work is still relevant and urgent now, here are some of the most resonant quotes for our current age and why they still matter today.
Erasing the reality of our troubled history — and our divided present — is not true unity.
Back in early September of 2020, when fewer than 200,000 Americans had yet died as a result of COVID-19, reality TV "businessman" Donald Trump was somehow the president of an entire country.
And he wanted everyone to "love" that country as much — and as selectively — as he did. So when Nikole Hannah-Jones' 1619 Project with The New York Times began winning awards and being taught in classrooms, he knew he had to act.
It was bad enough with people protesting in the streets against racialized violence today, but trying to place that injustice in a context of an ongoing pattern of racialized oppression was too much. Establishing an advisory committee to promote "patriotic education," Donald Trump tasked his 1776 commission with combatting the 1619 Project's unflattering focus on chattel slavery and its continued legacy.
The 1619 Project details the legacy of slavery in America www.youtube.com
Four months later, 200,000 more Americans have died of COVID-19, and Joe Biden has been elected to replace Donald Trump. An attempted coup failed to overturn the election, and many of the same political figures who stirred up the sentiments of insurrection — and still refuse to acknowledge Biden's legitimate victory — have been calling for "unity."
Those calls were echoed in Joe Biden's inauguration speech, but there has remained a question of what kind of unity they mean. And in that context, the 1776 Commission — which Biden has pledged to disband — released a report in the lead-up to inauguration day, clarifying what kind of "unity" they mean.
It's a unity not of solidarity, empathy, and shared struggle, but of erasure, appropriation, and myth. The report's primary contention seems to be that a more critical perspective on America's history is necessarily both skewed and harmful. That perspectives like Hannah-Jones' are actively and deliberately destructive of our "united" American spirit, and lead us, somehow — inexplicably — toward tyranny.
The Founding Fathers: Context and Contradictions
The report argues that — given the context of their horrifying and disturbing time period — we should be in awe of the fact that the Founding Fathers could recognize and articulate a concept of universal rights, even if they didn't quite live by their stated principles. And that America eventually achieved a society where universal rights were properly enshrined and should have stopped trying to fix apparent injustices decades ago.
It's clear that the report is referring to the 1619 Project — and similar work centering the experiences of oppressed and ignored groups in America's history — when it talks of "deliberately destructive scholarship." According to the report, this kind of scholarship, "shatters the civic bonds that unite all Americans."
It's better to focus on stories like George Washington's virtuous decision to finally, posthumously free the dozens of human beings he kept enslaved for so many years. Like the parable of the cherry tree, it almost doesn't matter that Washington's decision to grant them their freedom was never truly carried out... almost.
It's taken for granted that looking seriously at the crimes of our nation's past — and noting the continued legacy of those crimes — is divisive. That the only way to unite is to focus narrowly on what inspires "reverence and love" for our history and to refer to that narrow focus as "viewing our history clearly and wholly." To do otherwise "silences the discourse essential to a free society by breeding division, distrust, and hatred among citizens."
It's certainly true that a close look at the enslavement of millions of Black men, women, and children in what may be history's most extensive and systematic project of dehumanization does not tend to inspire the kind of reverence Donald Trump wanted Americans to feel for their country — and for him.
Unearthing Sally Hemings' legacy at Monticello www.youtube.com
The 1776 commission doesn't want you to ask why Washington didn't grant those people their "unalienable" freedom while he was alive. Or why other founding fathers — like Thomas Jefferson, who enslaved hundreds — didn't make even this lukewarm gesture toward emancipation.
Being offered now as a corrective to more serious scholarship, it repeatedly insists that our nation's founders — who drank more beer than water, wore powdered wigs rather than bathing, and enslaved their own children of rape — should be viewed with "reverence" and as "heroes."
According to the report, it is at once necessary to understand them in the context of a time period in which enslaved people were a foundational part of America's economic system — a system which served those founders well — and to ignore what that foundation might say about a country asserting natural rights as the reason for its very existence. Note the context. Ignore the contradictions.
Myths, Fallacies, and Hypocrites
As for its take on that historical context, the report continually perpetuates myths and fallacies that cast a positive light on America's early history. King George III, for instance, is held up as the Declaration of Independence's caricature of "a despotic king who violated the people's rights and overthrew the colonists' longstanding tradition of self-government."
In reality, England had long since adopted a constitutional monarchy in which the bulk of decisions were made by the parliament. Framing those decisions as — in the report's words — "the capricious whims of a tyrant," made for a better story.
In reality, the American colonists — particularly the wealthy merchants and plantation owners among them — resented being governed and taxed by distant politicians elected without their consent. It's a reasonable objection, though it's painful to note that the same objections can now be made by the residents of Puerto Rico and other American territories.
Puerto Ricans voted for statehood. Will it happen? www.youtube.com
If those American citizens — subject to taxation without representation — framed that relationship as tyranny, would the 1776 commission treat calls for liberty or statehood with the same reverence? Based on the report, it seems more likely that the commission would dismiss them as telling a story "of oppression and victimhood."
While it's no doubt true that America's founders were hugely influential in the history of political thought — and that the documents they wrote formed a foundation for the advancement of civil rights both at home and abroad — it would be foolish to treat their ideas and their motivations as pure. They applied their high-minded principles primarily when it served their interests to do so.
Another way to put that would be to say that they were hypocrites. But when the report talks about the blatant contradictions, words apparently speak louder than actions: "What is momentous is that a people that included slaveholders founded their nation on the proposition that 'all men are created equal.'"
We are to take it for granted that this sentiment was simply on a delay when applied to women and particularly to the people who were bought, sold, branded, bred, and worked like livestock.
An understanding of how that same dehumanization was carried forward not just in sharecropping and Jim Crow, but in Confederate memorials, the war on drugs, and predatory loans — in "welfare queens," "superpredators," and "all lives matter" — would be far less flattering.
"Equality of Opportunity" and "Shared Heritage"
Instead, the commission's report consistently conflates efforts at restorative justice with the evils they are intended to address. On the topic of affirmative action and identity politics, the report says, "This new creed creates new hierarchies as unjust as the old hierarchies of the antebellum South, making a mockery of equality with an ever-changing scale of special privileges on the basis of racial and sexual identities."
Better to ignore the ways in which historic injustices persist — the fact, for instance, that white families have nearly eight times the wealth of Black families. Whitewash those details and sell a story of meritocracy and "equality of opportunity," ignoring outcomes that fundamentally imply that Black Americans have less merit.
Better to talk about a "shared heritage." Better to ignore how the progeny of the enslaved have yet to share in the advantages left to the progeny of the wise and noble white thinkers who enslaved them.
Even when addressing the injustices of sharecropping in the reconstruction era, the report avoids the idea that vulnerable people were horribly exploited — as that sort of reasoning could likewise be applied to the dynamics of wage labor today. Instead, the report indicates that the system "enmeshed freedmen in relationships of extreme dependency," echoing conservative attacks on social programs that serve our nation's most disadvantaged.
Co-Opting MLK's Dream
Worse still, for a report released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is the way the commission abuses the message of the civil rights era — and King in particular.
When discussing the concept of identity politics — that oppressed groups must work together to advocate for their interests — the 1776 commission claims that this ethos"values people by characteristics like race, sex, and sexual orientation" and is thus "the opposite of King's hope that his children would 'live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.'"
Of course this is patently absurd. King and other civil rights leaders of his era plainly believed in the importance of people united by a shared struggle fighting for equality. And just as concepts like poll taxes and literacy tests were once used to disenfranchise Black voters — without explicitly mentioning race — there are aspects of our society that selectively disadvantage certain groups without expressly stating that aim.
That means over-policing of Black and Latinx neighborhoods, women receiving less pay for equal work, or school funding being inexplicably tied to property values. There is nothing about the affected groups organizing for their interests that is in conflict with King's values, nor with the principles of America's founding.
Martin Luther King Jr.: 'The Economic Problem Is the Most Serious Problem' www.youtube.com
On the contrary, that struggle is inherent in the "unalienable right" to the pursuit of happiness and enshrined in the first amendment. And pretending that oppressed groups are past the need for this kind of action or the protection it can win only sets us back. When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, it brought us right back to the era of poll taxes, with a surge of voter suppression that doesn't mention race, yet manages to target Black voters "with almost surgical precision."
As is so often the case, the report ignores the true history of Martin Luther King's unpopularity among white Americans of his time. They treat him in death as uncontroversially loved, appropriating his message to evoke a false contrast between the current protest movement — which is portrayed as disruptive and divisive — and the movement of the 1960s.
If you were to believe the report, the latter "presented itself, and was understood by the American people, as consistent with the principles of the founding." In reality — the movement's relationship to the principles of the founding aside — Martin Luther King was never particularly popular in America. And in the years before his assassination, one Gallup poll showed that 63% of Americans held an unfavorable view of King, compared to just 33% with a favorable view.
This was due in part to protests which rankled the same type of person offended by Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter — white moderates whom king described as preferring "a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." But it was also in response to King's harsh criticism of American activity in the Vietnam war and to his advocacy for a multiracial "Poor People's Campaign" uniting working class Americans to correct the injustices of capitalism.
King and Guthrie — This Report Erases Socialists
But of course the 1776 commission would be unlikely to acknowledge that King once described himself as "much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic." They had to erase that aspect of his life in order to appropriate him for their skewed, elitist version of individual liberty.
After all, according to the report, socialism "leads down the same dangerous path of allowing the state to seize private property and redistribute wealth as the governing elite see fit." As opposed to wealth being distributed only as the billionaires see fit…
As foolish as this mischaracterization of King is, it is hardly the commission's most absurd omission. That distinction goes to the report's invocation of Woody Guthrie's classic song "This Land is Your Land," as a song for patriotic Americans to enjoy on the fourth of July.
In reality, that song was first penned as a Marxist critique of the notion of private property — in direct opposition to the narrow notion of freedom the 1776 report venerates. Woodie Guthrie — of "This machine kills fascists" fame — would not only have vehemently opposed the sort of "patriotic education" advocated by the commission, he vocally opposed Donald Trump's father for racist housing discrimination practices in a song he penned called "Old Man Trump."
This Land is Your Land www.youtube.com
It seems there is no Left-wing activity the 1776 commission won't co-opt for their reactionary purposes. Take for example their list of "great reforms" which places "anti-Communism," and "the Pro-Life Movement" alongside abolition, women's suffrage, and the Civil Rights Movement.
Never mind the fact that anti-abortion advocacy treats a pregnant person's sovereignty as secondary to that of a fetus that doesn't even have a central nervous system. What "reforms" have ever been associated with "anti-Communism?" McCarthyism? The erosion of social safety nets?
Throwing Obstacles in the Way of a Complete Education
But of course this report is propaganda. It shouldn't really come as a surprise that a commission established by a billionaire president — who wanted to ban muslims, labelled protestors terrorists, and called undocumented immigrants rapists — is deeply biased against calls for racial and economic justice.
It makes even more sense when you learn that the chair of the commission, Larry Arnn — president of conservative Hillsdale College — once complained that state officials had come looking for "dark ones" after his school was charged with violating the Michigan DOE's standards for diversity. His co-chair, Carol Swain, once compared Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan.
This is what "patriotism" and "unity" mean to people like Trump, Arnn, and Swain. They mean stop criticizing. Stop finding fault and stop standing up for yourself — just be grateful for the status quo.
It's the kind of "unity" that divides the poor white workers against poor black workers to prevent a working class movement, and it's not remotely surprising that these people would share such a remarkably skewed, incomplete, and ahistorical perspective. That they accuse every social justice movement past the 1960s of seeking special favor and imposing anti-majoritarian bigotry — e.g. affirmative action is the real racism — is likewise to be expected.
What is nonetheless shocking is how fervently they project that fault onto the other side while co-opting and mischaracterizing Left-wing figures and movements. There is, for instance, a bitter irony in the moment when the report cites early feminist icon Elizabeth Cady Stanton as saying "to throw obstacles in the way of a complete education is like putting out the eyes."
This pays off when the report goes on to attack universities for offering anything more than the most simplistic, rose-tinted view of the founders. As with the attack on the Capitol, they want to achieve unity not by embracing a shared understanding of our complex and often deeply painful history, but by agreeing as one to deny it. By moving on.
Nation as System and Myth
They believe that a nation is a myth of pure ideals — a myth of a people unified by principles — more than it is a system that should serve its citizen's sustainable happiness. And that patriotism — rather than pushing the system to improve — means worshipping the myth as dogma.
There is a huge difference between defending and working to improve a flawed system that broadly benefits you and the people you love — in ways that you may take for granted or not even notice — and devoting yourself to a mythic sense of noble community. The latter will always have such a huge advantage in terms of the picture it paints and the passion it invites — it almost doesn't matter that it's make-believe.
But the fact that it isn't real makes it far too malleable. The most gripping myths and stories have villains, and if patriotism is built on a myth of belonging, then our national myth can easily be molded to unite patriots against the "villains" outside our borders.
This form of unity and of patriotism is undoubtedly more exciting — more fun — than the version that focuses on highlighting problems, legislating policy to fix those problems and slowly improving our bureaucracy. But we should all see by now how these myths drift too easily into the dark side of nationalism — into xenophobia, warmongering, and fascist violence.
Even as President Biden signals the end of the 1776 commission, this report will live on. Its sentiments will remain in our national conversation,, and its deception will likely be read in classrooms across the country.
With that in mind, we should come away from this text with one clear message: "Unity" with people who favor myths and lies over difficult truths is not worth pursuing.
The attempted coup that took place at the Capitol building on Wednesday was equal parts terrifying and hilarious.
In times of crisis and chaos, it's important to keep a clear head and stay on top of the facts.
It's important to acknowledge that this was an unprecedented breach of security that could easily have been avoided and that it resulted in the deaths of at least four people.
But once you've processed the horror that entails, it's equally important to allow yourself a break from the tension and anxiety. Now and then it's essential to look at things from a different angle and just laugh at the absurdity.
Wednesday's attack on Capitol Hill was a great reminder of that lesson. Amid images of fascists and white supremacists taking over the Capitol building to disrupt the functioning of the federal government, chase legislators into hiding, and delay the confirmation of Joe Biden's clear victory over Donald Trump — waving the confederate flag, smashing things, stealing things, and generally getting away with it — there was also an abundance of clownish, hilarious behavior.
Some of the absurdity involved people being intentionally funny, while some of it displayed a raw, natural talent for being obliviously laughable. But all of it provided potent relief from the sense of American democracy falling to a movement of delusional bigots led by a petty conman (though that's still a disturbing possibility).
So as we move forward and focus on action to ameliorate the risk of further violence — anti-coup protests, impeachment, the 25th amendment — it's worth looking back at some of the highlights of absurdity that sprouted from Wednesday's waking nightmare.
At any rate, with all this absurdity, you have to laugh...or cry...or both, simultaneously while huddled in your closet.
"President Kennedy never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon...Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they always made me glad." -Malcolm X.
The attack on Capitol Hill was another example of how President Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacy. His term in office has given racism and fascism a bigger platform and an official advocate. He proved that, at his command, MAGA fanatics will assemble to do his bidding.
As the world watched the descent of democracy, many were appalled at the visual. This was an attempted coup two weeks before the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. News outlets and politicians questioned how we, as a country, got to this point. But for Black Americans, this has always been our country.
Terrorists takeover Capitol Hill
The violence witnessed on Capitol Hill was a scene all too familiar for Black people. The difference was that we weren't the direct targets. Trump's base has antagonized and threatened violence against Black people while law enforcement abuses its power when interacting with us. The confrontation between the two entities responsible for our oppression was unexpected, but not surprising.
Many Trump supporters and members of law enforcement are cut from the same cloth. In fact, many members of law enforcement voted for him. Their belief in excessive force under the guise of law and order gives them what they feel is the right to harm anyone who goes against their authority. They are loyal to a flawed system and a man that keeps them in power and not to the country and its citizens seeking progress and peace.
Throughout this presidency, both sides have pledged their allegiance to each other. MAGA supporters have backed the Blue Lives Matter movement. Police officers have demonstrated leniency when dealing with unruly Trump disciples at rallies and protests. Both believe they are the good guys trying to make things great again.
Trump supporters scaling the Capitol Building
Black people have had to do battle with both. We've had to listen to the various lies spewed about the Black Lives Matter movement from supporters of the president while fighting police brutality daily. The assault on Blackness was a cause that unified them. Black people have warned the world of the dangers these factions were capable of for years. Those claims fell on deaf ears, until yesterday when they turned on one another.
For many Black Americans, yesterday was the manifestation of this country's inability to address domestic terrorism. Peaceful protests and resistance against police brutality are viewed in the same light as the insurrection. The anarchy and mayhem that GOP pundits accuse BLM of inciting was a direct order from their leader.
Their ignorance and arrogance gave them the courage to lay siege to a government building. But if angry Black protesters attempted the same actions, many lives would've been lost.
The same reason why the police routinely kill Black people is the same reason why the police are routinely unprepar… https://t.co/Rc3yWRZ2PA— Ibram X. Kendi (@Ibram X. Kendi) 1609964271.0
Suddenly, Trump supporters view themselves as oppressed. Their reign over the country is coming to a not so graceful end. Rather than humbly accepting defeat, they want to dismantle the establishment. The same establishment that helped empower them over the last four years.
Somehow this attack was yet another revelation for white Americans. Before Trump's election, the idea of police officers displaying a lack of regard for the lives of Black people was inconceivable to white Americans. The thought of parts of our government upholding systemic racism was unfathomable.
Last night, after a year of reckoning with the racism built into America's system, white Americans were forced to once again look at the enormous part white privilege plays in policing. But for Black people, it was simply a clear visual of America's decision on November 8, 2016, coming home to roost.
For too long we've been told that "Black" politics would scare away moderates
First thing's first: I need white people to stop treating Stacey Abrams like their savior.
Deification, a form of dehumanization, strips a person of their humanity and turns them into a symbol. By overhyping Stacey Abrams, white people assert their goodness on the back of a Black woman, trying to be woke by association.
While Abrams deserves much praise, we cannot continue to place superhuman expectations upon her. We also cannot act like she was solely responsible for discovering a secret to turning Georgia blue. The reality is that Stacey Abrams worked tirelessly alongside other dedicated organizers to address the voter suppression Black people have been fighting in Georgia for decades.
So why haven't democratic politicians done this before? Obama did, campaigning at a grass roots level and counting on disenfranchised voters. But he was Obama, people might say, of course Black people will vote for him. The "Black vote" in political discourse is treated as an ineffable mystery and often discarded as impossible to count on. Black people just don't vote, politicians say, then focus their attention elsewhere.
So when the Black vote (alongside other BIPOC demographics such as the historic voter turnout of Indigenous populations in Arizona) undoubtedly delivered the 2020 election to the Democrats, then did the same for the House in the Georgia run-offs, everyone was talking about Stacey Abrams in a way a little too reminiscent of how the dad talked in Get Out.
But the election results revealed that Black voters are in fact the key to the Democratic Party's success. When is the Party going to start acting like it?
All through the election year, Democrats were convinced that playing it safe was the key to defeating Trump.
By electing Biden as the nominee instead of more "radical" Democratic candidates like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, the DNC were adamant that the game plan was to appeal to white moderates — which meant not scaring them away.
So while Biden picked Harris, a biracial Black and Indian woman, as his Vice President, their campaign strategy was to hover around the center and appeal to white voters who somehow just weren't sure who to vote for yet.
Meanwhile, the country was going through a period of major racial protest. Black Lives Matter protesters spent the summer appealing for an end to police brutality, for legislative protection, for defunding the police and reexamining the carceral system in light of its racist roots.
And though there were some tweets and statements from major Democratic politicians in response to the murder of George Floyd, as well as that super embarrassing thing with the Kinte cloths, the sentiment remained that actually addressing the demands of protestors would be too risky and scare away the nice white voters.
Nancy Pelosi taking a knee in a Kinte cloth for BLM apparently? Whose idea was this?
Well, the nice white voters went for Trump.
Exit polls showed that 58% of white voters voted for Trump — an increase from the 2016 election. And while Trump made percentage gains with Black men, Black people overwhelmingly voted for Biden. And in key cities in key states, Black voters having the agency to vote in the presidential election and in the Georgia Senate races was instrumental in the Democratic wins.
The numbers speak for themselves. In his election speech, Biden even thanked Black voters for being instrumental to his victory. But Biden's main message was one of healing — not for marginalized groups who suffered most under the Trump presidency, but for … "the soul of America"?
Biden's speech seemed to focus on restoring party communication, going back to his comfortable place in the center and telling us (while invoking Langston Hughes in his references to "dreams deferred") to join him.
For many Black voters, moving to the center looks like regression. Again, the Democratic rhetoric was one that appealed to white moderates, to appease their concerns and placate their nerves after a year of proverbially "difficult" conversations and "reckoning."
But for Black Americans, the most difficult thing is being constantly gaslit — being told by a party which claims to care about us that fighting for our concerns (read: our lives) is too much, too difficult, too frightening.
In response to the calls to defund the police, many major Democrats were quick to dismiss the movement. Biden himself said that he did not want to defund the police. "I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness," he said instead, again appealing to vague notions of morality rather than actionable policy.
Even Black politicians took up this rhetoric. South Carolina Representative and major Civil Rights activist James Clyburn said that "nobody is going to defund the police," and that "police have a role to play." His plea was against "sloganeering," claiming that pleas like "Defund the Police'' would undermine the movement and lose the election.
Barack Obama said something similar (thanks, Obama): "If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it's not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan, like Defund the Police, but, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it."
These sentiments are the work of years of conditioning that expects Black people to acquiesce to white audiences, to settle for banal "reform" and "slow, steady change" instead of radical action. They are examples of respectability politics and tone policing that reinforce the idea that Black folks are a liability, harming our own progress by scaring away potential allies.
But we're tired of it.
In the wake of the dismissal of BLM slogans, many major progressives also spoke out. Representative Ilhan Omar responded to Obama's comment in a tweet, saying: "We lose people in the hands of police. It's not a slogan but a policy demand. And centering the demand for equitable investments and budgets for communities across the country gets us progress and safety."
We lose people in the hands of police. It’s not a slogan but a policy demand. And centering the demand for equitabl… https://t.co/fh8ftnTR7t— Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan Omar) 1606872699.0
Her response points out the danger in the quick dismissal by these politicians: too focused on how the slogan sounds, they fail to address the policy changes it calls to action and continue to support a system of policing which currently exists in a fundamentally oppressive structure. Reform is not enough, complete restructuring and radical change is the only answer.
Most Black Americans do not have the privilege of not understanding this. And, after delivering the election to Biden and the Senate, we want recognition.
We want to no longer be the big scary thing that Democrats are afraid of. We want to be taken seriously, and we want our demands to be met, our communities to be prioritized, and our people to stop dying at the hands of the state.
Black voters do not appear magically to deliver democracy if white people click their heels, repost an infographic, and say, "Stacey Abrams" in the mirror three times. The Black Vote is a collection of diverse, real people who are tired of being treated like a liability, a threat to the party they have always been loyal to.
It's time the party returned the favor — pointing out the obvious transgressions of the (soon) past administration will not be enough. With a blue senate, Biden has the opportunity to be bold, to enact real change for the communities who showed up for him, despite his own flaws and a year spent turning his back to us for the sake of white voters who did not.