If I were asked in all seriousness just what I considered to be the chief significance of Invisible Man as a fiction, I would reply: Its experimental attitude and its attempt to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our nineteenth-century fiction.
—Ralph Ellison (1953 National Book Award Acceptance Speech)
What you have in your hand is a manifesto. A manifesto that, like Invisible Man seeks to emphasize a mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy.
We’re beset with global challenges that threaten the world even as we’re beset with a variety of local challenges of simple governance. So at the same time we’re trying to figure out how to get from under the biggest economic crisis the nation has experienced since the Great Depression, at the same time we’re trying to figure out how to stave off global warming and climate change, black men and women in Sanford, Florida have to literally mobilize millions of people across the world just to get the Sanford police department to charge George Zimmerman for Trayvon Martin’s murder.
And as these challenges begin to complicate our attempt to live “normal” lives, it takes all the energy we can to try to live normal lives, to hold a steady job, be a decent father or a decent mother (whether one is single, in a partnership, or married) while attempting to stave off foreclosure and unemployment. It takes even more to be a decent father or mother and attempt to stave off foreclosure after unemployment.
Given that these are the circumstances many of us find ourselves in, it’s a wonder we even have the energy to watch MSNBC on the weekends, or talk about politics with our friends or on the internet, much less participate in politics beyond voting. We simply don’t seem to have the room for it.
But while this explains why some of us have decided to tune out politically, this condition also requires us to do even more heavy political lifting. We need to be even more attuned politically, even more willing to find the energy to critique, more energy to propose alternatives, more energy to fight for those alternatives.
Above I quote Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, a novel some believe to be the greatest work of American literature ever written. Ellison was a contemporary of Martin Luther King jr. Unlike King, Ellison led no marches. Ellison integrated no schools.[foot]It’s funny. Ellison had stood firmly on the side of civil rights, and had written pieces defending civil rights aims and tactics. But by the late sixties, Ellison moved away from explicit politics. In response, many believed him to have “sold out.” When he notes that the significance of Invisible Man lies partly in the way it reflects support for, or perhaps the way it works to generate, a personal moral responsibility for democracy, he signals that at least at the beginning of his career, building our political imagination through literature was a key part of his intellectual project. [/foot]
To the extent he could be considered a civil rights freedom fighter, he fought with the pen, defending civil rights participants time and time again in print. And he did so in an attempt to place the African American in the center of what could be called the American political project rather than the periphery. I aim to do something somewhat similar here. I seek to place the everyday African American in the center of our grander political struggle. We have to take responsibility. We have to take personal moral responsibility for our democracy.
Because the reality is nobody’s coming to save us.
Now whenever I see someone write about African Americans and “personal responsibility” I have a knee-jerk negative reaction. You’ve no doubt heard versions of this before. If black people would just take more responsibility, we wouldn’t be so poor, our communities wouldn’t be so crime-ridden, our families wouldn’t be so broken.
I’m not making this claim. In fact, one of the reasons for this manifesto is to fight back against a variety of ideas we think of as “common sense” that don’t make much sense at all. Black “personal irresponsibility”no more causes poverty than playing an XBox 360 causes stupidity. Black “personal irresponsibility” isn’t the reason our families are “broken” isn’t the reason why our communities don’t work.
However, with that said, I do believe that we have to be even more vigilant and more politically engaged than we are. We shouldn’t pass the buck off to our pastor, our congressperson, our President, our local activist. Not to say we shouldn’t hold of these individuals responsible for our condition. They are responsible. But we cannot and should not simply “leave politics to the politicians” or even to community leaders. Politics is something that we can and should take personal responsibility for.
Furthermore I’m not placing the brunt of the burden on African Americans. We all should take responsibility for building democratic practices and institutions. African Americans cannot and should not have to bear this burden alone.
However if America were a coal mine African Americans would definitely function as the miner’s canary.[foot]Working in coal mines, the biggest hazard miners faced was being poisoned by odorless, colorless gas. Because canaries were more sensitive to the gas, miners brought canaries into the mine with them. If the canaries became sick, the miners would know they were in danger. [/foot] I noted that we’re dealing with a number of unique 21st Century challenges. The levels of unemployment, poverty, and foreclosures we’ve experienced have no equivalent in recent memory. In 2011 the poverty rate was the highest it had been since we began collecting poverty data. The black unemployment rate has been consistently twice the size of the white unemployment rate, and in cities like Detroit have been three to four times the size of the white unemployment rate. Black median net worth has always been lower than white net worth. But whereas in 2005 black net worth was approximately ten times smaller than white net worth, by 2009 it was approximately nineteen times smaller. Black people have lost more wealth than any other identifiable population, wealth that can never be regained.[foot]What little wealth African Americans have is tied up in real estate and in retirement accounts. Even if the economy gets better and the values of these investments increase again, they’ll never be able to recoup the money they would have made had they retained their value.[/foot]
In other times, the national social safety net would protect citizens from the worst of the shock. At the beginning of the 20th Century states routinely gave widows pensions to ease the economic burden of widowhood. This pension program was the forerunner of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Although AFDC had its critics, it permanently provided poor single mothers with the bare minimum they needed to take care of their children.
But this changed drastically in 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed legislation replacing AFDC—an entitlement with no lifetime limit—with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), a program that demanded much of recipients in exchange for benefits. In some states women had to take paternity tests in order to be eligible. In some states, children conceived while on TANF were not eligible for aid. In most states women had to actively look for work in order to prove they were worthy of the benefits they received. And it isn’t a coincidence that states with the most punitive policies have larger black populations states with more forgiving ones.
Welfare repeal most directly affects working class and poor black women. The incarceration explosion most directly affects working class and poor black men. In 2011, the number of incarcerated black men shot past the 1 million man mark. Most of those incarcerated in our nation’s prisons are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.[foot]Some argued that this explosion was caused by the increase in violent crime. But while the rate of violent crime increased 112% between 1970 and 2010, the number of incarcerated Americans increased 400%.[/foot]
The economic crisis hit poor populations particularly hard—thousands of already poor black women had by 2008 already come to the end of their five year lifetime TANF limit, making them ineligible for further federal aid. And persistently poor women who aren’t quite at the limit yet now have to fight for scarce resources with formerly middle class women. It’s already incredibly hard for formerly incarcerated black men to get jobs [foot]Technically, employers can’t discriminate against individuals because they have a criminal record. However this doesn’t stop them because the rules regarding this practice are so rarely enforced.
[/foot], but it’s now even harder because they have to compete with unemployed middle class men without records for jobs they once would have scoffed at.
The black poor are not the only black population to have suffered during the crisis. The black middle class has suffered as well. Being a tenured political scientist hasn’t protected me and my family from the shocks. Over the past several years my own family has been a near casualty of the current economic crisis. I faced foreclosure twice, watched as our family minivan was repossessed. And as my oldest goes off to college I have no idea how we’re going to fully be able to take care of her and her brothers and sisters the way my parents took care of me.
So even in the wake of the election of the nation’s first self-identified black President, black people operate as America’s canary. African Americans are much more sensitive to the silent but deadly social ills that run rampant through America’s underbelly.
This places black men and women in a unique position to identify and respond to these ills. So how do we go about doing so? I’ll briefly consider the most important political movements of the contemporary moment—the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party.
I find the Occupy Movement powerful for three reasons.
First, it acknowledges the city as a central site of resistance and politics. The rise of the freeway system coupled with the desire to decentralize American manufacturing capability, moved America’s center from the city to the surrounding suburbs. This move hollowed out many cities (particularly cities that heavily relied on manufacturing). We now view cities as dangerous, uncivilized, corrupt and poverty stricken. For participants in the various occupy movements spread out across the country and the world, the city represents the most important terrain in reclaiming our politics from the 1%. Although African Americans have deep rural roots, the reality is that our most important cultural and political creations and innovations are all urban ones.
Second, Occupy has almost singlehandedly placed the issue of inequality back in common discussion. Even after the economy tanked and millions of people were unemployed, in foreclosure, or both, political officials (including President Obama) argued that our biggest problem was the debt and the deficit. This narrative was itself the product of a narrow political imagination. Tens of thousands of citizens took over public spaces nationwide, rejecting this narrative turning their ire against big business and to the corporate takeover of both political parties.
Thirdly, I find the movement powerful because of its tactical diversity. From taking over parks, to spontaneous marches, to innovative foreclosure defenses, occupies throughout the country were able to turn the nation’s gaze towards economic inequality and the injustices perpetuated by the 1%.
On the other hand while I believe many Tea Party supporters to be earnest, I find the movement itself ideologically bankrupt. When Tea Party supporters urge that the government keep it’s hands off of Medicare, they engage in the height of political hypocrisy and ignorance. When Tea Party supporters, many of them the sons and daughters of immigrants, urge support for anti-immigrant policies, they engage in an ahistorical racism.
If the effect of the Tea Party movement on American politics was to increase our attention to issues of the deficit, and towards budget slashing as a solution, the Occupy movement shifted the dialogue back away from the debt and the deficit and towards issues of economic inequality. And it did so through novel tactics and strategies that took opponents off guard while building support and press for its cause using the city as its primary battleground. However, unlike the Occupy Movement, the Tea Party Movement has elected dozens of its members to local, state, and federal office. And these members have consistently sought to embed Tea Party principles in government even when such principles when put in practice hurt their constituencies.[foot]Tea Party member Janice Daniels, mayor of Troy Michigan, turned down millions of federal dollars that would have been used to rebuild that suburb’s public transportation infrastructure. The city wouldn’t have had to pay a dime, and the program would’ve helped thousands of residents but the mayor turned it down, even as GOP Gov. Tom Snyder urged her to accept the funds. Mayor Daniels has also criticized what she calls “the gay lifestyle” for being “dangerous”.[/foot] Tea Party members in the House of Representatives took the nation very close to default when they took a decision usually rubber stamped by both parties—the decision to raise the debt ceiling—and politicized it for the purpose of forcing the democrats to make serious cuts to social programs they detested.
These two prominent political responses differ strongly from each other. But they share the belief they have the right to not only hold government accountable but the responsibility to do so. Many Tea Party members were actually willing to put the US government in default to slash government programs they detested. Many occupy members were willing to do whatever it took to get local, state, and federal governments to take economic inequality seriously.
African Americans are engaging in the same project in cities across the country. In Baltimore organizations like Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, the Baltimore Urban Debate League, and the Algebra Project are just three examples of young African Americans attempting to take responsibility for the practice of democracy. In Detroit organizations like the Boggs Center and the Allied Media Conference loom large.
Our task is twofold. We have to proliferate the spirit embodied in these individual efforts. And to use these efforts to create new democratically minded institutions. And we have to work hard to generate new ideas. Our task is both institutional and ideational.
What prevents us from organizing politically and from taking a personal moral responsibility for democracy is not simply institutions that reduce the strength of our voices, it is not simply the fact that we have comparatively fewer resources to begin, it is also the fact that our ideas about political problems and solutions are increasingly narrow.
Tea Party supporters believe that the biggest political problem we face is too much government. Their political solution flows from their diagnosis of the political problem. If too much government is the problem, reducing the size of government is the solution. Ignoring for a second the fact that they don’t want to necessarily reduce the size of the government (they don’t want the size of the US defense budget to drop, for example) and they don’t want to reduce the size of the benefits they receive from the government (“keep your government hands off my medicare!”) the logic flows from problem to solution. Occupy supporters believe that the biggest political problem we face is too much economic inequality. Their political solution too, flows from their diagnosis of the political problem. The problem is economic inequality, the solution is to reduce economic inequality.
I argue our ideas about political problems and political solutions require revising in order to purge a number of troubling tendencies.
One tendency is to increasingly blame black people, or segments of black populations for our condition. I noted that as a result of Occupy we’ve begun to think about and talk about income inequality, about the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. Income inequality is not only growing between the haves and the have nots in general, income inequality is growing between black haves and black have nots. We’ve known for sometime that whites have far much more wealth than non-whites in general and blacks in particular. However we’ve paid less attention to the increasing degree of inequality within black communities. A smaller and smaller slice of black people get a larger and larger share of black resources. And as this happens black communities increasingly express more and more disdain against the black have nots. Much of the ire generated against hip-hop and rap and towards “the nigga”, fits here.
A second tendency is to place far too much stock on the civil rights movement and on civil rights leaders and strategies. We’ve made that movement and to a lesser extent the Black Power Movement so much larger than life it becomes difficult to use what we know of them to think through contemporary issues. We tend to look to these movements as our default, and to the fifties and sixties as a golden age. But the civil rights era is to younger African Americans what World War I was to me. We’ve seen and lived through enormous change during the intervening 50 or so years. We can no more go backwards to reclaim the future than the Tea Party Movement can.
A third tendency can be traced to the 2008 presidential election. We simultaneously place too much stock in Barack Obama’s presidency, and not enough stock in it. We believe President Obama is so powerful that if he were somehow unelected black people would basically go to hell. But we also believe that he is so powerless that it is wrong to somehow expect or even push him to take responsibility on our behalf. And this leads us to be extra-critical particularly when it comes to Obama’s black critics.
Finally, in this political moment, even as it is clear that the trickle down policies of the last almost forty years has done nothing but benefit the wealthiest Americans, we still tend to turn towards corporate America for solutions. This isn’t a black thing mind you, but even in black circles we see evidence of this trend. For years the fastest growing religious trend in the black faith community was the “prosperity” gospel—a gospel that posits a link between spiritual prosperity and material prosperity. As opposed to a liberation theology that proposes Christians have a duty to ease the suffering of the poorest citizens, the prosperity gospel instead proposes that the poor have only themselves to blame. We see this tendency at work in our schools and in our cities in general. School systems in predominantly black cities and all over the country are increasingly adopting corporate solutions to their problems—replacing their superintendents with CEOs, using corporate management techniques to identify poorly performing schools and to train teachers. And we see similar tendencies even in the songs we listen to on a daily basis—JayZ in Kanye West’s Diamonds From Sierra Leone says “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business man”—as well as in our everyday grind and hustle.
We place too much stock in our leaders. We place too much emphasis on the civil rights movement. We believe too much in the concept of unity. We’ve increasingly swallowed the koolaid in believing our biggest problem is black culture. We increasingly think that business development, that business logic should be the backbone of any solution we have.
These ideas are politically destructive.
They reduce our capacity for political action. More to the point, these tendencies reduce our ability to take moral responsibility for the practice of democracy. Taking personal responsibility for democracy means making the time and the effort to be aware of current political events. However it also means doing the hard work to figure out contemporary, novel, humane solutions to contemporary problems.
We need to embrace a different set of political ideas in order to devise a new set of political institutions.
The first idea we need to embrace I’ve used as the title of this book—nobody’s coming. We’ve only got ourselves to turn to. Both MLK and Malcolm X are dead and are not coming back to life. There will be no twitter version of the Civil Rights or Black Power Movements.[foot]In response to the Occupy Movement, a variety of black civil rights leaders and pastors called for an “Occupy the Dream Movement”. Among the tactics they suggested were, marches, boycotts, and civil rights-type protests. Though their press conference received significant attention, their movement (if you could call it that) did not amount to much more than press coverage. [/foot]
The second idea we’ve got to embrace is that while having a black President is something many of us waited our entire lives for, the reality is that whatever responsibility the President has a right to expect from us should be returned. I don’t support the President as much as I support the populations he purports to support. Perhaps we should take responsibility for defending the President against racist attacks, if for no other reason than establishing the legitimacy of non-white citizens to run the country. But as Obama may very well be the closest thing to “our” President that we’ve ever had, his responsibility is to us…not the other way around. Cornel West, Tavis Smiley and a number of other black critics have caught a lot of flack from black elites—Tom Joyner disassociated himself from both West and Smiley after he felt they criticized the President too much—for their critiques. Critique is an important part of democratic practice. Particularly given our love of the dozens we should be much more attentive to the positive power of political critique.
The third idea we’ve got to embrace is the idea that in calling for solutions we need to do more than simply call for “more jobs”. In fact, our entire approach to black labor needs to be rethought given the economy. Similarly we need to rethink the way we talk about, analyze, and prescribe solutions for black families. And we’ve got to be innovative and creative.
And fourth we’ve got to understand that our attempts to take responsibility have to begin where we are, in our neighborhoods, in our cities and towns, in our states.
In the following pages I dig into various aspects of black politics, as an attempt to begin an honest conversation about what a 21st Century black politics should look like. How should we deal with the fact that an increasing number of black families are headed by single mothers? How can we use tragic events like the Trayvon Martin case to spur our political imagination? Given our high rates of unemployment, is there a way to rethink the role labor should play in our communities? What are we to do with the nigga? And because I not only approach this condition from the standpoint of a social scientist, but also from the standpoint of a victim (I’ve been foreclosed on, I’ve had my car repossessed, I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety), I combine my skills as a social scientist with my experience living in the world. In these pages you will most definitely not read me blame our circumstances on our lack of culture, on the fact that we’re not like [INSERT ETHNIC GROUP HERE], and on the fact that we don’t have enough black businesses. What instead you’ll find is a love of black people, and a deep appreciation for politics, for political action, and for the political imagination.