As I watched the Ferguson debacle unfold, there was no point at which I was surprised. That an unarmed man could be killed by a policeman is no surprise. That the law largely gave that policeman a pass is also not a surprise. It is a hard thing to admit, but these surprises no longer push my emotional buttons; this is the America we live in, this is the America that has always been, and barring some wholesale changes, it is the America that will persist.
What is more disappointing, though, is the collective black response. We are, as a people, precisely as predictable in our responses to racism as the white establishment is in its defenses of it. We will march, we will say we’re not going to take it, and we’ll huff and stomp our feet. Conservative whites will wait us out, white liberals will don the appropriate vestments of outrage and dance in beat to the tune of lamentation. But the play will end and the music will stop, and white conservatives will resume their chicanery and white liberals will return to their lives comforted in the knowledge that they fought the good fight but relieved that their performance came at no actual cost.
When I think of Ferguson, I’m not really angry at Officer Wilson. White Southern cops are going to do what they do. It isn’t right, it shouldn’t be constitutional, but it is entirely predictable. That black folks haven’t found a way to inoculate themselves must be seen as our collective failure- or, at least our collective mission. And, to be clear, I do not have it in mind to change the hearts and souls of white folks. In fact, if I were to explain the source of misdirected black action, it would be to say that we’ve become too obsessed with the idea of fixing white people. If we are to find justice, happiness, and success in America, black people cannot see themselves as the instrument of white redemption. The black leadership that is given a platform in these moments almost without exception falls into this trap. Whether talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ pathetic begging for reparations, or the empty lamentations of [insert name of black person on MSNBC’s jive-for-cash payroll], we have become a silly and gelding people that must occasionally be placated, but never respected.
The basic processes of black protest are anachronistic tactics that made sense at another time to fix another kind of problem. We march, we sing, we protest in vague sorts of ways. These tactics worked in the 1950s and 1960s because America was at a particular kind of place in its history. Fresh from a war against purveyors of genocidal racism, and newly self-crowned as the international defenders of liberty, the sort of cognitive dissonance that poor black marchers produced in white minds vis-à-vis the American Democratic Dream was unacceptable to the white mainstream, and thus was successful in bringing about specific kinds of changes.
Now, though, we exist within a new narrative moment. The history of the Civil Rights Movement is now coopted into the American mythology, such that we create a new retroactive continuity that says America was always striving to be the thing that Dr. King wanted us to be, and in that moment On the Mountain we all –together, of course- discovered our authentic Americanness. It is an idea fulfilled, and not a problem half-solved. Moreover, we’re not a postwar America anymore, and appeals to white morality will not have much gravity. In the mainstream American imagination, the Cold War and its call for unified defense of democratic ideals has been replaced by the realities of neoliberal globalism that embraces the Law of the Wolf. In the former paradigm, the black problem could be seen as a failure to fulfill our highest national aspirations; in the latter paradigm, the failure is understood as blacks failing to compete adequately in a system that is largely meritocratic.
In other words, if you’re looking for cardio, join a march. If you’re looking to perhaps get on television, hold a sign, put your hands up, or go through whatever racial Macarena that the present crisis requires as a shibboleth of caring about the cause. This may give you a feeling of release, togetherness and joy. But, don’t delude yourself: you’re not doing shit. In fact, these moments serve to undermine the kinds of things that blacks should be doing. This is because these often racially integrated affairs give the perception that we’re all in this together, that my justice is tied inextricably to yours, and that only cooperative action can save the Negro. These are falsehoods.
To be clear, I am not saying that blacks should view whites as enemies. We are not enemies, nor should we be. Rather, my point is that blacks need to acknowledge the game that is being played. Democracy is not a love-in or a means through which to express mutual admiration. It is not for mollycoddles, and it is not for gelding Negros begging massa’ for reparations. It is a game played with sharp elbows in which all sides fight –within rules- for what they want. Too often, blacks and their leaders have brought a dozen roses to a knife fight and act surprised when they get stabbed. Bring a fucking knife.
I’ll clarify this point with two examples- one directly germane to Ferguson, Missouri, and one more general. People protesting in Ferguson missed the point entirely. They hoped that the law would give them justice, but in the lead-up to the announcement they never acknowledged that the law was itself unjust- or at least flawed. In Missouri, as in most states, the standards for an officer shooting a citizen are incredibly lenient. Black protesters had to hope that white public officials would interpret the law in a manner beyond the words themselves in order to infuse some broader justice into the law. That was naïve. Now, protest should not be directed at making white people understand that these sorts of injustices happen all the time, and that we need to reinterpret the laws; rather, our focus needs to be on fixing the laws so that it is exceedingly difficult to justify any police shooting, and basically impossible to justify lethal force used against an unarmed civilian. If you depend entirely on the presence of just and kind people for the law to work justly, you will be disappointed. However, if you structure the law in a manner that only abject dishonesty can circumvent the proper operations of justice (in the broader and higher sense of the word), then you are much more likely to find success.
But how to accomplish this? At the state level, this may be hard, but at the federal level blacks have more potential for power than they realize. The problem has largely been inept and corrupt leadership that does not fight for causes important to blacks. But, suppose that the 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus declared that none of its members would caucus with the Democrats unless the Democrats pledged to 1) peg federal support of police departments (or even municipal spending more generally) to acceptance of much stricter national guidelines for police shootings, use of deadly force, and police training; 2) the creation of a truly robust system of full federal scholarships for anyone who graduates in the top quartile of high schools in poor areas; and 3) a massive commitment to improving the quality of teacher training in urban and poor schools.
The 2018 elections set up nicely for Democrats, and they are likely to win back control of the Senate, and perhaps the House, but control of the Senate becomes less likely without Sen. Booker’s support, and control of the House is impossible without those 43 black Democrats. The CBC would have to be willing to sit by while the GOP controlled the House or perhaps both houses of Congress, but refusing to caucus would remind Democrats of the indispensability of the black vote and move black voters from a population that is dismissed because they are reliable to a population that must be dealt with. The CBC should meet at least every few years in order to produce a brief set of demands that have to be items #1, #2, and #3 for any Democratic administration, or else the CBC would sit out the caucusing vote and withhold support from other agenda items.
The impediment to this happening is that, almost without exception, the current crop of black Democrats are a mix of lapdogs, corrupt machiners, and folks who likely could be induced away from a bloc vote with the promise of some committee chairmanship or the like. They are profoundly useless, and in almost every instance painfully stupid and self-serving. But, a collective strategy aimed at forcing black Democratic candidates to pledge their support for a caucus boycott–as opposed to, say, marching in the middle of the street and blocking Lincoln Tunnel- could actually produce a discrete set of victories.
Sadly, blacks have gotten it into their collective heads that our Higher Mission is the fixing and salvation of white folks. I bear no white person any ill-will, but I also understand that in a democracy there are factions, and in American sometimes those factions are racial. This is just the truth of things. Those things that White America want often are at odds with what Black America sees as fair, and vice-versa. Our focus, then, must not be on making whites *want* to give us what we want, but rather to make them understand the high costs of refusing to give us what we need.
It is an odd way to end this little rant, no doubt, but I’ m reminded of a moment in the famous Dark Knight comic book series. Bruce Wayne marvels at Superman and declares, “it is difficult not to think of him as a God. And how fortunate we all are that it does not occur to him.” Black folks are not gods, but we possess much greater power and ability to get what we need and want than we have exploited. Every day, whites in power –both liberal and conservative- are fortunate that this reality has never occurred to us.