How the Democratic Party Strangled Black Politics

How the Democratic Party Strangled Black Politics

Nothing changes on the electoral scene, and little at the grassroots level, unless the structure of capitalist hegemony over political discourse in the U.S.  — the corporate duopoly — is broken.


Long, long ago — in the late 1970s, to be more precise – I spent a Washington-to-New York AMTRAK ride talking politics with Black Detroit Congressman John Conyers, whom I considered a friend. The Congressional Black Caucus numbered only sixteen members at that time, less than a third its current size, and Conyers was among its most left-leaning members, along with the Bay Area’s Ron Dellums and Gus Savage, the former labor activist from Chicago. There were no right wing members of the Black Caucus.

Since Conyers had no problem describing himself as a “socialist,” and routinely won re-election with more than 80 percent of the vote in his overwhelmingly Black district, I asked him why he remained in the Democratic Party, which was – then, as now – dominated by warmongering servants of capital. Conyers seemed shocked at the question. “The party would destroy me if I ran outside of it,” the Congressman replied, a look of horror on his still-youthful face, as if I had proposed that he go swimming in a shark tank.

I remember that conversation as the moment when a light went out in my head, leaving a deep foreboding. My own journalistic project, which I dubbed, “Merging the Media, the Masses and the Movement” was riding high. “America’s Black Forum,” the first Black nationally syndicated news interview program on commercial television, which debuted the same week as Alex Haley’s Roots miniseries, was making U.S. and global news every week and consistently beating Issues and AnswersFace the Nation and Meet the Press in the Washington, DC ratings, despite — or more likely because of — its very Left perspective.. My weekday employer, the Mutual Black Radio Network, provided hourly newscasts to 85 radio stations, about the same number of affiliates as claimed by our competition, the National Black Network. Together, the two networks reached almost the whole of Black America — a truly national Black information system.

Vietnam had been fully liberated a few years earlier, and Marxist-led movements were triumphing in the former Portuguese colonies of southern Africa, with decisive assistance from Cuba — victories that were savored and shared by the still-active remnants of the African American liberation movement.  The CIA had just been bludgeoned by the Church Committee of the Senate for its role as global hit man, followed by months of House committee hearings on the domestic assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and others. It looked like the spooks had lost their mojo.

But within a decade, one of the radio networks that had filled Black America with hourly news broadcasts would be gone, and the other vastly shrunken. Ultimately, Black radio news would go extinct, replaced by pockets of uniformed talk that young people mistake for news. The Soviet Union tottered and then disintegrated, depriving global socialist movements of sanctuary, aid, arms and international infrastructure. Republican Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 campaign in blood-stained Neshoba County, Mississippi, so that every cracker in the country would know where he stood on the color line. Reagan then proceeded to systematically roll back the New Deal and Great Society, a vandalization joyously joined by the next Democrat to win the White House, Bill Clinton, who kicked off his campaign in the Klan’s hallowed ground of Stone Mountain, Georgia. Lest anyone mistake what time it was, campaign photos showed “New Democrat” Clinton with a backdrop of Black prisoners in chains.

Soon, half the Congressional Black Caucus would say Yes to a “crime” bill that greatly accelerated the Mass Black Incarceration regime that was already in high gear when John Conyers and I had our late-Seventies Amtrak chat. Back then, there was no identifiable pro-corporate faction within the Black Caucus because labor union contributions made up the bulk of members’ campaign chests. But by the turn of the 21st century, Black incumbents were no longer “safe,” as the corporate Right set its sights on Black Democratic districts, ousting Alabama’s Earl Hilliard and Georgia’s Cynthia McKinney in 2002, replacing them with Black rightwing Democrats, and almost installing the private school voucher-pushing Cory Booker as mayor of Newark, New Jersey. By 2005, the Congressional Black Caucus was voting with the corporate telecoms in greater proportion than the Democratic House Caucus as a whole – and the next year the corporate Right succeeded in putting Booker in Newark’s city hall.

John Conyers and about ten other “left-liberals” — hardly anyone mentioned the word “socialist” anymore — were a distinct minority in a Caucus that had swollen to more than 40 members (now 53, plus two senators). Black America had achieved numerical representation in the lower chamber of Congress roughly equal to its percentage of the U.S. population, but bearing no resemblance to Black America’s actual political makeup. The “representationist” imperative of Black politics — the desire that Black people be “represented” in all aspects of U.S. society — had triumphed, but Black left, self-determinationist politics had lost its voice, almost entirely.

When the racialized disaster capitalist Katrina apocalypse uprooted much of Black New Orleans in 2005, Black America was horrified, outraged and ready to fight. Virtually every Black church, civic and social organization sprang forward with a Katrina outreach, aid or protest project. A true national Black political mobilization was possible, but was smothered by the corporate-dominated Democratic Party, which has infested every nook and cranny of the Black polity. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, fearing that a Black national uproar over Katrina would harm the Party’s chances of winning control of the House in 2006, not only refused to hold Democratic hearings on Katrina, but ordered the Black Caucus to boycott Republican Katrina hearings, as well. When Rep. Cynthia McKinney – who had briefly recaptured her Atlanta seat — violated Pelosi’s edict, she was shunned and isolated by most of the Black Caucus, including John Conyers, who hoped to assume the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee in a Democrat-controlled House.

Conyers got his chairmanship with the Democratic sweep in 2006, but Black people were now deep into their fourth decade without a grassroots movement. Two generations of Blacks no longer had even a memory of what a mass movement looks like, or how to make a demand. But the worst was yet to come with the advent of the First Black U.S. President. His election was the ultimate achievement of Black “representationist” politics, ironically made possible by the geopolitical disaster in Iraq, which required that U.S. imperialism put on a radically different face (in symbolic racial, not political terms). For the first time since the post-civil rights era, Black Democrats abandoned their old stand-by “Marshal Plan for the Cities” so as not to encumber Barack Obama with even a pro-forma demand. It appeared that Black politics, at least of the kind practiced within the bounds of the Democratic Party, was dead – as if senatorial candidate Obama was being prophetic when he told the 2004 Democratic convention, “…there is no Black America, only the United States of America.” (Now that Obama has left the White House, Black Democrats have resurrected the “Marshal Plan.”)

Obama proved, in the flesh, that any Black politician deemed acceptable as president by the corporate chiefs of the Democratic Party can get away with more crimes against African Americans and the world in general than white presidents. Obama continued George Bush’s wars and started some of his own, completed the military occupation of the African continent, and fielded vast legions of jihadists as U.S. imperial foot soldiers in Libya and Syria, while rescuing the financial criminal class from the ruin of their own creation. He did absolutely nothing to save Black folks, who lost half their collective wealth.  Any white Democratic president would probably have responded more positively to the Black economic disaster, if only because Black people would have brought more pressure on a white chief executive.

But a change of color cannot arrest the objective decline of the U.S. imperial order, at home and abroad. Organized discontent did manifest itself in the Obama era, directed at “the 1%” and the cops, the domestic army of Black occupation. The mobilizations of the Occupy Movement and what came to be known as Black Lives Matter both immediately collided with cops nominally overseen by Democrats. Occupy was shut down in 2011 on Obama’s orders in coordinated actions of mostly Democratic local governments and the FBI, while most of the sites of Black anti-cop protests were also Democrat controlled. Although the Democratic National Committee made a show of endorsing Black Lives Matter, Black Democrats fought tooth and nail to derail the first Black grassroots movement in two generations. But thanks to these two movements, the legitimacy of the rule of the rich and their police – and of Black Misleadership Class operatives like Al Sharpton – was severely eroded.

In the 1980s, Rep. John Conyers held hearings around the country, tracking police brutality. Today’s Black Caucus sleeps, eats and votes with the enemy. Eighty percent of the Caucus voted in 2014 to continue the Pentagon’s infamous 1033 program that distributes military weapons, gear and training to local police – a program that President Obama increased 24-fold. Last year, 75 percent of the Black Caucus supported a bill to make police a protected class and treat assaults on cops as hate crimes.

The more Black Democrats get elected to Congress, the worse they getExcept for Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar, every Black Democrat elected in 2016 and 2018 is a party hack and servant of capital.

Thanks to the Occupy Movement, an old white leftish politician found his voice and ran for president in 2016 on a New Deal reform program he called “socialist,” putting the term back in polite conversation. But you can’t “occupy” the oligarch’s party; you can only be co-opted by it. The best thing that can come out of Bernie Sanders’ second attempt to force the Democratic Party to disobey the Lords of Capital would be a breakup of the Party, leading to significant desertions of leftish activists and rank and file. Nothing changes on the electoral scene, and little at the grassroots level, unless the structure of capitalist hegemony over political discourse in the U.S.  — the corporate duopoly — is broken.

Sanders’ platform – Medicare for All, $15 wage, free public college, Green New Deal – is supported by super-majorities of 80 percent and more. These reforms would bust the austerity regime wide open, an absolutely unacceptable outcome for a ruling class that is trying to prepare the people for a future of mass precarity. That’s why the Lords of Capital have allowed/instructed Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and others to pretend to support Medicare for All and other Sanders proposals — to confuse and dilute super-majority sentiment. Cory Booker took more money from Big Pharma than any other senator in 2014, and will return to his sugar daddies’ pockets when his 2020 election season diversion is over.

If four out of five voters support Medicare for All, then upwards of 90 percent of Blacks want to see the program passed into law. But only 32 of the 53 Black lawmakers in the House have signed on to Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s  companion measure to Sander’s Senate bill. And half of them are lying, following Booker’s lead, as an election season scam.

A party that works for the 1% must lie all of the time – but collapses once we stop believing them.

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