CNN political commentator Van Jones recently issued a stark challenge to, and indeed indictment of, supposedly well-meaning White America, speaking in the wake of the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and in the midst of mass uprisings and protests responding to the never-ending violence against African Americans.
He states most directly that America’s biggest obstacle to achieving racial justice in America, to making Black lives matter, isn’t so much the overt hood-wearing or Confederate flag brandishing white supremacist but rather the “the white liberal Hillary Clinton supporter.” He made reference to Amy Cooper, the white woman who recently called the police claiming an African American man was threatening her life while she walked her unleashed dog in Central Park. Video evidence confirms the man was not threatening her all, only that she was playing the “race card,” the “threatened white womanhood card,” because she was angry that the man had asked her to obey the law and leash her dog while he watched birds in the designated area.
Jones sees Cooper as representative of the stance of white liberals who deny being racist, claim not to see color, but at a moment’s notice when, it suits their purpose, will avail themselves of the powerful and pervasive racist beliefs animating American life.
Jones’ analysis recalled similar critiques of liberal politicians levied by Malcolm X, and in doing so implicitly issued a challenge and a campaign road map for Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden.
In his speech “God’s Judgment of White America,” Malcolm X charged:
The White Conservatives aren’t friends of the Negro either, but they at least don’t try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the “smiling” fox.
So, the challenge to the Biden campaign is clear, to demonstrate to America, particularly African America, that his administration is not another “smiling fox.”
The Biden campaign must accept this challenge as real and substantial and attune itself to the litany of African American leaders, intellectuals, activists, and community voices who have launched this critique. Michelle Alexander, for example, famed author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, wrote a piece back in February 2016 titled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote,” in which she argued that Hillary Clinton was linked to the politics of Bill Clinton’s administration that decimated the Black community with policies ranging from his crime bill to his welfare reform legislation.
Biden and his campaign need to demonstrate that they are aware of these critiques and have assessed the shortfalls of the Democratic Party in addressing racism in American as well as their complicity with perpetuating and intensifying it. More than words, they need to show some concrete, material steps they are taking to address it.
How might they do that?
Well, Malcolm X, in the aforementioned speech, talks about how the liberal Kennedy administration basically took control of and weakened the civil rights movement, attempting to contain it. For example, he relates how a young John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, was censored from giving a militant speech that critiqued the Kennedy administration for its hypocrisy on civil rights.
Instead of seeking to control movements fighting for Americans’ civil rights, Biden needs to show he is willing to let these movements have not just representation within, but control of, these politics in his administration.
Biden’s campaign can only begin to convince African America, and the mass of Americans generally who have had enough of racial violence and the devaluation of the lives of people of color, if he can show he understands the way white liberal frameworks have constrained both conversation and policy-action on racial and civil rights issues and is willing to move beyond that framework.
He made some right but rather mild comments during the current uprisings over America’s ongoing murderous racial injustice, telling us:
“The pain is too immense for one community to bear alone. I believe it’s the duty of every American to grapple with it and grapple with it now.”
“With our complacency, our silence, we are complicit in perpetuating these cycles of violence. Nothing about this will be easy or comfortable, but if we simply allow this wound to scab over once more without treating the underlying injury, we’ll never truly heal. The very soul of America is at stake.”
While certainly a welcome contrast to Trump, there is nothing concrete here to persuade skeptical progressives and people of color that the Democratic Party can change or is changing to address these issues.
Biden should strongly think about putting together a cabinet now and selecting a Vice President that can articulate a concrete plan for seriously addressing racism in America and ushering in real democracy for all, which means racial democracy.
Just as those politicians, such as Jay Inslee, argued that climate change is a component of very issue and that it is the economy, Biden needs a team who will articulate economic, educational, environmental, housing, and healthcare policies, among many others, demonstrating the particular ways these policies address racial disparities and, to be most frank, racism.
He should invent a cabinet position to focus on racism in America, recognizing that racism damages our economy, the nation’s ability to educate its citizens, to treat their health, and so forth.
Bringing in people with grass roots experience, such as Stacey Abrams, who has done nothing but continue to fight against voter suppression and ensure the political participation of people of color as well as all Americans in our political process, would be a start.
If the state murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the latest in a long list, have shown enough is enough, earning the next Presidency should rightly involve showing us what the next administration will do to materially and concretely transform America toward a racially just society.Van
The likes of Van Jones, Michelle Alexander, and Malcolm X, among many others, have thrown down the gauntlet.
Biden must pick it up.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.