The Strange Fruit of a Politics of Inaction

As I watched the 44th president of the United States deliver his final State of the Union address this past Tuesday, I found myself drifting back to the night of his first speech as president-elect.  Yeah…that night was different, wasn’t it?  For the millions of change agents who’d just voted him in, that evening took on the attributes of a nationwide, quasi-religious revival as we tuned in to watch and hear the long-awaited American race savior preach the gospel of a new American experience.  Just take a moment to remember that moment.  Even for those of you who, like me, turned a skeptical ear to the not-infrequent claims rippling forth from that Election Night that we stood on the precipice of a post-racial America—whatever that means—that this was a time of unbridled, and mostly rational optimism cannot be denied.

But that was then.

Today, if President Obama is honest with himself and others, as perhaps he is in private conversations with family, close friends and top advisors, I’ll bet he’s not quite as hopeful about America’s future as he’d like us to believe.  Although his actions—and more often, inaction—at times might suggest otherwise, I know from his occasionally candid public forays into the mine-ridden topic of race that he understands with perfect clarity that African-Americans aren’t nearly as well off as most had hoped while gazing into the glimmering future portended by his historic November 2008 victory.

So what went wrong?  Hmmm…how can I explain?  Ever seen that George Clooney movie The Perfect Storm?  Without much exaggeration, I can report that many African-Americans have fared just as poorly over the last seven years as Clooney’s fishing boat, the Andrea Gail, in its final voyage.  And worst of all, African-Americans did the one thing we couldn’t afford to do, the one thing I never thought we’d even contemplate: give in to the fiction that demanding our president to work hard at alleviating the particularly insidious challenges we face would irreparably damage his presidency by stymieing his ability to bring about the broader change Democrats worked so tirelessly to make possible back in 2008.

So let’s talk about just a few of the things African-Americans got as a consequence of our failure to hold this president personally accountable to the folks who voted for him at a higher proportional percentage than any other group in America: disproportionately high unemployment numbers, near unconscionable home foreclosure rates, and a staggering number of unarmed black boys and men lying dead in our streets—some killed in broad daylight.  But to be clear, though he could have and should have served as a more forceful advocate for black issues, Barack Obama is not ultimately to be blamed for these bad facts.  Obama didn’t fire black folks or demand that corporations lay them off, Obama didn’t remove us from our homes for missing one-too-many mortgage payments, and he certainly didn’t murder anyone.  But I’d argue that our political inaction as a people over the last seven years emboldened those Americans who find life far more comfortable when African-Americans sit on the margins of the very society whose wealth our forefathers built free of charge…I mean, it’s true (#Facts as kids are fond of saying these days).

Meanwhile, we sit back and ask ourselves silly questions like, “How can it be that we’re worse off now after nearly eight years with a president who looks like us?”  For those of you still searching for the answer, I’d direct you to your local library—and please run, don’t walk.  There’s not much time.  Fair warning: you might need to take a week or more off from work or school because you’re going to need that much time just to scratch the surface of the answer to that question.  But since I’m a pretty nice guy, and because I’ve done a good deal of that reading already, I’ll give you a hint.  The answer to that question is the same as the answer to the following: “Why are all the black and brown people being pushed out of our major cities?”  Here’s the relevant news flash…wait for it…we’re just not valued the same.

Now I’ve got a question for you.  Did you vote in 2010?  Most of us didn’t.  If you must you can go ahead and take a look at the numbers, but that’s not necessary.  You need only look at what happened to the House and Senate in that election cycle.

In my humble opinion—humble, not uninformed—nothing was more devastating to the cause of black political and socioeconomic empowerment than our decision to spend that first off-year election cycle on the sidelines, just sort of hoping that Barack Obama—lest you forget, notwithstanding the Harvard Law degree on his wall, still a black man in America—would fix everything all by himself.  Our 2010 inertia is rendered even more perplexing in light of the generally known and accepted historical truth that American society has not once been transformed, particularly in the realm of race and civil rights, without the application of consistent, unyielding pressure on the forces of the status quo.

If the first seven years of the Obama presidency have fallen short of our expectations, and I believe the jury has rendered a decisive verdict on that question, we have ourselves to blame first.  The sad truth is that for most of his tenure, President Obama’s hands were tied securely behind his back; and although African-American hands didn’t fasten the knot, through our inaction and what at times amounted to outright delusions of grandeur regarding the mechanics of the political process in Washington, we unwittingly purchased and delivered up the rope.  Just a few days shy of MLK Day, I’m left wondering just what precisely my generation—and yes, some in my parents’—has learned from the intrepid action taken by our black AND white predecessors in the fight for civil rights and equality under the law.  Perhaps this friendly reminder will refresh your recollection, and maybe, at long last, spur you to act in a similar spirit of fearlessness: our slain angel, Martin Luther King, Jr., referred not to the fierce urgency of tomorrow, or of yesterday—but of NOW.  What, if anything, are we prepared to do now?

 

 

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11 thoughts on “The Strange Fruit of a Politics of Inaction

  1. Great post Mitchell, For a very long time it has been known that young people, people of color, and people of lower socioeconomic statuses have been less likely to vote, and local and federal government has done very little to help that problem, as my preferred candidate for 2016, Bernie Sanders, has mentioned time and again, election day should be a national holiday, so that more people will not have to choose between a day of pay or doing their civic duty. Also, there is a disproportionate number of men (and women) of color in prison or living with a felony on their record, who (depending on what state you live in) are not allowed to vote. In 11 states in this country, you can do your time, and still never be able to vote again, this is a terrible injustice that further disenfranchises large numbers of people of color. I think we would all agree there are many ways we could make voting an easier process, but since that has not been in the interest of the vast majority of candidates we have seen little improvement (and some sabotage, ahem Alabama, Florida).

    In the last two presidential elections we have seen more young people, and people of color come out for presidential elections, as a result of marketing “rock the vote”, etc. But very little growth in local elections, and sure having a democratic president who gets it, is great, but what can he get done with a militant, conservative, congress?! But i digress, you covered the topic well… We need to vote in all of the elections, not just the presidential, and work against the odds and history to become a group that’s causes must be considered by any leader looking to be elected to office in this country.

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    1. Jamie,

      You raise a critically important corollary to my voting point: in many cases, we don’t even have the opportunity to cast ballots, and not just because of past criminal records. In the years since the Election of 2008, as you correctly allude to, the legislatures of several southern states—including the state of North Carolina to which I have close personal and familial times—have passed legislation making it harder, not easier, to vote in order to extirpate the phantom problem of rampant voter fraud, going so far as to reduce the duration of so-called “early voting” periods because minority groups—who tend to cast votes for Democrats—have disproportionately high early voting rates.

      What’s clear is that our generation’s civil rights battle, should we choose to fight, will take place on the state and local levels where the forces of the status quo have hunkered down and aim to erase a half-century of blood, sweat and tears. But of course, recognition of the problem is but the first step in bringing about the societal transformation we talk about…there’s no substitute for action. Don’t let the conversation end here. Continue to speak out, keep agitating and make folks uncomfortable—because if we do not, we cannot be surprised or even complain when the enemies of progress do that which they have always done and can only be expected to do.

      Peace and love Jamie.

      -D. Mitch

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  2. I think you have a point, though your tone tends to suggest that this inaction you speak of over the last seven years is somehow new or more intense than before. If that’s the case, I’d have to push back here. I’ve had many a conversation with ppl about how much our parent’s generation actually dropped that particular ball. Their parents fought tooth and nail for a modicum of rights, and feeling as if winning a battle was winning the war, our parents became complacent. If anything, I’d say that our generation, as products of our parents, was born into this legacy of complacency. Thus the blame for the negative consequences any kind of ‘inaction’ does not lie solely at our feet. Or at least, it didn’t. I think your last rhetorical question was the most important one: what are we prepared to do now, given that we can acknowledge a few inherited flaws. The buck stops at that acknowledgment. If we don’t became active a la our grandparents’ generation, then, I’d argue, there will be no one else to blame when “they come for us,” as they say.

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    1. Well said Ryan. I guess the question is whether we’re willing to pick up the slack and take what’s ours. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but I’m not sure we have time to figure out the precise percentages. Let’s just move forward, vote like hell, and take control of the political process every single cycle. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ryan and please keep the conversation going…

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  3. Great read. Unfortunately that feeling of hope from 2008 led to the false belief that the country fully backed any initiative the President would put forward. We had to be reminded that opposing forces would not simply go away quietly. For many lawmakers, their sole job in life was to oppose the President at all costs. As someone pointed out recently, having both Congress and the Senate in Democratic control ultimately may have hurt the cause since the President didn’t build enough relationships with any Republicans. He simply didn’t need them at the time. But oh how things change. Amazing what one election cycle can do.

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    1. It is amazing, isn’t it, how one man caused us to temporarily forget 300 years of American history. At the same time, our 2008 amnesia is a tribute to the substance and power of the hope Barack Obama inspired in our hearts, and a reminder that in America, anything is possible—we just have to keep our feet on the ground, and never forget where we’ve been. Thanks for the comment. Insightful.

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  4. Interesting but flawed analysis…. The destruction of the Black Male as a leader, and as a head of a household, is the TEA PARTY”goal!!!! Your evaluation of CONTESTED/Blocked/Obstructed issues, is sophmoric, and indicative “Surface Thinking”!!! The President of the United States does NOT operate in a VACUME!!!! The PARTISAN DIVIDE IS a result o Mitch McConnell, Ryan, Cruz, and the Tea Party Base of ANGRY WHITE MALES!!!!!! SO WHAT!!!???? You should be spending time & brain matter highlighting the accomplishments of the MAN WHO STOPPED THE DEVASTATION of the BUSH/CHENEY/ROVE & Rumsfeld DEBACLE!!!!

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    1. Billy C!!!,

      I’m not sure I disagree with much of what you have to say. I also fully recognize and acknowledge the challenges our president has faced from folks who had every intention, from day 1 of his presidency-and Mitch McConnell made this plain-to block as much of this president’s agenda as they could. Additionally, the essential premise of my argument is that the president does indeed not operate in a vacuum. I suppose our principal difference lies in our divergent prescriptions for fixing what’s broken. I believe we should take the reigns ourselves and exercise the power our democracy affords us while continuing to shed a bright light on the areas where our democracy fails us all. Now that I think of it, I’m not so sure I saw a solution in your comment. What would you have us do?

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    1. Mic drop. It is undeniable that Barack Obama’s presidency has transformed America. Consider this: there are young children who have never known a president that wasn’t black…that’s powerful stuff. My hope for the black community is that we won’t settle merely for the undeniable greatness residing in Barack Obama, but reach further and leverage his greatness into something that permanently transforms this nation, so that we can finally utter with fortitude, without even a hint of hesitation, the words upon which our nation was birthed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Thank God for Barack Obama, but we could have and can do so much more…

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