America needs Donald Trump—this is what I said, with a straight face mind you, to several African-American brunch companions last weekend in Northeast D.C. No, I haven’t switched political parties, and no, I haven’t lost my mind, and no, I didn’t say this as a means of silencing this extremely loquacious bunch so that I might get a few words in edgewise (although, as I think about it now, that wouldn’t be a bad tactic to use in the future). After allotting them a reasonable amount of time to retrieve their respective bottom jaws from their laps, I asked that they allow me to explain myself.
Americans are interesting creatures, and unique from their foreign counterparts in many respects, but one trait I’ve found to be particularly endemic to Americans, much like our sometimes irrational optimism, is the sharp apathy we often show towards things that don’t immediately impact our pocketbooks.
It is this obsession with the “bottom line” that explains both the source of some of our most pressing national issues and, ironically enough, the prescription to alleviate them.
My grandparents’ generation figured this out and expertly put it to work in fighting the scourge of racism in the Deep South. Through trial and error they learned that meaningful, institutional social and political transformation that effectively reduces the establishment’s stranglehold on power is never given freely. And so, at length, they realized that the only way to get what they wanted was to align their social and political priorities with the economic interests of their adversaries. That’s right…they got all up in their oppressors’ pockets. Sorry…I know my rendering of how the civil rights movement gained traction isn’t nearly as dramatic as the story you learned in grade school, but the story of how blacks and their white supporters mortally wounded Jim Crow was primarily one of economic manipulation translated by gifted leaders into the flowery rhetoric of equality.
If you look back into the annals of this nation’s past, you will find that not a single group in American society has ever obtained any significant measure of political power without successfully manipulating economics to their advantage, and this reality goes a long way in explaining why African-Americans still lag behind other “interest groups” in obtaining that increasingly elusive American Dream.
So here’s my thesis: African-Americans will never, ever achieve lasting political power that is proportional to our demographic presence until we empower ourselves economically.
This is generally the part of my posts where I delve into some expansive historical diatribe, attempting to shed light on present circumstances by reference to the past. I’m not going to do that today (well, at least not immediately). I’ll get right to it. The so-called “black elite” in this country has a decision to make. Here’s the question members of that class must ask of themselves and each other: “Are we willing to stand by, comfortable in our own financial success (success, to be sure, which the vast majority of us have labored quite hard to attain) while millions of our brethren struggle, with no end in sight, in so-called ‘opportunity deserts.’” Put another way, is it okay simply to climb out of society’s dungeon and then neglect to send the rope back down to help the others—to give someone else the opportunity offered by some previous life saver?
Here’s the relevant news flash folks. Until we as a people unite behind the cause of black economic empowerment, we will be destined to depend on the scraps so-called progressive elected officials toss our way on those rare occasions when doing so doesn’t threaten some other more strategically important relationship with some other interest group.
Lean in a little closer now. Our current state is just as much a function of our failure to get our collective act together as it is a consequence of the neglect we’ve suffered at the hands of charlatan politicians—politicians, to be clear, who in many cases could never have been elected without our votes.
In his most recent book—an incisive commentary on the gap between the way blacks and whites are valued in this country and the racist habits that preserve this gap—Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. opines, “In 2008 and again in 2012, Obama sold black America the snake oil of hope and change.” Webster defines “snake oil” as follows: “something that is sold as medicine but that is not really useful or helpful in any way.” The suggestion here is that Obama pulled the wool over our eyes, and to some extent, hoodwinked us into believing in something—hope and change—that was substantively less than what it was touted to be. Is that really what happened?
I’ll tell you like I told Eddie last week. “Yes—and no.”
While I generally agree with Glaude’s rendering of the 2008 and 2012 forest, there’s an important tree requiring our attention. Barack Obama, a politician advised by experts whose sole task it was to secure his election, succeeded in doing what every smart politician seeks to do: sell a dream. The major difference between Barack Obama and all the other viable presidential candidates who took the time to reach out to black folks is that the hope and change Obama marketed was ultimately transformed into something ostensibly achievable in the eyes of black folks because Obama’s skin color looked a whole lot like their own. More than anything, we desperately wanted to believe that this time it was real. And so we eagerly and thoroughly credited his narrative of American sociopolitical transformation. We had agency. We chose to believe, and in doing so, given the relatively limited data we had on this freshman senator with an odd name, perhaps we were more than just a little naïve. Obama and his advisors were fully aware of all of this, and played the game to near perfection. But if the firm of Obama, Plouffe and Axelrod bamboozled black America in 2008 and 2012, African-Americans were willing, enthusiastic partners in the enterprise.
So no…I don’t blame Obama for peddling hope to black folks. I do blame him, however, for turning around after his election and telling black folks that they lacked standing to demand equal treatment amongst all the other interest groups fighting for his attention, famously calling on black folks in 2011 during the Congressional Black Caucus in D.C.—at a time when the black unemployment rate was twice the national average—to “[s]hake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.” It was at that time, if not before, that African-Americans should have definitely gotten the memo that Barack Obama was not the savior so many of us had hoped he’d be; that the hard work of transforming our society was still just that—ours; and it was at that time that we should have realized about our president, as Drake opines in his recent track “Feel No Ways,” that “There’s more to life than sleeping in and getting high with you.”
Perhaps, collectively, we should have let go of him to show ourselves what we could do…
The bottom line is this. We have to stop relying on politicians to do the heavy lifting we need to do ourselves in order to incentivize them to care in the first place. When you strip away the bells and whistles of the political process, you’ll see that any politician is capable of lying to secure your support. But if you lack the economic power to hold his or her feet to the fire—to keep them accountable—they, like this president, will do just enough to keep you from banging down the front door. Political Science, 101.
I don’t like Donald Trump very much—and the specter of a Trump presidency frightens me. As a candidate, he has shown himself to be, at best, a shameless political opportunist, and at worst, a purveyor of the kind of bigoted ideas aimed at dividing this nation on the basis of artificial distinctions without a difference we’ve spent the last half century trying to exterminate.
But I’ll tell you this right now, and you can take this to the bank and cash it (and this is why thoughts of President Donald Trump thrill me from time to time): if Donald Trump is elected the 45th president of the United States of America (and if states like North Carolina continue to pass blatantly discriminatory laws), we will likely start to see, on a more accelerated basis, a willingness among folks who generally stand apathetically on the political sidelines to take the kind of bold, transformative action my grandparents’ generation employed—folks like Muhammad Ali—when their backs were against the ropes.
Throughout this nation’s history, the perpetuators of the status quo have primarily shown a willingness to transform society only when absolutely necessary—when it becomes a practical, and often dire fiscal, necessity (to wit: allowing blacks to fight alongside their white counterparts in wartime, desegregating buses and lunch counters, and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation & the 13th Amendment, to name a few).
President Donald Trump. My God. I guess sometimes we must lie flat on our backs, and see ourselves standing before us, before we realize how truly ridiculous we looked while upright.
It would be easy, I suppose, to just sit back and say, “I’m good.” I graduated from Yale College, and Harvard Law School, and then I snagged a job at arguably the finest corporate law firm in the world. I’m good, right? If you believe that “I” and “We” are separable, and that one can long prosper without the other, you might answer “yes.” If that’s you, I’d urge you to think again—and open a history book or two.
It strikes me, from my extensive study of American history, that we’ve conveniently forgotten one critically important truth lying behind every single success story in our history: nothing comes from nothing, and nothing ever could. The reality is that Americans—white, black, Asian, Hispanic, purple and turquoise—have never achieved anything of substance all by themselves (though we like to think so). Perhaps it is because of the often outrageous, disgustingly insidious barriers we’ve had to overcome on the road to success that so many of the more fiscally successful blacks among us fail to turn around and stretch out a helping hand. But as a people, we can afford this no longer. As long as unarmed black boys are being shot dead in the streets with impunity, and their killers permitted to ride off into the sunset, we cannot afford this. As long as more than 40% of black children in our nation’s capital are born into poverty, we cannot afford this. “I’m good.” Tell that to MLK. Tell that to John Lewis, or Emmett Till, or Trayvon’s mom or to any of the millions of black folks in this nation’s long history who were beaten, terrorized or lynched for living while black.
It’s like my Godmother always reminds me—“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.”
These are more than just pretty words from the Bible…they chart the course to our political and social manumission.
The next time a cop kills another black boy on our streets, before making your way over to the next Black Lives Matter rally (and please do attend), make a donation to your local Boys & Girls Club or stop by and spend some quality time with a young boy or girl. And after you’re done protesting, sit down with a few others and think through intelligent ways to change the status quo by depriving the powers that be of the one thing that has moved them in the past: green paper. And then let’s ask the following questions again and again until we’re blue in the face: how are we investing in black and brown communities? Are we volunteering our time or writing checks to one or more of the many innovative organizations out there struggling to secure the resources needed to invest in black and brown communities, to help youth rise above the arbitrary circumstances of their birth? Are we investing sufficiently in HBCUs, the still critically important epicenters of creative thinking around race and economics? And what are we doing to make sure our young people have a decent place to call home and the ability to focus on figuring out that math problem from class that day instead of the conundrum of where the next meal is coming from?
Let’s stop being reactionary and instead act before disaster strikes…let’s prevent them from happening in the first place by giving young people the tools they need on the front end to avoid the black hole of the criminal justice system (or worse) on the other. We haven’t forgotten MLK, but somehow we’ve come to the conclusion, buttressed by the limited success of a handful among us, that our “now” is materially less urgent than his. Don’t fall for it—and remember that while chess and checkers are played on the same board, the rules are entirely different.
Wake up. Then stay woke, empower each other, invest in each other—and live to fight another day.