I know the official Black History Month celebration is drawing to a close in a few days, but I make a point to revel in black excellence and black achievement 7 days a week, 365 days a year. There’s so much out there that we weren’t taught in schools. Immerse yourselves, y’all.
2019 marks 400 years since black folks arrived on the North American continent in chains. And though the month of February is often used to lightly touch on a few of our most famous black citizens, I’m not writing this with an aim to play along and sugarcoat things with inspiring tales of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
This Black History Month has been a little rough for us, fellow Democrats. I can’t think of a time when blackface was more of a thing than when blackface was actually a thing. But, as with all trying times, this absolute dumpster fire of a crisis presents us with the space to take our own inventory, as well as with an opportunity to grow as a party.
Last year about this time, I spoke to my local Democratic Party about the need to enthusiastically celebrate black folks outside of the 28 day confines of the month of February because we’re your base voters. We turn out. We don’t vote against our own interests or let a single issue derail our ability to see the bigger electoral picture. We have a deep understanding of the historical disadvantages of our skin color and how our only path forward involves the tag team of mindful legislation and judicial intervention. For us, voting is survival. Going backwards could cost us our lives, and standing still isn’t an option. So, we hitch our wagons to the Democratic Party and keep on trucking in the direction of the Promised Land.
Yet, racism within the Democratic Party still thrives, and we don’t deal openly with it. Most of the time, we don’t even admit that it exists. We’re happy to take a detailed inventory of the Republican Party, manufacturing outrage, enthusiastically pointing fingers, and calling for swift action whenever a member of the GOP marches into racist territory. But I’m less concerned with the bigotry festering within the opposing team than I am dismayed and frustrated by the racism going unchecked and unacknowledged in my own.
What I’m suggesting we do as a party is take a long, hard, critical look in the mirror. Because the racist actions and rhetoric that we see on the other side of the aisle exist in our ranks as well, and it’s more prevalent than we care to admit.
Fixing a problem means first admitting that there is a problem.
This trouble goes deeper than black people holding pitifully few positions of substantive leadership within the Party. It goes beyond not placing issues that disproportionately affect people of color at the center of our collective efforts. This problem is the stubborn refusal to see the Party for what it is and, further, to see how we each uphold systems of oppression in word, deed, and intention.
Slavery is America’s original sin, and it has tainted everything from the 1600s to the present day, like an insidious soundtrack underscoring every aspect of our day to day lives. This music goes mostly unheard, but we march along to that rhythm nonetheless.
If you want to see the evidence of institutional racism, you only have to choose to really look:
The ongoing environmental crisis in Flint, Michigan.
The massive disenfranchisement of black voters in Georgia during the 2018 elections.
The radically different approaches to the crack epidemic in inner city ghettos versus the opioid crisis in rural, white America.
The fact that it took the State of Florida this long to finally shed the last enduring vestige of the Jim Crow era by voting down the lifetime disenfranchisement of former felons.
I’ve been told many times by fellow Democrats that issues directly impacting people of color need to be set aside so we can focus on more ‘important’ matters. When bringing up issues surrounding the intersection of race and gender, I’ve repeatedly heard that so-called ‘identity politics’ is a cancer that makes meaningful political discourse impossible. I’ve spoken with Democrats who proudly fly, wear, and display the confederate flag, and these conversations have not gone well once I pointed out their symbol’s inherent racism.
It’s heritage, they argue. It’s history.
On that point, we agree.
It’s a reminder of a time when people who looked like you owned people who looked like me. To pretend otherwise is to attempt to rewrite history, much as was done during the Jim Crow Era when so many statues honoring confederate soldiers were erected in public spaces to remind black folks that the chains that once dehumanized them haven’t disappeared. They’ve merely transformed from literal to figurative.
The 35 car pile up that’s currently ongoing in Virginia is a national embarrassment for our party, and for us as Americans. But it speaks to a deeper problem. This kind of racism is everywhere. Governor Northam isn’t an outlier. Nor is Attorney General Herring. They are simply visible reminders of what normally remains invisible.
Black people stand before white judges who hold racist beliefs.
They see white doctors who hold racist beliefs.
They get stopped by police officers with itchy trigger fingers who hold racist beliefs.
They send their little black children to school to be taught by white teachers who hold racist beliefs.
They join progressive causes and organizations that refuse to prioritize issues directly affecting their communities, all in the name of unity.
These racists tendencies are latent. They don’t reveal themselves draped in white Klan hoods. They don’t march down the street, proudly announcing their presence. These tendencies are sneaky, and they work by infecting our interactions, our thoughts, our institutions.
As Democrats, we need to do the hard work to understand this. We need to center the voices of marginalized groups in order to begin the hard work of dismantling systems of oppression.
We are the big tent party. We are the ones demanding equality for all, but we can’t even come close to achieving that goal until we deal with the skeletons in our own walk in closets.
This isn’t just work for Black History Month. This is an undertaking to which we must commit the remainder of our lives.
First, look within, and only then move to hold your neighbor accountable.
True change is intentional. It’s labor intensive. And it means spending less time pointing fingers at others and more time reflecting on ways that you can make things better for everyone. Black people are telling you what’s wrong. You just have to listen.
**This is adapted from a speech I gave to my local Democratic Party