Possibly the only movement to force a response from presidential candidates in the election is Black Lives Matter. Activists pushed Bernie Sanders to develop a racial justice platform after disrupting his speeches. Activists in South Carolina and Philadelphia have challenged Hillary Clinton over her support for policies of mass incarceration and her “superpredator” comment in the 1990s.
Along with Latino and American Muslims, Black activists have been at the forefront of protests against Donald Trump when he holds rallies. They have challenged his racism often facing the threat of brutality from Trump supporters. Media pundits have lectured activists on whether it is effective to protest Trump, even as they suggest Trump’s spreading of bigotry has crossed a line.
For this week’s episode of the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast, hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola interview, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the author of “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.” She provides a historical context and sharp insights on what has unfolded. She talks with us about the Congressional Black Caucus, solidarity in the Black Lives Matter movement, and poverty among Black Americans. She addresses the issue of the Democratic Party and what kind of obstacle it presents to Black liberation—and much more from her book.
In the discussion segment, Khalek and Gosztola highlight the U.S. military’s decision to charge no officers with crimes for the bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz. They briefly talk about the storming of parliament by Iraqis. Then, the hosts discuss Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech, and the next phase of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president.
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Below is a partial transcript.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: I really appreciated the chapter in your book, “Black Faces In High Places,” which contains a history of the evolution of the Congressional Black Caucus. Just this past week, Representative Donna Edwards lost in the Senate primary in Maryland. The Congressional Black Caucus refused to endorse her. Would you briefly address what happened and talk about what the Congressional Black Caucus has become?
KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: I think that the lack of endorsement for Donna Edwards paired with the actual endorsement of Hillary Clinton—I think just shows the political direction of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has been somewhat predictable over the last several years. Part of what I’m arguing in that chapter, and more generally, is that this shouldn’t be surprising necessarily. I don’t think we should have this set of expectations that black politicians or any group of elected officials in the United States would somehow act differently than any other set of politicians. Which is to say that American politics are dictated by money and access to money.
The CBC, regardless of whatever its political origins may have been, were forced to adapt to the politics in Washington, DC, meaning in order to be influential you have to have access to capital, and you also have to participate in the never-ending negotiations of Congress. The U.S. Congress is not really setup—The American system in general is not setup to be functional. In civics class, we call it checks and balances, but it’s actually a constant recipe for gridlock unless there are never-ending negotiations. And throughout those negotiations and compromises come what is good for ordinary people.
And so, the CBC, its political wing, has been described by the New York Times as probably the most effective fundraisers in Washington, DC. They have been known to take money from Walmart, from McDonald’s, from many Fortune 500 corporations, and that has a political impact. I don’t think it’s coincidental that, if Walmart is one of your largest funders, that the Congressional Black Caucus, both its political wing and its actual congressional formation, have been quite silent or remarkably quiet about the campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. And those things shouldn’t actually be surprising to people, that there are political consequences to fundraising efforts and that sort of thing.
It’s become sort of more on display for the general public more recently, but this has been the direction of the Congressional Black Caucus for many years now.
RANIA KHALEK: When you talk about the Congressional Black Caucus, you mention in your book that there’s been this black middle class that’s been cultivated, and so would you say that Congressional Black Caucus represents that?
TAYLOR: I think coming out of the 1960s there was a concerted effort to bring at least a layer of African Americans into the “mainstream.” Part of this included creating greater access to higher education. It included creating greater access to home ownership, to state and other government jobs. But also a part of it included creating a situation where the Democratic Party was seen as a legitimate arena for black politics in a way that it had not previously.
There was an effort to increase the number of black women and youth delegates in the Democratic Party and to really redirect black politics into the party in different manifestations; so in local elections but also on the national level. I think that the Black Caucus developed out of that fervor in the 1970s, and it is certainly influenced by the political insurgency that is happening across Black America in the 1960s and 1970s. But as the movement begins to go into decline, the CBC adapts to the political environment as any group of people would, and they begin to adhere more closely to the low stakes, conservative narrow outlook of Congress in general, which usually includes getting as little as you can for very little in return.
I think that the CBC’s development is an outgrowth of that kind of political perspective from the ruling elite coming out of the 1960s and 1970s.
KHALEK: Going from that, you have this section of your book, where you cite Tim Wise as the example, because he embodies the example of the opposite of economic reductionism. The idea is that socialism cannot do anything about racism, and it’s like this anti-Marxist argument that attributes everything to White supremacy and takes class out of the equation. And I love the way you dismantle that argument.
TAYLOR: It’s a very popular argument, the kind of idea that, one, that there is a universal White experience in the United States so that class doesn’t actually factor into the experience of White people in this country. Two, that all White people benefit equally from racism in the United States. So that also means they won’t do anything in reaction to it. Three, that somehow this gets connected to socialism, which is caricaturized as a class reductionist political orientation that can’t even understand race let alone actually be involved centrally in the fight against it.
I think that in some ways those set of political arguments are based in very simplistic and common sense reflections of American society, based on a kind of superficial or impressionistic reading of American society. I don’t say that necessarily to minimize it because there is a way that common sense arguments reflect a certain reality that people experience on a day-to-day basis, but I think that part of what I’m trying to argue is we have to have a more complicated view of these things. We have to be able to understand and explain how and why there are twenty million White people, who are poor in this country, and what does that mean for the American system of governance. What does that mean when we talk about White supremacy?
In addition to that, it’s important to have working historical knowledge about the actual socialist tradition, and to understand that for most of the non-White people on the planet Earth, many of whom have been engaged freedom or liberation or struggle—which many all have being subjected to colonialism for much of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries—most of those struggles, people have gravitated toward socialist ideas of one variety or another. And so, in that way not only is socialism and Marxism not foreign to African Americans or most of the colored populations of the world, that these are fundamentally our politics. So, in this country, there’s quite a long tradition of Black involvement in socialist and revolutionary and Marxist organization and struggle; never quite a mass movement, but I think that’s in general. There hasn’t been a mass movement of socialists or Marxists in general in the United States, even though there’ve been thousands of socialists or Marxists organizing throughout most of the 20th Century.
But I would argue that probably one of the most influential revolutionary socialist organizations of the 20th Century was the Black Panther Party. I make this argument in the book that by the 1970s they’re selling close to 200,000 copies of their newspaper every week in the United States, and so the idea that socialism or Marxism is kind of outside the black political tradition doesn’t really make any sense.
KHALEK: I didn’t actually know this, but you mention in your book that the gap between white and black poverty has actually narrowed, even though black poverty has risen since the recession. But, yeah, so poor white people are doing worse. And not to relate everything to the current election, but it’s what’s going on right now. So, to see someone like Hillary Clinton trying to basically pit class against race in this way of saying breaking up the big banks isn’t going to reduce racism. It’s not going to reduce homophobia. It’s not going to reduce sexism so what’s the point?
I’ve never, at least in my lifetime, seen this argument take place other than the margins of the left that usually fight about this. Now it’s taking place on this national stage, and people are talking about it more. Given that’s taking place and then you’ve got on the other side, Donald Trump, who is gaining a lot of support from across the Republican political spectrum, but he’s also galvanizing a certain segment of the white population, which are white people who aren’t doing well. Does it seem like because of the dysfunction of the left there is this writing off of everybody who does not support Donald Trump that might be shortsighted a little bit?
TAYLOR: Sure. I think that the support for Trump and Bernie Sanders come from—Some of the support for Trump come from disgusting racist scumbags, but I think in general there is a failure to grasp in the mainstream media, for sure, the actual conditions that exist for most people in this country. That failure to grasp reality exists in mainstream politics. It exists in the mainstream media. So, in that sense, even though the left has a somewhat robust alternative media and that sort of thing, it still reflects that kind of dismissiveness of what is actually happening to most people in this country.
If you look at the state of the white working class over the last 45 years, the gap between the poor among white people compared to black people, it’s white people meeting black people on the way down, not black people somehow improving their situation and moving up. And so, that’s a real issue that I think the left in general has failed to really understand and engage with, like what that means and how do we relate to that and how do we organize that.
So, in some ways, these two campaigns, the Sanders campaign in particular, have tapped into a general disgust in this country among ordinary people of the growing influence and wealth of the richest people and the corporations in this country, but also the situation with millennials, where you have a generation of people who have no future and they know it—the prospect of graduating, if you’ve even gone to college, with sixty to eighty thousand dollars worth of debt and no job available that you can even imagine helping you afford that and the jobs that are available are dead end jobs.
This whole notion of the American Dream, part of which included the next generation would always do better than the generation that preceded it, doesn’t really exist anymore. And so, I think that what the Sanders campaign represents and even that portion of disillusioned people that have just no sense of what to do with that and have gravitated toward Donald Trump, really should encourage the left to raise its horizons. I mean, there have been all these polls of numbers of people, who either reject capitalism or are questioning it, that are open to socialism. The fact that Bernie Sanders could actually run as a socialist and not be effectively red-baited by the media or Hillary Clinton out of the race is astonishing.
I mean, it really is an astonishing turn of events in this country, and so this is really a time to figure out how to relate to that sentiment and to really wrap around what is actually happening to working class and ordinary people across the spectrum in the United States because it’s a devastating picture beyond all the happy talk of the mainstream media about economic recovery. It is a disaster for ordinary people in this country right now.