Black America was celebrating Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election when the economic recession hit. By 2011, black America had lost 53 percent of its wealth, while today 1 in 3 black children live in poverty — compared with 1 in 10 white children.
African-Americans are still reeling from a mortgage crisis that claimed nearly a quarter-million of their homes, and from double-digit unemployment rates, hundreds of shuttered and failing schools, and the disillusionment of unrealized progress in a country presided over by a black president.
Instead of becoming a hopeful post-racial nation, America has confronted a series of videotaped encounters between police and unarmed blacks that suggest the extent to which race still matters. Angry protests over racial injustice coupled with a recalcitrant Congress underscore how Obama’s election failed to quell — and may have actually inflamed — racial tensions.
Into this paradox enters Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. with his book “Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul,” a take-no-prisoners polemic against Americans’ steadfast refusal to acknowledge the elephant in the nation’s living room: “the practices and habits of white supremacy” that he says have “ensured that white people would benefit and black people would struggle.”
Glaude, who teaches religion and African-American studies, argues that neither the election of a black president nor the rise of exceptional blacks such as Oprah Winfrey has fundamentally changed the habitual valuing of white lives over others that is integral to the American character. This value gap, Glaude argues, helps explain glaring disparities between black and white schools, neighborhoods, unemployment, infant mortality and incarceration rates, and the unprosecuted killings of unarmed blacks by those charged to protect them.
Equally glaring is the normalization of these disparities — a silent acceptance of systemic and stark racial inequality as an indelible trait of American democracy. “When we understand American democracy and white supremacy are inextricably linked,” Glaude writes, “we can see how tortuous our efforts have been to accommodate the value gap.”
In Glaude’s view, perpetual delusion about American exceptionalism and an uncanny ability to fetishize democracy while sustaining racial inequality keep many from confronting systemic forces at the very root of the American idea. Obama’s election, he argues, has actually spurred the unraveling of black gains by causing many — including some members of the Supreme Court — to believe that racial equality has been achieved. Therefore efforts to protect black voting rights, for example, are viewed as unnecessary.
Meanwhile, many of the institutions that have long buttressed black America — including historically black colleges, newspapers and churches — are collapsing while Americans appear inured to black suffering. Glaude argues that the problem is not the gap between our ideals and our practices, as many liberals maintain, but rather “our repeated failure to value all Americans.”
He argues that a pervasive white fear of black revenge for past sins, and a view that racial equality would reverse white advancement, have fueled the criminalization and dehumanization of blacks.
He singles out President Bill Clinton — whom “Toni Morrison had cheekily declared America’s first black president” — for blaming poor blacks for their plight and signing into law a crime bill that caused incarceration rates of poor brown and black people to skyrocket to unprecedented levels.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s welfare reform policies widened the gap between the black middle class and the poor. “All the while black liberal political elites, at least most of them, helped Clinton sell these policies to black voters,” Glaude says.
Neither is Glaude impressed with much of the civil rights establishment, whom he sees as working to bring blacks into the fold of American life without uprooting white supremacy. “This view enables us to hold simultaneously that the principles of freedom and liberty are already a part of American life, while we experience, over and over again, habits and practices that suggest otherwise.”
He favors more disruptive movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Rev. William Barber II’s Forward Together in North Carolina that openly challenge uncomfortable truths at the heart of American life without the palatable, deracialized rhetoric of party politics. Black Lives Matter eschews traditional patriarchal leadership, while Forward Together embraces queer, straight, young, old, liberal, conservative and multiracial people. Both boldly insist on an overarching moral vision that transcends party politics and disturbs the peace without sacrificing black interests.
Apparently discounting Bernie Sanders as a viable candidate, Glaude argues that presidential contenders in both parties are beholden to big business, and he counsels black Americans to vote for local candidates this year while leaving the ballot for president blank.
However, given an ardently conservative Republican field, some may find Glaude’s presidential election strategy too risky and his critique of Obama unduly harsh. And even Glaude — who at one point invokes Malcolm X’s riposte to “stop sweet talking them. Tell them how you really feel” — concedes that Obama never betrayed the racially moderate stance responsible for his election.
Although Glaude’s advice is primarily aimed at black Americans, others may find inspiration in his call for moral movements that challenge not only racial injustice but also the loss of livable wages, the widening gap between the rich and the rest, and a bankrupt political system that represents fewer of us.
Americans of all races and persuasions may find in “Democracy in Black” a clear path through the thicket of a dispiriting political status quo that, short of radical social movements, seems unlikely to serve a broad and noble public good. Like Obama before him, Glaude reminds us that change rests with us; that “we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”
“Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul” by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. (274 pages; Crown; $26)