Democracy In Black


I started reading Democracy In Black right after I finished The New Jim Crow, and in many ways, it was a logical transition: Democracy In Black updates many of the topics of racial injustice explored in The New Jim Crow six years ago, tracing their courses up to the Black Lives Matter movement, and it expands on the personal, cultural, and political revolutions necessary to end racial injustice.

It also differs from The New Jim Crow in two important ways that make the books complement each other well: the primary focus of The New Jim Crow is obviously mass incarceration, whereas the primary focus of Democracy In Black is largely economic inequality. Indeed, the book starts with a devastating exploration of “The Great Black Depression” beginning in the Clinton years.

The second important difference is that where The New Jim Crow focus on Jim Crow as the primary example of a system of racial injustice, Democracy In Black focuses on white supremacy.

Framing contemporary racial injustice in terms of white supremacy is important and timely.

While many believe that our society contains systematic racist structures, they have trouble seeing this as a result of white supremacy because they see white supremacy only as a conscious belief that white people are superior to other people, and fail to see its more subtle and political forms.

Glaude defines white supremacy in perhaps the clearest and most succinct terms I have heard:

White supremacy involves the way a society organizes itself, and what and whom it chooses to value…(It is) a set of practices informed by the fundamental belief that white people are valued more than others. (30)

From this, Glaude develops the idea of the “value gap” – a gap between how much America values the lives of white people and black people.

Glaude argues, rightfully, that America would not stand for the racial disparities in police violence, mass incarceration, and wealth, if we valued black and white lives equally, similarly to how Michelle Alexander argued in The New Jim Crow that if the drug war were being waged in white suburbs, it would be stopped tomorrow.

Remedying the problem of racial inequality in this country, then, involves ridding ourselves of the value gap. (34)

As Glaude points out, we have trouble seeing that our culture values back lives less because we internalize negative assumptions about black people that are the result of a history of racial injustices, the present-day effects of which we minimize or ignore.

Glaude calls this process “disremembering,” from the great Toni Morrison novel Beloved. He argues that we disremember the history of racism in America when we minimize that all the structures of this nation were built on a fundamental belief in white supremacy, and ignore how that disadvantages black people to this day.

When we disremember an event, an egregious moment in the past, we shape how we live in the present. (46)

Glaude convincingly argues that racial injustice persists in many of Americas structures, from policing and mass incarceration, to housing and labor markets.

He argues that by minimizing the effects of institutional racism, we begin to believe that the negative consequences it creates, such as poverty and high crime, are the result of something inherent in black people, rather than the result of injustice in our democracy.

We see black and white sides of town and internalize certain assumptions about what that separation means, but rarely are those assumptions informed by the history of deliberate policies that created a dual housing market and and residential segregation. We simply live where we live. We see double-digit black unemployment and infer things about black people from this statistic, but we rarely invoke the history of unfair labor practices, the expulsion of black people from labor unions, or the dual labor market that tracked certain folks to certain jobs. (57)

He masterfully elucidates a history of government inaction, largely motivated by white supremacy, as the primary reason this persists.

As white people have historically been the largest voting block in America, disproportionately so because of racist laws, politicians have pandered to them, often by promising (and delivering on the promise) that they would not threaten white supremacy, that black people would never be properly compensated for historical injustices, through reparations or otherwise.

He notes that “white fear” of black people is the cause of much racial injustice today – both because of the daily negative assumptions about black people that can turn deadly, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, to the more damaging white fear that black people will get preferential treatment in order to create racial justice in our Democracy.

“The fear of white fear distorts political behavior,” he argues (88), meaning that politicians are afraid to enact policies that they know may bring racial justice to American democracy because they fear the backlash from white communities being angered over the prospect of losing their white privileges.

Glaude convincingly describes how the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King have become a pawn in this game of political chess, as politicians have framed the victories of the civil rights movement as proof that we overcame racism, that America is now an entirely equal playing field, and that any further attempt to rectify racial injustice would be racist against white people.

He points out how this too began with disremembering, noting that when Reagan signed MLK Day into law, he said, “And we should remember that in far too many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all,” (105) as if Dr. King was simply allowed to speak and people made up their minds based on the best opinions expressed.

In reality, the government beat him, jailed him, spied on him, even threatened to kill him.

But while Glaude is largely critical of American Democracy, he thinks government can play a positive role in rectifying racial injustice.

He notes that Barry Goldwater said that “Government plays no role in changing racial habits,” but counters that, “Governmental indifference can harden hearts, and government action can create conditions that soften them.” (185)

Large-scale, comprehensive jobs agenda with a living wage designed to put Americans, and explicitly African Americans, to work would go a long way toward uprooting the racial habits the inform such a view. (188)

However, it is clear that Glaude does not imagine these changes coming through conventional channels. He decries the current state of electoral politics quite powerfully, saying,

The same people who shout doom and gloom (over not voting) fail to advocate for dramatic change to take back the country. (227)

He has many positive things to say about the Black Lives Matter movement:

#BlackLivesMatter activists force us, whether we agree with them or not, to think about how we currently live our lives. In short, they shed light on our racial habits and create the conditions, however fleeting, of us to change them. (184)

But cautions against “The racial advocacy game:”

The way some people parlay politics into a whole lot of money and gain a lot of influence for themselves advocating for black people but do little for black democratic life. (173)

In perhaps his most radical proposal in the book, he argues for people not to vote for any candidate in this presidential election.

Calling it “Blankout 2016,” he argues for people to use their vote to jam the system, in the same way street demonstrations have jammed the system, to vote for no one, or for “blankout,” or for black lives, so it is abundantly clear we do not trust anyone to appropriately advance racial justice in America, and to show that we do not give anyone the mandate to maintain the status quo, either.

I don’t see a “Blankout 2016” campaign becoming a mass movement this election cycle, but I completely agree with the premise of constantly exploring a new and creative diversity of tactics. And the historical perspective and analysis of our current political situation offered by Democracy in Black, make it a critical read for developing those tactics.

Democracy In Black is a particularly critical book for white allies, as well.

Even though I have been in the trenches fighting for racial justice over the past year with the Black Lives Matter movement, it expanded my understanding of all the ways white supremacy affects me and my interactions with the world, including my friends.

And most importantly, it helped me better understand my role in dismantling it.

As Glaude says:

“If we are going to change how we see black people, white people – and only white people can do this – will have to kill the idea of white people.” (201)

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