How Black Lives Matter can use Bernie Sanders
Neoliberalism has made black political leaders complicit in their community's brutalization. So argues Professor Lester Spence of Johns Hopkins University, in a new book called Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. It's a fresh and interesting work, and perfectly timed as the Democratic presidential primary comes down to the wire. Much of the competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton comes down to whether Sanders can successfully sell his message to the African-American community. The argument of Spence's book, however, suggests that black activists may be able to use Sanders' campaign for their own purposes just as well as he could use their votes.
Spence sketches out the story of the evolution of American political economy since the 1920s: the heights of inequality in the late '20s, the Great Depression, growing economic equality as the New Deal took hold, and the gradual return of inequality after the 1970s stagflation crisis. A cadre of right-wing and libertarian ideologues seized on this supposed "crisis of Keynesianism" as an excuse to advance theories that would return self-regulating markets to the center of American society. As a result, the country has returned to something recognizably similar to its 1920s economic self, complete with a massively profitable yet rattletrap financial system.
This is by now a familiar story, but where Spence breaks some new ground is how he carefully examines how this ideology has come to permeate much of black politics and popular culture. It's not hard to notice an almost libertarian valorization of labor and markets in much hip-hop, for example. Perhaps less well-known is the adoption of the "prosperity gospel" in many black churches, particularly large ones. This rather gruesome theology, in its rawest state, demands donations to the church and promises that God will shower the parishioner with cash in return. It doesn't work as advertised, though it has made some church leaders very rich.
It's also depressingly common to see black political leaders helming various neoliberal programs to disastrous effect. In Philadelphia, Spence points to Michael Nutter, the former mayor, and Sylvester Johnson, the former police chief. Darrell Earley, the former emergency manager of Flint, Michigan, also comes to mind. All these men were black and all oversaw policies — massively increased policing at the expense of other social programs, an austerity program that ended up poisoning an entire city — that seriously harmed the black citizenry they oversaw.
However, he is careful to note that none of these men are somehow self-hating racists, or have sold out to the white power structure. On the contrary, Nutter is a such a partisan of black culture that he performed the entire 10-minute extended version of "Rapper's Delight" at one of his inaugural events. The truth is that these men accept the basic tenets of neoliberal individualism — that the only proper role of the state is policing, enforcing property rights, and coercing people to conform to bourgeois norms like marriage and employment. Hence, if someone is poor, or dropped out of school, or can't find a job, it is because she hasn't been hustling hard enough. Many white elites say exactly the same thing about poor white people. But it still turns out the neoliberal program of dismantling state services to provide tax cuts for the rich — particularly professional sports team owners, at the city level — harms blacks more than it does any other race (and is often sold on implicitly racist grounds).
Therefore, Spence argues, an anti-racist political project cannot just be about forcing white people have less racist attitudes. Overthrowing neoliberal ideology in black politics (and politics in general) must also be included.
This is, of course, a stiff task. A truly merciless form of neoliberal ideology has been Republican party orthodoxy for years, but the Democratic party has also embraced a more moderate version. President Bill Clinton also passed serious financial deregulation, and repealed traditional welfare in the service of coercing recipients into marriage and the labor market (which didn't work either, it just killed the program).
Some time ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates got in an extensive debate with President Obama and the writer Jonathan Chait on these issues. The president, supported by Chait, endorses the neoliberal argument that the disproportionate poverty among black people today is, at least in part, the result of their own lack of hustle. Coates persuasively disagreed, arguing that they had the causality backwards. There is nothing wrong with black people that abolishing racism would not fix.
Black Lives Matter and the associated groups that have been mobilizing for racial justice around the country, have done tremendous work advancing the Coates view, and Spence rightly lauds them for it. They do not search for methods to blame the victims of police violence, or insist than only the most charismatic and well-scrubbed victims deserve justice. Instead they demand equal treatment and an end to police brutality.
However, he argues, the movement still has some relative blind spots, and one of them is class. Black Lives Matter is organized around "a uniquely black suffering," he writes, yet "the odds that someone like me would suffer the kind of horrific death someone like Freddie Gray did is very slim." Overall, a focus on police brutality can obscure the corpses quietly piling up from less spectacular economic causes:
[B]y privileging the graphic black death, the victim shot in the back while running away, the victim who had his back violently broken by police, it ends up ignoring the many forms of non-violent black death that occurs not because of police violence per se, but because of economic violence. If Freddie Gray weren't murdered by the police, but rather experienced a slow death due to lead poisoning it's unlikely we'd be talking about him right now. [Knocking the Hustle]
Even years after the rollout of ObamaCare, some 12 percent of black Americans are uninsured. That means between roughly 2,700 and 4,900 of them will die this year due to lack of insurance. And there is very strong circumstantial evidence that reducing poverty would also reduce police brutality.
One cannot blame Black Lives Matter for springing up around the most graphic, upsetting, and easily understood racist actions, of course. Yet Bernie Sanders is running for president on a platform of massive expansion of universal social insurance which would, of necessity, benefit blacks the most. This might provide a political toehold to advance Spence's argument against neoliberalism in black politics and in politics generally.
Last week Coates lambasted Sanders for failing to endorse reparations for slavery. Another important question is why the Sanders platform would not fully abolish poverty.