Some things are so obvious they go without saying. Others, despite their obviousness, need to be said clearly and loudly. Judging by the sheer number of conversations carried out in hushed tones over the past few months, this piece falls into the latter category.
In May of last year, I wrote an open letter to The American posing the question: “What can we expect from all of this black representation?” Consider this a follow-up.
Let me state at the outset what this is not.
This is not an endorsement. This is not a suggestion that black and white are or should be the only racial identities that matter in our politics. And this is most certainly not an excuse for the outrageous underrepresentation of black people and other people of color at all levels of elected office.
This is, however, a particular response to a particular challenge that we face in this political moment.
Thanks to generations of organizing, struggle, and sacrifice, black elected leadership is no longer an oxymoron in this country. The eight-year image of a black family in the White House will likely pay subconscious dividends for years to come. And the moral leadership of a movement proclaiming that Black Lives Matter from Ferguson and Baltimore to Baton Rouge and beyond has demanded that the black experience be represented both in policies and candidate profiles.
This moment also calls us to wrestle with the occasional tension between black identity and political ideology.
In a St. Louis context defined by black-and-white racial politics, we struggle with this tension. But we are hardly alone. On the national stage, at least two prominent black candidates have emerged in the 2020 Democratic primary for U.S. president, and both have spotty records when it comes to serving the interests of vulnerable black and brown communities.
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, during her many years as a prosecutor and attorney general in California, defended the constitutionality of the death penalty; defended a cruel and arbitrary “three strikes” law that resulted in life sentences for any third felony; spearheaded an anti-truancy law resulting in fines and jail time for parents of children who were chronically truant from school; refused to turn over the names of police officers with histories of misconduct and criminal records; and literally laughed aloud at the idea of marijuana legalization.
U.S. Senator Cory Booker’s close ties to Wall Street and corporate interests raise legitimate questions about his policymaking priorities. In 2017, Booker sided with the pharmaceutical industry in defeating a bill that would have lowered prescription drug prices by allowing the purchase of prescription drugs from Canada. In 2012, Booker made headlines by calling President Obama’s criticism of Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital “ridiculous” and “nauseating ” and demanding that the Obama campaign “stop attacking private equity.” The following election cycle, Booker raised more money from Wall Street than any other member of Congress.
These are just facts. They are part of the policy records of these black candidates. And they are not records that speak to a prioritization of policies that benefit the majority of black people. The senators now have an opportunity to explain these choices, and explain them they should.
In the meantime, it would be absurd to conclude that these candidates are the best options for black people merely because they are black. Black folks were never so easily manipulated by the likes of Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, or Dr. Ben Carson; there is no reason a “D” next to a candidate’s name should change that.
Now what does any of this have to do with St. Louis?
Black St. Louisans have rightly come to demand a level of representation that accounts for the history and demographics of this town. But those of us who care deeply about the systemic inequity and structural racism that have plagued black residents of St. Louis for generations know from experience that black representation does not necessarily mean “black” politics.
And yet, multiple times during the past few months, I have heard the explicit argument that being committed to racial equity is incompatible with voting for white candidates. This is a harmful and dangerous notion, and one that we should reject outright.
Whether voting for an aldermanic seat, president of the Board of Aldermen, or any future local or statewide office, the choice for voters who believe in social and racial justice must be a candidate with a proven record and policy agenda that evidences a sincere commitment to the interests of black people and other marginalized communities. Those candidates will not always be black.
The idea of identity and politics coming into conflict is nothing new for black people. In the political context, we have grown fond of the phrase “all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” but it seems we often miss the corollary: “all kinfolk ain’t skinfolk.” From the abolitionist movement to the Civil Rights Era to the Movement for Black Lives, some of our closest allies in the fight for racial justice have long included people who do not look like us.
There are some non-black folks I would trust with my life. And there are some black folks I wouldn’t trust with the life of my goldfish. Why should politics be any different?
Plainly stated: some white people have better racial politics than some people of color. Some white politicians have policy records more aligned with the interests of the black community than some black politicians. Sometimes, when this is the case, caring about black people means voting for white people.
I want to see more black people and people of color running for and winning elected office. I would love to see a slate of candidates that represents the full range of black political thought. Most of all, I believe it is critical that we continue to build black political power at the grassroots level and a pipeline of black leadership throughout the region and the nation.
But there is nothing woke about racial litmus tests in voting. If that is the bankrupt ideology we are to adopt in the name of black empowerment, we might as well all be asleep.
Blake Strode is a civil rights lawyer and advocate in St. Louis.