To me, being an anti-racist activist means that one consistently challenges the structures of racist exclusion, exploitation, repression and incarceration.
It does not mean that one must defend or praise establishment politicians of color.
Forty years ago, I was an activist and leader in the battle against police racism, brutality and repression in Los Angeles. At the time, L.A. had a black mayor, its first in history: former police officer Tom Bradley. He was a huge improvement over the previous mayor, who was an overt racist – and progressives and liberals of all colors had worked hard to get Bradley elected.
But in the fight against police murder and racism, Mayor Bradley was as much an obstacle as he was an ally. Being on the side of communities of color meant standing shoulder to shoulder with black and Latinx activists, not shoulder to shoulder with the mayor.
In Martin Luther King’s last book, written in 1967 a year before he was assassinated, he described how “the white establishment is skilled in flattering and cultivating emerging leaders.” Writing about “corruption” of a type of “Negro leader,” King declared: “Ultimately he changes from the representative of the Negro to the white man into the white man’s representative to the Negro. The tragedy is that too often he does not recognize what has happened to him."
It was a blunt and blistering assessment, written at a time when there were few African American mayors, and a grand total of seven blacks in the U.S. Congress.
As progressives in a country with a long, grim history of racism continuing to the present day, it’s our responsibility to fight racism everywhere we see it.
Let’s be clear: African American politicians have been no more – and usually less – corrupt than white politicians (even though law enforcement has often singled them out for corruption prosecution). It goes without saying that, as a whole, black elected officials have been more progressive than white officials not just on issues of race, but also economics, gender equality, militarism, civil liberties, etc.
Beginning a decade after King’s last book, we’ve experienced 40 years of corrupting neoliberal capitalism – a period in which racial and economic disparities have ballooned, as giant corporations have seized greater control over the economy and both major political parties. Using lavish campaign donations, ads, friendly media, think tanks and astroturfing, it's been a special project of corporate interests to move the Democratic leadership to the right on issues of taxation, budget priorities, healthcare, jobs, trade and corporate power in general.
In the last years of King’s life, he and other black leaders were unabashedly allied with reform and insurgent forces that challenged the Democratic Party establishment.
In recent years, many African American leaders have been on the establishment side of the Democratic Party, resisting progressive insurgencies. This development was on dramatic display in February 2016 when the Congressional Black Caucus PAC held a news conference to endorse Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders (AP video here). Rep. Cedric Richmond ridiculed Sanders’ healthcare and education policies as unaffordable and “too good to be true.” Wall Street-allied Rep. Gregory Meeks hailed Clinton as a strong “partner” on “issues important to our constituents.”
At the news conference, Rep. John Lewis made a remarkable juxtaposition when he invoked his own heroic leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee “for three years, from 1963 to 1966.” Referring to Sanders, Lewis said: “I never saw him. I never met him.” But, he said, “I met Hillary Clinton.”
The grievously unfair comment sparked immediate pushback, since Sanders’ civil rights activism in Chicago is well documented, including his 1963 arrest (and his participation weeks later in the March on Washington, where both King and Lewis were speakers). By contrast, when Lewis chaired SNCC, Clinton was a self-described “Goldwater Girl” – a high school activist for Republican Barry Goldwater, who fervently opposed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. Years later, as First Lady, Clinton spoke of “superpredators” while promoting the notorious 1994 Crime Bill.
Again, this election cycle, many influential black leaders endorsed corporate establishment candidate Joe Biden, despite a record on racial issues – from helping to write the Crime Bill to his collaboration with segregationist senators – worse than Hillary Clinton’s. These endorsements, like that of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, were crucial in Biden securing the nomination, especially in gaining the votes of older African Americans. No matter where these black leaders stand now on reform versus the corporate status quo, many, like Rep. Clyburn, are highly regarded for civil rights activism going back decades.
As progressives in a country with a long, grim history of racism continuing to the present day, it’s our responsibility to fight racism everywhere we see it. It’s also our job to persist in demands for justice, even when some of the mayors or Congress members we will be persisting against are politicians of color. Given the horrific record of whites telling people of color “we know what’s best,” that persistence must be pursued with sensitivity and humility. But it must be pursued.
More than 50 years have passed since the death of Dr. King, when just seven members of Congress were African Americans. After decades of struggle by activists and leaders of color (and white allies), government is fortunately far more diverse today.
If King were with us, would he still be complaining about black leaders who change from being representatives of their community to the white establishment into the establishment’s representative to the black community?
Or would he be complaining even louder?
Jeff Cohen is co-founder of the activism group RootsAction.org and founder of the media watch group FAIR. In Los Angeles 40 years ago, he was one of four co-chairs of the Campaign for a Citizens’ Police Review Board, and an ACLU attorney challenging police spying.