With the entry of Joe Biden into the Democratic race for the presidency in 2020, I feel like the field is complete. Anyone else getting in the game at this point is most likely on the wrong side of the wave. And so we brace ourselves for the debates, the unearthing of old memos and twitter posts, the previous bad life or policy decisions…and the pandering to diversity.
I’ve already watched the media begin its campaign. The “go to” face of immigration is a young central American mother (speaking in Spanish). The stories about Muslims and Jews bracing for the aftermath of different kinds of attacks on their faith are out there aplenty. What gets me personally frustrated however is the default face of blackness in any election season as it tends to exclusively feature humble but well-spoken black folks who are invariably members of robust gospel singing churches.
But that is not all we are. In fact, it is not all we have ever been. Yes, there are powerful and deeply loving black communities that thrive around black churches. But black churches in the United States have a rich and complicated history in their origins, with issues of sexuality, with gender, with economics and with healthcare. As a result, they are not the only places where we thrive. Black church experience is not monolithic or simplistic. It cannot be boiled down to a meme or a trope. Although African Americans are among the most “churched” in this country, there is a significant black population that prefers to attend diverse spiritual communities that are not exclusively black or Christian…if they attend any at all.
There are many black Atheists/Humanists who are happy to have no church. There are parts of the country where most blacks are Catholic. There is a strong tradition of black Episcopalians who are not AME. There are a significant number of United Church of Christ and United Methodist black clergy and lay people and yes, there are even black Unitarian Universalists, like me. Not to forget about black Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists. Black people in the United States are much more than a gospel choir footnote to a feel-good story on MLK Day.
The other stereotype pushed by the media and picked up on by candidates is black people and crime. I can guarantee you that even back in the 1990s black people could have told you that the problem was not about crime or drugs, it was about social obstruction to opportunity. Those laws were a band-aid on a heart attack. A generation of black people were erased by those measures and now as there are efforts to help some of them out of the system late in their lives, formerly incarcerated people still face the same obstacles they faced when they went in 35 years ago: lack of access to employment, dismal healthcare, lack of education and cultural hopelessness inflicted by a society that sees incarceration as punishment and not a path to public safety through rehabilitation and restorative justice.
But there are plenty of black people who never touch the justice system, even though the statistics are framed to make one believe that black interaction with police is inevitable. Every time a black person is shot and killed by police in an incident of profiling, we would do better to focus on the fact that it is a unique catastrophe rather than a common consistency of systemic failure. There are plenty of black lawyers, and doctors and obviously by this election cycle, politicians. HBCUs produce thousands of graduates every year who are not simply trading in their graduation gowns for orange jumpsuits. The home health industry is dominated by professional and highly trained black (and Asian) women…ask anyone with an elderly parent. Global Industry both on the corporate level and on the unionized worker level has large populations of black workers who want security, sustainability and safety above all…like anyone else. We are not all swimming in a sea of crime.
Still, I don’t want to diminish the importance of historically black churches in getting us to today. They were oases in times of widespread anti-black violence, and they are still community gathering points. Nor do I want to diminish the fact that when crime and justice systems impact black people, the effect is decidedly more extreme for us than for any other demographic with the exception of Native people. My point is that blackness, like other non-whiteness, has its own multi-faceted diversity…it is not just what creates diversity for whiteness. We cannot let the next President of the United States ignore this.
The current election cycle has a great deal riding on it. It is essential to delete Donald Trump from the equation of government and influence. More than his individual actions, it is the lack of action by those around him who stand aside and let him “bull-in-the-china-shop” our government that we should beware of. When he is gone (which will be soon), the rest of us will still need to recon with the Mitch McConnells and Lindsay Grahams who worked to normalize Trump and his blend of toxic masculinity and mob thug behavior. If Democrats or anyone with a conscience really is serious about finding an antidote to Trump: The Sickness, they must completely reconceive of what it means to run for and then hold public office. Trump won on a cult of personality squarely aimed at flattering male whiteness. One look at the demographics of who voted for him, including the number of white Democrats who were willing to vote for him as a vote against Hillary Clinton is an indication of how well that strategy can burn through the institution when it is ignited. As the wide Democratic field considers its own strategy, it must not play into that equation. For me, playing into that game looks like shallow connection to black voters and other people of color through hot button issues that play well for hits and media likes. The Democratic field of liberal and progressive candidates would do well to recognize that it must actually have a real relationship with the diversity of black communities as individuals, just as they must have a real relationship with Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ people, conservatives and even white people in all their diversity. None of the Democratic candidates can afford to take for granted that their brand of “liberal” will automatically speak to black voters…without actually speaking to all black voters.