Whose Lives Matter?

By BILL ONASCH

 Netroots Nation bills its live body gatherings as the biggest conference of Progressives—by which they mean liberal Democrats. At their annual conclave, held in Phoenix in July, they featured a presidential candidate Town Hall Meeting that included the two top long-shot challengers to Hillary Clinton for the Donkey Party nod—Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who for the past quarter-century has caucused with the Democrats, and Martin O’Malley, who just completed two terms as governor of Maryland and prior to that served two terms as Mayor of Baltimore. They came prepared to give their stock spiel to a friendly audience. But that was not to be.

A vocal contingent from the movement in formation known as Black Lives Matter insisted that the Democrat hopefuls respond to their issues. I’m sure that as a former mayor of Brown Town Baltimore, this was not O’Malley’s first exposure to edgy African-American dissent. But, after first demonstrating the stereotype that white people can’t get the hang of rhythmic clapping, he appeared flustered and blurted, “Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter.”

While few would challenge such banality about the sanctity of life in general, O’Malley got a reminder that context rules. The BLM agitators were there because Black lives are being taken in alarming numbers by those charged to protect and serve them. The Guardian has been updating a running count of those killed by police in the USA, along with their color. As I write, the total for this year is 648. Broken down by fatalities per million of their color’s population: 4.12 Black; 1.77 Latino; 1.58 white.

If the numbers and colors were reversed, if unarmed suburban, middle-class white youth were being gunned down by Black cops, it would undoubtedly be considered a national crisis. Clearly in America today Black lives don’t matter as much. But few white liberal politicians are willing to explicitly acknowledge this—much less take any meaningful action to end this disgrace.

And what about the “socialist” who has been drawing big crowds—including 11,000 at a rally in Phoenix—in his quest for the Democrat nomination? One of Bernie’s most avid supporters, Joe Dinkin, national communications director of the Working Families Party, wrote in that venerable organ of liberalism, the Nation, “Both candidates did damage to themselves; Sanders was defensive, and O’Malley’s response included the words ‘white lives matter.’ But Sanders had far more to gain by getting this right.

“I approach this incident as a fan of Bernie Sanders. But when he had the opportunity to rewrite his own narrative and broaden his own base, he failed. … With the protest, Sanders was presented an opportunity on a silver platter: He could overcome his perceived negatives and grow his base. All he would have had to do was act with a little humility. But instead, he talked over the protesters, got defensive about his racial-justice bona fides, and stuck to his script.

“Essentially, he appeared to be arguing that economics and class trump all. For an audience mourning the death of Sandra Bland, a woman who was arrested at a traffic stop on the way to her new job before mysteriously dying in police custody, the jobs program Sanders suggested just didn’t seem like a sufficient answer.”

Dinkin makes some good points but you will note that his perspective begins with Bernie’s missed opportunities. He thinks a few well-chosen humble words might have got his candidate off the hook. CYA is what “getting this right” means to politicians—not engaging in genuine dialog with African-American activists about what needs to be done both in the short-term and long-run.

Class and economic issues are key to the goal of eliminating racism root and branch. Whites don’t need to explain this to Black workers who understand it much better than their pale pigment class siblings. Black leaders from Frederick Douglass, through A. Phillip Randolph, down to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., have taught African Americans to be much more pro-union, and more inclined to advance their struggle through mass action, than most white workers who have much more to learn.

The Black Lives Matter movement is focused on an immediate tactical objective, while Class and Economic Justice is a long haul strategy. They can build one another—synergy. Nothing good comes from counterposing them.

Patently, despite great expectations, there has been no progress on any aspect of racism on the watch of the currently governing ruling-class party with an African-American president in charge and Black attorneys general overseeing Justice.

A recent feature in The New York Times begins, “Seven years ago, in the gauzy afterglow of a stirring election night in Chicago, commentators dared ask whether the United States had finally begun to heal its divisions over race and atone for the original sin of slavery by electing its first black president. It has not. Not even close.

“A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week reveals that nearly six in 10 Americans, including heavy majorities of both whites and blacks, think race relations are generally bad, and that nearly four in 10 think the situation is getting worse. By comparison, two-thirds of Americans surveyed shortly after President Obama took office said they believed that race relations were generally good.

“The swings in attitude have been particularly striking among African-Americans. During Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, nearly 60 percent of blacks said race relations were generally bad, but that number was cut in half shortly after he won. It has now soared to 68 percent, the highest level of discontent among blacks during the Obama years and close to the numbers recorded in the aftermath of the riots that followed the 1992 acquittal of Los Angeles police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King.”

The once optimistic commentators referred to in The Times included virtually all participants in Netroots Nation. The Nation held a symposium speculating on what President Obama might accomplish in his First Hundred Days—an historical reference to FDR’s taking office during the Great Depression, warmed over by Bill Fletcher Jr. in the Black Commentator.

Joe Dinkin is right to be wary of a non-nuanced “economics and class trump all,” but that formulation is spot on concerning the first Black person nurtured by the ruling class to become president. The only problem is that the economic policies of the current administration are not in the interest of our class—and especially not the doubly oppressed Black sector of the working class.

The 100,000 jobs eliminated at the peak of the Great Recession by the bankruptcy/bailout restructuring of General Motors and Chrysler, imposed by the White House, impacted African Americans hardest of all. The attacks on public education through the Race to the Top enriched testing and textbook companies as well as charter schools while hitting Black communities with massive school closings and attacks on teacher seniority and pensions.

Pro-privatization policies have also axed tens of thousands of good jobs largely held by African Americans at the U.S. Postal Service. The disparity in Black/white unemployment and wage rates remains firmly entrenched—helping to make racism profitable for the employers of wage labor.

But there was still little criticism of the president at Netroots, and most unions and civil rights organizations swallowed their tongues long ago. Even the “socialist” in their midst avoids denunciation of the reactionary character of the administration winding down its second term.

Ruling-class strategists appear to favor a “bump” from a first woman president taking the launch codes from the first Black. The real first choice for the Netroots Nation would be Senator Elizabeth Warren—who has firmly declined the offer. Hillary Clinton—a loyal and highly visible part of the Establishment for as long as any Millennial can remember—is a tougher sell. Netroots hopes Bernie can at least force her to trim “left.” She has in fact already out bid the “socialist” by promising to put solar panels on every American home within 10 years of taking office.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson ran an issue campaign for the Democrat nomination in 1988. It resembled in some respects the Bernie Sanders effort, with one important exception—Rev. Jackson played a leading role in mass movements while the “socialist’s” resume is mostly based on winning elections in Vermont. When the Rev. Jackson gave his concession speech at the convention that nominated Dukakis, he reminded the delegates that the party needs “two wings to fly.”

Though it was not his intention—perhaps not even his understanding—this famous quote explains why American politics revolves around sentiment, rhetoric, and personalities masking the underlying divisions of class and color. It’s what enables a tiny ruling class to run government without any effective opposition. Those who do not yet understand this are not entitled to lead us. If you’re not part of the solution—you’re part of the problem.

I’m confident that, whatever organizational forms may evolve, the struggle for Black Lives Matter will continue. So will the Fight for Fifteen by low-wage workers who, at least in urban areas, are overwhelmingly Black and Latino. We are seeing the early stages of a mass movement around climate change. These are battles that deserve the support of all workers.

It seems inevitable that in the course of these game-changing struggles will come recognition that our side needs a party of our own to challenge a political monopoly that benefits from racism, sexism, economic exploitation—and has put us in danger of wrecking our biosphere. Then—and only then—will working people have a stake in the elections.

Photo: A Black Lives Matter protester confronts Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (right) at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix. Ross D. Franklin / AP