Black people will be central to leadership of political change in the United States or we won't go forward.
Such an assertion is taboo in many quarters. It's simple-minded; it doesn't capture the nuances between and within communities; it makes white people uncomfortable. None of that makes it false.
I'm writing this because someone named Conor P. Williams, in the wake of Mike Brown and Eric Garner's death by cop, has offered some well-meaning reflections on the failure of "progressives" to consistently take in that police violence toward communities of color is an embedded norm in our national life. (He goes after conservatives too, but their cruel and crude racism needs little elucidation.) What he has to say catches an important truth about historic movements that have made this country a better place -- and elides a central reality of how the more successful ones have won some victories.
Announcing outright that the progressive project is rooted in "redeeming" a nation that is believed to be self-evidently worth saving is necessary. There's a lot of energy, good will, and hope in that perspective. Williams has named the wellspring of much progressive political action, especially but not only among whites. This isn't just naivete. Hope in perfectibility, even if weakly grounded, is part of what makes us human. Whether this is good enough is what arguments between reformists and revolutionaries going back way before John Dewey have been all about.
But for all his good intentions, it feels as if Williams is erasing the story of African American action within those debates. If we take seriously that African Americans were central and essential to past reductions in racial injustice, we need to look at a wider spectrum of political positioning than can be captured by a "conservative," "progressive," and even "radical" typology.
Sure -- there have been "progressive" African Americans who struggled to make a fundamentally good country act on its better impulses. We have one of those in the White House. Danielle Allen in Our Declaration seeks to unleash power from this positioning.
And there have been "revolutionary" African Americans who have spoken aloud both intellectual and visceral condemnation of this nation; think Malcolm X in some modes, Marcus Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston, among many often side-lined voices.
But there have long been African Americans who struggled for justice while knowing in their bones that this was a country birthed in violence and oppression, in evil, yet they recognized no alternative but to make something of it. Think of Frederick Douglass, born a slave, who denounced President Lincoln's equivocations on slavery and pushed and prodded him in the direction of abolition. Douglass celebrated Lincoln as a "white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men" who nonetheless allowed himself to become the instrument "to free his country from the great crime of slavery." That's naming the contradictions -- and Douglass didn't let those contradictions stop him.
If anything is ever to swing this monstrous empire within which we live in the direction of equality and freedom, leaders are going to have to be people who can bear knowing and articulating the worst of us -- and yet can carry the determination that they have no choice but to struggle to make us better. I feel pretty darn sure Dr. King was like that.
Outrage over Ferguson and over the Staten Island grand jury farce, is bringing people who can embody more nuanced perspectives to the fore. I hear this from grass roots organizers like Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors. (There's a San Francisco bias here -- if I were located elsewhere, I'm sure I'd name others.) There's nothing equal to a youthful Black, female, queer perspective to force the truth to the surface that nobody is going to offer justice on a platter. I see this in writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Charles Blow who stare at the monster in full view of an unsympathetic public. I do not currently see political leadership -- Black, of color, or white -- that straddles the reformist/revolutionary divide as great leadership must.
But I am damn sure that US history tells us from among whom such leadership might arise. That's what I take from current uprisings.