By: Dayvon Love
This essay is born out of a deep agony regarding the lack of respect for the Pan-African/Revolutionary Black Nationalists strands of political advocacy in the current social movement mainstream.
Black people’s freedom must be won on our own terms. This is not to dismiss the complex and difficult environment that we find ourselves in where we are enmeshed in the muck of European/American colonialism. But, the mainstream political activity that is being branded as radical is actively marginalizing notions of Black self determination that is necessary for anything resembling Black Liberation. I use the term “cracker democracy” in the title of this essay, not in an attempt to be provocative, but to directly confront the true essence of the system of white supremacy.
This is done without respect to the feelings of the white progressive left that would probably shun Black people who would publicly use such a term to describe their behavior. My hope is that you read this essay for the substantive argument that is made about the nature of white supremacy as it is manifested in the emergence of a progressive mainstream, and not to see “who did LBS call out now?” This is an argument about the political economy of current Black social movements and how they are entangled in an emerging “cracker democracy.”
Those who told us that the world would be made safe for democracy have lied to us. All over the world men and women are finding out that when an American President, a British Premier or a French “tiger” speaks of “the world,” he does not include the black and brown and yellow millions, who make up the vast majority of the earth’s population. And now the sheeted ghost of a black republic rises above the tomb where its bones lie buried and points its silent but accusing finger at American democracy….
The people of Haiti are being shot, sabred and bombed, while resisting an illegal invasion of their homes, and, if public decency is not dead in America white and black men and women will insist that Congress investigate this American Ireland…. The Constitution of the United States says that the power to declare war shall belong exclusively to the Congress of the United States. But the Congress of the United States has been shamelessly ignored. In furtherance of the God-given “cracker” mandate to “keep the nigger in his place,” a mere Secretary of the Navy has assumed over the head of Congress the right to conquer and annex two nations and to establish on their shores the “cracker-democracy” of his native Carolina slaves-runs.
-Hubert Henry Harrison
All forms of democracy that emerge from Western civilization’s intellectual and cultural resources are doomed to reproduce the white supremacy system. In the above quote, Hubert Henry Harrison explains how democracy is a term that often describes a social order that preserves the general welfare of white people. Haiti is essential because it was the first Black republic established in the Western hemisphere as a result of overthrowing European colonialist powers.
The Haitian revolution produced worldwide inspiration for the armed rebellion that began to put pressure on a large segment of the white population, particularly in the north, to end the practice of chattel slavery. Haiti stands as an important symbol of resistance to European domination centered/grounded in Black self-determination. The invasion of Haiti that Harrison condemns illustrates the disregard for this Black republic’s sovereignty and the installation of “cracker democracy.”
Harrison describes cracker democracy as the mandate to “keep the nigger in his place”. This is the kind of democracy where Black people are only given democracy to the extent that it protects white people’s interest. Additionally, cracker democracy is about trampling the right to self-determination of Black people when white society sees fit. While Harrison attributes this notion to a particular southern mentality, the concept of cracker democracy applies to the emerging progressive mainstream that sees itself as racially enlightened.
There is an emergence of a new progressive mainstream in Baltimore that is looking to absorb Black political activity into a coalition that speaks more directly to policy issues that would benefit the Black masses but would simultaneously defang the Black political autonomy necessary to pursue Black Liberation. White progressives/leftists are trapped in a worldview and intellectual tradition that can only see Black people as objects of oppression, rather than possessors of a worldview and political methodology that should be the basis of political activities. In other words, as well-meaning as progressives/leftists may be, their political disposition toward Black people is one in which we are problems to be fixed instead of the solutions to our issues.
The policy consensus on progressive mainstream platforms is medicare for all, a living wage, criminal justice reform, universal basic income, public financing of campaigns, etc. These are important issues for Black people; however, when these issues are highlighted by themselves as priorities lifted by the progressive mainstream, the result for Black people is often a trade-off and less focus on essential issues like anti-violence initiatives, collective wealth creation, and restructuring the oppressive human/social service sector. These issues build Black people’s capacity to operate as people independent of the goodwill of progressive institutions and social welfare agencies (often controlled by white non-profit professionals). The issues that constitute the consensus of the progressive mainstream don’t address Black dependence on institutions outside of our community. The consensus of the progressive mainstream is often imposed on our communities in condescending and oppressive ways.
Most white leftist/progressive institutions interact with Black people from the perspective of disaster management. Disaster management policies and practices provide short-term/intermediate relief from suffering. Still, it does not produce the independent, collective, Black civic/economic/political infrastructure, economic self-sufficiency, and institutional autonomy necessary for developing long-term sustainable transformation of the conditions of Black people.
Some examples are:
- Living wage would provide more income to individual Black workers
- Medicare-for-all would give Black people more access to health care services
- Public financing of political campaigns would allow for working-class people to have more access to electoral politics
However, the long term dilemma remains:
- Living wage would not change the relative position of Black people in the broader American economy. We would still be dependent on the jobs provided by corporations who would still exercise tremendous influence over Black political and civic life.
- Medicare-for-all would still subject Black people to a health care system where health professionals engage in the kinds of medical malpractice that inherently flow from institutional racism. The Black women subjected to forced sterilizations, over-represented in the statistics of women medically advised to get hysterectomies, have higher levels of infant mortality and stillbirths, and many other disparities, will still have to endure institutional racism with increased access to care.
- Public financing of campaigns does not provide Black people a collective political infrastructure to operationalize the policy advocacy our community needs, independent of supporting white progressive forces.
In other words, organizations like the Center for American Progress, Planned Parenthood, and other progressive major organizations would continue to be the driving force behind shaping the policy landscape on issues that impact Black people. Furthermore, the ability for individual Black people to be a political force will largely depend on our access to those kinds of establishment progressive networks, in the absence of Black institutions funded by and accountable exclusively to the Black masses. White progressives will advocate for more investment in public education and social programs. Still, they are often impotent in discussions around how these institutions perpetuate Black oppression in ways that greater investment levels won’t fix.
The place where progressives (regardless of race) typically fall short is the work to develop the alternatives (and the institutional containers for them) to the existing oppressive systems (i.e., social services, re-entry, health industry).
In the conversation about defunding police, there has been advocacy regarding re-allocating money from police to social services. This is merely shifting resources from one oppressive system to another. Progressives are, at best, mastering Black oppression’s sociology. In many instances, they use their discussion of Black oppression to justify more investments in institutions and programs that render Black people primarily as recipients of services. These services are usually administered in oppressive ways to the communities they serve .
The harm done to Black people by many social workers, educators, medical institutions, and non-profit professionals operating within oppressive human/social service contexts is widely discussed among Black people who are not connected to nor reliant on the progressive mainstream. However, the issue is dealt with quietly by progressives. Issues such as Black children being pushed disproportionately into special education, progressives very rarely address the savage neglect and disregard for the harm done to Black people by local Departments of Social Services, the problematic social workers that reinforce notions of Black pathology onto their clients, and the numerous non-profit organizations that engage in a methodology of paternalism that amounts to managing suffering. There are a host of other harms these systems impose on our community. It is not simply a situation where these systems are imperfect; they are oppressive to our communities.
The notion of disaster management is often omitted from public racial justice conversations because many of the industries that profit from the suffering of Black people would be exposed to the way that they benefit financially from the existence of Black oppression. White led social justice formations would no longer exist if Black people were not the perpetual problem that they write about in their grant reports. Social welfare agencies’ relationship with Black people is fundamentally one of paternalism and dependence. These institutions don’t seek to cultivate within the communities they serve the ability to be self-sufficient; instead, they normalize the notion that the communities served need the provided services. In many cases, the services that are provided are administered poorly. The poor delivery of social services to communities is due to the white supremacist methodology that many of these professionals are trained in and because the services are fundamentally intended to manage suffering and not empower the community.
The people who make a living providing these services and the professionals that run these agencies benefit as much or more from the disaster management dynamic as the recipient of the services. Professionals in these agencies can use the work they do in providing services as professional stepping stones to more lucrative professional opportunities. At the same time, the communities that they serve remain largely unchanged and stuck where they are. This dynamic is a fundamental blindspot for progressives. The oppressive nature of social services, public education, the health and wellness industry, the non-profit sector, philanthropy, etc. is inconvenient for progressives because it forces them to face their complicity in advocating for oppressive systems that are at odds with their stated values of racial justice. The objective of any legitimate effort toward racial justice or Black Liberation must be rooted in the development of an ecosystem of independent Black institutions that are accountable to the masses of Black people and are responsible for meeting Black people’s needs. A people that can provide for themselves is truly free. A people dependent on the benevolence of others are a colonized people.
The progressive mainstream has had many observable political impacts on the local Baltimore political landscape. Several of the neighborhoods where gentrification is happening are attracting white hipsters, non-profit professionals, white artists, and other white folks who tend to have the kind of negrophillic attitudes.These are the types of white people that would align with more progressive policies like the ones mentioned above. This group of white people typically fetishize spectacle of Black suffering are are sadomasochistic in their activities and conversation regarding racism.
A look at the Democratic primary election of Brandon Scott for Mayor and Bill Henry for Comptroller (both who ran on progressive platforms), and Franca Muller Paz, a latinx woman who ran a formidable race for City Council as an open Socialist on the Green Party ticket, we see that the beneficiaries of an emerging mainstream, to a large extent, coincide with gentrification. This is not unique to Baltimore. Many progressive elected officials around the country have seen strong support in gentrified areas of their districts. Some folks were generally endorsed by major institutional aspects of the emerging progressive mainstream that I will define later in this piece. This is not a knock against these individuals. These are folks who are generally supportive of LBS’s legislative proposals.
In some respects, LBS has also benefited legislatively from the emergence of this progressive mainstream (particularly our criminal justice-related advocacy). Before I give an outline of what constitutes the progressive mainstream in Baltimore and give examples of the potential harm that can be done to Black people as a result, I want to take a few moments and explain how traditional narratives of historic Black social movements bolster the progressive mainstream.
The progressive/white left dominant historiography characterizes integration as a default and ideal worldview. Integration in this context means supporting advocacy for Black people’s just treatment by mainstream white-controlled institutions is the political objective. The most radical version of the integrationist worldview are multiracial, democratic, social movement institutions. There are two limitations to this perspective.
The first is that the deep-rooted anti-African notions embedded in the collective American consciousness require specific cultural and political work to counter Black humanity’s societal denigration. This is essential to challenging parasitic institutional dynamics that make Black oppression fuel for the sustenance of white-controlled institutions that claim to serve Black people’s needs yet render Black people as objects of other people’s thought experiments. For instance, many white socialists organizations in the early 20th century used Black oppression as currency to gain support for their efforts while being indifferent and hostile to independent Black formations that advocated for Black empowerment.
It is also essential to counter the historical dynamic where non-Black people lead efforts that largely impact Black people. For example, when Carter G. Woodson founded the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, white institutions claimed to be leading Black history organizations at odds with Carter Woodson’s organization. To effectively address this would require independent, self-sustaining Black formations as a prerequisite for a truly multiracial, democratic social movement. The second problem with foregrounding more progressive or radical notions of integration in Black political activity is that historically, Black participation in multiracial coalitions has meant in practice dependence on white political, civic, and economic infrastructures. This means that even if there is a stated set of values rooted in multiracial democracy, the reality is that Black people are still in a structurally subordinate position, impeding Black people’s ability to exercise genuine self-determination.
The integrationist historiography endemic to progressive white spaces has the impact of valorizing calls for recognition of Black humanity and pleas for just treatment from white people as central to Black Liberation. The popular narratives about the nature of the challenge to chattel slavery in the US, the ubiquitous valorization of the Brown v Board Supreme Court decision, and the events during the period referred to as the Civil Rights Movement are popularly emphasized yet are examples of integrationist historiography.
The fight against chattel slavery is often characterized by abolitionists who gave numerous speeches appealing to northerners’ moral conscious who eventually saw slavery as evil. It is often narrated as a collaboration between white and formerly enslaved activists who pressured and persuaded sympathetic whites to join the cause of abolition. The core of the narrative revolves around appeals for the recognition of Black humanity. In rare instances where enslaved Africans’ armed rebellions are mentioned, they are at best described as acts of individual bravery. Alternative historiography rooted in Black Liberation reads the fight against chattel slavery as the work of Black people forcing the end of chattel slavery (except for those then and now who are convicted of a crime).
The Haitian Revolution was an example of Black people confronting and defeating white colonial power. It served as an inspiration for Black people throughout the western hemisphere to rise up in armed rebellion against chattel slavery. This armed rebellion put pressure on the north to end the practice of slavery out of fear of being targets of these kinds of uprisings. Additionally, enslaved Africans decided to fight as soldiers in the Union army that were the essential force that resulted in the Union victory in the Civil War. In other words, Black people won the Civil War for ourselves. Even though there were Black people on both sides, most of the Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War fought on the Union’s side. This alternative historiography places Black people as producers of our own freedom. This doesn’t negate the fact that there were helpful white people who had an impact on the fight against chattel slavery. It means that the basis of the effort to end chattel slavery was rooted in Black self determined confrontation with white power, not on pleas for white recognition of Black humanity.
The Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954 is often lauded as universally an advancement for Black people. The underlying logic was that if Black people were integrated into white schools, they would receive a higher quality of education than they would in segregated schools. What is often omitted from the mainstream historical record is that many Black people argued that racial integration was less important than the equalization of resources to majority Black schools.
What is often projected onto segregated Black schools is the idea that because they were under-resourced that the quality of the instruction was inferior to segregated white schools. While the inequities in resources were certainly a problem for Black segregated schools, the notion that the instruction was inferior is a claim with no substantive evidence. The societal notion of Black inferiority leads many people to assume that the quality of teachers and instruction is also inferior in Black segregated schools. This focus obscures the legitimate calls for equalizing resources as the most salient demand for increasing the quality of education for Black youth. Again, the basis of mainstream historiography is to frame proximity to whiteness as a trajectory of Black Liberation and obscure calls for Black autonomy.
The Civil Rights Movement is often characterized primarily by compelling speeches, protests that appealed to white people’s consciousness, and pressure on society to concede to calls for more inclusion of Black people in mainstream society. This omits three important themes of historical activity during this time period.
First, it obscures the importance of the development of independent Black infrastructures that was the basis of the major efforts during that period of time. For example, to talk about the Montgomery Bus Boycott simply as an example of protest without studying the infrastructure that allowed them to sustain an alternative transportation system for 13 months conceals the importance of Black self-determination and autonomy that made that effort possible. They were not reliant on the sympathy of white people. The success of the Boycott was based largely on the Black self-determined efforts of the Montgomery Improvement Association.
The second important historical theme that is omitted in the traditional historiography of the Civil Rights Movement is the role that armed self-defense played during this time. Many civil rights workers who came to the south to facilitate voter education and registration campaigns often claimed non-violence as central to their politics but were often protected by local Black people with guns who served as a deterrent for white terrorist violence against them. This was not an anomaly, but rather a very common circumstance often treated as an aside. Again, Black people made the push for voter rights possible through our confrontation with white power. We were not passive victims waiting for white progressives to help us have our humanity recognized by society.
The last historical theme that is omitted is the Cold War context where anti-colonial struggles for independence, particularly in Africa, became levers used by Black people to put international pressure on the US to end Jim Crow. The competition between the US and the USSR for global geopolitical domination and international moral leadership created an opening where the US was very sensitive to bad press about Black people. Black people used their growing relationships in the international community to put pressure on the American government.
Integrationist historiography is locally and recently best exemplified in an article written by local Baltimore Journalist Lisa Snowden McCray regarding former President Clinton’s comments during the funeral of Congressman John Lewis. Her piece was published on August 14, 2020, and is titled “Silencing Marginalized Voices is not ‘Good Trouble”. It provides a synopsis of the fight within the moderate and left factions of the Democratic Party. It outlines the way that Clinton’s characterization of Kwame Ture is an attempt to marginalize the left-wing of the party. This is a useful point to make. Additionally, she describes John Lewis’ legacy as one that would support the party’s left-wing and activists engaged in mass demonstrations and not the centrist agenda of the Clintons and the Democratic Party’s corporate wing.
These are important points, but the piece obscures the importance of independent Black political activity and reinforces the integrationist mainstream historiography. The Voting Rights Act’s struggle was a complex collaboration between the Civil Rights Movement elements and the Black Power Movement. As SNCC was moving toward Pan-Africanism (which is what scares Clinton), and the Black grassroots work of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party under the leadership of Fannie Lou Hamer resulting in meaningful challenges to the Democratic Party, the movement that McCray suggests that John Lewis was a part of would put him at odds with the more militant forces of his own movement. John Lewis was an advocate of integration. Equating his legacy to the work of protestors in the streets is very telling. At one point, she says:
The speech that Lewis gives (during the March on Washington) still packed a punch. Considering the speech in the year 2020, it sounds less like a speech that a Democratic leader would give and more like one that would be shouted from a megaphone by a protester in the crowd, angry at said Democratic leader standing up on stage… Lewis even challenged the efficacy of the Democratic Party: “where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham? Where is the political party that will protect the citizens of Albany, Georgia,” he asked.
-Lisa Snowden-McCray: Real News Network
John Lewis’ primary political discourse as a member of SNCC and as a member of the U.S. Congress was based on appeals for white recognition of Black suffering and pleas for societal protection from oppression. Lewis lost to Ture in the election for chairmanship of SNCC in 1966 because of a growing affinity toward Pan-Africanism within its ranks, which was at odds with Lewis integrationist perspective. The integrationist perspective that was rejected by the members of SNCC undergirds the progressive mainstream and frames out the independent Black political activity that made the Voting Rights Act possible.
McCray’s assertion that John Lewis’ speech during the March on Washington sounds like the rhetoric of protesters that were demonstrating against the police killings of George Floyd and others confirms the integrationist perspective that is dominant in contemporary Black social movement spaces. The lack of meaningful commentary of John Lewis’ engagement of Pan-Africanism in this piece encourages the evocation of John Lewis’ legacy by white leftists/progressives who seek to avoid the harmful role they played then and continue to play now in Black social movement spaces. Kwame Ture was an ardent advocate for Black control of institutions that fight on behalf of Black people. John Lewis’ position was sympathetic to white control of Black social movement entities. It should be clear that the progressive mainstream is interested in exalting Lewis while using Ture’s mention to highlight the struggles of the left wing of the Democratic Party, thereby omitting Black autonomy as central to the political worldview.
The danger of integrationist historiography is that it drives the progressive mainstream toward a politics that frames out independent Black political activity and normalizes Black dependence on white people’s benevolence. Additionally, the societal disregard for Black humanity often renders calls for Black self-determination merely in spectacle form, instead of with a focus on the mechanics and systems that Black people built to advance the struggle for Black Liberation. The only possible outcome of a political worldview that emanates from integrationist historiography is disaster management.
Pan Africanism/Black Nationalism
The terms Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism are used interchangeably in this essay to reference activity geared toward the sovereignty of people of African descent over the institutions that govern our lives. While these terms can mean different things in other contexts, for this essay, they are described interchangeably as a worldview and political methodology that has been attacked and marginalized in mainstream intellectual and political spaces for many decades. Pan-Africanism is often characterized as a less mature and unsophisticated perspective (i.e., the pejorative use of the word Hotep) and that people eventually evolve into more mature progressives. An example of this is how Malcolm X’s shift in perspective toward the end of his life is characterized. Some mainstream scholars said Malcolm X had disavowed Black Nationalism and became an integrationist due to his willingness to work with elements of the Civil Rights Movement. This is refuted by the fact that when he formed the Organization of Afro American Unity (OOAU) after leaving the Nation of Islam, he was clear that the OAAU was an organization that only people of African descent could join.
He was clear about the fact that Black self-determination is the basis for any legitimate multi-racial coalition. Attempts have been made to lift Malcolm X out of his Pan-African, Black cultural frame of reference by pushing him into the category of “civil rights leader” to give progressives an avenue to co-opt his legacy. The attacks on Pan Africanism have always been systematic. A look at many of the suggested readings of progressive-leaning platforms reveal an absence of substantial Pan-African intellectual material, and in many cases, include works that have harsh critiques of Pan-Africanism.
In addition to the marginalization of Pan-Africanism, there has also been an overt attack on its credibility. The two significant attacks against it are that it is inherently violent/scary and inherently patriarchal. On the question of violence, Black people have been socialized in America to believe that subjecting ourselves to white society’s violence is a virtue. Acts of armed rebellion and self-defense are characterized as a desire to oppress our oppressors. This is a narrative that white society has projected onto Black people to criminalize the natural human right to defend ourselves against people who oppress us. People may disagree about the effectiveness of armed resistance or self-defense, but these are morally legitimate positions to take. People who are Pan Africanists are typically characterized as angry, which is an extension of this notion that Black Nationalists are inherently violent. This tactic aims to avoid engaging the conversation about white domination over the institutions that govern Black people’s lives. The characterization of Pan-Africanism advocates as angry and violent is a move that protects white progressive formations from having to confront their parasitic relationship to Black oppression.
Patriarchy is a societal issue that affects all Black people, regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum. Integrationist political movements have been profoundly impacted by patriarchy, particularly in male leadership dominance in the major Civil Rights organizations. To make patriarchy primarily the providence of Pan-Africanism or characterize it as uniquely susceptible to patriarchal violence is an inaccurate reading of history. Additionally, many of the Black feminist intellectuals who have received the most mainstream attention and platforms have been those who have made their most harsh critiques of patriarchy directed at Black nationalists.
Women like bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, Michelle Wallace, and many others are often lifted up by white liberal academic institutions, highlighting these arguments that suggest that Black nationalism is inherently sexist. Contrast this with scholars like Paula Giddings, Clenora Hudson-Weems, Frances LaRodgers Rose, Joyce Ladner, who addressed the issue of patriarchy among Black people and are supportive of Black Nationalist political perspectives. The legacy of Black women who were Pan-Africanist leaders is also largely ignored. In her book “Set the World On Fire,” Keisha Blain provides a comprehensive look at the history of Black women who were leaders of major Pan-Africanist organizations, including women like Queen Mother Audley Moore and Mittie Maude Lena Gordan.
It is not a coincidence that the Black women who receive the largest mainstream platforms in progressive spaces would also be folks who provide arguments that would discredit the development of independent Black infrastructure that would allow Black people to be independent of progressive institutions. This is not to say that there aren’t legitimate critiques of Pan-Africanist political activity. Nevertheless, Pan-Africanism is often uniquely characterized as particularly patriarchal, enabling a progressive mainstream that benefits from the marginalization of Pan-Africanism. This dynamic allows the progressive mainstream to fortify an arrangement of Black dependence on their infrastructure that makes us perpetually available for their continued exploitation of Black oppression for their political power.
Baltimore’s Progressive Mainstream
Below is a brief list of meaningful examples of the progressive mainstream in Baltimore and Maryland. Mentioned earlier are examples of policy efforts and political advocacy that are central to their worldview. This includes fights for a living wage, Medicare for all, criminal justice reform, an affinity to socialism/communism, strong support for the candidacy of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States, etc. The point is not to cast these political ideas, organizations, and activities as problematic but rather to help identify the progressive mainstream’s ideological landscape.
Baltimore-impacted Progressive mainstream organizations include:
- Progressive Maryland – This organization that has resources to lift up and support people running for public office with progressive politics. Progressive MD also supports progressive policy initiatives that align with the values of their platform. Most of their influence resides in the DC suburbs, but they have some relevance in the Baltimore region as the Baltimore region’s elected officials are leaning more progressive.
- SEIU – This organization has a significant national and regional network and has a solid base in Baltimore. They were influential leaders in the fight for 15 and other labor-related issues in Baltimore and throughout the state.
- Red Emmas – This bookstore and coffee shop does not have a footprint in electoral politics or policy advocacy but constitutes a cornerstone of mainstream leftist politics’s intellectual foundation. They host public discussions on various local issues, including issues around policing and poverty. An assessment of their intellectual inventory and the kinds of public figures that are prominent in their space make clear the ideological clash with Pan-African/Black Nationalist politics and favoritism toward integration.
- Real News Network – This is a local independent news agency reasonably open about its leftist leanings. It does not have a strong following in mainstream Baltimore media circles but is often a mouthpiece of progressive Baltimore political landscape elements. A careful examination of their coverage also reveals the marginalization of notions of Black self-determination and Pan Africanism.
These are just examples of organizations that are representative of the emerging progressive mainstream. What is happening is that the increasing level of political influence that is being experienced by this progressive mainstream in Baltimore is operating with a blindspot that, at best, marginalizes Pan-Africanism and at worse, is hostile to it. This can be demonstrated by the nature of the Black political activity that these institutions are engaged in. The Black organizations that are most aligned with these progressive mainstream forces lack three critical areas of advocacy and political action that would make them sufficient in disrupting the integrationist worldview:
Advocacy for the development and investment in Black independent infrastructure that would facilitate our ability to move with institutional autonomy. This is not just merely stating a belief in building Black institutions, but rather active participation in building, or advocating for investments in building an ecosystem of Black institutions that are accountable to the community. Advocacy for the development of Black economic and civic self-sufficiency. This is a contrast to advocacy regarding economic opportunity as a stand-alone issue. Without building economic self-sufficiency systems, Black people will continue to be dependent on the corporate sector for our ability to thrive.
Challenging the mainstream white liberal/progressive institutions complicity in the maintenance of disaster management. This means challenging philanthropy, the education reform movement, and other white led formations that may advocate for progressive policy and maintain oppressive systems’ credibility.
Another observation of Baltimore’s progressive mainstream’s local political dynamic is through the Baltimore Chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice). This is a white social justice organization that focuses on challenging and organizing white people against racism. There are Black organizations that it designates as its accountability partners (LBS use to be one of them), and they follow the lead of these organizations. Some of the organizations they list include Organizing Black, The Baltimore Algebra Project, and Campaign for Safety Justice and Jobs. Much of the work of these organizations align with the progressive mainstream agenda. Aspects of criminal justice reform constitute most of the advocacy that SURJ highlights of the organizations they designate as their accountability partners. Except for a handful of social media posts, most of the external communication from the organizations that SURJ promotes excludes the three items described above as critical blindspots of the progressive mainstream.
While these organizations do good work in their respective areas, without an explicit call for a Pan-African worldview as the basis for Black participation in any broad multiracial coalition, these organizations risk being tokens used to justify white control over the vital functions of Black life. They run the risk of being appendages of a system that expands the disaster management program that uses Black suffering to fuel and sustain white-controlled non-profit and human/social service institutions. LBS has a working relationship with many of these organizations. We know that some of them are clear about this dynamic and work to collaborate with various community elements to build the kind of infrastructure that would be disruptive to the progressive mainstream.
When we see Black organizations that are close to the progressive mainstream elements, we need to inquire as to what community they are truly accountable. Some of the organizations listed above may have made informal agreements with the progressive mainstream to be the tokenized Black faces of their political thrust. There is money in being the Black face to legitimize white progressive political activity that views Black people merely as a community of oppressed people who need a progressive policy to address our problems.
The three items mentioned above (which include: 1.the development of independent Black infrastructure, 2. Black economic self-sufficiency, and 3. challenging white progressive institutions that are complicit in oppressive systems) are the political advocacy that is most threatening to white domination. Black organizations that are not actively advocating and working on any of these issues may challenge some oppressive policies but are simultaneously leaving white hegemony of the arenas of Black civic life intact.
LBS is an organization that operates in close proximity to elements of the progressive mainstream in our legislative advocacy. We should be openly questioned about our relationship to these institutions just like any of the other organizations that have been named as examples. In some quarters, we have been questioned and in some cases criticized for being too close to some of the elements of the progressive mainstream. The point here is that questions should be asked of everyone who has proximity to the progressive mainstream and we all should be willing to answer these questions without getting defensive or upset.
Organizations like the Black Church Food Security Network, Cllctvly, The Bloom Collective, Kindred Wellness, and many others are Black organizations that are central in doing the work to build independent Black infrastructure and economic self-sufficiency. These kinds of organizations should be central to how we engage in Black Liberation here in Baltimore. These organizations’ work is not as glamourous in social justice spaces as the activism that is endorsed by the progressive mainstream, but this work will outlive the societal moments of white guilt that is endemic in progressive mainstream political activity.
LBS is an organization grounded in a Pan-African worldview; we can challenge the white progressive/liberal institutions that are complicit in offering oppressive systems to solve Black people’s problems. Our work involves challenging the non-profit industrial complex, the human/social service sector, and the Democratic Party establishment. We have challenged these institutions in ways that are disruptive to the progressive mainstream. As a result, we have been characterized similarly to how Pan-Africanism is typically described as in liberal white academic spaces.
LBS has been characterized as angry and aggressive in whispering campaigns that seek to avoid confronting the substance of our critique of white progressive/liberals. I was once accused of threatening to kill a white person amid an LBS effort to get justice for Black students who were being abused by a white instructor. They said that I went to this white instructor’s house and threatened him, even though I had never been to this person’s house. This same caricature of being violent has been utilized in whispering campaigns within the non-profit and advocacy community to marginalize LBS.
Recently, an anonymous Facebook page appeared in 2018, making accusations of rape and gender-based violence against LBS with no evidence and no person claiming to be a victim. While there are good reasons why a person accusing someone of sexual assault would want to remain anonymous, this page has not produced any additional evidence, information, or corroboration of the narrative that was put forward. There are many aspects of the things that the page says that are verifiably untrue. What is clear is that the anonymous page is grounded in a worldview that is not rooted in actually addressing violence against women but an attack on notions of Black self-determination. The page’s characterization of LBS’ political work as pro-capitalists and misogynists are concepts in direct opposition to Black nation-building. However, these implemented scare tactics are consistent with the liberal academic historiography of Pan-Africanism being described as inherently violent and patriarchal. To date, there have been no charges brought, no additional information offered, and no attempts by the page to engage in work that addresses sexual violence against Black women in Baltimore. Instead, the page is just a continued attempt to advance a narrative about LBS that is similar to those used to marginalize Pan-Africanism perspectives.
LBS is not an organization that is above reproach or criticism; women within our organization have publicly addressed the page’s broader issues. There are other organizations in Baltimore with leaders who have been accused of sexual violence and abuse. The victims are not anonymous and have provided detailed and credible accounts of their experiences. Yet they do not have social media pages dedicated to them and are not targets of this anonymous page. This particular attack on LBS is not about sexual violence. Still, it is about discrediting LBS worldview of Pan-Africanism and pressing forward the liberal academic troupe that it is inherently violent and patriarchal. This attack serves to preserve the progressive mainstream from attacks on its ability to control and absorb Black political advocacy into its orbit of institutional control.
Some conservative, capitalistic political elements would use this critique of the progressive mainstream to justify bad policy and conservative Black leadership. Some Black people are political leaders who use race to cover their conservative worldview and personal/professional opportunism. For instance, LBS has had to challenge the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland to push beyond some of its members’ conservatism. Some of them have characterized LBS criticism of the Black Caucus as complicity in white liberal attacks against Black people. There are indeed white progressive political elements that would like to neutralize the Black Caucus; however, this does not exempt them from criticism of their policies. Regardless of our past clashes with the Black Caucus, it is a vital institution that must be harnessed by our community.
There have been conversations over the past couple of years about developing a Maryland Progressive Caucus, similar to the progressive caucus in the US House of Representatives. This would be a caucus that would lead on progressive issues that are priorities for the progressive mainstream. I spoke with some Black people who work on Annapolis’s legislative issues that thought this might be a good idea. I pushed back against this because a progressive caucus would allow non-Black people to lead on policy issues that impact Black people. Even though many of the legislators in such a caucus would be Black, their worldview would be rooted in the progressive mainstream arrangement. My suggestion to people who supported the development of a progressive caucus was to make the Black Caucus champions on the progressive issues that impact Black people. This is often the work that many Black people appendages of the progressive mainstream seek to avoid.
The struggle to build an independent Black power base that is accountable to Black people requires difficult engagement with our community’s elements that do not agree with our policy perspective. This work requires more than being an articulate Black person for white people whose paternalism promotes Black people who lack rigor in their work and ideas. This work requires Black advocates to work through tough and complicated issues amongst Black people who are not easily impressed. For instance, LBS’ work on criminal justice reform, particularly our stance against mandatory minimums and other so-called “tough on crime” measures, is a good case study.
Black people who live in communities that experience high levels of violence are prone to support efforts like mandatory minimums, increased police budgets, and the spy plane program, not merely out of any ideological commitments but because folks are looking for solutions to very important issues that impact their community. We have had very heated disagreements with Black people in the community on these issues because they take our perspective to be a gesture of lacking regard for the violence in the city. LBS’s focus on developing alternatives to traditional public safety approaches is rooted in the fact that we would lose our credibility amongst Black people in our community if we did not pair our advocacy against the criminal justice system with anti-violence measures to address their concerns.
LBS has publicly called for alternatives to traditional public safety for many years and has successfully pressured the government and philanthropy to expand its investments in programs like Safe Streets and other community-based anti-violence initiatives. The progressive mainstream is mostly silent on issues of community violence. When they do address issues of violence, they are often advocating for investments in white led public health institutions like Roca instead of Black community-based anti-violence programs. It is much easier for a Black organization to situate itself in the progressive mainstream ecosystem and be imposed on the public as leaders of Black people than to build up a base of Black people in the community that is independent of white progressive mainstream control.
Going back to Hubert Henry Harrison’s notion of Cracker Democracy and the idea of the cracker mandate of “keep the nigger in his place”, progressives have often portrayed themselves as enlightened on race issues. The political and conceptual blindspot on disaster management is the mechanism by which Black people are kept in our place. We are the perpetual helpless negroes who need to be saved by progressive coalitions. There are very few images and representations of Black people as politically and culturally self-determined people in progressive mainstream spaces. We are typically objects of sympathy, affection, or a spectacle, which supports institutional formations that belong to the non-profit/progressive political organizations that serve as the anchors for the progressive mainstream.
A look at the new organization “Strong Futures Maryland” is an example of an organization representing the progressive mainstream’s precise problems. When you look at its website and its intro video, you see that it uses the issue of race to justify a progressive platform that aligns with the progressive mainstream. The video makes no substantive mention of building independent Black infrastructure, Black economic self-sufficiency, or challenging the mainstream progressive/liberal institutions complicit in advocating for disaster management. Its favorable promotion in the Washington Post is an excellent example of how the progressive mainstream can impose on Black people the organizations that are supposed to advocate for us.
What we are observing is the acceleration of the gentrification of Black Liberation. White hipsters, liberals, progressives, and non-profit professionals are engaged in a colonial project of the absorption of Black political activity. A core part of their strategy is to curate which Black voices are given access to the mainstream. Black voices will echo the agenda of the progressive mainstream in the name of Black Liberation. But others of us seek to further our ability to be self-sufficient and end the continued exploitation of our suffering for any individual benefit of this progressive mainstream. The emergence of institutionalized elements of this progressive mainstream is merely an expansion of white institutions’ control over Black life.
This progressive mainstream can substantively engage Pan-Africanism and truly participate in shifting power away from the institutions that currently govern Black people’s lives and into Black liberatory institutional formations. This would require them to give up the careerism in Black suffering that constitutes many aspects of the progressive mainstream and kill the white saviorism that is ubiquitous in progressive spaces. Without making these shifts, the continued gentrification of Black Liberation that is taking place due to the emergence of the progressive mainstream in Baltimore will culminate in a progressive version of Cracker Democracy.