he peculiar American sport that is the national election is back in season: Republicans vs. Democrats. Red states vs. blue states. Donald Trump fanatics attacking protesters as if bigotry will yield them better yardage on the field of economic opportunity. Hillary Clinton doing the Nae-Nae as if she scored a touchdown for the young folk she once called “superpredators.” Fox, CNN and MSNBC cashing in on the electoral contest.
We’re lured into the game, the thrill, accustomed to root for our favorite—or lesser-evil—team. Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude Jr. was right when he lamented in a recent Time article, “Presidential campaigns feel more like sporting events than democracy.”
In 2008, Barack Obama blitzed the American body politic. It felt as if we had all won. Even Jay Z hopped on the presidential bandwagon: “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk/Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run/Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly,” Sean Carter spit on “My President Is Black.” The Reasonable Doubt rapper, alongside millions of Americans, was convinced: Race relations would improve.
Obama’s evolution from grassroots organizer to darling of the Democratic Party to MVP (most valuable politician) of the American empire is remarkable. But if his election was a touchdown, what followed was nothing less than a series of political and economic interceptions. In fact, under Obama’s leadership, black people have lost more than we’ve gained. The disillusionment of a “dream deferred” has left some questioning the rules of the electoral game. But the majority of black voters continue to play. It’s the only game in town—so it seems.
For many, it’s plain-old common sense. The game is important. What happens on the field dictates so much of our lives. Who lives where. Whether schools have pipelines to college or to prison. In short, which lives matter.
Indeed, the field is powerful, but it’s not omnipotent. Resistance abounds, from street corners and college campuses to award shows and maximum security prisons. While some cast their lot with those on the field of electoral politics, others are planting their feet on different grass. For example, the Black Lives Matter network, which boasts 28 chapters around the country, is not endorsing a candidate. “We don’t think that playing a corrupt game is going to bring change and make black lives matter,” co-founder Alicia Garza stated in a recent interview.
For others, playing the game is the way forward. DeRay Mckesson, who made a name for himself via Twitter during the Ferguson, Mo., uprising, recently announced his run for mayor of Baltimore.
The movement is at a crossroads. And while what happens on the ground transcends neat categories, what we’re witnessing is a debate between two styles of politics. If “each generation must discover its mission,” as Frantz Fanon insists, then what are we to make of younger activists discovering different paths? Answers vary. But one thing is for sure: The most important tension animating this movement is political, not generational. It’s not Al Sharpton vs. black millennials; it’s neoliberal reform vs. radical transformation.
The playoffs are under way. In order to paint the country blue, the Democratic Party needs the black vote. But Glaude believes that “we need to do something [more] dramatic.” In his recent bookDemocracy in Black, he calls for “a reimagining of black politics and remaking of American democracy.” To jump-start black electoral power, he advocates a “blank-out campaign”:
The core of the campaign would be a coordinated effort of grassroots organizations whose primary task in the run-up to the election would be to focus attention on particular issues in the black community. These organizations would urge black voters to leave the presidential ballot blank or to write “none of the above.” But the trade-off would be to take up [issues] that require our attention beyond the election cycle.
Glaude’s vision is important. It challenges us to see beyond a bipartisan plutocracy masquerading as “American democracy,” it recognizes the limits of electoral politics while emphasizing the capacity of grassroots organizing and it helps us reimagine the field altogether.
The national election is not the only game in town. But too often we act—and vote—as if it were. Since 2008, 816 Democratic lawmakers have left office while Republican control of legislatures has doubled. In other words, as Obama swept the nation off its feet, the GOP swept the states into its hands. The results have been devastating. Under Republican leadership, states have disenfranchised black voters, opposed affordable health care and cut education funding. Democrats haven’t been better. Throughout chocolate America, poverty, unemployment, school closures and police brutality plague the day-to-day lives of the poor and working class.
But amid the bipartisan neglect, a radical awakening emerges.
Just a week after shutting down a Trump rally, young black organizers in Chicago helped oust Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, the first Latina woman elected to the position, who also delayed filing charges in the fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald by white Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is now charged with first-degree murder.
The message is clear: State repression of any color, gender and political party must be dismantled.
As the sun sets on Obama’s presidency, the nightfall of a Clinton-or-Trump election draws near. We must vote for the “lesser of two evils,” we are told. Clinton—who referred to black and brown youths as “superpredators,” who supported the replacement of a safety net with a carceral network, who supports the death penalty, who oversaw a coup in Honduras that resulted in the murder of indigenous activistBerta Cáceres, and who, just last week,critiqued Trump for not being Zionist enough—is apparently the lesser evil.
But what’s missed amid all the highlights of the game is something much more subtle and insidious: Trump and Clinton are not “choices.” They play for the same team. In fact, Clinton’s critique of Trump tells us much more about her commitment to empire and white supremacy than it does Trump’s “stance” on Israel and Palestine. If Clinton is the lesser of two evils and we must choose between a neoliberal Zionist and a neofascist racist, then we’ve already lost.
More than asking whom we will vote for come November, we must ask ourselves: Will we continue to sit in the bleachers of electoral familiarity, or will we blow the whistle on the whole damn system? Whatever we decide, let’s at least be clear about our actual choice, which isn’t between the “lesser of two evils” but between known oppression and unknown freedom.
That’s the choice, and the choice is ours.