Joe Biden’s Rise: The Most Cynical Use of Black History and Black Trauma
AKA Liberal Pragmatism: the Respectable Way to Lose Everything
Polka the possum plays dead when she senses danger. This works when a fox approaches, sees it and passes by. But what about when Polka finds herself in front of a car speeding down a highway? Good thing that people aren’t possums — we have more than one trick, we can dream of more than just survival, and through science, work and social struggle we can make that dream a reality.
There has been quote after quote in mainstream media editorials since Super Tuesday about why older black voters are so loyal to Joe Biden. The stories are confined to the crashing wave of “Bernie vs Biden’’ drowning out every other news story and almost everything else going on in the world. While many of the stories mention Biden’s association with Obama, most focus on the “pragmatism” of these voters. These quotes point to a truth about this society and a painful history that runs deeper than any primary election: many older Black folks think voting for Biden, a war criminal who was a key architect of mass incarceration, amongst many other horrible things, is a pragmatic vote because they want to get rid of Trump but don’t think white people or the establishment will actually go for anything that even superficially challenges the status quo in a positive direction. This pragmatism is either stated as one-sided fact, cynically lauded by the Biden people or naively dismissed by the Sanders camp.
“That’s not unlike our day-to-day life,” Candis Smith, an associate professor of political science and African American studies at Penn State, said. “How black folks navigate the world, how we deal with every major feature of our lives must involve some sort of calculation about what white people are going to do, is this safe to do around them, what will the consequences be? How must I smile to ease any fear you may have of me? Which injustice will I protest? That is part of black life in America. Why would voting be any different?”
One voter was quoted in the New York Times saying:
“Black voters know white voters better than white voters know themselves.… So yeah, we’ll back Biden, because we know who white America will vote for in the general election in a way they may not tell a pollster or the media.”
Blair LM Kelly writing in NBC News offered that
“Many of them admired the grit and talent of Warren but had no faith that white men in any significant numbers would support a woman for president, even if she was the best choice.”
These statements all speak to a basic truth about this country. These Black folks aren’t going to vote for what they want, because at least within the electoral arena they see honest political struggle as useless and worse. And it’s based on an assessment that elections under this system do not exist to give Black people a real voice in the affairs of the nation. Which is 100% accurate, as far as it goes.
But there are two courses of action that a person can take leading from this understanding: endorse Biden, or indict the whole damn system. So why choose the former? Especially when there are so many immediate problems with that “pragmatic” solution, the most obvious being: if you don’t think white people are going to vote for Sanders, what makes you think anyone is going to vote for Biden? But all this shows us is that pragmatism in this context isn’t simply about “what works” — which would align with the more common usage of the word. In this context, the term ‘pragmatism’ is about avoiding “politics” and struggle, avoiding challenging people’s ideas and beliefs.
And there is a real history that’s shaped how these questions are posed, what’s seen as political struggle, and what’s seen as off limits. Not just a history of repression and oppression (as real as that is) but a history of contested political battles that have been overwhelmingly won by the wrong damn side. Increasingly, a history where politics and ideology are seen as dirty words, pragmatism acting as an ossified wall of shit preventing even the discussion of real change. In this context, trying to challenge people’s thinking, change people’s minds, is not only seen as a waste of time, but even insulting. And this pragmatism acts as a firebreak,* preventing even the sparks of interest and excitement and joy that could explode into a revolutionary movement.
This kind of pragmatism is not by any means confined to older Black people in this country, nor is it confined to people voting for Biden. A whole history of philosophical and political pragmatism is way beyond this piece, but suffice it to say that it is an essential ingredient in the mix of what makes almost all of American politics particularly repugnant, and the “progressive” and even so-called “socialist” and “communist” movements and leaders throughout US history have been mired in it, often explicitly embracing it.** Nevertheless in this time and place, its worth looking at this immediate uptick with pragmatism in the news in this particular way. And It’s more than worthwhile to take a hard look at the particular history that got us here with a certain generation of Black people, one that is almost entirely ignored by the media most of the time but has somehow become the big story. Because if we are to make a better world, there’s no getting around this firebreak of pragmatism, we’ve got to carry the torch directly through it.
Those who are 75 today were born in 1945, what Gerald Horne called the “high water mark for communist influence among African-Americans.” Very few people alive today remember these days, but many more remember the aftermath. At the beginning of that year, the Soviet Union was the United State’s most precious ally, the main force in winning the war against fascism. By the end of that year, the fascist axis had been decimated and the US had dropped two nuclear bombs on civilian populations declaring to the world its intent on seizing this throne of top imperialist power. The Soviet Union quickly went from ally back to enemy #1. While it was disorienting for many Americans, for Black people this was a whole other thing. It meant the betrayal of many of their greatest champions. Horne says “This was a monumental turning point in African-American history and so personally and politically painful that, like “repressed memory syndrome,” it has been purged from our immediate consciousness though it continues to influence our actions each day.” Folks like W.E.B Du Bois and Paul Robeson were sidelined and blacklisted. They were the lucky ones, maintaining their freedom (if not their passports) and some of us still know their names. Others, like Ben Davis and William Patterson were jailed, and their courage and decades of heroic struggle erased from history.
These were people who essentially*** came to prominence as the fiercest fighters against the system and against white supremacy. and their mass support was taken to the next level with the alliance against Hitler’s fascism. At the same time, in that righteous alliance, they lost sight of the need for a real revolution, they minimized any vision for a better future beyond stopping fascism. Communists were activists, lawyers and representatives, and celebrities. And then suddenly they were less than nothing. While McCarthy and Hoover set the tone, it was made so much worse by the fact that Thurgood Marshall, Walter White, and the entire NAACP leadership worked with the FBI to make it all happen. Integration and liberalism are political and ideological programs, but especially as they were presented in the 50’s, they were the pragmatic, the non-political, the non-divisive road forward vs communism. The path where the “respectable” black leadership could keep their organization, their funding, their freedom. And suddenly they were the only game in town.
The 60’s didn’t start much better, when in October of 1960 “SNCC disinvited Bayard Rustin–an openly gay Black activist with former communist ties–from its fall conference after the AFL-CIO threatened to withdraw its funding for the organization.”
Simultaneously the Communist Party USA itself embraced pragmatism and “Americanism” even more openly than before, betraying any relationship to revolution, and working to neutralize and ameliorate what became the struggles of the 60s. The next decade saw less open state censorship of ideas, but much more underhanded wreckage and, as the decade went on, extremely violent repression.
The murders of Martin Luther King Jr, Fred Hampton, Robert Kennedy, and many others through the 60s all taught different lessons, but for the great majority the murders spoke louder than the leaders themselves ever did — saying don’t lead people to rebel, don’t lead people to unite with the people of the world, don’t even think about it, don’t even pretend.
While MLK, Fred Hampton and Medgar Evers were murdered by white racists, including cops and Feds, it’s worthwhile to separately consider the murders of Malcolm X and Bunchy Carter. Because for these folks, their killers’ legacies have been just as much if not more honored through the years in the Black community. And both of these legacies are directly tied to the depoliticization of Black survival.
The Nation of Islam, who murdered Malcolm (probably with the help of the FBI) is everything Malcolm accused them of being in his last days and more. Most importantly they maintain their stances on the reasons Malcolm left — they are an organization to contain Black people, not liberate them. One of the men who pulled the trigger lived out his days as a redeemed member of the community, as though opening a gym in a Black neighborhood and mentoring some kids is equivalent to what Malcolm X could have accomplished if he was not cut down in his prime. Meanwhile Kwanzaa is still celebrated every December by growing numbers of Black people even while the four Black Panthers murdered by its founder, Ron Karenga, rot in their graves and the revolutionary legacy of the BPP evaporates and is covered over.
It is not the case that the Nation of Islam and Karenga’s whole shtick have never done anyone any good. But it is the case that they have both actively replaced meaningful political engagement and struggle with charity, entrepreneurialism and an empty spirituality that contains the masses of Black people rather than compelling them to take action towards liberation.
And after the ebb of these movements, then came the sanitizers. MLK Day was turned into a congress-sponsored non-profit “Day of Service,” leading people to paint over graffiti, but much more importantly paint over any meaningful legacy of MLK or the civil rights struggle in general. Not only has the wrong side won the battles, but they wrote and rewrote the history.
Meanwhile the Black middle class that arose out of the struggles of the 60s and 70’s was predicated on its assimilation and removal from “the ghetto” and black culture, stripping black communities of generalized community assets and leaving increasingly reactionary religious institutions and the illicit economy as the only nominally black wealth in crumbling shells of neighborhoods. Internationally, the communist revolution suffered major defeats, stripping people of models for a better society and base areas for revolution, and opening up an ideological mess on a whole new level. All the while Reagan and now Trump’s transactional crass capitalism allowed people to minimize and compartmentalize the white supremacy of these war criminals and fascists as simply part of their brand, something that could be competed with in the market. Clinton’s pluralism advocated black entrepreneurialism and individualism in the place of any kind of liberation. And Obama told the world that the oppression of Black people was over, branding his program for Black people with his betrayal of the Rev Jeremiah Wright before he even took office. And now LBJ’s very Biden-like old school racist legacy is being revived and rejuvenated because after all, the story goes, he implemented all the changes that the civil rights movement pushed for, as though he wasn’t just the guy in power who was forced to concede.
These were not just things that happened. They sure as hell were not bound to happen. These were struggles between opposing forces, opposing worldviews, and opposing programs of action. And the consensus that exists does not have to remain intact. But to break through this consensus, and the wrong lessons learned, we need real revolutionary leadership, with science and a strategy to go up against the whole rotten and vicious system. And for the first time in the history of this country we really have that. We need to take seriously the correct lessons learned through deep pain and long suffering expressed in that quote from the beginning: “we know who white America will vote for,” (which the Sanders camp fundamentally dismisses). But we must not accommodate that backward bullshit, which is what this “pragmatic” support for Biden is about, and instead directly confront it, as part of a strategy that can emancipate all of humanity. Real revolution unleashes, leads, and backs up the advanced forces in society to uproot the widespread backwardness and ideological parasitism of white supremacy in particular (as well as American chauvinism and patriarchy) that maintains the loyalty of so many exploited and oppressed people to this imperialist system. Those who ‘know white people better than white people know themselves’ will not be put in a situation of constantly conciliating to that, but will be put in a position of power (including power relative to those white people ignorant of themselves) to lead society forward towards collective liberation.
This must be a revolution that puts humanity first. And that means challenging everyone living in this country, the top imperialist power in the world, to uproot the material parasitism of this country — the wealth and comfort leached off the backs of oppressed people here and around the world. This is a time for revolution unvarnished — a time for the new communism that Bob Avakian has brought forward to be put in front of people broadly and powerfully.
This is the exact opposite of pragmatism. This will be political. This will be ideological. This will be a struggle. This will both liberate people and expand everyone’s boundaries. And whether it works, is up to all of us.
This kind of pragmatism’s deepest shortcoming is that knowing “what works” doesn’t help as the world hurtles forward and new situations arise. Especially if it’s “what works” or “what worked at one point” for the most basic and debased survival of only some sections of oppressed people. We are facing fascism. It’s deeply informed by the past, but it’s a whole new layer of horror. And the same things that helped some folks survive in the past won’t help anyone even do that in the future, let alone make a brighter tomorrow. Let it go.
*A firebreak is a gap in vegetation or other combustible material that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of a bushfire or wildfire. A firebreak may occur naturally where there is a lack of vegetation or “fuel”, such as a river, lake or canyon. Firebreaks may also be man-made, and many of these also serve as roads, such as a logging road, four-wheel drive trail, secondary road, or a highway.
**Look no further than the Sanders camp where many so-called communists and socialists are willing to pragmatically trade in their dreams and even their most basic analysis or stance of anti-imperialism to get behind Sanders because for a moment he looks like he almost might get somewhere.
***The Communist Party USA, to which these folks belonged or supported, at that time had one foot in revolution and the other in rank reformism, but the point still stands.