Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul contributes important ideas to the struggle of black liberation. The author, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. argues that the core of the issue is a “value gap” that is woven into the entire fabric of our society, from our foundational myths and documents through our laws, customs and our values. That value gap is the simple, incontrovertible fact that black lives are valued less than white lives. If anyone seriously doubts that fact, I can refer them to the U.S. Constitution where with mathematical precision, black lives were valued at merely 60% of white lives. If there is still any doubt, we can see the judicial and societal acceptance and approval of police meting out capital punishment for such crimes as jaywalking, having a broken taillight or not signaling a lane change, or for no crime at all in the cases of John Crawford and the child Tamir Rice.
I did not need persuading that America as a whole values black lives less than white lives. The proof is in the snide responses to #Black Lives Matter and the joke memes such as “Black Labs Mattter/All Labs Matter.” That Americans think the never-ending murder of black men is something to joke about proves their moral culpability in the devaluation of black lives. That American police refuse to do their jobs because Beyoncé hurt their feelings while they defend the murder of black children by police is just another example of how often white lives (and tender feelings) matter more than black lives.
While Glaude provides a valuable service making a case for why black lives matter less than white lives and showing how that has been true throughout history, he omits some of the forces that are instrumental to that devaluation. Most importantly, he underestimates the force religion has played in that process from the initial declaration by protestant religious leaders that black people had no souls which made American chattel slavery significantly worse than slavery in Catholic countries where slaves still had some rights including the right to marry and keep their family together. They were allowed to learn to read and write, were encouraged to join the church and could not be summarily executed. The pernicious role of religion continues to this day with the widespread prosperity gospel providing a theological defense of white supremacy and societal neglect for the poor and dispossessed.
Glaude is best when he describes the opportunity deserts that urban communities have become, though he understates the case. In fact, it is even worse than he describes it. How can people find work when the jobs are no longer in the city and public transit has been hollowed out? He is exactly right about the Great Black Depression that continues despite the “end” of the recession. He does not mention the destruction of public education by the charter school movement and while he focuses a lot on incarceration, he does not mention the repressive impact of school discipline in urban schools being handed over to the police, resulting in black people being confronted by an adversarial criminal justice system from kindergarten on up.
He does not think it is hopeless. He thinks we need a movement rooted in changing three things, how we view our government (expanding its role in creating the conditions that make success possible), how we view black people (and of course, value them), and what matters to us as Americans (Valuing people over property is one crazy idea we might consider.) These are big changes and will take a lot of work, work that has to build from the grassroots because those in power are in power precisely because they subscribe to the “racial habits” that sustain the status quo.
I agree with him on so much and think he is correct that fundamental changes are necessary. We know from the speed with which southern whites abandoned economic populism that people would rather be poor than equal. Their racism changed their view on what government should do; they valued white privilege more than getting ahead themselves. Borrowing from Scot Nakagawa who wrote that “blackness is the fulcrum of white supremacy,” I would argue that racism is the fulcrum on which economic inequality is levered. One way folks at Oregon Action addressed that was to work on economic justice issues, but only issues that could be framed and organized around racial justice and to deliberately incorporate that racial justice frame into all the messaging on that issue.
Glaude expresses a lot of contempt for black community leaders and he names names. Conservatives who call them race-hustlers will find ample comfort in this book, because Glaude seems to see them in the same light. He is particularly harsh in his critique of Obama, in particular calling him out for not speaking out about race enough. On the other hand, while it would be great for Obama to speak more honestly about race, we have seen many times that the moment he gives his opinion, racial justice issues become polarized in unhelpful ways. Just about everyone agreed that the cop who arrested Henry Louis Gates for trying to enter his own home was a jackass, until Obama called him one. Then suddenly, the petite and elderly Gates was a dangerous black man who disrespected an officer of the law. When Trayvon Martin was murdered by the violent thug George Zimmermann, there was widespread condemnation of the failure of police to arrest the murderer. But then Obama said Trayvon made him think he could have been his son and all of a sudden there were fake pictures of Martin in the media and he was a criminal wannabe and so on. Obama’s comments were not helpful in the least. Some honesty about how careful he has to be is in order.
My greatest disappointment, though, and something that made me want to throw this book across the room in disgust is Glaude’s prescription for change. He suggest that black people go to the polls and vote for everything down-ballot but leave the vote for president blank. A blank-out campaign to show their disgust and disappointment in the process, he thinks will be empowering. Instead, it will guarantee a Supreme Court that will finish their incomplete efforts to eliminate the Voting Rights Act, who will rubber stamp Voter ID laws that keep blacks from voting, who will approve Texas’ racist attempt to redefine one-person/one vote to disappear the far-too-many black people who are prohibited from registering to vote because of racist judicial practices, who will continue to erode all the gains and protections from the Civil Rights Act and set democracy back fifty years. I could not think of a more disastrous thing for black people and this is what he advocates.
I liked the writing. It is urgent, fast-paced and clear. He outlines his arguments well and makes a solid case for the value gap being a flaw built right into our foundation as a society. He makes a good argument about the causes of the unrelenting despair in the black community. He is right that we need major changes in how we think about government, black people and what is valuable. He could not possible by more disastrously wrong about how to change that.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.