by Rev. Andrew J. Wilkes
We live in strange times. We have a black president using race-neutral framing for social justice, alongside a Black Lives Matter movement using structural racism framing for participatory democracy. Killer Mike, a Southern rapper best known for his work with the Grammy Award-winning superduo Outkast, has endorsed a sitting U.S. senator and self-described socialist, Bernie Sanders. Some black preachers, apparently, are tripping over themselves to cozy up to Donald Trump or reposition themselves within the arc of Hillary Clinton’s historic candidacy. Strange times indeed.
Today, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders launches a tour of historically black colleges and universities (The HBCU Tour) in states where Clinton holds a clear advantage with black voters. He’ll be carrying a message of democratic socialism, one that rarely gets a hearing among any voting bloc.
Given the unique character of our political moment, I would argue that freedom-loving black folks should consider socialism as a viable political strategy for ameliorating the massive human misery in America. The reasons are embedded in our history and situation.
Socialism has deep roots in African American political history. The most famous and revered black person in America–Martin Luther King, Jr.–was a democratic socialist. Many of the most effective organizers and grassroots theorists of that era –folks like Ella Baker and A. Philip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin, for instance–held to a political vision of what may be called socialism. I appeal to black history to rebut the often-made claim that socialism has no lineage in communities of color and therefore is either untested or not to be trusted. This charge is passionately raised but at odds with results from the thinnest of Google searches and Wikipedia browsing. The careful work of scholars like W.E. B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, Manning Marable, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Robin D.G. Kelley substantiate this claim. With the black history glories of February around the corner, I invite you, dear reader, to review the most radical dimensions of black political traditions upon these shores.
Socialism has a thousand definitions. For our purposes here, let us say that socialism is a less grotesque analogy of God’s beloved community than capitalism; that it assumes use of all property to be a communal question; that it assumes that employees should be able to bargain collectively in any workplace; and that believes that the investment decisions of governments and businesses should involve, as directly as possible, those who are most affected by those choices. Socialist organizational principles are present, to varying degrees, in our unemployment insurance and Medicare and Medicaid systems, as well as the provision of energy, (especially electricity) in many regions of America. Closer to home, socialism, in seed form, is latent in the food co-op that provides a plate of kale and in the housing co-op that furnishes an equity stake to many a black family.
Socialism is about genuine fairness in the workplace. Embracing the socialist option is about prioritizing full employment instead of bemoaning double-digit unemployment rates in black communities. It entails addressing climate change by scaling up solar, wind, and electric forms of power. This is a practical and promising path for socialism, because green-energy jobs are, in many ways, outsource-resistant employment that can be mandated in the public sector and encouraged strongly in the private sector. Socialism is about embracing conventional and emergent forms of labor organizing–unions, worker centers, and associations like the Freelancer’s Union and coworker.org–to ensure that employees at all levels receive good wages, predictable work hours, and, a representative voice in discussions regarding hiring and firing policies.
This November, street corner prophets will promise us a kinder, gentler capitalism within the Democratic Party. I assume good faith regarding those making such claims. But they are patently untrue. Within our hearts, we know that we can do better. We must. We cannot guarantee a utopia in advance. But this we know: the sickness unto death that is capitalism will assuredly bury our dreams in a thousand graveyards before our time. Might we at least fail in a better direction, toward the sunlit promise of liberty and justice for all? If it be true that fortune belongs to the bold, then I say to the sons of Martin and Malcolm, the daughters of Ella and Fannie Lou, sun-kissed socialism is the way forward.
Reverend Andrew J. Wilkes is the co-pastor of young adults and social justice at the Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York. An alumnus of Hampton University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the Coro Foundation’s Fellowship in Public Affairs, his writing has been featured in the Washington Post, BET.com, and the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @andrewjwilkes