President Joe Biden sings “We Shall Overcome” during a worship service alongside Black Democrats at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on Jan. 15, 2023, the eve of the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Photograph by Brendan Smialowski/AFP, via Getty Images.
Joe Biden stated what his party takes to be the truth about Democrats and Black America, when, days before police officers murdered George Floyd in 2020, he told a host of a popular Black radio show while promoting his candidacy, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
Biden’s claim was galling. As a race-baiting legislator in the 1980s and ’90s, he helped to dismantle welfare and expand the criminal legal system. The comment was also presumptuous; for weeks, Biden was engaged in competitive Democratic primaries. But the Democratic Party had basically owned the Black vote for nearly a half century. Did Blackness confer such a political uniformity that even someone like Biden could say that a vote for him was a vote for the interests of Black Americans?
If that’s true, why has it been hard to sustain a movement against racism in the United States? What undermines the unity of Black people amid racist attacks, including the recent mass shooting of Black people in a Dollar General store by a white supremacist in Jacksonville, Fla.? Days after Biden’s impolitic quip, the largest protests in American history unfolded across the country. The “Black lives matter” slogan assumed new meaning in a pandemic that had ravaged Black communities in particular. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd shocked the public out of its exhaustion with our upended society.
Local activists unveiled radical demands to uproot the causes of violence, disease, and death — demands born of the chaos of the pandemic and the radicalization created by the state’s failure to enact meaningful reform. Protesters called for the redistribution of public money away from the police and back into libraries, health care, housing, schools, and social programs. Ordinary people responded to the pall Donald Trump cast over national politics, and they also protested local conditions worsened by police brutality and austerity budgets.
When Biden claimed that no Black person could vote for Trump, he sensed the political impact of Trump’s racist insults hurled at cities with Black mayors or large Black populations. Trump had once described Baltimore as a disgusting and rat-infested city where no human being would want to live. Chicago became a catchall for his racist caricature of American cities — what he called “American carnage” in his inauguration speech in 2017. He said of San Francisco, “It’s worse than a slum; there’s no slum like that.” As a response to Fox News host Sean Hannity singling out Black-led cities, Trump said, “Everyone gets upset when I say it. It’s not racist. Frankly, Black people come up to me and say ‘Thank you, sir, for saying it.’ They want help. These cities, it’s like living in hell.”
Trump’s misconduct made it easy for Black public officials to decry him across national news outlets and voice solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Many protesters hoped that those politicians, some of whom invoked their own histories to empathize with the anger on the streets, would lead the way in transforming protest demands into public policy. Sylvester Turner, the mayor of Houston and the former president of the African American Mayors Association, said as much in 2021: “Black mayors, we have to get it,” adding, “We come from these communities and many of us live in these communities. So who better situated to address all of these needs and challenges than we are?” The sentiment was the same the year before: Black elected officials would stand in solidarity with Black protesters to pursue reform. All of this heightened protesters’ expectations; if federal politicians rejected their demands, maybe local ones would fulfill them, especially when it comes to police reform, which is a local issue given there are around 18,000 police departments.
Yet Black leaders in local and federal office largely failed to enact substantial reforms, which they claimed to be uniquely qualified to deliver. Instead, police killings nationally were higher in 2021 and 2022 than they had been in 2020. Often in politics, politicians say one thing and do another, and Black elected officials are no different. Political change requires cooperation among multiple parties, which can be hard. But these officials used their identity to cultivate an impression that they harbor unique insights that allow them to be effective legislators. It is a perspective crystallized by the title of an article by the social scientist and writer Andre Perry: “To Protect Black Women and Save America from Itself, Elect Black Women.”
Despite the greatest concentration of Black political power in American history, the problems that plague poor and working-class Black communities persist. We not only had a two-term Black president, and Black attorneys general, but now there are two Black Supreme Court justices. Black people preside as mayors of some of the largest and wealthiest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston; soon, Cherelle Parker, a Black woman, will become mayor of Philadelphia, the sixth-largest city. There are more Black elected officials in Congress than ever, but there has been no substantive reform. As a result, nearly 40 percent of Black people said in a recent poll that “B.L.M. has done the most to help Black people in the U.S. in recent years,” compared with the paltry 6 percent that said the Congressional Black Caucus had done the most. And for all the B.L.M. movement’s problems, more than 80 percent of Black people polled say they support it.
Black politicians’ suggestion that a shared racial identity means their election alone will fix Black communities makes it appear that the hard work to forge solidarity and engage in political struggle is unnecessary. Some describe this gap between promises and outcomes as selling out or even betrayal, yet Black elected officials complain of being held to a higher standard by the media or Black voters, who, they claim, hold unrealistic expectations for change. But these officials made false promises as Black insiders working on behalf of the community, which prompted new questions about how to achieve change.
The historian Robin D. G. Kelley has challenged the “presumption of a tight-knit, harmonious Black community that has existed across time and space.” During the Jim Crow era, residential segregation and racial terror seemed to unite the fates of Black people. Then, just as now, the Black community was contingent, fragile, and riven by class tensions between the Black middle class and the Black poor and working class. Whatever cohesion born of necessity then cannot be invoked today as an actual strategy to fight oppression. The successes of the civil rights movement further frayed any sense of a unified Black community, as more Blacks rose to the middle class and elected office. The generation that came of age after the 1960s benefited from the rights and affirmative action initiatives that cracked open the possibilities of a better life. Greater access to college and better-paying work, and with it better housing, transformed their lives and raised expectations that they could ascend in society. But that came at a cost.
“When members of a racial or ethnic group become affluent,” the political scientist Michael Dawson wrote in his groundbreaking book “Behind the Mule,” “they seek to preserve their ‘well-earned’ measure of security and privilege by forming coalitions with other racial or ethnic groups whose economic interests are similar,” leading to increased “class conflict among African Americans.” This was true in 1994, when Dawson published his book, and it is even more true today. For all the focus on the racial wealth gap between Black and white families, the greatest transformation in Black life in the past 50 years has been class polarization among Black families. In 1975, fewer than 1.4 percent made over $100,000. Today, that figure is 20 percent.
When it comes to the Black elite, the top 5 percent of Black households in 2001 had higher incomes than 85 percent of white households. The highest-earning 20 percent of Black middle-class households had higher incomes than 62 percent of all white households. “Du Bois’s ‘talented 10th’ has become the ‘prosperous 13 percent,’ ” quipped Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard African American studies professor, in a 2016 article. Today, that number is most likely higher. In the article, “Black America and the Class Divide,” Gates observed, “There are really two nations within Black America.” “The problem of income inequality,” he added, citing the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, “is not between Black America and White America but between Black haves and have-nots, something we don’t often discuss in public in an era dominated by a narrative of fear and failure and the claim that racism impacts 42 million people in all the same ways.”
This was an exaggeration, of course. Compared with white Americans, we can measure the fragility of the Black middle class and even the Black elite by their relative debt burdens, or income or wealth disparities. And while the wealth gap between the Black poor and the Black middle class may strain political allegiances, it also connects them. Middle-class Blacks are more likely than their white peers to provide financial support to poorer relatives. But this does not guarantee political solidarity; middle-class Blacks may resent people who “hold them back.” Largely because of racism in the real estate market, middle-class Black people are also more likely to live closer to poor Black neighborhoods than middle-class white people relative to poor white areas. This is no recipe for unity. Instead, Black homeowners who want property values to rise to protect their devalued assets may feel antagonized by this proximity.
The new opportunities for social mobility increased class tensions, which manifested in negative attitudes. In 1986, only 44 percent of Black people felt the values of middle-class and poor Blacks had “become more different.” That figure rose to 61 percent in a 2007 Pew poll where 70 percent of Black respondents with a college degree agreed that there was a value gap between middle-class and poor Blacks. Nearly one in four said that growing diversity within Black communities meant that they could no longer be considered a single race.
By April 2022, only half of Black people believed that “what happens to other Black people in the United States affects their own lives.” About a third said that they have “everything or most things in common” with poor Black people, compared with 12 percent who felt a deep affinity with wealthy Blacks. Any sense of a shared reality decreased as a person got wealthier: only 22 percent of Black people who identified as “upper income” expressed the greatest solidarity with the Black poor compared with almost 40 percent of low-income Black people who did.
The Black radical scholar Angela Davis lamented this shift in attitudes in a 2007 interview with British journalist Gary Younge: “We used to think there was a Black community. It was always heterogeneous but we were always able to imagine ourselves as part of that community. I would go so far as to say that many middle-class Black people have internalized the same racist attitudes to working-class Black people as white people have of the Black criminal. The young Black man with the sagging pants walking down the street is understood as a threat by the Black middle class as well. So I don’t think it’s possible to mobilize Black communities in the way it was in the past.” She went on to say, “I don’t even know that I would even look for Black leadership now. We looked to work with that category because it gave us a sense of hope. But that category assumes a link between race and progressive politics and, as Stuart Hall says, ‘There aren’t any guarantees.’ What’s more important than the racial identification of the person is how that person thinks about race.”
Not only attitudes but even the meaning of Blackness has changed over time. There are 11 million more Black people in the United States than there were in 2000. This includes Black immigrants, who make up 12 percent of the Black population, and Black Hispanics are 6 percent of Black people, per the U.S. Census. Attachment to their racial identity varies widely across these groups. More than half of U.S.-born Blacks say they have “everything or most things in common” with other U.S.-born Blacks. But that figure drops to about a quarter for Black people born outside the U.S. These differences in identity, lifestyle, and income are expressed in finances and economics, as well as politics.
While Black people vote almost in unison for the Democratic Party, they may want different things based on social class: Greater access to homeownership may be urgent for middle-class Black people, but rent control and eviction mitigation strategies matter more for the Black working class, whose needs are harder to meet politically. The needs of the Black middle class are both in sync with the aspirations of the Black political class and more legible within the existing political and economic system. This is why corporate entities have been eager to champion ending the racial wealth gap, increasing homeownership rates, and expanding Black business, while ignoring calls for rent control, expanded access to Medicaid, and reinstatement of the monthly child tax credit that lapsed in 2021. These different political goals help explain the gulf between Black elected officials who receive corporate donations and the millions of ordinary Black people they claim to represent. And when Black elected officials engage in the age-old politics of blaming poor people for their own condition, which former senator Carol Moseley Braun tried to put into legislation, the prospect of a single, unified “Black agenda” gets muddied.
As one of two Black women ever to serve in the U.S. Senate, Carol Moseley Braun showed that she was ready for the political prime time in the Democratic Party when she offered an amendment to the much despised 1994 Crime Bill that would try juveniles as young as 13 as adults if they committed a crime with a gun. She initially crafted what was her first major piece of legislation to target 12-year-olds, The Chicago Tribune reported, and she called for their parents to be fined up to $5,000.
Moseley Braun made sure there was no confusion over her intentions in an interview with reporters. “Do we treat juvenile criminals like criminals or like juveniles?” she asked. “I believe the philosophical basis and practical basis for separating juveniles out of the criminal justice system that existed 100 years ago, when all this reform happened, no longer exists.” She added, “The older juvenile criminals use the younger ones as mules for their guns, for their weapons; they are the ones who are doing more shooting now than any other group, in large part because they know there will be no sanction in the juvenile court system.” Moseley Braun aimed her comments at a white audience to try to validate her presence as the lone Black woman senator.
More so than any other Black political figure, it was Barack Obama who spoke to the American public in two registers, often at the same time: one for a white audience and one for Black America. He pioneered the archetype of the compassionate scold, willing to tell Black communities hard truths. When Obama stumped for the presidency in 2008, at a stop in Beaumont, Tex., he said: “Turn off the TV set, put the video game away. Buy a little desk or put that child by the kitchen table. Watch them do their homework. If they don't know how to do it, give them help. If you don’t know how to do it, call the teacher. Make them go to bed at a reasonable time. Keep them off the streets. Give ’em some breakfast. Come on.” He added, “You know I am right. I’ve got to talk about us a little bit.” The people in the crowd loved it, because it sounded familiar. Now Obama was authentically Black, not just jockeying for the Black vote. And white people could also enjoy it without feeling racist, because a Black man said it to a Black audience roaring in approval.
Three years later, the mayor of Philadelphia at the time, Michael Nutter, made national news when he excoriated Black teenagers as thugs at a Black church. “If you go to look for a job,” he warned, “don’t go blaming it on the white folks or anybody else if you walk into somebody’s office with your hair uncombed and a pick in the back, with your shoes untied and your pants half down, tattoos up and down your arm, on your face, on your neck, and you wonder why somebody won’t hire you? They don’t hire you ’cause you look like you’re crazy! That’s why they’re not hiring you.” He went on: “Buy a belt! Nobody wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt! Buy a belt! Learn some manners. Extend your English vocabulary beyond the few curse words that you know, some other grunts and grumbles and other things that none of us understand what you’re saying.” Nutter also described their Black fathers as “just sperm donors” he presumed had abandoned their children.
Vitriolic, mean, and racist.
Black officials perform such rebukes in the vernacular of the Black working class, which evokes a sense of familiarity, but at the expense of the guilty culprit who has shamed the race. When the Black political class invokes stereotypes or calls for “law and order,” it allows them to appear busy addressing the issues plaguing their cities, when in reality, they are merely upholding the long American tradition of blaming Blacks for social problems. We might expect this from officials who lack resources, or the ability to garner them, needed to undo decades of disinvestment. In the end, it is just easier to blame the victim and vow to unleash more police. Indeed, Nutter’s vicious speech came soon after a federal court ruled that the way the city’s police officers had engaged in stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional.
The eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 would make it impossible for any Black Democrat to ever make a speech like that again, but it also opened the gates for new dynamics in intraracial relations.
The 2020 protests opened a period of “racial reckoning,” where “systemic racism” entered mainstream dialogue. So Black elected officials gained new prominence and moral authority. More than ever before, they felt emboldened to use their racial identity as a shield to deflect criticism from whites, Blacks, and Latinos who opposed them or their political agenda. In a 2020 interview with Vogue, for example, Mayor London Breed of San Francisco dismissed her critics by suggesting they were white and had not lived the life that she had. She said: “I had to live in a public housing development that they wouldn’t have even dared set foot in. This is over 20 years, not just two years, of my life. I’ve been working in the trenches for my community my entire life. And none of these people have been in the trenches when we were dealing with issues of police brutality on a regular basis. Almost every day you’re hearing that someone that you loved was killed. I think part of it is, my experience is what determines how I make decisions. The good news is the people who know me and love me from the neighborhood I grew up in, they understand why I do what I do. They’re not ‘activists,’ but they love and they trust me.”
Breed has since made racist comments about Latinos, blaming them for the spread of fentanyl amid her broader attack on public drug use in San Francisco. “There are unfortunately a lot of people who come from a particular country, from Honduras,” she claimed last fall, and “the people who are dealing that drug happen to be of that ethnicity.” This statement is just as racist as Trump’s infamous admonition that Mexicans are “rapists.” But Breed’s willingness to deploy identity politics as a force field dampened the condemnation she should have received. The idea that one’s “lived experience” supplants knowledge or politics is what the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwó described as “deference epistemology”; the assumption that the racial politics of the moment would put a person beyond reproach is a powerful rejoinder.
Laurie Cumbo, a Black woman formerly on the New York City Council and now in Mayor Eric Adams’s administration, described the demand to defund the police as evidence of white progressives’ “colonization” of the racial justice movement. She accused Jabari Brisport, a Black state senator and member of the Democratic Socialists of America who supports the push to divert funding from police, of being the product of “gentrification.” Here Cumbo wielded the language of the left to launch a conservative attack on a Black socialist. She felt emboldened for the same reason Breed did.
Many of these elected officials have experienced racism. They are Black people in America, after all, so their own experience or those of their parents may have compelled them to become grassroots activists or to throw their hats into the political arena. But lived experience alone does not make them progressive or democratic. Nor does it mean that they share the same politics or viewpoints of those they claim to represent. Instead, social class, and especially political power, mediates how racism is experienced and lived in this country. Angela Davis explained this in her interview with Gary Younge: “When the inclusion of Black people into the machine of oppression is designed to make that machine work more efficiently, then it does not represent progress at all. We have more Black people in more visible and powerful positions. But then we have far more Black people who have been pushed down to the bottom of the ladder. When people call for diversity and link it to justice and equality, that’s fine. But there’s a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change.”
Black America is increasingly immigrant, young, insecure, and skeptical that racial equality can be achieved in their lifetime. The splintering social realities among Black people undermine any assumptions that political solidarity is innate. Nor does a politician’s racial identity give them an ability to solve long-standing economic crises in a skewed social order. Instead, solidarity is formed through mutual struggle; shared realities like racism and police brutality; and the common experiences of economic precarity, vulnerability to climate change, and bottomless student debt. Only through collective struggle can we fundamentally change this social order.
The outcry of Black support in response to a video of white thugs beating a Black riverboat worker on a dock in Montgomery, Ala., shows we want greater unity. When the video captures Black people coming to his rescue and beating back the white assailants, a wave of pride, combativity, and catharsis swelled across multiple social media platforms. Such solidarity through identification with racist violence has been ubiquitous in this age of social media exposés. We can also see a desire for solidarity in the aftermath of mass racist attacks like those in Charleston, Buffalo, and now Jacksonville; the one thing that all Black people share is the potential to be the victim of one. But when it comes time to decide what to do about the situation and how to achieve social change, we lack clear answers.
For a powerful moment, the historic protests of 2020 seemed to provide solutions. The most defining characteristic of those demonstrations was that they included everyone. Millions of white, Indigenous, and Latino people took part. The millions who poured into the streets forced the Democrats to produce the most far-reaching social programs in at least two generations in response to the pandemic, a shift from how the Democrats had planned to approach the looming presidential election. Voters were motivated by fear, not enthusiasm, to elect Biden and prevent a second disastrous term for Trump. But in the absence of a sustained movement, even as the Democratic Party controlled Congress and the White House, those emergency measures were dismantled. And then promises made at the height of the struggle to end police brutality and cancel student loans were abandoned, which reinforced the idea that nothing had changed, despite the historic nature of the movement. For all of the talk about reckoning with the history of racism, Republicans now lead the charge in erasing that history through book bans and attacks on curriculums, while corporate America reneges on many of its promises to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Some activists dismissed the participation of white people, in particular, as performative and ephemeral. It is doubtful that the hundreds of mostly white young protesters in Boise, Idaho, or a thousand in Portland, Maine, were performing to gain credibility with the few Black people who live in those areas. Instead, their participation suggests a more hopeful truth: Many of them were appalled by the murder of George Floyd, as well as the direction society is barreling toward. And the Black movement, as it so often has, allowed them to express their grief and dismay. But it was not just their opposition to racism or police brutality but also the relationship of these to the failed public response to the pandemic that brought them to the streets.
During the uprisings, young workers returned to their jobs even as thousands among us were dying of Covid-19. Threatened by eviction, afraid for the future, and infuriated by the insouciance of the millionaires in Congress and in the White House who dither while the world burns, millions of people came together in solidarity, despite our differences. That is a start, an opening we can either walk through or turn away from. Now it’s up to organizers, activists, and those invested in building a mass movement against racism and inequality to create organizations and other entry points. A new left will not just be willed into existence. We must organize and build it together on the basis of radical politics.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a co-founder of Hammer & Hope and the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership” and “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation” and the editor of “How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective.” She is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” and a Guggenheim fellowship.