June 28, 2021
We Got to Get the Answer Right This Time.
Can we reform our way to the society I dream of or is that just the wishful thinking, thinking that soothes but leaves too many of us living lives of ongoing despair?
These are questions that have haunted me since 1968.
That was the year, as a graduate student, I played a role in shutting down Columbia University’s plans to build a gym in a Harlem park and demanded the University stop being complicit in the destruction in Viet Nam. With students sitting in, and the University shut down for days we had to consider how the crisis would be resolved. The campus was ringed by a wall of police and competing student groups were in conflict. I found myself in a neighboring apartment debating with other student leaders what should come next.
Fueled with the wisdom of youth and the fervor of that moment the discussion was long and hot. Should we negotiate, get the changes we could get, and end the strike? That might give us access to the workings of the University so our voices would, over time, have some ability to influence policy and practice, moving it in the direction we knew as right. Or were just being co-opted by those in power? Were they be giving a “victory” that would have little or no substance? Was the only real resolution to tear the system down and build something new in line with our values?
For those of us who chose the path of reform, the years ahead were filled with seats on committees and student senates. These were new places to speak, but ultimately represented a slow, modest change in the power structure that still left so many in distress. Perhaps the University is a better place for what we did and the long and hard effort of trying to change it over time. Perhaps not. Weighing what really has resulted from or effort to reform will be left to the work of historians to judge.
For those who rejected this path of reform, the work of change moved to other streets and places. It popped up from time to time, never gone but, never victorious.
With each year and each flashpoint, the same questions re-emerged.
It is more than 50 years since I chose the path of reform and rejected calls for revolution. We still face the same harsh realities. Racism remains a foundational element of our nation, one that continues to punish communities of color and privilege white Americans. The economic disparity continues to result in too many of us struggling with the basics of day-to-day life, let alone manage even small emergencies. Our schools struggle, our health system continues to fail too many of us, our policing and prison systems are broken. Voting remains a hurdle, not a gateway.
All of this after years of advocacy, turning out the vote, and organization building. All of this after petitioning, rallying, letter writing, meetings, contributions, and heated conversations.
We continue to tell ourselves that Dr. King was correct when he preached “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But after decades was he right?
We face a system of entrenched conservative power and wealth that has learned too well from another master, Muhammad Ali, the “Rope-a-Dope.” We face an opponent that cares little for the will or good of the people, only for preserving its own power, wealth, and privilege. They have learned that if they keep the levers of power under their control we wail away, waste our energy and resources until we tire out and drop away. They have learned to tilt the rules to keep their hands on the steering wheel and their feet on the peddles.
In the last week, I have seen a community that desperately needs and wants to reform its Police Department, to give the voice of the community a powerful seat at the table stymied. A conservative minority was able to use the rules of the Chicago City Council to keep a majority unable to act and to protect the repressive status quo.
In the last week, we have watched Senate Republicans prevent a debate on a proposal that would ensure citizens in every state have the same rights to vote. And the power to prevent that debate, the “right” to filibuster, is defended against all logic as the fight to protect democracy even when it is used to destroy democracy.
At every level elected officials that I have worked to elect, who seem to agree with my values and goals are unable or unwilling to overcome the roadblocks that our conservative foes are willing and able to throw in the way, preventing MLK’s arc from bending to justice.
And with each year, as the battles are lost, the rules are made more difficult, becoming even higher barriers to progress.
We select our President in a system that values each of the 577,719 people living in Wyoming 68.5 times more than it values each of the 39,576,757 people who have chosen California as their home.
We have a system where the Senate is split 50-50 only because the less than 200,000 voters who elected Cynthia Lummis as Wyoming’s Junior Senator carry as much Senatorial weight as the 2,270,000 voters who gave Joel Ossof one of Georgia’s 2 Senate seats.
In a Senate with rules that empower the minority, this imbalance takes on even greater weight.
We have a House of Representatives whose members come from districts which our Supreme Court has said can be drawn to keep political power and not to ensure equal representation. So, in North Carolina, an evenly split electorate results in a House delegation with 8 Republicans and 5 Democrats.
We have statehouses, elected from gerrymandered districts able to continue building power as they redraw both state legislative and US House districts with politically colored glasses. They are empowered to re-draft their election laws to further limit the voting power of those they fear will vote against them.
We have a united conservative block facing off against a very splintered set of progressives and “progressives.” In a tilted system, this becomes a very one-sided contest.
In 1959 James Baldwin recognized in his essay Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes the existential challenge we faced. “The American way of life has failed—to make people happier or to make them better. We do not want to admit this, and we do not admit it. We persist in believing that the empty and criminal among our children are the result of some miscalculation in the formula (which can be corrected); that the bottomless and aimless hostility which makes our cities among the most dangerous in the world is created, and felt, by a handful of aberrants; that the lack, yawning everywhere in this country, of passionate conviction, of personal authority, proves only our rather appealing tendency to be gregarious and democratic. We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”
In 2021, I have been forced to again face the question of whether this system can be reformed. Can we build a more equitable system? Can we build one that remedies the many flaws we are seeing so vividly before us, by doing our political work more diligently than we have done it since 1968?
We are betting a lot on answering it right. We have so many people struggling for a fair deal, who hope to be seen as valued and equal, and whose lives depend on that answer.
How much longer do we have to wait for the arc to tilt upward and lives to be improved?
When is it time to say the system is indeed broken, beyond repair, and begin the hard conversation about what we are willing to do now?