“A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer. A cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront, and we will defeat. To overcome these challenges — to restore the soul and to secure the future of America — requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity.” — President Joe Biden, inaugural address
I had the honor of attending the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris.
It was an inauguration unlike any in my lifetime, and perhaps unlike any in American history.
The twin pandemics that plague our nation — COVID-19 and racially-motivated violence — meant there were no cheering crowds of hundreds of thousands. Those of us who were invited to attend were tested for COVID and required to wear masks. 25,000 National Guard members were on hand to prevent a repeat of the deadly riot of Jan. 6.
But the inauguration was historic for other, more hopeful reasons, as well. Kamala Harris became the first woman, the first African American, and the first person of South Asian descent to hold the office of vice president. A 22-year-old Black woman, the nation’s first Youth Poet Laurate, captivated the nation with her vision of hope and healing.
It was a ceremony that was at once uplifting and weighty with the life-and-death challenges that face the new administration.
Among the very first actions he took upon assuming office — after mandating masks and social distancing on federal property —was directing every federal agency to review its state of racial equity and deliver an action plan within 200 days to address any disparities in policies and programs.
The Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government reads, in part, “The Federal Government’s goal in advancing equity is to provide everyone with the opportunity to reach their full potential. Consistent with these aims, each agency must assess whether, and to what extent, its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups. Such assessments will better equip agencies to develop policies and programs that deliver resources and benefits equitably to all.”
The order also rescinds the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, which “sought to erase America’s history of racial injustice,” as well as Trump’s order preventing federal agencies and contractors from holding diversity and inclusion trainings, which the National Urban League sued to overturn.
It was an encouraging sign from a president who campaigned on a promise to bridge the nation’s racial divide. He has assembled the most racially diverse presidential Cabinet in U.S. history, with people of color making up half of the nominees for Cabinet positions and Cabinet-level positions.
In a memo issued Saturday, the president’s chief of staff promised “significant early actions to advance equity and support communities of color and other underserved communities.” He was not specific about these actions, but President Biden has promised he would create a national police oversight commission in his first 100 days.
The National Urban League stands ready to assist and support President Biden and Vice President Harris as they tackle what the memo called the “four overlapping and compounding crises: the COVID-19 crisis, the resulting economic crisis, the climate crisis, and a racial equity crisis.”
We also stand prepared to hold the administration accountable to its commitments.
In the words of our Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, “We will not march back to what was but move to what shall be, a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce, and free.”
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.
The majority does not rule in the United States. The foundation of any democracy — one person, one vote — is mocked by institutionalized impediments that allow the minority to win even when they lose at the ballot box. In this era, even when Democrats win, they lose. And the will of the majority of the people is frustrated by a system rigged to empower the minority.
Consider: Democratic candidates have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections but have become president only five times. Trump became president four years ago despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. Presidents who lost the majority of the votes have nominated five of the nine Supreme Court justices. The reason, of course, is the Electoral College, which tallies votes by state, not by voter.
This institution is a legacy of slavery, designed by the founders to ensure that the less populated slave states would be able to balance the free states that had nearly three times the population. In frustrating the popular vote, the Electoral College puts the democracy at risk. Because of the Electoral College, Trump’s margin of defeat wasn’t 7 million across the nation, but about 65,000 votes in three states and the 2nd District of Nebraska.
That helped empower him to mislead millions by claiming the election was stolen, despite Joe Biden’s landslide popular vote victory. In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans each have 50 senators (with Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote). The 50 Democrats represent 41 million more voters than the 50 Republicans. Smaller, more rural states with few people, like Wyoming or Idaho, have as many senators as large populous states like California and New York.
To add insult to injury, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, which have more voters than several states, are denied statehood with no final vote on any legislation. That means, among other things, that three Supreme Court justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett — were all nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by a bloc of senators who represent less than half the country.
In the House, Democrats have a small majority. But to win a majority, it is estimated that they must win 6% to 7% more votes than Republicans across the country, because Republican gerrymandering — drawing districts to pack Democratic voters in a few districts (usually disproportionately people of color) while giving Republicans an edge in many — has rigged the system against the party that represents the majority.
And worse, Supreme Court judges nominated by minority presidents have ruled that the federal courts will do nothing to protect against grotesquely distorted gerrymandering. The same distortions exist in state legislatures, where gerrymandered districts help the party with the minority of votes gain the majority. That majority then has the power to redraw the districts to rig the system even more. More than 59 million Americans live under minority rule in a state where the party with fewer votes controls a majority of the legislative seats. In Wisconsin, 44.7% of voters cast ballots for Republican Assembly candidates, but the GOP won 64.6% of the seats. With gerrymandering, voters aren’t choosing their representatives; representatives are choosing their voters.
The right-wing Supreme Court majority has ruled that money is speech and that corporations are citizens, so their ability to throw money into elections cannot be limited. The result, not surprisingly, is that American elections get more costly and big money and entrenched interests grow more powerful. The fix is in — and the results are ruinous.
Today, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to agree to rules to govern the Senate unless Democrats agree to sustain the filibuster. The filibuster — the requirement that virtually any legislation receive not a majority of the vote but a supermajority of 60 votes — is the instrument McConnell used to obstruct virtually everything President Obama sought to do, with the stated purpose of making him a one-term president.
The result is a Senate that is frozen in the midst of cumulating crises. Even Joe Biden’s pandemic emergency rescue package is stalled. America becomes more and more dysfunctional as it becomes less and less democratic. The Democratic majority in the House has passed legislation — HR 1 in the last session of Congress — that would remedy some of these inequities.
The 51-vote majority in the new Senate wants this to be its first act. But, of course, if the filibuster is sustained the minority will block even these common-sense reforms. The sacking of the Capitol sent a message around the world that America’s democracy is literally under siege. The reality is worse: our system is rigged so that the minority can rule. The disconnect — the frustration of the will of the majority — is a clear and present danger.
EDITOR’S COMMENTARY: I Celebrate Harris as America’s ‘First’ but Lament the Number of ‘Firsts’ That Remain
As Kamala D. Harris took the oath of office on Jan. 20 to become America’s first Black woman, first South Asian and first woman elected vice president of the U.S., I found myself shedding tears of joy as another hurdle for unfettered access among the nation’s people of color came tumbling down.
And yet, despite the significance of her achievement and the message it delivers to little Black girls and boys – expanding the realistic scope of their dreams for tomorrow – I found myself equally saddened – even angry – because of the hundreds of years it has taken before the world’s bastion of democracy placed competence above both color and gender.
Harris has been the first to admit that she stands on the shoulders of a long list of talented Black women who could have easily served our country as vice president or president if they had been born during a different time in American history.
Noteworthy “firsts” include: Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate in Illinois; Barbara Jordan, the first Black elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and the first Southern African-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, representing New York’s 12 congressional district for seven terms and a former candidate for president; and Condoleezza Rice, the first female African-American Secretary of State and the first woman to serve as National Security Advisor.
Still, these women remain the tip of the proverbial “iceberg.” They, like Harris, stood on other shoulders – many whose names, if known at all, are only included among the footnotes of life.
While it is true that the number of Black elected officials has increased since 1965, Blacks remain underrepresented at all levels of government. Black women make up less than 3 percent of U.S. representatives and there were no Black women in the U.S. Senate as late as 2007. Even when fighting for such fundamental rights as voting equality, Black women have not only faced sexist men who challenged their rise to power but racist white women who viewed them as less than their equal.
As President Joe Biden continues to assemble his Cabinet and build his Administration, he has shown his commitment to keeping his word – nominating a host of firsts that include a Black man – retired Army General Lloyd Austin who shatters another glass ceiling as the newly-confirmed Secretary of Defense.
During the 2020 election cycle, the U.S. also marked the first successful bid by a transgender for state senator in Delaware, the first trans person of color elected to the Kansas state legislature and not one but two openly gay Black men elected to Congress in New York State.
Yes, we have much to celebrate as we see more “firsts” being achieved by men and women. Yet, even more noteworthy and because of their accomplishments, today’s youth can see themselves taking on roles and serving as leaders in ways that their parents just a generation ago could never have imagined.
Still, I wonder what unimaginable heights America could have reached – what medical breakthroughs we could have garnered – what societal ills we could have overcome – what life-threatening situations and challenges we could have avoided in the past and those which continue to hover on the horizon – if we could only shed our tendency for judging others based on race, gender, sexual orientation and other “differences.”
Some long entrenched walls are finally coming down in many significant ways. But as the recent riots on the U.S. Capitol illustrate, there are still many rivers which we as Americans must cross.
And along the way, if we truly want the best for our children and their children – if we really believe in the lofty words of our Constitution and the promises it makes to every citizen, as well as the invitation it extends to those oppressed people from other countries, we must be willing to embrace a paradigm shift of monumental proportion.
Then, I too, and you too, in the words of the great poet, Langston Hughes, will be seen, accepted and respected as an equal American – with all rights, privileges and opportunities to pursue our dreams and share our gifts for the benefit of our community, our nation and all of humankind.
Certainly the election of Vice President Harris leaves me hopeful and optimistic.
And yet …
By Langston Hughes
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day felt complicated this year.
We have new reasons to celebrate. High on that list is the election of Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Rev. King preached, to the U.S. Senate.
Georgians had the rare opportunity to vote for two senators at the same time. They elected Warnock, a progressive prophetic Black preacher, and Jon Ossoff, a young Jewish journalist and filmmaker. Seeing them campaign and celebrate together highlighted the vital partnership between Black and Jewish leaders in our struggle toward equality. It reminded me of that historic photo of King holding up pictures of the martyred civil rights colleagues James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
The people who made the Warnock and Ossoff victories possible — the dedicated organizers led by Stacey Abrams and her many colleagues and collaborators — made me think of earlier generations of voting rights activists like Fannie Lou Hamer.
This was the kind of moment for which King dreamed and worked.
Yet many of us were robbed of the chance to fully appreciate and celebrate these historic milestones. Because the day after the Jan. 5 election, while votes in Georgia were still being counted, a mob of angry supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol.
I will not soon be able to forget the feeling in my gut at seeing a gallows and noose being erected outside the Capitol. Or the sight of the Confederate flag being paraded through the rotunda while rioters searched for members of Congress and the vice president.
While the mob failed to get their hands on elected officials, they killed a Capitol Police officer and left four other bodies in their wake.
We have just begun the truth-seeking that is necessary for accountability.
There is no justification for the Capitol being so poorly defended when far-right activists had been making their violent intentions plain for weeks. Journalists and researchers, including the Right Wing Watch team at my organization, People For the American Way, had been documenting threats of violence and calls for civil war by people who believed Trump’s lies about the election being stolen from him and his supporters.
It is impossible to ignore the difference between the light security at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and the massive shows of force that were brought out for Black Lives Matter protests and other marches.
Did high-level law enforcement and military officials dismiss the threats from Trump supporters because they would be mostly white, because they were conservatives, because they were seen as allies of the law enforcement community? Their decisions left on-duty officers, as well as members of Congress, vulnerable. It was a fatal mistake.
Or was it something worse? The history of lynchings and racist mob violence in this country is also a history of complicity by law enforcement officials. Sometimes police officers led the violence, as they did at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Sometimes they were conveniently absent, as they were when Freedom Riders were left open to attack by an angry mob.
We are about to have new leadership at the Justice Department. And we have congressional leaders who are motivated to get the truth about what happened at the Capitol and to hold people accountable.
We the people have a role to play, too. We must demand that public officials not sacrifice accountability in the name of a false unity being called for by people who promoted the lies that fed rioters’ anger.
And we can honor Dr. King, the late John Lewis, and the other civil rights heroes we lost this year, by remaining alert and ready to resist the inevitable new attacks on voting rights that will come from politicians who are unhappy with the outcome of the 2020 elections and are desperate, like Donald Trump, to hang on to power.
And speaking of power, let’s celebrate another historical milestone this week: the swearing-in of Kamala Harris, a Black woman and daughter of immigrants, to serve as the vice president of the United States. Congratulations, Madam Vice President.
Ben Jealous, the former president and CEO of the NAACP, is president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation.
JESSE JACKSON: Scientific Community Must Reach Out to African Americans to Bolster Confidence in Vaccine
On Jan. 8, I received my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. I was honored to be accompanied by Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, the brilliant African-American viral immunologist who is a rock star in the field of immunology science.
From Dr. Corbett’s post at the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, she led the team that performed the scientific miracle of developing and testing the Moderna vaccine in record time. Now she is working to overcome the widespread hesitancy in the Black community about vaccination. Vaccination is imperative to save lives, particularly for African Americans, disproportionately the greatest victims of the virus. COVID-19 cases and deaths — now numbering over a staggering 375,000 in the U.S. alone — continue to shatter records on a daily basis.
The rampaging pandemic has exposed once more the extreme disparities in our nation. The Black community has suffered a hospitalization rate 3.7 times greater and a death rate 2.8 times greater than the white community. This reflects the harsh reality of inadequate health care in African-American communities. Many impoverished urban communities are health care deserts with hospitals and clinics unavailable. African Americans disproportionately work for employers that do not provide health care. Those who make too much for Medicaid eligibility are particularly at risk.
African Americans are also disproportionately essential workers — the nurses, bus drivers, transit workers, grocery store clerks and others — who must go to work and are at far greater risk. The mass incarceration of African Americans, which continues to this day, also creates far greater risk, since prisoners — like those in nursing homes — are at far greater risk. Now the vaccines offer the potential of staunching the march of the pandemic and saving millions of lives. For understandable reasons — remember the infamous Tuskegee experiments? — African Americans harbor suspicions about scientists and vaccines. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly one-half (48 percent) of Blacks and over one-third (38 percent) of Latinos were not confident that their needs had been taken into account in the development of the vaccines.
“We know our history, and we understand from where this hesitancy comes,” Dr. Corbett told the Chicago Sun-Times. “On the one hand, we are the communities most plagued by the pandemic. On the other hand, we are communities least likely to get vaccinated.”
Corbett’s role in leading the development of the Moderna vaccine in itself should calm some of the fears. Both of the vaccines currently approved for emergency use — the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — have proven to be greater than 94 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 and even more effective at preventing severe cases. The clinical trials involved tens of thousands of participants, including people of diverse backgrounds, races, ages, gender and those with other ailments like diabetes. One in 10 of those tested were Black, numbering in the thousands. That reality enables scientists like Corbett to have confidence in treating African Americans with the vaccine.
Racial violence plagues this country to this day. For the country to reach herd immunity, more than three in every four persons must be vaccinated. If African Americans or Latinos decline to be vaccinated, all will remain at risk. The past cannot be erased. But the present offers hope with Dr. Corbett’s leadership providing reassurance. To help provide education on the need for vaccination, Rainbow Push has partnered with the National Medical Association, led by its president, Leon McDougle. NAM is the largest national organization representing African-American physicians and their patients.
What’s clear is that the scientific community and community leaders must reach out and work hard to ensure that African Americans gain the confidence to get vaccinated. This won’t be easy. But with the leadership of Dr. Corbett and others, and with a new administration getting serious about providing the resources for mass vaccination and for outreach into the communities most impacted, lives can be saved. I was honored to receive my first dose, and I strongly urge others to join me.
The mob in the streets, the Republican mob in the Senate, and assorted police are partners in the coup at the Capitol.
The glue holding this band of brothers together is Black disenfranchisement and a pledge to white supremacy. Remember Tulsa, the Black Wall Street massacre of 1921. Police deputized white thugs to destroy this Black town, burn and lynch hundreds of Black people because they were gaining economic and political security. The courts never punished them for their crimes. In the 1960s, civil rights activists knew they were fighting the Klan, who often took their sheets off and donned police uniforms.
In like manner, the white terrorists who took part in the insurrection at the Capitol were almost treated like they had been invited to a tea party. Thousands of angry Trumpers were gathering and marching toward the Capitol. No large platoons of police were present, but when much smaller groups of Black Lives Matter protested peacefully, well-armed police were everywhere. Moreover, there were scores of detailed plans on the internet flaunting the mob’s anger at those who would not go along with the Big Lie of Trump winning the presidency.
Inside the Capitol with the terrorists chanting slogans about murdering Vice President Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and with scores of legislators cornered, massive numbers of police were missing in action. The protesters showed no fear of the police during or after the assault, even though no similar assault on the Capitol had occurred since the British burned it in 1812. While some overpowered Capitol Police officers fought valiantly, there were also reports of some taking selfies with the rioters.
So we are supposed to believe that Washington, the home of the world’s most powerful governmental body and the most powerful military presence could not have prevented the assault nor arrested the rioters on the spot. One FBI official said his hands were tied in monitoring the mob’s actions because legislatively they were not considered “terrorists.” Yet reports show the FBI had no problems playing a role in neutralizing and killing scores of Black Panthers, as well as playing a role in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When the smoke of this disgrace clears, the same old demons will be found. Trump, the mob and the GOP Trumpers are fighting to maintain white privilege and supremacy. They understand that in the recent elections Black voters rescued America from a corrupt, evil empire, where Black and brown people are rising in influence and representation. So, the bloody war is on, where five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died, joining the hundreds of Black people who have been killed by white cops and protected by white legislators.
Unless this band of brotherhood is broken, much more bloodshed will follow. Security, no doubt will be efficiently organized to protect President Biden and Vice President Harris. But will the police be there if the white terrorists, who the president called “patriots,” turn their attention to Black voters, churches, and their communities? It is time white America looked in the mirror and see what is rising in their backgrounds.
In recent days, we’ve seen the dying gasps of the Trump administration turn into tragic violence in Washington, D.C. There is much to say about that, and serious reckoning ahead when it comes to the causes and the solutions. But in spite of the anger and sadness, here is my plea to you today: Don’t let the chaos created by Donald Trump and his supporters distract you from appreciating something beautiful — the victories of Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s Senate runoff races and the organizing that made those victories possible.
The stakes in these races were as big as they get. It would take both wins to get control of the U.S. Senate away from Mitch McConnell, who was ready to use his power-abusing ways to block any meaningful progress during the Biden-Harris administration.
I can tell you that many people in the world of politics did not really expect Democrats to pull it off, even after Biden and Harris won the state. They thought beating Trump was a fluke. They still couldn’t imagine Georgia going blue.
That’s because they weren’t paying attention.
I had faith that Warnock and Ossoff were going to win, because I saw how focused and determined Georgia’s progressive organizers were. Trump and his supporters spread lies about the presidential election being stolen and tried to generate chaos in the streets and the courts. But the people responsible for the Biden-Harris victory didn’t get distracted. They focused all their energies on getting voters to turn out one more time. And they went even further, identifying and registering and mobilizing new voters. And it worked.
Democrats — and Black voters especially — went back to the polls more than Republicans did. Turnout in the runoff elections was higher in precincts carried by Biden in November than in precincts carried by Trump.
That doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work — and not just a few weeks’ worth of frenzied activity just before an election. Building the ability to shift power like Georgia Democrats have just done for their state — and for the rest of us — takes long-term vision and long-term commitment.
I’ve been following and learning from Stacey Abrams since we met more than 25 years ago at a training for student organizers. Abrams has been committed to making positive change in Georgia — and making good trouble, as the late John Lewis would say — ever since.
Abrams deserves every bit of attention and praise she has gotten. And she always makes sure to recognize that progress in Georgia has been the collaborative effort of many organizers and many organizations working to bring Black people, Latino people, Asian-Americans, low-income people, and allies into greater political participation.
I’m proud that the group I now lead, People For the American Way, was able to be part of that change-making coalition in Georgia. Our Latinos Vote project produced four radio ads featuring legendary organizer Dolores Huerta and comedian Cristela Alonzo — both People For board members — and ran those ads in every market with a sizable Latino population. We produced digital ads that were viewed more than 500,000 times in Georgia by undecided voters or voters who had not yet decided to vote.
Separately, People For also encouraged civic participation through its nonpartisan Defend the Black Vote project, which produced radio ads featuring Georgia’s Rev. Timothy McDonald, and reached 400,000 Black voters with text messages providing information on when, where, and how to vote.
Maybe the most encouraging thing about the extraordinary turnout in Georgia is that it was achieved despite years of voter suppression strategies designed to make it harder for some people to vote.
Progress is usually met with backlash. So, we can expect that progressive victories in battleground states this year will spark another round of attempted voter suppression. Pro-democracy activists in those states can take heart — and take notes — from the successful progressive organizing in Georgia.
Ben Jealous, the former president and CEO of the NAACP, is president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation.
Two weeks after Donald Trump’s 2016 inauguration as president of the United States, I wrote a commentary titled “America Chose Donald Trump, Now It Will Choke on Him.”
It has been four years in coming but America has finally choked.
On Jan. 6, 2021, as the U.S. Congress was on the verge of ceremoniously certifying Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 election and attesting that he would become the 46th president of the United States, Trump incited a violent mob of thugs to riot and attack the U.S. Capitol for the purpose of effecting a coup that he hoped would allow him to remain in office.
There is no question that Trump sought to void a lawful election using violence and intimidation when he whipped this mob into a destructive frenzy that resulted in an insurrection.
But while Trump lit the match that ignited the flames of insurgency, it must be kept in mind that the rioting mob was comprised of Americans who claimed to be aggrieved for one imagined reason or another.
It is no surprise that a majority of white voters wanted to give this human dumpster fire another four years in order to drive this country further into rack and ruin. But it should be surprising that a large percentage of white voters who did not vote for Trump enabled him to rise to the highest seat of power in America.
While our white friends did not vote for this dangerous bigot, too few of them said or did anything to try to dissuade their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbors and co-workers from voting for him.
It is time for our white friends to stop standing on the sidelines with sad faces as their loved ones and neighbors cheer Trump as he spews his most hateful and racist rhetoric. It is time for those white friends to confront these bigoted people and demand that they be better citizens and better people.
It is also time for people of color to stop tiptoeing around those of our white friends who give their friends and relatives a pass when it comes to bigoted behavior.
This is an uncomfortable conversation that no one wants to have because it lays bare the failure of our friends to support our right to be treated equally as human beings while indicting ourselves for enabling them to ignore our mistreatment in America.
Once we begin this pushing, if our white friends are willing to allow people of color to be abused by acts of white supremacy for the sake of harmonious relations with their white friends and family members, then it will be clear their friendship with us has limitations. It is as clear as when the white friends of our Southern childhood would play with us in their yards but not dare to allow us to enter their homes.
There are those who may try to normalize what happened during the Trump years as “just politics.” They may try to tell us that the Muslim ban was not really a ban against any one religion or even that locking children in cages was not as bad as it appeared to be. They may try to convince us that they did not know that Trump was as bad as he was. They may try to explain that Trump’s calling NFL players “sons of bitc***” for taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem was just his reaction to what he saw as an attack against our national symbol.
But that does not square with his calling the insurrectionists who vandalized the U.S. Capitol while attempting to carry out a coup against our government, “very special people,” and telling them that he loved them.
On Jan. 6, we got a good hard look at the enemies of America and the enemies are us. The enemies are certainly those who attacked democracy by assaulting the seat of our national government.
But the enemies are also those of us willing to give a pass to their loved ones who are the haters and killers that go berserk at the thought of racial equality. And the enemies are those of us people of color who subsume our best interest for the sake of harmonious friendships with people who are willing to allow us to be hung from the gnarled tree of white supremacy.
As Ibram X. Kendi points out in his book ‘How To Be An Antiracist,’ “The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist,’ it’s ‘antiracist.’” And we are choking as a nation because Donald Trump has shoved racism down America’s throat and America will continue to choke on it until we all become antiracists.
It is time for people of color to put our white friends on the spot and call out their complacency with the bigotry and racial hatred of their loved ones. We cannot move forward as a nation if we are content to stay tucked away in our separate comfort zones.
This country will move forward only when each one of us steps forward.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.
It’s hard to believe that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the chief spokesperson for nonviolent activism and the eradication of racial discrimination, was assassinated almost 53 years ago.
But what cannot be disputed is the relevance of his often-prophetic writings and political thought — much of which remains underappreciated and rarely examined except by those within the community of scholars.
When King died at the age of 39, I was an 8-year-old boy — blessed and fortunate enough to be living in a loving, two-parent, middle-class household in Detroit. At the time, the mission of Dr. King and the ministry to which he devoted his life had little significance to me.
In fact, it would be nearly three decades later before I would secure the knowledge, as a seminarian in Atlanta at the Emory University Candler School of Theology, to fully comprehend King beyond the more typical, romanticized version of his life.
During the summer prior to King’s tragic death, Detroit had reached the boiling point — exploding in racial turmoil after Blacks had become fed up with a mostly-white police department that harassed, humiliated and abused our men, women and sometimes children.
And while my parents and older sister understood the danger around us, I was kept in the dark — safely ensconced in a cocoon of Black love.
Shortly after King’s death, efforts began by a multi-racial contingency to make his birthday, January 15, a federal holiday. It would take the herculean efforts of thousands of Americans before President Ronal Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983 and it would first be observed three years later.
However, just as we see hundreds of thousands of Americans today refusing to accept the defeat of Donald Trump and the victory of President-elect Joe Biden — hanging on to conspiracy theories and unable or unwilling to put their personal prejudices and desires aside for the good of our democracy, many Americans were adamant in their refusal to accept the MLK Day.
At first, some states resisted observing the holiday, giving it alternative names or combining it with other holidays. It would not be until 2000 when MLK Day was officially observed in all 50 states.
Yes, change can indeed be difficult.
This year, Dr. King’s birthday will be celebrated, as the law prescribes, on the third Monday of the month, which is January 18. And once again, The Washington Informer, under the direction of our publisher, Denise Rolark Barnes, will lead our city in celebrating his life and legacy.
There will be differences from previous King Day celebrations not only because of the still deadly COVID-19 pandemic but because of fears that the winds of violence have not yet dissipated after last week’s assault on the U.S. Capitol by right-wing insurgents.
I recommend that you read King’s “Stride Toward Freedom” — his influential account of the Montgomery bus boycott which offers an original story of African-American nonviolence, the Civil Rights Movement’s adoption of “the principle of love” and of King’s realization of its power.
As one writer notes in a recently-published collection of essays about the philosophical writings of King, ‘To Shape a World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’ “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method. But King’s ‘pilgrimage to nonviolence’ was marked by moments of doubt.”
Like Christ and Gandhi, King would also lose his life at the hands of a world obsessed with violence and hatred of “the other.” Yet, somehow and despite his fears and doubts, Dr. King stayed the course.
As we celebrate Dr. King and honor the sacrifice he made for Blacks, our nation and the world, we should remember that he bore a cross which many of us would never consider hoisting upon our own shoulders.
Two new Democratic senators from Georgia will soon take office thanks to overwhelming turnout from Black voters. At the same time, the mob violence on Capitol Hill — and law enforcement’s yielding to it — has placed an unmistakable spotlight on continued racial injustice.
From voting rights to criminal justice reform, Black voters have made their voices heard and they expect action. But for far too long they’ve been forced to pressure a Congress with too few Black members and far too few Black staffers.
Top congressional staff shape the agenda, write legislation, and advise members and senators. And we should expect that these key staff also reflect the diversity of the voters.
While we saw marginal improvement in senior staff diversity after the election in 2018, the lack of diversity among senior congressional staff of both parties is longstanding.
The data is sobering, if not surprising.
People of color account for nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population. Yet, Joint Center research found that people of color account for just 11 percent of Washington, D.C.-based senior staff in Senate personal offices. These include positions like chief of staff, legislative director, and communications director — the most influential staff positions in Congress.
Unfortunately, our 2018 report also found that the House was only narrowly more representative with staffers of color comprising just 13.7 percent of senior roles.
And this inequity remains true for Republicans who represent large numbers of Black voters and for Democratic members who often depend on Black voters as a critical component of their electorate.
There’s not a single Black senior staff member in the personal offices of the Republican senators who represent Mississippi and Louisiana, despite the fact that African Americans account for a third or more of the population in these states.
Similarly, though Black voters made up 37 percent of Democratic voters in Virginia in 2016, and 47 percent of Democratic voters in Maryland, there’s not a single Black person holding a senior staff position within the offices of the Democratic senators who represent these states.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is leading by example among congressional Democrats, with Black staff representing just over 53 percent of CBC top staff — compared to just 2.1 percent of the senior staff of White Democratic members of the U.S. House. Only 35 percent of African Americans in the United States live in districts represented by CBC members, but 78.5 percent of the Black top staff in the U.S. House are employed by CBC members.
This data is particularly troubling at a time when we desperately need more, not fewer, Black staff who can advise members of Congress in better understanding and responding robustly to structural inequality, racism, and anti-Blackness.
Yet, there is an opportunity for change.
We now have 60 new members of the U.S. House and 10 new senators. With each appointing a chief of staff, legislative director, and communications director, that amounts to 210 senior positions. Far more of them should be filled by talented African Americans. The Joint Center has been tracking the race of these hires.
More than 70 civil rights groups, including African American Mayors Association, Black Futures Lab, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), have formally called on new members of Congress to increase the numbers of staff of color within the mid-level and senior ranks of congressional offices.
All politics is local, and community leaders also need to call their House member and two U.S. senators and tell them to prioritize racial diversity in hiring and promoting staff. Our advocacy is particularly important right now as members of Congress finalize staff hiring and fill open positions from staffers who have accepted jobs in the new Biden Administration.
Continued progress will require that congressional leadership bring real resources to bear. More Congressional offices should formalize diversity and inclusion plans and measure progress. And all offices should focus on diversifying mid-level positions like press secretary and legislative assistant to further bolster the pool of talent that can eventually step into top positions.
Without question, some members can rightfully point to Black staff serving as state or district directors, or to improvements in the diversity of non-senior staff.
But at a time when the pandemic and economic turmoil has fallen disproportionally on Black people, robust representation of Black Americans in senior roles matters now more than ever.
Real progress is possible, but it will require that members of Congress choose action over the status quo. And it demands that we hold them accountable for doing so.
Brenson is the senior fellow for diversity and inclusion at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.