The circuitous road to democracy that has yet to be realized
Do we know who invented the Blues?
In her book Bright-Sided, a brilliant study about delusional American optimism, Barbara Ehrenreich mentions a remark by Soviet émigré and poet Joseph Brodsky who referred to the stereotypical image of Americans as perennially cheerful, upbeat, optimistic, and shallow as a consequence of having “never known suffering”. According to Ehrenreich, obviously “he [Brodsky] didn’t know who had invented the blues.” Curiously enough, the author of Nickel and Dimed extrapolates a musical form and genre traditionally associated with the Afro-American experience to the whole American people, forgetting to mention the specific historical connection between the blues and the suffering of black people in America. This is not to say that blacks, when compared to other groups, have the monopoly on suffering. The needs of American capitalist expansion have affected, and continue to do so, all ethnic subordinate groups, poor whites included. Nonetheless, with the exception perhaps of Native Americans, no other group has experienced, and continues to do so, the levels of exploitation, human degradation, and inequality forced upon black people in America since the very first days of the nation.
“Black and Blue,” popularized by Louis Armstrong, was composed in 1929 by Fatz Waller, H. Brooks, and A. Razaf. The lyrics of the song reflect the condition of African Americans and have a relevance that is able to transcend time, both in the past and present. Parts of the lyrics read as follows:
I’m hurt inside, but that don’t help my case
Cause I can’t hide what is on my face
How will it end? Ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?
Tell me, what did I do?
What did I do? What did I do?
What did I do? What did I do?
What did I do? What did I do?
What did I do? Tell me, what did I do to be so black and blue?
What did I do to be so black and blue?
These words could have been written during the first slave ships that brought free African men and women to be sold as slaves during the infamous triangular trade route between Africa, the Americas, and Europe in the 17th Century; or as a caustic commentary on the duplicity of the Founding Fathers that in spite of openly stating in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 that certain truths are self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, nonetheless, had no problem in preserving slavery as a key institution of the state and backbone of the economic system. In fact, the lyrics of “Black and Blue” could be applied to most instances of American history, a country that dragged its feet for close to 200 years to “grant” civil rights to black people, a country that in spite of electing a black man as president has made obvious after two administrations that America is far from being a “post racial society,” that the system does not work for those who black sociologist W.J. Wilson once called “the truly disadvantaged.”
Two-hundred-thirty-eight years after the Declaration of independence, 225 years after the American Constitution, and 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, the same words of “Black and Blue” could have been the last words uttered by 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 2014, the day he was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson Missouri, for no other apparent reason than being black and therefore immediately criminalized because of the color of his skin.
It’s not just music, it’s also numbers
While cultural expressions like music and other arts can synthetize and present a vivid and valid interpretation of existing social conditions, so can statistical surveys and analysis. Michel Fletcher in an article written for The Washington Post, noticed that 50 years after Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, the economic disparities between white and black persist and continue to expand. Here are some of the most important findings:
The black unemployment rate has consistently been twice as high as the white unemployment rate for the last 50 years. (According to the Economic Policy Institute EPI (2013), it is 6.6 percent for whites and 12.6 for blacks)
For the past 50 years black unemployment has been well above recession levels. The recession level for 2013 was 6.7 percent nation wide, 5.1 percent for whites, and 11.6 percent for blacks.
The wealth disparity between blacks and whites grows wider and not improved in the last three decades. On the average the income of white families is six times higher than of blacks and Hispanics.
The black poverty rate is no longer declining. In 2011 almost 28 percent of black households were in poverty, nearly three times higher the poverty rate for whites.
Black children are more likely than whites to live in areas of concentrated poverty. 12 percent for whites, 35 percent for Hispanics, 45 percent for blacks, 21 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, and 39 percent American Indian.
School Segregation has increased since 1980, which means that “the more nonwhite students a school has, the fewer resources it has. A 10 percentage-point increase in the share of nonwhite students is associated with a $75 decrease in per student spending.”
The racial disparity in incarceration rates is bigger than it was in the 1960’s. While in 1960 the number of inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents was 262 for whites and 678 for blacks, in 2010 it was 1,313 for whites and 4,374 for blacks.
A separate study on social mobility for the same year (2013, Social Mobility Memos) conducted by Richard Reeves shows that “Black children are more likely to be born into poverty than white children; but they are also less likely to scape”.
Understanding Ferguson: the part and the whole
As is usually the case, mainstream media has a tendency to report popular dissent and indignation as isolated occurrences, disconnected from the historical circumstances from which they emerged. Consciously, given their ideological and material connections with the establishment, they choose a moment in time, usually the moment of irate and violent discontent of the masses (i.e. riots) to negatively characterize a popular response that is actually the result of a long history of injustices suffered by those without genuine channels of participation in the institutional life of democracy. This is the case of Ferguson.
Ferguson, from a perspective of change, incarnates one of those moments in history in which an event unveils the structures of power, social contradictions, and forms of popular resistance within a given society. If we take a broader view we can see that the indignation expressed by black people (and other ethnic groups nation wide) is not exclusively about the unjustified act of killing Michael Brown, and the shameful acquittal of police officer Darren Wilson. It is all that and much more; it is about a deep and longstanding dissatisfaction with the system. It is about unveiling the ugly face of American racism and deep socio- economic inequalities.
Ferguson reveals at the same time the best of America in the sense that Black people’s struggle represents the true struggle for democracy in this country. The current indignation of blacks and other groups of people is not just a struggle against police violence and brutality, it conveys a message of hope to materialize the long forgotten self proclaimed essential values of the nation — those rights pronounced by the Founding Fathers but overlooked throughout American history. The current struggle of black people for the humanization of black lives personifies the preservation and implementation of the values of democracy in the present tense, against the crime of historical indifference of the past. Their struggle is an open challenge to the system and to all of us who benefit from the selective eye of American democracy
If the Occupy movement brought to the American mind the awareness of inequality, the current nation-wide marches and protests initiated around Ferguson have made visible how class inequality is also permeated by race in America. In a society in which malls have been designed to equate public gathering with consumption, the multiple rallies organized by students, young performers, teachers, unions, and just plain citizens show how people can recuperate public spaces (streets and plazas) as stages from which to express their dissent and indignation.
Ferguson also showed and is showing the ability of people to organize themselves and to deliberate, their ability to make decisions without the mediation of institutionalized public administrators or opportunistic political organizations. Most importantly, Ferguson points to the crisis of legitimacy experienced by the state, government functionaries, traditional politicians, political parties, and public service institutions like the police.
The Ferguson Commission created by President Obama to supposedly re-establish ‘the trust’ between citizen and the police, reflects the pathetic narrow misunderstanding of the true systemic causes of the problem. It characterizes the issue in psychological terms (trust), avoiding the socio-economic aspects surrounding the events in Missouri and the rest of the nation. This commission is design to have the political effect of beheading the movement and transferring political control to the state.
The most recent marches show how the “barriers of fear”–created by repressive institutional laws and reinforced by oppressive and sometimes violent organizations like the police–can be eliminated by collective participation on the streets and the creation of group identification, empathy, and compassion. The struggle of black people is a struggle for what James Baldwin called “Black people’s quest for humanity”–a long lasting struggle that takes place against the backdrop of the economic interests of capital, and reflects the aspiration of all of us to live in a better and more just society. In Ferguson the inventors of the blues are pushing the system in which we all live one more time in the struggle for democracy. Black lives matter!
Enrique Quintero, a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, taught ESL and Second Language Acquisition in the Anchorage School District, and Spanish at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.