Being Black Isn’t Enough Anymore

I’ve become disillusioned with Black politicians who merely uphold racist systems

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images

When I was just five years old, a man named Barack Obama, with his pearly white smile, funny-looking ears, pristine suit, and powerful voice, was elected president of the United States of America.

Hope. That was the slogan that skyrocketed him to the top and the feeling that permeated all of Black America, including my parents, both Jamaican immigrants. I was fascinated by the idea of the first Black president. “We’ve arrived,” my parents told me. A Black man had finally become the leader of the free world. He made it to the long-fantasized mountaintop that Martin Luther King Jr. had talked about half a century earlier.

I wish I could tell my five-year-old self that everything Obama achieved was enough. No, Obama didn’t solve the inequities that have existed between Black and white America since slavery. No, he didn’t save me from racism and guard me against racial slurs from my classmates. No, he wasn’t the sign that Black America made it to the promised land.

If the Obama years showed us anything, it’s that someone with black skin achieving something remarkable doesn’t represent progress for all Black people. Someone with black skin in a position of power doesn’t mean they will help Black America.

While Obama’s presidency imbued a sense of hope in my life, I’ve become disillusioned with Black politicians.

A 2019 Pew Research Center study showed that while Black folks have made significant gains in political representation in the House of Representatives and cabinet-level positions over the last 50 years, the gaps for Black people at large — in wealth, health care, education, incarceration — persist. African Americans are still incarcerated in state prisons nationwide at five times the rate of white people. The net worth of the typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of the Black family. Black women are two to three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes. More alarming, however, is that a 2016 Pew Research Center study showed roughly four in 10 Black adults believe electing more Black people in office would be an effective tactic to bring about racial equality.

The notion that someone who looks like you will have your back, instead of fighting to maintain the political system from which they have benefited, is so ingrained in our minds that we still tell our children, our grandchildren, and our descendants that it’s true. “Finally! Someone in public office who has gone through what I have gone through. They’ll fight for me,” is what we tell ourselves.

While electing Black officials changes the faces of the people implementing policies harmful to the Black community, it does not change the policy in and of itself. Often enough, the people in power will fight to maintain the political system from which they have benefited. An excellent example is Lori Lightfoot, the first African American female mayor in Chicago’s history. As sentiments to defund police departments erupted around the country this summer, Lightfoot dismissed the proposal as a “nice hashtag,” claiming it would hurt efforts to diversify the police force. Instead of disinvesting from Chicago’s massive $1.6 billion police department budget and reinvesting into social services and education, Lightfoot is more concerned with how the department looks.

What Lightfoot fails to understand is the diversity of the officers is completely irrelevant. When residents are getting beaten, harassed, and brutalized by the cops they see in their schools, on street corners, in cars, and everywhere around them, they couldn’t care less what race the cop is. The problem isn’t the face of who is doing the brutalizing; it’s the fact that the brutalizing is happening in the first place.

Black politicians often side with white liberals who, despite decrying racism, uphold policies that perpetuate it.

Another example of this disconnect for Black political leaders is the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris. She’s the first Black woman to be a major party’s vice presidential nominee, and her heritage lies in my parents’ home country. But despite the historic nature of her nomination, when she walked onto the stage at the vice presidential debate, my sense of pride was dulled by my remembrance of her harmful stance on cannabis prior to this election cycle that disproportionately harmed California’s Black community.

As attorney general, Harris oversaw 1,900 convictions for marijuana offenses. In 2010, she actively fought a ballot measure for recreational pot and co-authored an opposition argument in the voter guide. But in a 2019 interview on The Breakfast Club, she laughed heartily about smoking cannabis in college.

Harris committed the exact same act in college that she prosecuted people for years later, and opposed the legalization of it in 2010. Black people are arrested for marijuana possession at nearly four times the rate of white people, despite both races consuming it at roughly the same rates. She helped uphold this disparity.

While Harris’ candidacy, Lightfoot’s mayorship, and Obama’s presidency imbued a sense of hope in my life, I’ve become disillusioned with Black politicians. Too often they want to abide by the political mainstream. Even within the Democratic Party, which many in America see as the party of progress, Black politicians often side with white liberals who, despite decrying racism, uphold policies that perpetuate it.

Black elected officials might make me feel more seen in public life, but it means nothing if their policies harm the community they are a part of and claim to support.

Freelance journalist in The New York Times, Business Insider, GEN, Elemental, and more. 📧:

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