We ask for nothing that is not right, and herein lays the great power of our demand.” -Paul Robeson
It seems as if every political season in Illinois, and particularly Chicago, there is conversation among segments of the African American voters and their leaders about the need for a “Black Agenda” that will finally fulfill the needs of 1,876,875 people that make up roughly 15 percent of the state’s population.
There seems to be a popular theory that suggests that if Black people would simply develop one unified plan then voters would be able to galvanize behind “a consensus candidate” in any particular race who will in turn implement said plan once elected. And, if the consensus candidate isn’t elected? Well, the Black Agenda would morph into a moral document by which legislators would be held accountable during the next election cycle.
Despite the fact that Blacks throughout the U.S. are not a monolith, and a significant population are immigrants from African and Caribbean nations, the call for a “Black Agenda” that everyone can agree upon and rally behind is as far-fetched as President Donald Trump handing out reparations checks during Black History Month in 2019. Yet, the call for such a proposition continues to pepper local and national political conversations shortly before or after people are elected or take the oath of political office.
Now that candidates have our attention, the cry for a “Black Agenda” will surely enter into conversations on Black talk radio; and political pundits will surely issue a clarion call like some litmus test and as if it’s never been thought of before.
What exactly is this illusive “Black agenda” that so many African Americans reference, seem to crave but apparently have never finalized? Is it an economic plan; a social plan; a cultural plan; an institutional plan; a plan for self-determination; a declaration of independence of sorts or all of the above?
And since we’re asking questions: Should all African Americans, let’s say just in Illinois, agree to such an agenda, how would Black voters and non-voters alike get any statewide office holder to agree to such a plan let alone hold officials accountable who fail to deliver? And, who would be responsible for overseeing the progress of the “Black Agenda: the Illinois Black Legislative Caucus; the Black Caucus of the Chicago City Council; the three African American members of Congress; national and local Black leaders; faith leaders; civic groups and the like? Given most of these groups fail to work together now, how then would any of them be expected to enforce a “Black Agenda?”
Now it’s a no brainer that passive participation in politics has never worked for anyone. As citizens we are responsible for not only who governs us, but how we are governed. It is our duty to ensure that those we give political power work in our best interests—and usually those interests fall under the purview of things most citizens are concerned about such as lower taxes, health care, public safety, education, jobs and economic development and the like.
However, a “Black Agenda” would include things specific to African Americans in order to enhance their quality of life and recover from 233 years of free labor followed by another 100 years of white retribution, Jim Crow and segregation and now accentuated by the current climate where Black lives are constantly threatened by police and jumpy Caucasians who confuse us with their shadows.
The need for such an agenda is not new and neither is the demand for one. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense had its 10 Point Plan. The Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad had its plan, called “What Muslims Want.” In 1972, nearly 10,000 African Americans convened in Gary, Indiana, to issue a call for, in the words of organizer famed poet Amiri Baraka, “unity without uniformity” and looked toward the creation of a third political party and a plan to address poverty and unemployment.
So what has happened over the last 40 years that no agenda has been set? And, now in the wake of Trump and his Make America Great Again mantra, why is it still so hard for African Americans to define a unified political platform?
Illinois legislator Rep. Carol Ammons (D) said, “For the Trump presidency, Black political leaders should be focused on economic justice. We have to stop believing the free market is going to self-correct and provide a job economy that allows all people to prosper. The Black community needs a political platform that pushes state and federal government to dedicate significant resources to provide job training and retraining.”
And, when Black America finally had control of the nation’s Executive Branch for eight years straight what happened then? While, the talk about a “Black Agenda” was quickly elevated after the 2008 election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency no consensus was reached on whether or not the nation’s first Black president should actually concern himself with a Black Agenda.
Leaders representing the National Action Network, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League and a few other groups began organizing for a unified agenda to hand off to the Obama administration. So what happened to it?
In a 2013 meeting with President Obama and a few members of the U.S. Senate, reporter Jonathan Capehart inquired about the possibility of “Black agenda” making its way through Congress. Reportedly, Senator William “Mo’ Cowan (D-MA), who is Black, told him: “What is a definable Black agenda? I mean the president wasn’t elected to be president of Black America. He’s the president of all Americans. Frankly, there are some significant issues in Black America, the Black community, that are issues that are endemic in other parts of the nation.
“I think with respect to those who raise that issue, I think it’s short-sighted to say these are challenges unique to Black America,” Cowan reportedly said. “The issues that Black Americans are concerned about frankly are the same issues I hear about when I talk to my white constituents. It’s the same challenges. There may be differing degrees, but I think if you’re going to govern you have to govern for everybody.”
Professor Cornel West said it another way: “Anytime you talk about Black folk in America, you’re talking about a state of emergency, especially for Black poor and working people… you’re making it a priority to say, ‘America, keep track of the prison industrial complex, keep track of the dilapidated housing, keep track of the disgraceful school systems keep track of the unemployment rates and underemployment rates, and unavailable health care, child care.’ That is what it means to talk about the Black agenda. Now what does that mean? That means the Black agenda has always been the best agenda for the nation.”
In “A Conservative Agenda for Black Americans, published by the Heritage Foundation in 1990, Joseph Perkins wrote, “By almost every measure, Blacks are losing ground. …The task at hand is to make it easier for Blacks to understand what conservatism offers and thus enable blacks to make the transition from reflective liberalism to the conservative camp. This requires a conservative agenda for Black progress—an agenda that seeks to help Blacks strengthen their families, build their communities, unleash their creativity and reinforce their vital institutions. The agenda’s aim must be to server Black dependency on government transfer programs and to encourage self-sufficiency.
In a “National Black Political Agenda for Self Determination,” issued by the Black is Back Coalition, a radical think tank, the group called for the nationalization of all banks; reparations, community control of local police departments, a roll back and end of mass incarceration, freedom for Black political prisoners; the right to housing; voting rights protections and full employment and a national minimum income, among other issues.
“We demand that the U.S. government ensure the provision of living wage jobs for all, and a guaranteed minimum income sufficient to support a life with dignity for every household and individual,” the group wrote. “This goal is immediately achievable and is intended not only to totally eliminate poverty––beginning with historically super-exploited and deprived communities––but to provide families and individuals with the resources and free time to fully contribute to our community’s social, cultural, economic and political development. This minimum demand for full employment and a national minimum income is not a concession to the existing system of capitalist economic domination, it is not an assumption of the permanence of the worker-boss relationship that helps to define capitalist exploitation….”
In Chicago, the Black Youth Project 100 released its “Agenda to Build Black Futures.” America’s economic system has systematically failed Black communities for whole lifetimes with discriminatory policies; investment in policing, surveillance, incarceration; and chronic underinvestment in our livelihood,” the group said of its platform. “The Agenda to Build Black Futures is a set of economic goals and structural changes that could improve the lives of Black people living in America. We envision a more economically just society that values the lives and well-being of ALL Black people, including women, queer, and transgender folks, the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated as well as those who languish in the bottom 1% of the economic hierarchy. The Agenda to Build Black Futures is a call-to-action for everyone who is committed to Black liberation.”
As the date draws near for the Midterm elections some fear the concerns of Black voters will once again fall by the wayside. The call for a Black Agenda must come well before a politician campaigns for your vote.
Remember the words of Frederick Douglass, “power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will.”