Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul
By Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Crown Publishing, 274 pages, $34
Reviewed by Mike Stimpson
That, in a nutshell, is the message of Princeton University scholar Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s passionate and thought-provoking new polemic, published in time for Black History Month.
Glaude chairs Princeton’s African American Studies department. His previous books include an examination of race and religion in 19th-century America, which won an award from the Modern Language Association.
He says racism is an ingrained feature of American society and "not just a symptom of bad, racist people who fail to live up to pristine ideals."
At the heart of it all is a "value gap" — a common belief that white people are more valuable than others. In other words: Black lives matter, but white lives matter more.
Glaude likes the Black Lives Matter movement that arose after people got fed up with police shooting unarmed black men, and he points to its protests as appropriate grassroots response to an all-too-often deadly part of America’s value gap.
The value gap is also evident in U.S. society’s collective shrug at how the mortgage foreclosure crisis hit African-Americans especially hard, he writes. While white Americans lost 11 per cent of their wealth between 2007 and 2010, black Americans lost 31 per cent.
A Great Black Depression has wreaked profound damage upon black America, he says, yet "what’s really scary is how little anyone outside black America seems to care." He laments that "America has turned its back on poor people, especially poor black people."
Glaude contends that liberals, including the black president, kid themselves that the system itself isn’t broken. They think the solution lies in greater inclusion of black people as individuals striving for success in America, "without closing the value gap." That seems like folly to Glaude.
The "cruel irony" of black liberal thought, he says, is that it plays into the hands of those white Americans who want to pretend there is no historical inequality, and want to hear no more about past and present injustices.
Glaude despairs that traditional black leadership — the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson — won’t change things. In fact, he thinks their self-aggrandizing style of leadership (Sharpton always puts himself in front of cameras) is doing more harm than good by diverting attention away from the real issues and problems of everyday black Americans.
Instead, Glaude finds hope in the kind of grassroots leadership he witnessed in Missouri after the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer. There he saw "young people engaged in acts of civil disobedience to disrupt the traditional theater of America’s racial politics," without a Sharpton-style leader putting himself at the front of marches.
"We should follow their lead," he declares. He hopes for a grassroots movement that will change the way Americans think of both government and their black fellow citizens.
Glaude says America needs a "revolution of value and a radical democratic awakening" to make its society live up to stated ideals. He offers examples of what he has in mind, but no blueprint for the movement. That’s not really a criticism, since such a blueprint seems too much to ask of one person.
Anyone interested in U.S. politics or social-justice issues will enjoy reading this sharp, forceful call for change. Like fellow Princeton firebrand Cornel West, Glaude confronts America with some hard truths and challenges it to be the country it pretends to be.