By Julianne Malveaux
Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson deserves high props. The young man used his activism as a platform to run for Mayor of Baltimore, and he placed better than expected in the April 26 election. Initially projected to get just one percent of the votes, he ended up with two percent, or 3,077 votes. That’s a miniscule number when compared to the more than 45,000 votes garnered by State Senator Catherine Pugh, the winner with 37 percent of the votes, or with the 42,000 plus votes (34 percent) scored by her key challenger, former Mayor Sheila Dixon. Mckesson placed sixth, which isn’t bad for someone who entered the race last (in February) and without prior political experience. He is to be congratulated, and encouraged to continue participating in electoral politics.
Social change happens from both inside and outside. Inside, legislators and leaders make public policy that heralds change, albeit slowly and imperfectly. We all might have liked an Affordable Care Act, for example, that looked more like universal health care, but the legislative process of compromise left folks out. The legislative process is, by necessity, a compromising process where people rarely get everything they want.
On the other hand, from the outside, people can yell, scream, march, write, and influence. From the outside, the practicalities of legislation aren’t especially relevant. Outside protesters are trying to get attention. They count on legislators to respond to their protest song by paying attention to their issues and legislating them. That’s why I was just a bit chagrined when President Obama told the Black Lives Matter folks to stop yelling. Yelling is their job. His job is to translate their yelling into change, if he so chooses.
The Black Lives Matter folks have been instrumental in this Presidential campaign in forcing Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to deal with race in ways they might not have. Neither of them has gone far enough, although both have conceded some attention to reparations issues, and talked more explicitly about racial economic justice.
DeRay Mckesson says he “challenged the status quo of Baltimore’s politics,” and in many ways he did. He and his team took the pain of the Freddie Gray murder and turned it into the power of a galvanizing campaign. His scant 3,077 votes (with 99 percent of the votes counted) underestimate the impact of his race in that his race is empowering for other young people. Especially young people who are considering electoral politics, and his race establishes him as a meaningful voice in Baltimore politics. Presumptive Mayor Catherine Pugh should figure out a way to use his talents (perhaps on the Police Commission) as Baltimore continues to heal.
“While we did not win tonight, what we did was very important, and I want you to be as proud of our work together as I am,” Mckesson wrote to his supporters. “We did something very special, and it sets the table for what else is possible.” Almost anything is possible for Mckesson and the Black Lives Matter activists. It is my hope that these activists connect the immediate reality of anti-black violence in law enforcement with the more systemic reality of structural anti-black violence that manifests itself through economic oppression, political subjugation, and social inequality. In the United States, this violence demonstrates through income, wealth and unemployment gaps, through voter suppression and biased laws, and through microaggression. The extent of the violence is clouded by the myth of postracialism. Even with an African American president, activists needed to assert that #BlackLivesMatter because the Obama presidency offered no protection for Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and so many others. The myth of postracialism is insufficient to quell structural and persistent anti-black violence.
Hopefully Mckesson will not be the last Black Lives Matter activist to involve himself in electoral politics. This 2016 Presidential season has been great in illustrating some of the shortcomings of our electoral system, but also some of its strengths. That Bernie Sanders could enter a race with just a 3 percent approval rating and amass a war chest $27 at a time is amazing. That he could seriously rival the presumptive front-runner and push her agenda to the left is commendable. That DeRay Mckesson could go from outside agitator to inside candidate is a measure of what is possible. Imagine what would happen if there were more voter participation, if more people understood the complementarity of inside and outside approaches.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington, DC. Her latest book: Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public policy is available on amazon.com and www.juliannemalveaux.com