Race is the Tripwire for the Progressive Movement: John Conyers and Impeachment Part II
As a minister, an activist, and the president of a Hip Hop organization, I speak often on a number of issues. When I speak at anti-war rallies the audience is usually all White, when I speak at immigration rallies the audience is usually all Brown, when I speak at rallies and events with Katrina survivors the audience is usually all Black. Global warming, usually White, police brutality, usually Black, and so on. The progressive movement is segregated, and race is the tripwire that prevents us from coming together. Not only do I find this to be very discouraging, it is self-defeating.
Last week, the impeachment movement challenged Congressman John Conyers on Capitol Hill to put impeachment back on the table. As chair of the U.S. Committee on the Judiciary, Mr. Conyers is the only person in Congress who can move impeachment proceedings forward. When he refused to put impeachment on the table, several key progressive activists wrote articles that said Mr. Conyers had "betrayed" our country and that he "is no Martin Luther King" because he is not using his constitutional powers to begin impeachment proceedings against President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Many in the African-American community felt that the attack was deeply disrespectful of Mr. Conyers.
I agree that these personal attacks are uncalled for and inappropriate. Mr. Conyers represents our struggle for racial and social equality in this country at the Congressional level and is a hero to many African-Americans. However, as I explained in the first article of this series, I believe that impeachment of the president and vice president is an issue of critical importance to our country. At this moment in history we must overcome the racial barriers that so often prevent us from working together.
To our detriment, we define some issues as Black issues, some issues as White issues, and some issues as Brown issues. When White progressives call for impeachment the African-American community says we won't stand with you on impeachment because you won't stand with us on reparations. The White folks give an entitled rebuttal, arguing that they do stand for reparations, but impeachment is more important.
Amidst this back and forth we are missing two critical points. First, African-Americans are the most anti-Bush demographic; nearly 90 percent support impeachment, and commentators Glenn Ford and Bruce Dixon of BlackAgendaReport.com do a wonderful job of reminding us of this fact. Second, we are at a critical moment in history. For the sake of our country 's standing throughout the world, we all need to challenge the Democrats, including Congressman Conyers, on the issue of impeachment.
Instead, the progressive movement is fragmented along issues and these issues provide cover for our race divides. Ostensibly, identity-based politics has emerged because certain issues are more relevant or of more concern to specific communities. Unfortunately, this current paradigm discourages people of different backgrounds from working together and limits what issues people are 'supposed' to work on.
Racist oppression means that certain populations and their experiences tend to be viewed as essentially irrelevant. Among White progressives, race is treated as a special interest issue, which is why it is so difficult for people of color to buy into the progressive movement, as it exists today. Our entire perspective is basically regarded as irrelevant.
The way that this links in with the Conyers controversy is that insofar as White progressives are not seen as consistent allies of the Black Freedom Movement and its demands, their criticisms of liberal and progressive Black elected officials is viewed as suspect. In other words, when our experiences, e.g., Katrina, are treated as exceptional rather than something around which there needs to be broad unity, African-Americans tend to become suspicious of White progressives who call upon us to unite on issues that they believe to be important.
This, I should note, is a problem with a long history. In the aftermath of the Civil War, White organized labor, which largely excluded the Black former slaves from union membership, turned to the freed population and asked that we unite with them to form a labor party separate from the Democratic and Republican parties. While this may sound revolutionary, the Black "Freedmen" found this to be a peculiar offer since it was coming from those who would not permit us to enter into their unions and from those who seemed to ignore the growing terror against the African-American population in the South by White supremacists. In other words, our experiences and our pain were considered to be irrelevant, or at least something that could/should be easily ignored in the interest of the larger unity or greater good.
I chose to protest Congressman Conyers' stand on the question of impeachment, but not out of disrespect for the Congressman. Rather, as I wrote in my earlier piece, because I believe it to have been the right thing to do. Nevertheless, it is quite understandable that some of my sisters and brothers would raise questions about this and I respect those questions. I would say to my White progressive friends that they should be careful who they condemn for not following in the steps of the late Dr. King if they themselves have not been prepared to walk in those steps and be champions of the consistent fight for social justice.
At the same time to my African-American sisters and brothers I would suggest that irrespective of what White progressives do or choose not to do, we must do the right thing even when it means crossing or disagreeing with one of our own. It is easier to see that in the case of a Condoleeza Rice or Colin Powell who are in Black skin but have advanced policies antithetical to the interests of Black America. But sometimes it also means challenging our friends, such as Congressman Conyers, and suggesting that our respect for them necessitates that we openly disagree with them.
In my opinion, we have no choice but to stand for what is right.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr. is the President of the Hip Hop Caucus. The Hip Hop Caucus is a national, nonprofit, non-partisan organization meant to inspire and motivate those of us born after the '60s civil rights movement. You can contact the Hip Hop Caucus at firstname.lastname@example.org.