By Sikivu Hutchinson
As a Black feminist, secular, humanist, voter, I cheered the selection of California Senator Kamala Harris as the Democratic vice presidential nominee with great ambivalence. Harris’ prosecutorial record as California’s Attorney General has been justifiably criticized as conservative and harmful to Black communities under siege from police violence. During her tenure, she consistently failed to prosecute killer cops, pursued thousands of marijuana convictions and penalized parents of truant students. Conversely, she established a task force to protect human trafficking victims, opposed their prosecution for prostitution, and created a court to provide alternatives to incarceration for youth charged with felonies which is still in existence.
Accepting her nomination at the Democratic National convention, Harris acknowledged standing on the shoulders of African American women giants like Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president, and Black suffragist Mary Church Terrell, who fought first wave feminist white supremacy. Senator Harris’ historic nomination to the vice presidency has the potential to be a game changer for Black girls and girls of color long accustomed to seeing white men normalized as world leaders. Yet, as Congresswoman Ayana Pressley emphasized recently during an MSNBC interview, “Black women have been the table shakers and protectors of democracy. The election of Kamala Harris & Joe Biden is not a destination, it’s a door.” Pressley’s comments highlight how the symbolism of having the first biracial Black, South Asian woman on a presidential ticket is not enough. Once the dust settles on the “historic first” celebrations, the hard work of voting, organizing, and mobilizing “like our lives depend on it” (to paraphrase Michelle Obama) continues.
Indeed, after Senator Harris was named as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, a student of mine branded “all” of the candidates as “equally bad”. In their view, the Trump-Pence administration was equivalent to the Biden-Harris ticket. This perspective has become commonplace in the aftermath of the demise of Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. However, according to Newsweek, Harris’ Senate voting record has been one of the most liberal in Congress, paralleling that of Sanders. Further, the chorus of racist, sexist, and xenophobic attacks on Harris since her nomination underscore the distinction between the Biden-Harris ticket and Trumpism. One of the most virulent examples of Harris’ demonization is the creation of a t-shirt entitled “Joe and the Ho”, foregrounding the way Black women are automatically hypersexualized no matter how high they rise.
To be clear, Biden-Harris both bring deeply flawed records on criminal and racial justice. They do not support defunding the police, much less abolition. And Biden’s Great White Father paternalism, his history of inappropriate touching, and his failure to shield Anita Hill from GOP attacks during the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings have long been reprehensible. At the same time, Biden-Harris are not Trump-Pence. They are not Trump-Pence on LGBTQI rights and gun control. They are not Trump-Pence on labor, workers’ rights, and immigration. They are not Trump-Pence on climate change and the environment. They are not Trump-Pence on domestic and sexual violence (Biden co-authored the Violence Against Women Act which has yet to be renewed in the Senate). And they are certainly not Trump-Pence when it comes to this administration’s relentless fundamentalist Christian agenda of gutting public education, health care coverage, the Johnson amendment, birth control, and abortion rights. To all appearances, a Biden-Harris administration will be vigorous in beating back the tide of fundamentalist Christian white segregationist supremacy, putting an end to the Trump administration’s catastrophic record of packing the federal courts with young, far right white judges (Trump has made the most federal judicial appointments of any president at this point in their career, a distinction which The New York Times has dubbed one his most “enduring accomplishments”).
This will be even more critical for Black secular voters who subscribe to a humanist progressive politics of Black liberation. Though small in number relative to Black religiously-identified voters, Black “religious nones” are increasing as a more vocal, yet still stigmatized block within the electorate. According to the recently published Secular Survey, “Black participants were 1/2 as likely to have supportive parents and three times as likely to be physically assaulted” than non-Black participants. Anti-Black secular discrimination is set against the backdrop of institutional racism, criminalization, sexism, heterosexism, and economic apartheid which make Black secular folks even more personally/professionally vulnerable and socially isolated.
For Black secular voters, the potential flaws and strengths of a Biden-Harris administration provide a springboard for challenging the corporate Democratic agenda. A corporate Democratic agenda that favors big business over labor and living wages; police state suppression over self-determined communities; and sexist workplaces over the universal right to child care, health care, and protections for working families and children is counter to radical humanism. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and a global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities, the centrist-to-conservative policies that defined the Obama-Biden administration won’t fly. Covid-driven layoffs, mass evictions, homelessness, and educational disruption are devastating African American workers and families in ways that have ripped the covers off American apartheid. As Black secularists living in Black communities, a radical humanist economic agenda involves systemic redress and reparations for the historic decimation of Black wealth. Allowing corporations to exploit tax loopholes and loot billions in PPP loans are two recent examples. In the same vein, Trump’s attempt to destroy the postal service via USPS Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and his lapdog Board of Governors is both a threat to American voters and Black America. As one of the largest public employers of African Americans, the USPS has been a bedrock for Black middle class stability and multigenerational wealth.
The Biden-Harris ticket has already pledged to fight back against the GOP plot to privatize the postal service. Both candidates have also spoken out about the need to protect essential workers of color from exploitive workplace policies that put them at greater risk of contracting Covid. An incoming Biden-Harris administration will have to squelch right wing backlash against science and evidence-based public health policies. And the path to a socially progressive legislative agenda becomes even more difficult if the Senate doesn’t flip to Democratic control in November.
The next three months will be a litmus test for progressive organizing and coalition building. This is especially true in a world where the phrase “anti-racism” has been appropriated by the white mainstream, while the economic regime of white supremacy remains firmly intact. As author Ibram Kendi has noted, “By 2053, Black wealth will flatline to $0. In this regard, “Black people are facing economic death”. It is an economic death that has been hastened by Trumpism and corporate Democratic policies that preceded the pandemic. During her Convention address, Harris pledged that “We will be bold”. To make good on that promise, Biden-Harris will not be allowed to skate on the symbolism and empty rhetoric of expediency.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles and the author of Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical (2020). Her play White Nights, Black Paradise on Black women, Peoples Temple and the Jonestown massacre will be performed on Zoom at the Museum of the African Diaspora on August 29th.