Throughout this election season, the rapper Ice Cube has assumed a self-bestowed mantle as spokesperson for Black politics. He has urged that Black Americans make demands before guaranteeing anyone their vote. “Be skeptical of anybody telling you to just vote … and not get anything for your vote,” he said on Instagram in September. “You vote because your community is getting something.”
Last week, Donald Trump’s senior adviser Katrina Pierson announced that Ice Cube worked with the Trump campaign to develop their “Platinum Plan” for Black America, unleashing a furious wave of public criticism and accusations. At the core of the backlash is the suspicion that Cube’s commentary and his chief political initiative, the Contract With Black America, is less about promoting a Black agenda and more about suppressing Black voter turnout for the Democratic party, which Black Americans overwhelmingly support.
The accusation compelled Ice Cube to appear on a number of media outlets to clarify his position. “I’m willing to work with both teams, but I’m just working with whoever is willing to work with me,” Ice Cube said on CNN. In an interview with journalist Roland Martin, Cube said “for us not to engage with both sides of the aisle to fix what I think is an American problem … is not going to help us in the end.”
'Small government' won’t fix the mess that neoliberal public policies have created for Black people
This controversy reveals several things about American politics, and specifically the sad state of political affairs for Black people. For starters, the political environment is so fraught – and voters are so antsy about another four years of a Trump presidency – that any appearance of impropriety will raise alarm bells for many Black Americans. But that instinct has the effect of silencing even mild criticism of Joe Biden or the Democratic party. We’re closer and closer to the election, and two-party tribalism is in overdrive, nuance is mostly absent, and commentators are falling into their expected camps. Conservatives gleefully use Cube’s message to prop up Trump. Liberals largely dismiss Ice Cube as a race traitor without sitting with his concerns. And Ice Cube defenders reflect little on Cube’s botched political strategy or the market-based, libertarian-esque philosophy he’s proposing for problems that require radical solutions and wholesale government intervention.
The fact of the matter is, Black Americans defending and criticizing Ice Cube both have valid concerns. Neither major political party is working for Black Americans economically. The Black-white wealth gap is alarming, with white households holding 11.5 times more wealth than Black ones, and the gap continues to widen. Black homeownership is at a record low. More Black people are being imprisoned than in the 1960s. And both parties have contributed to these policy failures while letting big business off the hook for practices that exploit and harm our communities. This includes encouraging manufacturing jobs to leave for cheaper, deunionized labor in sectors that were disproportionately occupied by Black men; failing to adequately regulate big banks who profited from subprime mortgages targeted to Black communities; failing to assist Black Americans when the economy crashed on their backs; and enabling corporations to make astronomical profits off the disproportionately Black and Latino workers working in essential jobs during Covid.
As long as we’re stuck in a two-party system backed by big corporations, big money donors, and financial institutions, Black people will never find a reprieve. We’ll simply jump from one party to the next, or out of the ballot booths altogether. We’ll frame our political power solely on the terms of what party leaders promise and consistently fail to provide. We’ll seek whatever meager concessions we can muster – task forces, committee leadership promotions, and an assortment of patronage jobs – that ultimately leave many Black people disappointed and disillusioned.
It’s the disappointment I saw in multiple Ice Cube interviews. It’s the resignation I’ve heard from working-class Black Americans all over the country in my reporting. Thus, given the acute economic crisis for Black Americans, it behooves anyone speaking on their behalf to have their shit together, to put it bluntly. We cannot afford anything less. Anyone with basic political instincts should know that any association with a white nationalist-sympathizing president could and should significantly turn off Black voters. Cube’s strategy has heaved sound policy ideas into a tribalist, corporate media meat grinder, rendering the original message unrecognizable. It reduces the 22 pages of (mostly) impressive and sweeping policy prescriptions in Cube’s Contract With Black America – proposals such as baby bonds, a jobs guarantee, and freeing people imprisoned for marijuana possession – to a two-page “platinum” talking point for Trump’s lackeys.
If Ice Cube wants to reduce the Black agenda to a mere election-season transaction – without considering the more fundamental relation between Black liberation and anticapitalism – he should at least get his basic business sense right. There are some parties you just don’t negotiate with, because the starting terms are too far apart. Donald Trump comes from a party that promotes small government and normalizes white supremacy. A transformative economic agenda requires large, government investments in low-income and working-class communities. This runs counter to the entire Republican trickle-down economic platform of the past several decades. The present Republican administration has yet to provide basic economic programs en masse in an election year for millions of Americans suffering from the financial fallout of Covid-19, many of whom are Trump supporters themselves. It is beyond fantastical to believe Trump, or any Republican president, will advance programs to Black Americans that he doesn’t provide his own followers.
But most of Ice Cube’s liberal critics fail to acknowledge that the Democratic Party has fared little better. Though his strategy and conclusions are miscalculated, his description of the problems are not. The Republican party has moved right and dragged Democrats with them; the result is that Democrats have spent much of the past several decades working overtime to outflank Republicans on tough-on-crime policies, austerity politics, deregulation, and privatization, and it’s that school of thought of which Biden has been a long-time instructor.
“Small government” won’t fix the mess which exploitative business practices and neoliberal public policies have created for Black people. What it will likely take are independent voters, a mass movement, and progressive organized labor – which cannot be corralled a few months before an election – to make demands for radical, systemic change. This is serious work that, at the least, requires consistent commitment and being in community with organizers and policy experts who have been thinking and working towards those demands for more than a season. Anything less will fail the very communities people like Ice Cube claim to represent.
Malaika Jabali is a public policy attorney, activist and Guardian US columnist
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