Tomorrow morning, the United States will go to the polls to vote for their 44th president, choosing between the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and the Republican candidate Donald Trump. This election cycle has been more divisive and toxic than any other in living memory in the US; it has widened old conservative and liberal fault lines, and created new, even more dangerous ones with the potential to effect not just the US, but the whole world.
This entry, from Kameelah Janan Rasheed, is one of a seven-part frieze.com series that has been published throughout October in anticipation of tomorrow's vote. The remaining entries, considering key issues such as gender, education, environment, Brexit, paranoia and class, are available here.
Electoral politics have a predictable manner of compressing the nuances of black life into manageable bytes of information. This looks like Donald Trump’s appeal to the ‘The African-Americans’ or ‘The Blacks,’ an undifferentiated mass of black people trapped under the weight of poverty in the inner city, to whom he has promised crime-free communities and jobs. It is demonstrated in the theatrics of Hillary Clinton’s courting of the ‘the black vote’ through references to ‘hot sauce in her bag’, meetings with the mothers of young black people killed by police, and reminders of how she has stood up for black people during her career in the face of offline conversations dismissing the Movement for Black Lives. In both cases, neither candidate is speaking to actual black people; rather, they are speaking at a strategically imagined community of black people. When I mention my disgust with Trump followed by my layered critique of Clinton’s neoliberalism, I am met with the response: ‘but she is better than Trump.’ While true, that is an unbelievably low bar that creates a tense dynamic where a rejection of Trump simultaneously asks us to uncritically embrace Clinton’s less than graceful moments. Furthermore, it enforces a silencing around issues of racial oppression and subjugation in favour of a united front that would defeat Trump.
Predictably, many celebrate the possibility that Clinton would be our first woman president in the same way that millions of people celebrated the election of our first black president, Barack Obama. However, beyond the optics of symbolism, what does this mean for the everyday lived experiences of black people? This election has challenged me, yet again, to confront what we count as victories over racial oppression, how we define racial progress, and who is asked to make sacrifices to bring these symbolic moments into fruition. Often, attempts to surface hesitancy about Clinton’s ideology are met with a hostile litany of questions such as ‘Why are you critiquing Clinton when so much is at stake?’, ‘Why can't we address these issues after she is elected?’, ‘Do you not understand the incremental nature of US politics?’ In Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail', he comments on the dangers of the white moderate, arguing that it is the white moderate ‘who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”’ There will never be a ‘more convenient season’ than now to ask these questions and make rigorous accountability the centrepiece of our next steps.
Lead image: Hank Willis Thomas, Black Power (detail), 2008, lightjet print, 62 x 100 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Kameelah Janan Rasheed is an artist and writer based in New York, USA. In 2017, she had a solo show at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Governors Island, New York, and her work was included in group exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, USA, Visitor Welcome Center, Los Angeles, USA, and Palazzo Contarini Polignac, Venice, Italy.