In this post, I would like to share my thoughts on two very different, but related, calls for revolution in the United States of America.
The first call for revolution comes from Bernie Sanders, junior United States Senator for Vermont, longest-serving independent in U.S. congressional history, and current candidate for Democratic nomination in the 2016 Presidential election. Sanders is a spirited and exciting man who strives to revive the American middle class and mobilize average Americans against corporations and the wealthy, whose powerful interests dominate American political, social, and economic life. Obviously, these are lofty goals, made even loftier by context — Sanders is a proclaimed socialist in a country where socialism has been a nothing short of a bugbear for at least a century.
Sanders does not use the word revolution lightly, and if he has one strength, it is that he fully grasps the magnitude of the social, political, and economic shifts he is trying to advance. I admire Sanders’ stalwart position as political outsider and support many of his policy prescriptions; however, I have great difficulty believing that a United States that looks to propel Ted Cruz or Donald Trump (but perhaps Marco Rubio) to leadership of the Republican party will be capable of sustaining a revolution strong enough to achieve any meaningful socialist aims. A revolution that can challenge the seemingly indomitable and impossibly wealthy interests Sanders stands against would have to go far beyond partisanship and truly unite the common people across ethnic, socioeconomic, and party lines. Like I said, I have my doubts. If Sanders wins the nomination, it would be quite a battle for the Presidency, but if he were to win the Presidency, only then would the war begin in earnest. We shall see.
The second call for revolution comes from Michelle Alexander. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Alexander uses a sociological, historical, and legal framework to argue that mass incarceration, as a function of the criminal justice system, is a form of social control imposed on black Americans to maintain racial hierarchy (11). Alexander asserts that mass incarceration is the direct descendant of Jim Crow in its patterns of subordination, segregation, and economic and social marginalization of black and brown men. The following excerpt provides her prescription for dismantling this system:
…the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the concomitant cultural shift would never have occurred without the cultivation of a critical political consciousness in the African American community and the widespread, strategic activism that flowed from it. Likewise…a new social consensus must be forged about race and the role of race in defining the basic structure of our society if we hope ever to abolish the New Jim Crow. This new consensus must begin with dialogue…a prerequisite of effective political action. (15)
You may think that I am reaching by positing that Alexander’s prescription to break down the New Jim Crow is tantamount to revolution, but hear me out: Creating a critical political consciousness, engaging in strategic activism, and forming a major social movement that leads to a permanent cultural shift — these pieces do appear to add up to revolution, which can be defined as “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favour of a new system” (Google Dictionary). Dismantling the social order of racial hierarchy in the United States would be nothing short of revolutionary action.
It is promising, then, to see Black Lives Matter (BLM) make such strong strides as a black liberation movement that focuses on highlighting and fighting the racial disparities in the United States’ criminal justice system. While I believe that part of BLM’s strength derives from its decentralization, I think the organization’s effectiveness in the U.S. could improve by promoting a central rallying point of political activism: mass incarceration and its effects on the black community. Following Alexander’s line of thinking, the militarization and violent impunity of the police, the exploding prison system, the racialized legal system, and the economic and social marginalization of disproportionately black felons — all these dots and many more must be connected by BLM in order to achieve maximum salience within the black community and its leadership, and in American society as a whole.
Sanders and Alexander are both calling for revolutions to dismantle powerful systems that are taken for granted in American society: a disturbingly lopsided class structure and a heinous and destructive racial hierarchy. The support that Bernie Sanders has received and the efforts of Black Lives Matter are seeds of promise that I hope to see sown and reaped.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012. Print.