During an Income Movement forum in the basement of 3333 Broadway here in West Harlem, a small brunette woman with a bright pink sweater that read #LockHimUp stood up to say that she only came to meet me to see how liberal I was. She said this in the building where she has been living for the past half decade. My reply was simply: I’m not liberal, I’m black. The brown and black people in the audience laughed. One guy who later identified himself as an SEIU local 32BJ member blurted out “are you going to put that on a T-shirt.”
I further stated that I am a progressive who has been living on the margins — even with all of my education and work experience — and that the work of liberals is to liberate those people whose bodies are at risk; black queer millennial ones, like mine. She asked if I was seeking a DSA (Democratic Socialist of America) endorsement. I explained that I want everyone’s endorsement, and elaborated on my policy principles from housing to health care to education, cannabis, climate justice and even reparations to let the crowd know that New York doesn’t make people as far left as me.
Towards the end of my speech, a man, full of privilege, interrupted to shout, “did you vote for Bernie in 2016?” I did not. I voted for Hillary because I was and am interested in having conversations with people who I disagree with. Showing them that we are stronger together, even though it’s a bad campaign message, is necessary.
I tell this story because I know that the remedy to our political problems will rely on contextualizing the complexity of our realities, not the over simplified purist culture of charlatans who claim to be woke. The fair skinned hacktivists name-checking Black Lives Matter during campaigns yet forgetting to sit them in the front row at the inaugurations.
I am worried that we are taking the wrong left out of ego on a road where we should be headed forward.
Our political leaders must be more than activists conflating the making of demands and the implementation of policy. I write this as an activist who was regularly in the streets before considering elected office and someone who has written policies with heads of state that require strategic compromise. A political leader is a teacher, a legislator, and most importantly a reconciler. And reconciliation cannot be driven by those tying their power to the perpetuation of this new brand of identity via soundbite. Leaders must engage with depth and identity, especially when it comes to those of us closest to the margins.
Black people aren’t socialists; a title only a few across the generations can claim forthrightly. Those who superimpose their vision of the American story over the eyes of the most disenfranchised, the darkest, lack vision. Straight outta the Big Apple, I want to own a whole piece of the American pie, not a sugar free yellow sheet cake from the feds. America’s fight is for choice and autonomy.
The big tent that we call progressivism exists on the inclusion of people whose opinions differ but whose journeys enhance the quality of life we share. In the 20th century, progressives launched the massive government education program that propelled this country ahead of its competitors. To this day, we believe that education is infrastructure, not a product. We believe that health care is a human right, not a product. We believe that jobs shouldn’t be our only source of income, and that they can’t be guaranteed by a legislator who has never had one.
Now, in the 21st century, progressives must scale the inclusion of individuals by providing a real equity stake in society. I am talking about capital.
The difference between socialists and progressives is how we honor the individual. I believe in what I like to call inclusion-ism: that individuals are at their best when they identify with a community, and communities are only at their best when they identify all of their individuals.
I recently spoke with the Columbia economist Irwin Garfinkel; it was his second radio interview in a plus-50 year career, on my weekly radio show Inclusionism at WHCR-FM (90.3) in Harlem. He spoke of his decades advocating for universal basic income, and the differences between social safety nets and floors. Advocating for an economic net without promising a floor is precisely the lack of infrastructure that allows our well wishing social activists to sustain extreme poverty.
We need a systematic change, not a revamp of the 1960s.
Political talks that are stuck exclusively on safety nets and trying to appeal to an increasingly opaque “working class” must evolve to discussions about data-as-labor, where we ask ourselves again, what work is. We must discuss how capital is trapped by a few wealthy people when we know that it belongs with the people. We finally have the data to justify our legal arguments that people’s identities are actually inputs to corporate productivity and that we are owed an equity stake, beyond wages, to truly realize what Martin Luther King Jr. called an economic floor.
We are desperate for progress in this 21st century; a desperation exacerbated by skyrocketing economic disparities. To fulfill this need with an evolution in our policy priorities, instead of the 20th century’s greatest hits. Americans have always been divided, but the charge of progress is the endeavor to unite as many of us as possible. We owe ourselves a tent bigger than socialism.
James Felton Keith is a candidate for US Congress (NY-13), former president of The Data Union and author of "Personal Data: The People’s Asset Class". The opinions are the writer's.