Black Liberation Will Not Be Won Through Respectability Politics

by Stanley Fritz

My friends in the fight for racial justice, Jawanza Williams and Jason Walker, were called “Uncle Toms” by Reverend Troy DeCohen, pastor of the United Black Clergy of Westchester. As far as I can tell, he has never met or spoken to either of them, but decided it was cool to go to the New York Times and challenge their character and loyalty to their community.

Jawanza and Jason weren’t called Uncle Toms because they’re throwing their support behind a Trump administration that has dedicated its power to dismantling safeguards for Black people all over the world. They’re not being called Uncle Toms because of some affiliation with the Republican Party or white corporate elite. Nope. Their credibility as Black activists dedicated to Black liberation is being attacked because they dared to say that New York State needs a system of public campaign financing.

When I first heard the insult, I was upset. Why would a Black man who claims to be doing the same work as these two go out of his way to wield such a hurtful and lethal attack at young leaders? Why would Kirsten Foy and Charlie King pile on? Aren’t these the kind of men that should be reaching out to young activists, like Jawanza, Jason, and myself in order to provide mentorship and support? My second thought was apprehension. Reverend DeCohen, Foy, and King are prominent black leaders in our communities, and no matter how I choose to respond, it would be heard through the lens of a media industry run by white dollars, and mostly underpaid — and overworked — reporters.

They would more than likely frame it as a battle between Black activists while punting on covering the real issue in New York: the widespread power that corporations and lobbyists have on the policies that impact the lives of Black people. Did I really want to engage in a discussion so Black when the outlets that would respond to it are run by a bunch of colonizers? Would they do this debate justice, and be able to responsibly cover the full nuance of it? History has taught us that white run media outlets almost always get it wrong.

When leaders of color have a disagreement, the implications are always much larger than a difference of ideas. White operatives, progressives, and even Republicans have an all-out war and it’s barely covered, or not framed as some sort of “internal racial conflict.” We don’t get that luxury. There’s still an inability to see us as full people, so they interpret any disagreement as a “battle royal of the Blacks.” In the end, despite these considerations, I could not let this slight pass without speaking up. The Reverend, Kirsten Foy and King can’t get away with trying to bully my people for speaking truth to power.

For those of you that don’t know, Jason and Jawanza are the real deal. They’re community organizers with the spirit of Stokely Carmichael and Ella Baker. Whether there’s a reporter present or not, they’re in the streets doing the work necessary to build Black community power. They don’t do this work for headlines, and they’re not called to action with paychecks. They’re here to liberate our people, even if that means ruffling some feathers.

Because of the nature of the work, a lot of people choose only to see one side of organizing. They see the press conferences, or the rallies packed to the brim with fired-up community members. But that kind of power doesn’t just happen through tweets and news clips. It has to be built, and you have to be willing to go where the people are to do that. That’s what Jason and Jawanza spend their time doing.

They spend their days sitting with working people. They build power in the welfare offices. They strengthen relationships on the corner with the hustlers. They build a vision for change with the real community leaders — the ones who have been attacked by this racist institution every day of their lives but get up every single morning looking for another way to survive. Jason and Jawanza build community with people living with HIV, who are struggling to afford their medications or pay their rent.

The Reverend’s “Uncle Tom” comment, along with Foy and King’s criticism, wasn’t just a textbook example of someone throwing low blows. It was a reminder to me and other young leaders of color why there is a real separation between the activists of today and our older counterparts. We’re doing work in a field dominated by white people. Yet the “seasoned “Black leaders, who we should feel comfortable approaching, undermine, dismiss, or sometimes flat-out attack us.

They don’t agree with our tactics, they’re bothered by our worldview, and think they have all the solutions to our problems. They don’t. And I would argue that the current state of New York is proof that they could use our help. Their old-fashioned ways and willingness to bend to political power are likely the reason that so many of them were missing in action during the fight to get the Pied-à-Terre Tax passed — a luxury housing tax that would have given us the revenue to fairly fund our public schools. They were nowhere to be found then, but apparently had plenty of time and energy to go after these young Black men in the media.

While the Reverend was submitting that hot take for his moment in the sun, Jawanza and Jason were likely talking to one of the thousands of tenants in the Bronx without heat or hot water, with moldy walls, and an aggressive landlord excited about the opportunity to push some Black folks out, so they can jack up the rent and make that building whiter.

But you know what, maybe I shouldn’t be upset. Maybe this sort of scenario is to be expected. These men come from an era where Black boys are told they must wear fancy suits and “play nice with the white man” in order to get things done. They come from an era where you had to be mindful of your tone, because the slightest shift in pitch would have you labeled as a “radical.” They spent years being told that they needed to learn how to work within the system, that change could only happen very slowly, and when those in power felt it was appropriate. They played the game so that we could choose to throw the board across the room.

If we’re following this thread, it’s not really their fault that Jawanza, Jason, and other Black activists in this mold, scare them. Can I really be mad at them for getting confused when we push back against their suggestion that we need a “seat at the table” like them? They see it as a chance to have a slice of power. We look at them as if they’re on the menu. They can’t possibly comprehend our goal of breaking the legs of that table.

It’s why instead of reaching out to powerful Black activists, like Jason and Jawanza, fighting for ways to get more Black people elected, they decided to smear them, all in the name of protecting their shiny-suit-wearing, white-supremacist-appeasing, respectability-politics-paper-castle. They’re from an older guard. They need to catch up.

Stanley Fritz is the Campaigns Manager for Citizen Action of New York