The Black Candidate’s Burden
by Stacey Walker
September 15, 2020
Stacey Walker | I was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I think that's important to my background because it is a predominantly white state.
Growing up in a predominantly white environment as a minority adds an extra dimension to your life. It affects how you understand the world and how the world understands you.
I was born to a single teenage mom, she was not college-educated. We lived in low-income housing. We were on welfare.
My mother was a really, really sharp woman. She was an incredibly eclectic, dark-skinned, Black woman. She had a wicked sense of humor, and lit up a room - she was the life of the party everywhere she went. Looking back, one of the things that I really admire about her is that her interests were all over the place. I grew up watching MTV, when MTV still played music on TV. Although we lived in the hood of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, my mother loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers. To this day, my music interests are all over the place. I really credit her for allowing me to explore that sort of thing. In the African American community growing up, you weren't cool unless you exclusively listened to rap and hip hop music.
I started my exploration of Blackness and what it meant to be Black at a really young age and I credit my mother for that. My mother was murdered when I was four. It was an unsolved homicide. After that, I went to live with my maternal grandmother. My father was never in the picture.
My grandmother raised me and my younger sister. My grandmother was also a young mother. She was born and raised in rural Alabama in a time where Black people weren't valued as human beings. She made her way North toward the tail end of the second wave of minorities moving from the South to Northern cities. She landed in Chicago in the 60s, and then made it to Iowa in the late 70s. She was following her sister, my great aunt, who was one of the first African American students at Upper Iowa University. That's how my family got to Iowa.
My grandmother is the greatest inspiration in my life. She saw family members lynched in the deep South. Two of her brothers were chased out of Alabama by the Ku Klux Klan. She was in Chicago during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Her family was active in the Black Panthers. She was a good Christian woman. She set me on my path of justice. She was very fair. She was resolute in what was right and what was wrong.
Growing up, we always had at least a passive interest in politics. Although my grandmother didn't go to college until her fifties, she had a strong understanding of why the community was the way it was.
I don't think you need a formal education to understand politics. I mean, we were living it, we were poor.
We were doing everything we were supposed to do, but opportunities never seemed to come to my family or other families that looked like mine. I think that's where I got the social justice bug, from my mom and my grandmother. And here I am today.
Photo via @swalker06
I grew up knowing I was going to pursue politics, but it happened a lot faster than I anticipated. The politicians I grew up admiring were all white, wealthy attorneys, and I thought that was what you needed to be in order to be successful. I thought I'd have to spend 20 years putting in the legwork of politics before I got a shot to run for office. But, 2015 was the hardest year of my life. My grandmother died, my best friend's congressional campaign went up in flames, and the girl I thought I was going to marry left me. It was the worst year of my life.
It also happened to be the year there were several youth gun violence incidents in my community. We had one where a 15-year-old shot and killed a 14-year-old. Our community just broke after that. I was asked by the city council to assemble a group of people and come up with recommendations as to how we might address the issue. Bringing community leaders who all had competing interests and agendas and reasons for being there, to the table, ended up being quite the exercise.
Unbeknownst to me, this work ended up kick-starting my political career.
I was incredibly invested in this work, in studying the dynamics of poverty and generational cyclical poverty, and how that relates to crime and not criminality - I think that's an important distinction to make.
I was invested in understanding the social dynamics of our community and understating what we could do to mitigate violence. My political career was born off of this report that I co-authored along with Dr. Mary Wilcynski.
frank | How has your community evolved since you initially wrote this report? And how did that affect the response to the latest wave of protest?
Right after I was elected, a police officer fired on a young African American man, Jerime Mitchell, three or four times at point-blank range. He was paralyzed.
This was a turning point in my political career. I hadn't even been in office for six months, yet it was clear that no other elected official was going to touch this case. The case was being prosecuted by a County Attorney who is a Democrat and still in office. Our sheriff is a Democrat and still in office. I mean, I live in a Democratic County and no elected official was going to speak out against this. I couldn’t believe it.
The video had been released - we were all seeing the same video. The man was unarmed. The police officer was clearly the aggressor. The man tried to escape, and the officer pulled out his weapon and fired on him.
I will go to my grave believing that the way they treated this man was one of the greatest aberrations of justice. A grand jury was convened, which meets in secret and the prosecutors get to decide who they call as witnesses. I think the prosecutor's only witness was the police officer.
Jerime Mitchell, who was laying in a hospital with a ruptured voice box because a bullet had gone through his neck, did not have a chance to tell his side of the story.
The prosecutor told the story. The police officer told the story. The jury was sold one side of the story. So of course the jury found the police officer had acted within his rights to protect himself. Jerime Mitchell was saying, “One, I literally couldn’t speak. Two, I was laying in a hospital bed. Three, you guys did this in a matter of days.”
So I spoke out and I just got blasted by the Democratic establishment. Up until that point, I was kind of climbing this ladder of the model Negro politician. I could relate to white folks. There were a lot of comparisons to Obama.
But after that it was like, holy shit, that's Malcolm X because he dared to challenge the criminal justice establishment. So I said, fuck it. I was done with being the guy obsessed with doing all the right things, and virtue signaling, and putting out tepid statements that didn't mean anything. I figured if my career ended after this first term, I was young enough I could find something else to do.
So I led the charge for justice for Jerime Mitchell, and I've been leading similar fights since I've been elected. I've started the law enforcement round table. I published the safe, equitable thriving communities task force report. I've convened a number of community conversations. I’ve successfully implemented changes to body camera policies. I don't want to sit here and throw out credentials, but for a while, it really felt like a one-man show. During this recent reemergence of the Black liberation movement, I think these efforts primed our community to have the conversation. There is a tragic lack of understanding on the part of white leadership as to what the Black liberation movement is and what it stands for.
I'm going to count it as a small win that at least people are willing to engage with the topic. Five years ago, they weren't even willing to do that. It was a subject you did not talk about. You certainly didn't talk about it if you were a politician. You certainly, certainly didn't talk about it if you were a politician who wanted to advance. You certainly, certainly, certainly didn't talk about it if you were a politician and person of color who wanted to advance.
We recently interviewed Jecorey Arthur, he said, how are you supposed to govern a group of people if you don’t know them? Do you think like we’re seeing a reflection of lived experience in elected office?
There is a browning of politics happening in America right now. People of color are winning seats at the local level and the federal level at a rate that we've never seen before. That's incredibly helpful, especially in places like Iowa where politicians have long been exclusively white people and mostly white men.
On the flip side, candidates of color in predominantly white communities have to do this dance that I call the Black candidate’s burden. On one hand, we feel an obligation to represent minority voices and those who look like us, because we know other folks aren't going to do it. But we also know if we venture too far into that space, we will lose credibility with the majority population. You know you will be type-cast as the politician who cares about Black people's issues, and only Black people's issues.
I’ve had to sit down and have serious conversations with a lot of journalists in this community about coming to me on issues outside of those that deal with race. I'm a pretty smart man and I've lived an interesting life. I have a lot of different experiences outside of being a Black person. But, again, on the other side of it, if I don't take up this mantle, no one else will.
It's very rare to find white politicians who are willing to risk their political capital on issues that significantly impact minorities, at least that's the case here in Iowa.
How do you acknowledge both the reality of racism and the reality of poverty –especially in a predominantly white state?
Delicately and gingerly, is the short answer.
The more thoughtful answer is that good politicians are skilled communicators. The challenge is helping poor white people understand that they have more in common with poor Black people than they do with Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or any of these other wealthy, Ivy-league educated Republicans. They preach to poor white people and tell them that the only reason they are in the position that they are in is because of some boogeyman - people from South of the border, or the Black people in your neighborhood leeching off the welfare system.
All that from the party of “personal responsibility.”
Right? Yeah, it's riddled with hypocrisy. Uniting those two thoughts becomes a challenge because America is still a very segregated place. We are tribal by nature, and it's easy to develop an us-versus-them mentality, particularly when you don't have anything. I think Bernie Sanders found a way to talk to these two seemingly disparate groups of people in a way that helped them to understand that their economic destinies were intrinsically tied.
But it gets really, really tricky to explain to white people that they can still have something called privilege.
We need to help people understand that privilege does not mean that their life is easy. Privilege means that their skin color isn't one of the reasons why their life might be hard.
I can understand how that group of people can't reconcile these concepts. Republicans have figured out how to capitalize on that divisive political wedge. They say, “when they say Black lives matter, that means they don't care about you. They keep talking about privilege, but what kind of privilege do you have?” And it works.
Democrats don't know how to respond because they’re maneuvering for votes and are consumed with figuring out centrists. The genius of the Republican party is that they are not divided on this, and it's not really a political issue, it's emotional.
I agree with your assessment that Democrats writ large, aren't good at that conversation. I don't want to say anything that's going to harm Democrats' chances in the fall, because I am a team player, and we need to win. But, the general criticism that I have of the corporatist, establishment Democrats is that we spend way too much time worrying about how we are going to appeal to disaffected Republicans and to those right of center. We end up losing sight of what it is we actually believe in.
Is it because, at the heart of it, that's not what the corporatist, establishment Democrats, actually believe in?
That was my next point. I think we spend too much time trying to figure out where the electorate might be and allow that to inform our policy positions. In my view, that is totally backwards.
The job of a good politician is to have a vision of where you think we ought to be, and then figure out what policies will help us get there.
If the electorate isn't there, then your next job becomes is to persuade and to win the hearts and minds of the electorate. Your job is not to figure out where they are. It is not your job to lick your finger and put it in the air and say, “Well, I think they're over here, so this is where we're going to go.”
If we keep believing that the key to electoral success is winning over disaffected voters to the right of center, we are going to continue to pull the Democratic Party to the right. We're seeing that right now, and the right is not where the policies are that will help people.
There can only be so many elections that we classify as harm reduction.
There can only be so many elections where we feel as if we are in a hostage situation — that if we don't just go along with this platform then something really, really bad awaits us. There's only so many elections left where I think that the activist class is going to feel like they're getting an unfair shake. I am afraid for the moment where the Democratic party, which is already splintered, fractures completely. I hope we don't get there. I hope progressives win. I hope the leadership structure starts to change. But the threat of fracture is a real and present danger for this party.
How do you think about this coming election with the reality you just outlined above? How do you talk to other people about voting for Joe Biden? And how do you talk to yourself about it?
This particular election is all of the things politicians have warned us about during all of the other elections. This is actually real. I think Donald Trump absolutely represents an existential threat to democracy. I think it's a very real threat that we may continue to slide into authoritarianism, and into a place that we may not be able to recover with another four years of Donald Trump.
But you asked two questions: How do I talk to other people about it? And how do I talk to myself?
Somebody from team Bernie said to me, when it was apparent that he was going to drop out of the primary, we just need to win. That's how we solve a lot of these issues — we need more progressive wins. We need a progressive nominee for president. Until then, we need to stay in this fight and pull our party to a more progressive position. And that makes sense to me. I've played competitive sports for a large part of my life, and one of the things you learn to do is how to lose. We lost. We didn't have enough people who showed up for us in the primary, especially in the Southern States. That is how it works sometimes. As a practitioner of electoral politics, I'm able to leave it at that and know that a lot can change in two-year election cycles.
But how do I talk to other people about this? I mean, you have to have that conversation with them too.
You have to help people believe that there is value in participating in a system and sticking with a system that doesn't deliver the kind of results that they want every single election.
It is helpful that I am able to point to people like Cori Bush, members of the squad, and other progressive folks that are coming up through the ranks. I can point to them and say, that could be us. I do believe with each generation, we are becoming more liberal and more progressive. I do believe that one day we will have a progressive leader of this party who will give people something to believe in.
It's tough because for millions of Americans, the system has just never worked for them. Most Americans aren't really living, they're just doing their best to survive. It's hard to go to these folks and say vote for this person because they are going to be less dangerous than the other person, as opposed to vote for this person and you will get free healthcare. We are going to alleviate your medical debt. You are going to be able to send your kids to college for free. We are going to legalize marijuana. We are going to expunge the criminal records of individuals who have been arrested for marijuana crimes. We are going to reinvest in communities that have been devastated by the war on drugs. We are going to implement a Green New Deal. We are going to build a good society. It's easier to motivate people when you bring that.
Why doesn't the party acknowledge that?
It is a party problem. I think the folks who have an outsized influence in the party are afflicted by any number of problematic political diseases, if you will.
Some politicians are outright calculating. Some believe that the path to victory means being closer to the middle than closer to the left.
They are not going to risk an election to explain what defunding the police means.
It's much easier for them to say, “I support the police, I support all lives matter, and all people, all lives, have value.” They don’t have to explain or move the electorate or build a coalition.
For some people, its political calculus, but other folks just have differing opinions. I think Joe Biden falls into that category, and I actually have a lot of respect for politicians like him. He says what he actually believes in. It's okay to have people in our party who have differing beliefs about the issues or different approaches to different issues. I have a great amount of respect for other politicians in the Democratic party who don't share my beliefs but have arrived at their policy positions through shared experience or their own work on the topic.
Then there are politicians in this party and in the other party who base their political beliefs not on intellectual curiosity or studies or any sort of enlightenment, but solely upon where they believe the electorate is. These are the people I struggle with because that approach is harmful.
The status quo, as history has demonstrated, is not always right. We fought a civil war because the status quo thought that people who look like me ought to be treated like chattel property. The status quo in the sixties was that Black people like me were second class citizens. We know the status quo is not always right, but we have politicians in both parties operating under the belief that we can never go against the status quo.
That is really, really dangerous because I don't know what they believe in. And when push comes to shove and things get hard and the political heat is applied, I want to know where that politician is going to be, and I want to know why.
Joe Biden and I disagree on marijuana. Joe Biden and I disagree on healthcare policy. Joe Biden and I disagree on environmental policy. But he's got a record of showing how he's arrived at his beliefs, and he's remained steadfast in his beliefs. On some level, I have respect for that.
There are these other politicians who have to wait before the coast is clear before they say that Black lives matter. They have to make sure that other politicians are going to give them cover. They have to make sure that everybody's going to be on the same page. That's disgusting to me because people are dying in the streets. People don't have healthcare. People are being crippled by medical debt and student loan debt. I am 32 years old and I'm still financially impacted by my student loan debt.
It’s unfathomable that people can be so wedded to power that they abandon any sort of critical thinking.
I struggle with that.
This stuff is depressing now only because we don't have ambitious plans to address these issues. It could be exciting to imagine what our country, and what our world could be like with a bold vision, but perhaps that will come in another cycle. Our top priority this time around is defeating Donald Trump.
So much of this is based in an American obsession with an individualistic pursuit of success.
Yes. Rugged individualism isn't all bad. I think there is merit in people doing everything they can to make sure they're self-sustaining in order to help their family. I get that. But there's a difference between rugged individualism and crippling poverty and institutional racism that doesn't even allow the individual to start on that path.
We have rugged individualism for most Americans, except for when you reach a certain class.
When you reach a certain financial point you can hire accountants to help you find every loophole in our tax code, you can donate to politicians who promise to lower your taxes and support your financial interests. That's how you get the scenario that we are in today. We are in the worst economic crisis since 2008, the billionaires are getting wealthier, wages are continuing to drop, and we lost the battle on Medicare for All, politically, even with 70% of Americans supporting it.
These monied interests are really, really hard to beat. They have captured the leaders of both parties, and they have a stranglehold on our politics. That's a whole other conversation about how we get out of this morass, but it's hard to beat.