In the following thought pieces, a cohort of Black and brown Demos staff reflect on the idea of an inclusive democracy. They detail how our democracy has excluded Black people specifically from the very beginning, and how in this moment, in the midst of a pandemic and uprising in support of Black lives, we have a unique opportunity to create an inclusive democracy for the first time, building on the power of Black and brown communities organizing at the grassroots all over the country.
A Moment for Truth and, Finally, Justice
For centuries, Black people in America have been robbed of our freedoms and liberties. For centuries, state-sanctioned violence against Black people has plagued America’s soul. And none of it is accidental. It is dysfunctional by design. This oppressive system of brokenness we call America, when will it ever end? Is now the time we change racist America, finally?
If we take up, and this time finish, the tireless work of so many of our ancestors to undo white supremacy and build an inclusive, multi-racial democracy, the answer is unequivocally yes. And the time is now. The democracy moment we are living in is ripe with potential. The established structures and barriers that illegitimately determine who is worthy of participating in our democracy weaken under the intersecting pressures of the uprisings for racial justice led by the Movement for Black Lives and the devastation COVID-19 has wrought upon Americans of all races and ethnicities, but most severely upon Black and brown Americans.
This is the moment many of us have been waiting for. This is the moment our ancestors prepared us for, when we can finally right the wrongs against Black people that have persisted and haunted America since those first slave ships washed ashore. In this moment, at last, it seems Black leaders, activists, and grassroots organizers aren't the only people putting their lives on the line by calling for justice and the end of violence against Black people and communities. It seems that millions of people don’t just believe in change but are willing to take action in the name of truth, healing, and transformation. Because it’s long past time that all Americans value Black people as much as they value Black culture and Black dollars.
This time Black and brown people have come together to demand the safety and investments our communities need—and our democracy requires. We will no longer be subjugated to absorb racist violence in silence. The world is watching and listening because Black lives do matter. It’s time to rewrite the social contracts between Black people, brown people, and America.
We are what democracy looks like. We deserve more.
The Pathway to New Futures
Throughout the history of the United States, the ideals enshrined at this country’s founding have belied its material inequalities. The unequivocal truth is that American institutions designed “for the People” have created a democracy that protects the rights and privileges of wealthy white men. From the stolen labor of enslaved Africans to the stolen lands of Native peoples of this continent, white supremacy, compounded by wealth and gender, undergirds every aspect of our American life.
We see the strange fruits of those principles persist today through public policies that result in voter disenfranchisement, neglected public infrastructure, and police violence that targets Black and brown people at extraordinarily higher rates than white people. The results are systems that do not work for most people, across all races, in the United States. The reality is that systematic neglect is sifted via a racial hierarchy that has existed since the birth of this country. Within that hierarchy, Black people fall to the bottom.
Today, it is clearer than ever that we need a radically expanded democracy—not for a select few, but for all people. We need an inclusive democracy that works with and for our communities. We create such a democracy, one that affirms the lived experiences of all people, by uplifting the Black and brown voices that continue to confront systemic anti-Black racism and combat white supremacy. As grassroots leaders and communities strategically shift power away from pillars of structural, systemic racism to Black and brown communities, we re-envision what it means to live freely. Through the work of demanding a government for all people, we begin to create a truly inclusive democracy for the first time.
This is the vision of Demos’ Inclusive Democracy Agenda, a set of policy ideas co-created by Demos and members of the Inclusive Democracy Project (IDP). Through the IDP, we at Demos work with Black and Latinx grassroots leaders to build structural power in Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. These leaders represent 30 organizations across 15 states that are relentlessly breaking down structural barriers and tactically empowering BIPOC communities. With every campaign toward an inclusive future and with every radical policy change that builds power in Black and brown communities, our partners move us closer to an inclusive democracy. In addition to supporting the radical and essential work of our partners in their communities, the IDP offers a space that recognizes and invests in the power of community and relationship. In bringing these powerful leaders together, we present a unique relational space where partners can tap into the extensive expertise of a network of peers and leaders of the IDP cohort, and bring back new learnings and strategies to their communities.
IDP and the Inclusive Democracy Agenda prioritize and amplify solutions that are advanced by, and which build power for, those closest to the problem of democratic exclusion: Black and brown people for whom our democracy has never worked, and who have the clearest vision for what changes must be made to create an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
What Democracy Looks Like Today
Black and brown people’s struggle to gain representation in governance and their exclusion from political power is not a coincidence or a perpetuation of mere happenstance—it is designed, the result of systems and institutions built to keep white people in power and Black and brown people out. It would be grossly understated to suggest that American democracy has simply excluded Black and brown people from ideals of freedom and equality. Our communities, particularly Black people, have been written out of the story altogether.
In 2008—for the first time in the United States’ history—a Black man took office to govern the country built on the backs of Black enslaved people, more than 400 years after the first Africans were stolen from their land and forced to labor on American soil. Barack Obama’s election seemed to indicate a seismic advancement for Black political power and the beginnings of what a multiracial democracy could and should look like. Despite the promise this milestone held, Black people are still missing in great numbers within bodies of government that hold important decision-making authority over policies and structures that directly impact our communities and our ability to thrive. In the entire history of the U.S., there have only been 10 Black senators, and today Black people hold only 18 out of 346, or 5 percent, of statewide elected positions, despite making up over 13 percent of our population.
Exclusion from bodies of elected leadership reinforces, and is reinforced by, exclusion in nearly every other system and institution that governs our lives. In our schools, Black and brown youth are tracked out of advanced coursework and away from opportunities to determine their futures, and tracked into the prison pipeline. In our workplaces, Black and brown employees are paid less and passed over for leadership roles that determine the course of careers. Black and brown communities on the cutting edge of producing renewable energy face efforts by utilities and politicians alike to strip communities of their agency and to monetize those resources to benefit corporations. The systemic exclusion Black and brown people face spans every sector of society.
When a so-called democracy is designed to exclude representation, leadership, and well-being of entire communities, can we even call it a democracy?
The Time to Build an Inclusive Democracy Is Now
Today we face compounding crises that have cast a stark light on the brutal inequalities of our society. The COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis, and uprisings for Black lives and against police violence around the country are exposing the systemic racial inequalities that permeate institutions and destroy the lives of people of color. As we witness Black and brown people confront acute police violence, these same communities are bearing the disproportionate brunt of COVID-19 infections and deaths. This is a result of systemic environmental and public health inequalities: Black and brown communities living with pollution have higher rates of respiratory diseases like asthma that increase vulnerability to COVID-19. Black and brown communities have less access to adequate health care. And it is Black and brown workers who comprise most of the essential workers that have kept our economy running during this pandemic, while exposing themselves to greater risk.
This is the result of intentional policy and design choices of our political and institutional leaders, and these overlapping crises present an opportunity to make different choices that both expand our democracy and ensure all people have access to a good and healthy life. This country has strived for democracy for generations. Despite 400 years of purposeful exclusion, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people have always been at the helm of political organizing and movement building efforts to shape our democracy into a system that serves and benefits everyone. Black people in particular have pushed our society to live up to its values, throughout history and to this very day.
In this time of unrest and upheaval, the potential to repair historic harms coincides with the opportunity to build political power in Black and brown communities, to cement lasting change that dismantles structures that have preserved white supremacy for generations, and to begin to realize a just and inclusive society. Protecting and restoring the voices of millions of disenfranchised people across the country is the first step in establishing the policies that will rebuild and fortify our communities. Through transformational policies like those in the Inclusive Democracy Agenda—a guaranteed constitutional right to vote, enfranchisement for all, universal voter registration, self-determination, small donor democracy, and energy democracy—we create pathways for people to define what we want in and from our representatives, our institutions, and our democracy.
The policies presented by the Inclusive Democracy Agenda are the beginning of a much larger process of achieving a true democracy. There is much more work that needs to be done to fundamentally change our government so that it goes beyond mere acknowledgement of the rights its people are owed. Ultimately, the right to safety, to medical care, to clean and sustainable environments, to education, and to job security are extensions of the right to fully participate in our democracy.
Redefining Democracy by Building Power
From Machiavelli to Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, the concept of power has been defined by cynicism, cruelty, fear, lies, and hoarding. These are the building blocks of white supremacy. This not only impacts how the existing white supremacist culture wields power, it also informs the reaction of the white ruling class to Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities as they build power. As Evan Belosa writes, “Power and fear are bastardized versions of the same coin.”
From the time of slavery, fear on the part of the Oppressor has defined law and policy. Knowing that the system was unjust and that the chance of rebellion was always around the next unseeable corner, propagators of chattel slavery assumed that if enslaved people rebelled and took power, they would rule in the same way that the white man did. There was no room in the imagination of the rulers of this system to consider that power could be exercised without cruelty and certainly not without vengeance.
Black, Indigenous, and Latinx leaders are seizing this moment to demonstrate that there is in fact an alternative to this model. It is possible to build power in a way that is compassionate and communal, freed from individual ambition and insatiable greed. Even more important, Black and brown leaders like those in the Inclusive Democracy Project are showing us how to create a new system that does not mimic the worst of what we are fighting against but instead charts a new course of inclusivity, vulnerability, honesty, and a rejection of the pyramid structures that invite the desperate grasping for power that we have seen throughout history. While there are doubtless many ways to build power, a few consistent themes emerge:
- Accountable to real people with real problems: Grassroots organizations continually strike new paths for us to follow, but one key difference is membership. By building a constituency from the community, the organization as a whole is beholden to them, and will define priorities not by the dictates of political parties or donors, but by actual, urgent need.
- Year-round engagement: Building power means engaging with communities and people every day, not just in the run-up to an election or legislative session. Year-round engagement allows communities themselves to be invested in building power and creates the space for trust and relationship building that are critical to the fight.
- Infusing the fight with joy: We cannot build community and power out of anger and misery. The history of Black- and brown-led movements in this country shows not just a readiness to fight, but room for joy and celebration through music, dance, food, faith of any kind, and tradition. Rejecting white supremacy also means rejecting the white mode of battle—caught in the muck of anger, greed, and exclusion—and embracing a fight that is joy-filled, Black- and brown-led, and grown with love from the ground up.
- The power of real principle: People respond to passion, courage, and principle. The playbook of neoliberalism—burying the lede, pushing incremental “change,” and concessions that somehow only Black and brown communities are asked to make—have done as much or more to bring our country to this divisive brink as those they claim to be fighting against. The grassroots has shown us that not only are passion and conviction powerful, they are winning strategies.
The organizations that make up the IDP are crafting campaigns that respond to the priorities of their members, and by winning radical policy changes that break down structural barriers to democratic participation and expand political and economic power for Black and brown communities. For example, in 2018, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), an organization founded and led by formerly incarcerated Floridians, fought for and won Amendment 4, a policy that helped restore voting rights and bring roughly 1.4 million Floridians into the political process. FRRC won not by putting together a proposal and then telling people to vote for it, but by years of tireless work knocking on doors, talking to Floridians of all races and political persuasions about their priorities, and building broad-based support for an idea they’d heard echoed across the state. They continue to build power through ongoing organizing to make that right to vote real. Washington Community Action Network (Washington CAN) helped lead the nation in prioritizing the voices and perspectives of low-income and working-class people when it fought for and passed the first-of-its-kind “democracy vouchers” program. Democracy vouchers enable everyday people, regardless of wealth, to donate to candidates’ campaigns, focusing candidates’ attention on constituents’ concerns rather than on the scramble for big donors, and allowing candidates without access to wealth to run for and win elected office. New Mexico’s Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ) has run powerful campaigns to oust leaders beholden to corporations rather than constituents, while also building a robust, statewide democracy movement that is pursuing additional reforms and protecting progress from attack. These are just a few examples of the creative and transformative routes grassroots and state leaders within the IDP are charting as they build a more inclusive democracy.