Kwame Nkrumah wrote, “Idealism favours an oligarchy, materialism favours an egalitarianism.”
With this quote from Dr. Nkrumah in mind, my argument here will be: the myth of incremental progress— which is based on subjective idealism– is dangerous to individuals who belong to the most marginalized communities in society.
This isn’t an argument against the undeniable reality of quantitative changes to society. We know that these changes have been beneficial, even when taken on their own, and that they are also necessary to bring about a qualitative change to society. But, while these changes are a fact, it’s often difficult for us to recognize these changes until after the fact. For instance, the usual narrative for “racial progress” in the United States is: during the 1960s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave some great speeches in the South (including Washington D.C.), and then Congress passed some legislation and President Johnson signed this into law. We’re told that, while these incremental changes didn’t entirely fix the “race problem,” they improved the lives of “African-Americans,” who then built on this progress with even more progress in the 1970s up to the present.
This view of history is based on the same philosophical idealism which leads us to believe in “American exceptionalism.” And the main beneficiaries of such a view are the rich white people in the oligarchy who want us to believe that we are slowly-but-surely making incremental progress toward some future point where everyone will be treated as equals. But while we are promoting this mythology, the racist ruling class is enjoying greater profits, as it has always done.
What we are seeing with Donald Trump– and really long before him– is that incremental progress can be taken away from the people very quickly, because the people never had actual power. If the people don’t have power, then any progressive changes to their condition can evaporate overnight. And then we end up adopting the cynical view that history is like a pendulum swinging back and forth, perhaps forgetting that the most vulnerable identities in this society don’t even survive until the pendulum swings back in their direction again. Furthermore, these changes may have never touched their lives in any positive way to begin with, whether swinging in one direction or the other. If anything, progress for one segment of society– during periods that were supposed to be the favorable part of the cycle– was likely built on the additional erasure of the most marginalized (or the least valued) people in any given community.
The greatest beneficiaries of this idealistic belief in incremental progress are the members of the ruling class– the corporations– and the political parties that the corporations pay for. Any mass energy that may have been devoted toward organizing for actual power is isolated and divided into two opposing columns- one marked “R” and the other “D”– and is then drained off during the hectic rush to elect so-and-so from either “R” or “D.” The belief is that, if we can just elect a Democrat again (or a Republican), then we’ll get back on the path toward progress. But bourgeois democracy is designed specifically to keep the people powerless, because, under this system, actual democracy is considered “mob rule.” The property-owners don’t trust us to run the country– we might run it for our own benefit. So the system sets up elections with candidates chosen from its oligarchical ruling class and– after much yelling at each other, and much worrying over those ballots that half the people don’t even fill out anyway– the wealthy few at the top end up getting the representatives that they wanted in the first place.
The quantitative changes that took place in the 1960s– as opposed to any mythological incremental progress– occurred because the people were starting to grab some power. And this was happening in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (which was the first Black Panther Party). These were quantitative changes because they were moving toward a qualitative change– revolution– or a material change in the overall power structure of society (“Black Power”). And it was on account of these mass movements for power that the people started to make actual progress. It didn’t come from the federal government in Washington, or from wealthy corporations. Actual progress came from the people– in this case, from African people in the United States, as was the case with Africans in Africa and everywhere else in the world. There was a global revolution– in Africa, Latin America, Asia and among colonized peoples in the U.S.– and the capitalist class was just reacting to this revolution when it passed legislation and made reforms to the system it controls. President Johnson was just seeking to preserve the power of the wealthy white ruling class, so it could keep the people from taking over and having control of our own lives, with actual power.
Nevertheless, capitalism still wants us to believe that “we” are slowly-but-surely making progress– who this “we” might be is anyone’s guess. Probably “we” as in “we white people.”
Take the Oscars as an example. For decades, the Oscars have been terribly racist– year after year. All of Hollywood has been racist, but white mediocrity needs to be handed gold statuettes to make it feel that it’s great. Then “ReignOfApril” and Black people on social media (mostly Black women) started pushing back with the hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite.” Now, we don’t know whether Moonlight winning Best Picture is going to lead to more winners from Black artists in the motion picture industry, or if this was yet another case of “one and done” in the racist United States of America. It’s too soon to tell. But we do see a pattern of this type of behavior, where the few rich white people in the ruling class (which rules in Hollywood too) decides to give some (delayed) recognition to the achievements of Black people, and then quickly goes back to its old ways.
On the other hand, in a “USA” that stands for the United States of Africa (as Kwame Nkrumah envisioned), Black people or Africans and their creations would win every year, far from the gaze of whites who constantly need to be reminded how “good” we are for promoting diversity, with all these “firsts” in “America.” Of course, a win for Black people is better than no win, under any system (in either kind of USA– the good one or the current bad one), but whites shouldn’t confuse this type of win with progress. Exceptions to the rule don’t indicate progress, when that rule remains oppressive and exclusionary– their infrequency mostly shows how little true progress there has been for us (particularly when that “us” is rarely if ever recognized and uplifted).
When it comes to actual power, and qualitative changes in society toward a system of egalitarian rule, we might ask ourselves: how many great civil rights leaders in the 1960s were Black trans women? How many films created by Black trans women have been recognized at the Oscars? How many Black trans women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature?
If we believe in the mythology of incremental change, we’ll say that their turn is coming next– first cisgender Black men, then maybe cisgender Black women or cisgender gay Black men, and eventually society will get around to uplifting and respecting the art and work of Black trans women. But there are more Black trans women in this country than there are white cis men who have the amount of money that Donald Trump has– and he’s the President. There are about 1800 billionaires in this country. And they run pretty much everything. It’s hard to say how many Black trans women there are, but there are certainly more than just Janet Mock and Laverne Cox who– wonderful as they are– still don’t receive the money and attention that less talented white women receive.
It should be fairly clear by now that the lack of recognition, respect and money that Black trans women receive for their art, organizing and overall well-being is due to– not how many Black trans women there are– but how violently they have been prevented from gaining access to these resources.
The fact is, there are Black trans women making art– writing poetry and novels, performing music, and making films– and, for the most part, they aren’t getting recognized or paid for their work. And part of the problem is that too many liberals or left-wing individuals in this country (especially those of us who are white) have bought into the mythology of incremental change, and the belief that Black trans artists today will just have to wait until “we” have made sufficient progress before they get their paycheck, or their awards, or the kind of respect that other artists already get (especially those who are white).
Our hearts may be in the right place, but our heads must be in the clouds– in a thick fog– if we think that Black trans women are going to be uplifted and recognized in this transphobic, racist, sexist society anytime soon … unless we do it. While “allies” and kindhearted liberals are sitting around waiting for the next Democratic President to take power, not only are Black trans women being murdered, but they aren’t being given the recognition and resources they deserve right now. We’ll pay money to Amazon and buy a book by a white cisgender woman who already has millions. We’ll give money to organizations led by white cisgender women. But we act as if Black trans women don’t deserve the resources that will allow them not only to survive, but to create the sort of art that we celebrate on awards shows and share on Facebook when somebody else (who looks like us?) is creating it.
Whether we’re liberal or revolutionary, if we want to live in a society of equals, then we must recognize that progress toward this type of society can only come from the masses of people. This means that we need to be very intentional about bringing to the center the voices and lives of individuals in communities who are endangered and marginalized by the current society. And we are not doing this just out of the kindness of our hearts, although kindness may be one incentive. We must center the survival, art, organizing and work of Black trans women because this is a racist, transphobic, sexist system that is moving to destroy Black trans women.
It’s not enough to hold an idealistic hope that Black trans women will get recognition some day, once society is ready to progress to that point. Society will never progress to that point unless we make it move forward– in measurable, material ways, the same as SNCC and all other mass movements have pushed society toward egalitarian principles.
And it’s not enough to wish Black trans women well, and have kind thoughts about their success– we will only challenge the power of a system built on transphobia, misogyny and white supremacy, as well as capitalist oppression, if we make material contributions toward a collective effort that can quantitatively change the situation of Black trans women in this society. If we consider ourselves to be progressive, then it seems we should recognize the power that we hold in ourselves to create change, whenever we move together, each contributing even just a little to the collective effort.