When my protest becomes political, will you still believe Black lives matter?
Plus: 35 Policy Recommendations to Protect Black Futures
Growing up in Memphis, I never felt a need to either hide or display my blackness. Everyone around me was Black and you stood out by being smart and ambitious. I did not lack role models or positive examples and although I was smart, I wasn’t extraordinary; I was doing what was expected of me. One can imagine, then, how that shifts when you suddenly enter an environment where being Black was rare and it was your responsibility to show that it was — also — special.
In these environments, a so-called “elite” prep school in New Hampshire and a predominantly white university in Georgia, Black students were expected to be exceptional. We were expected to care for our community. We were taught the game where everyone plays their role in public and work in a seamless, coordinated fashion in private. In college, we aimed for influence. We had representation in the Student Government Association, the College Council, the Office of the President, the campus newspaper, the cultural organizations, the fraternities and sororities, and secret societies. It was chess, not checkers.
While my brother received direct lessons about how not to engage with police in order to preserve his life, I received subtle instruction on how to engage with white people in classrooms and board rooms. In both cases, we are taught to be mindful of our surroundings and whether your goal is to make a dollar or make it home, self-preservation was the avenue. This is not the same as avoiding your responsibility to Black people. As an African-American Studies major in college, our ethos was “academic excellence and social responsibility” and it was expected that no matter our chosen fields, we perform at the highest levels so that we can continue to be a voice (or in some cases, THE voice) contributing to the advancement of our people.
And so it is when we reach positions of power. We have operated with the assumption that we are but one of a connected many Black elected officials committed to improving the lives of Black people in America. The difference though is that the private coordinated strategizing and intellectual jousting is too few and far between. What results is a tendency to become enamored with being perceived as exceptional. This urge towards exceptionalism is so great that we forget to allow our hearts to act out loud. We leave it to our constituencies to read between the lines and trust that our acceptance of our identity extends to a love for our people.
Black politicians don’t move through the world the same way anymore.
I was 8 years old when I first heard of Marion Barry. I remember watching the news in my living room and overhearing various adult conversations about his arrest. The extent of my knowledge of Mayor Barry was limited to the ungraceful images plastered all over television in 1990 and the punchlines of jokes for the rest of the decade. A little over a year later, I watched the Anita Hill hearings with my parents and, again, overheard adults speak about Clarence Thomas’s blackness and his allegiance, or lack thereof, to Black people (especially Black women). I did not know much about the would-be Supreme Court Justice or Anita Hill, but I was able to conclude that he somehow sold out and the White politicians were there to protect him.
It was a beautiful Spring day in 2017. I sat outside chatting for what felt like hours with a local politician about their role in government and politics and what they share with me shifted, entirely, the narrative I’d built for nearly 30 years about the Mayor for Life. They told me their story of Marion Barry. Their Marion Barry gave them their first job. Their Marion Barry was the reason they saw Black people run a government and thought they could do it, too. Their Marion Barry opened the doors for Black business in a way that no other administration had done up to that point. Their Marion Barry created a generation of successful Black politicians and government officials in the Washington, DC metro area. Their Marion Barry was a giant among men.
It was then that for the first time I sat in admiration — and envy — of Marion Barry.
Black politicians don’t move through the world the same way leaders like him did anymore. We are not largely activists. In fact, many of us are disconnected from our previous activism if we were ever activists at all. We do not know or have forgotten what it feels like to have one shot, one opportunity, to seize. I long for that feeling again. I miss the feeling that I had while leading the Black Student Alliance at Emory University and going head-to-head with a leading conservative at the time. I miss the fire I felt organizing at 3am to get the University president to yield to our demands. I miss the pride I held in knowing that I cared for the legacy left by those before me while also developing leaders who would come after me. I don’t believe I realized at the time that becoming a policymaker would make me a palatable agitator.
I know that I am not alone in this and it is not a coincidence.
I can’t help but wonder if the rules that tend to unfairly target Black politicians or politicians in Black communities are the result of the boldness that Marion Barry and others like him had to do right by their people. What happened in the 90s to these two prominent Black figures in American life was important for millennials at my end of the age spectrum. The deconstruction and delegitimization of Marion Barry’s legacy coupled with the success and confirmation of Clarence Thomas seeded a peculiar conundrum. The subtle lesson was this: if you occupy a position of power, you must be unassailable — or at the very least, you cannot piss off the white people. This isn’t to say that Mayor Barry was infallible. In fact, this is an expression of the beauty of that fallibility. If only we were all willing to trade comfort for conflict. For what good is being exceptional, if it only enables the status quo?
Our constituents need us to blend our protest with our politics and allow our Blackness to take a front seat in the rooms we occupy.
Even at the local level, enacting policies that support Black people and aim to undo the effects of systemic racism can be costly. Committing to valuing Black life and destroying the ties to the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow comes at a cost. It’s a cost not to dissimilar to the one we are paying now for our centuries-long investment in white supremacy.
As Mayor of the City of Hyattsville, I believe I have had some great successes. I’ve been spending the last few days combing through what has been — until now — a nondisclosed agenda. By sharing, I am inviting you to join me as we work unapologetically to secure Black futures.
The risk is that you will piss some people off but know that your legacy — whichever you choose — will be protected by those who love you.
I hope you love me, too.
An Agenda for Hyattsville (MD)
- Adopt a resolution committing to enacting policies that explicitly address the effects of systemic racism for Black people. Why? A resolution is a reminder of what you have committed to doing; it is a way for the government to be accountable to its residents.
- Fund healing circles for Black people. Why? Mental health and collective healing led by and for Black people is a priority.
- Implement participatory budgeting for the municipal budget. Why? Community control helps ensure investments in initiatives and programs that speak more directly to community needs.
- Mandate a warning first approach for moving violations; implement technology solutions that support this approach. Why? Black people have disproportionately more exposure to the criminal legal system which can, at times, begin with a traffic stop.
- Relax permitting requirements for the use of public spaces. Why? Permitting processes can inhibit Black and Latinx communities’ engagement with public spaces or create an avenue for targeting for citations on misuse.
- Remove unfair price escalations in fines and tickets. Why? Price escalations, in some cases 400% of the original fine, criminalize poverty and inability to pay.
- Remove incarceration as a penalty for municipal code infractions. Why? Quite simply, there are no current municipal code infractions worthy of incarceration.
- Advocate for the legalization of recreational marijuana in the State of Maryland. Why? Marijuana arrests create unnecessary exposure to the criminal legal system and often results in punishments for Black “offenders” that are disproportionately harsher than their white counterparts.
- Require that all newly hired police officers reside within a 5-mile radius of the City. Why? Establishing residence in the City where you enforce the laws creates a system of accountability by proximity and allows consistent engagement with community residents to breakdown instances of implicit bias.
- Convert school resource officers to off-premise school-community partners. Why? School resource officers create additional opportunities for unnecessary engagement with law enforcement. While there can be some gains in perceived safety or community-school relationships, such partnerships should be developed without reliance on in-house police staff to enforce school rules.
- Increase investments in community services consistent with increases in law enforcement on a per capita basis. Why? Communities are safe when there’s an investment in robust recreation, arts, and civic programs.
- Prioritize street and road repair by severity and location, weighting locations in predominantly low-income and/or majority Black and Latinx areas more heavily. Why? Walkability and quality of infrastructure contribute to appraisal values of housing. Black communities are typically undervalued in relation to homes with similar characteristics. Lower property values result in loss of wealth for Black and Latinx families.
- Install pedestrian-activated traffic control devices at all intersections on State and County roads. Why? Walkability and quality of infrastructure contribute to appraisal values of housing. Black communities are typically undervalued in relation to homes with similar characteristics. Lower property values result in loss of wealth for Black and Latinx families.
- Continue to invest in workforce development and job training programs for unemployed residents, particularly returning citizens, to begin a pathway into municipal government employment. Why? Government service agencies often provide stable jobs with good benefits. Preparing residents to take on these positions offers portable skills that can help them secure living wage jobs wherever they go.
- Integrate cultural competency assessments in the hiring of all municipal employees. Why? You cannot implement a culturally competent and equitable policy agenda with staff whose biases prevent rational thought.
- Urge moderators of community listservs, Facebook groups, and neighborhood watch groups to prohibit the posting of photos or videos of alleged “suspects” of any crimes. Why? Community groups (in-person and online) can create their own rules. That said, allowing the posting of photos and videos of individuals not arrested or convicted of a crime creates a climate of racial profiling and vigilantism.
- Urge moderators of community listservs, Facebook groups, and neighborhood watch groups to develop rules preventing the use of hate speech and/or racial profiling in posts. Why? Community groups (in-person and online) are often the front door to a community/City. The communication practices should reflect the community ethos.
- Advocate for mandatory Spanish-language instruction for all students beginning as early as Pre-K and no later than 6th grade. Why? As Spanish-speaking populations increase, organizations feel a business need to hire bilingual employees. Black applicants who did not receive foreign language instruction are rendered noncompetitive for positions requiring language proficiency.
- Ensure grade-level proficiency in math and reading for all students. Why? Does this really need an explanation? Positions in skilled trades are in high-demand, but often require certification exams. Ensuring grade level proficiency allows all students to be able to qualify for skilled trade programs should they opt-out of post-secondary education.
- Create a program or partnership that provides high quality, early childhood education to all 4-year olds. Why? The demographics of public schools do not reflect the demographics of the community. A high-quality Pre-K program will ensure that all students entering Kindergarten will have received quality instruction necessary to be successful in a full-day academic environment.
- Conduct a disparity study of home values in the City of Hyattsville from 2008–2020 by location and create and/or advocate for policies that return investments to homeowners in predominantly Black and Latinx communities. Why? We know that homes in Black communities tend to be undervalued until there is a shift in the racial makeup of a community. We should quantify the assets lost to homeowners in predominantly Black and Latinx communities and identify creative ways to return investments to those communities.
- Develop policy and/or incentive programs to support the conversion of multi-family dwellings to solar energy. Why? Inhabitants of multi-family dwellings are more likely to be Black or Latinx. Absent requirements mandating the affordability of housing, solar energy will allow for a reduction in housing expenses for residents and, therefore, increase disposable income.
- Enact policy and/or incentive programs that result in occupancy of commercial leased space to Black-owned businesses. Why? Social isolation of Black people in gentrifying communities is a result of the lack of visibility of Black-owned businesses, arts, and culture, in addition to the demographic makeup of the resident population.
- Collect data on racial demographics of all commissioned public art in the City, require the use Black artists on all public art projects until such time that Black artists are adequately represented (not less than the population represented in Prince George’s County). Why? The social isolation experienced by Black people in gentrifying communities can result in the erasure of culture and identity.
- Enact policy and/or incentive programs that result in the increased quality and affordability of multifamily dwellings. Why? Inhabitants of multi-family dwellings are more likely to be Black or Latinx. Housing should not be affordable because it is in poor condition.
- Automatic vote-by-mail for all registered voters. Why? Enabling the full participation of all residents in the electoral process helps encourage a more representative democracy.
- Implement public financing of local elections. Why? Enabling the full participation of all residents in the electoral process helps encourage a more representative democracy.
- Create a local government/campaign training program for Black and Latinx residents. Why? Enabling the full participation of all residents in the electoral process helps encourage a more representative democracy.
- Support repeal of prohibitions on campaign contributions for Prince George’s County elected officials or support expansion of prohibitions to all jurisdictions in the State of Maryland. Why? This policy disadvantages participation of Prince George’s County officials in the statewide electoral process.
- Provide credit education and repair workshops for adults. Why? Improve the ability of Black people to receive access to capital.
- Host legal clinics that assist residents in challenging property assessments, establishing living wills and estates, and petitioning for expungements. Why? These clinics will allow for residents to reduce their property tax burden (and therefore increase disposable income), protect their assets, and rid themselves of negative records that can prevent employment.
- Create and fund individual development accounts for all Hyattsville residents under age 18. Why? Black and Latinx individuals are more likely to be underbanked than their white counterparts. Individual development accounts can help establish early banking relationships (and savings) for all families.
- Conduct a disparity study (if necessary) in order to implement priority minority-owned business procurement. Why? Minority-owned businesses should have fair representation in municipal contracting.
- Require that not less than 30% of municipal contracting ($) is conducted with Black-owned businesses. Why? Black-owned businesses should have a fair share of municipal contracting.
- Support repeal of TRIM (Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders). Why? TRIM is built on a legacy of racism to avoid financing the public school educations of Black students and has perpetuated historical underfunding of the community’s needs.
Candace Hollingsworth is the mayor of Hyattsville, Maryland.