Cynthia McKinney on How Democrats Fail Black Voters and the Demands that Must Be Made

Dr. Cynthia McKinney knows what it means to sacrifice everything to pursue justice in a corrupt political system. The former congresswoman was the first Black woman to be elected to the House of Representatives from the state of Georgia. During her six terms in office, she developed a reputation for calling into question Republican overreaches of power. In 2006, she introduced articles of impeachment against George W. Bush for his role in the invasion of Iraq. Her outspokenness, of course, made her a target.

Republicans funded a Black woman challenger who defeated her in a primary in 2002. Mckinney returned to congress in 2004 but was defeated soon after. Upon leaving the Democratic party in 2007, McKinney pursued a presidential run as the Green Party candidate in 2008. Her historic run was overshadowed by the rise of Barack Obama.

McKinney says she has no regrets for her career built on outspokenness in a world that seeks to disregard Black women's voices, "I'm writing my legacy every day, because I'm living it. I just expect that people will disregard what other people say and look directly at what I have to say."

By phone from her new home in Bangladesh, Dr. McKinney spoke to editor-in-chief, Kimberly Foster, about the presidential race and the hamster wheel of electoral politics Black voters can't seem to escape.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For Harriet: I wanted to go back to 2008 for a little bit. You were the Green Party candidate for president, and your nomination wasn't really talked about, specifically in black media. It seems like you were almost neglected in favor of now President Obama. Did you get that feeling back then? If so, what did you think about it?

McKinney: You don't have to do a content analysis to understand that there's very little that's being written about your candidacy. Of course, that's not just from the black media. That was from any media. I think it stemmed, in large part, from a recognition of where the black electorate was at that time and currently is. Unfortunately, there are certain limitations with the way black people vote. Those limitations eventually end up resulting in a policy that is detrimental to the black community.

All I can do is offer the opportunity for a behavior change. What really has to be done in order to encourage and foster the behavior change is for people to understand internally and almost viscerally that the current situation is a result of doing things, or business as usual. Therefore, I did what I could do, and it's up to the rest of the community to do what it can do in order to improve our collective situation.

For Harriet: Your nomination was historic. You Rosa Clemente on the ballot as well. Do you think the fact that you were two black women impacted the way that your candidacy was covered or embraced even by the political left?

McKinney: I think it had less to do with us. Many of the people that I knew very well and worked with and that Rosa knew very well and had worked with basically turned their backs on our candidacy. Even though they understood exactly who we were and what we stood for, instead they embraced a candidate about which they knew very little, and in many cases nothing at all, and [were] going with a party that just a few weeks earlier they were willing to walk away from.

It's not a secret that there was a lot of angst in the black community in 2006, 2007 around the failure, quite frankly, of the Democratic Party to do anything to change the material conditions inside the black community. This is a party that has consistently received 90 percent, and more, of the black vote. Even if we look on a local level, we can look at the statistics that have come from Loyola University and around the situation of the racial disparities in the city of Chicago. Chicago has always been the place of Democratic Party machines. If the Democratic Party was going to function for anybody, it should function for the black community in the city of Chicago.

Then, to go over to the city of New York. You look at New York City and at that time, New York Times had done a study. It looked at young black men, or black males period, between the ages of 25 and 60, I believe. What it found was nearly half of all the black men were unemployed. You can't have a headline like that in the New York Times without some political consequence. You would think at some point that, if nobody else, black people would say, "We demand that there be a public policy change to rectify this situation." Yet, the voting behavior largely remained the same.

We can even go back to 2005 with Hurricane Katrina. It was a generalized sense of outrage at what had happened in Katrina.We can go incident after incident after incident. One of the things that did come to my attention after Hurricane Katrina, though, was a document that was sent to me by Amefika Geuka.  That document said that the way that we can change our behavior so that we are not victimized by politics, so that we become the stewards of our own resources and our own future, was the by recruiting 1,000,000 conscious, black, independent voters. That would entail black voters delisting themselves as adherents of their Democratic or Republican party and then listing themselves as Independent, with a platform for which to vote. Which is back to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about. Not just the right to vote, but the responsibility, also, to have something for which to vote. With a platform that spells out very clearly what the priorities and the values of these 1,000,000 independent, black, conscious voters are, then those voters would be able to have tremendous say in a national election.

In fact, now I learned that Amefika has actually crystallized his idea that was sent to me that I found totally, absolutely brilliant. Now they are working on a voter registration plan that targets black voters who basically are unregistered in various states, primarily in the south, because that's where you have a lot of unregistered black voters. The goal is to then get them to participate in the political process, but not as business as usual.

I couple Amefika's efforts with that of Dr. Baruti, who is in St. Louis, Missouri. What he has done in 2016 is put together what he calls a National Black Political Conference. What he is trying to do is recruit out of the ordinary black candidates to run for office, to run for Congress and the Executive offices of the various states. If you put these two separate and, at this point, unjoined efforts together, imagine what could happen. That is the project that I would love to be involved in in this election season.

We don't need to be talking about, "Are we going to support Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders?" We need to be talking about, "What is it that we can do, what is our platform, and how we will call the Democrats, the Republicans, the Independents, the Greens, whoever, to support our agenda?" Stop this business of supporting somebody else's agenda, making them rich, fat and famous, and then we continue to suffer.

Back to a CNN study that was done in 2006, I think. What CNN did was they looked at the black votes and they separated the black vote out of Senate campaigns. What they found was that the Democrats had won the Senate majority because, solely attributable to, the black vote. With that kind of recognition of our power, what is it that we got in 2007 as the new Senate, with a Democratic majority, was convened? Quite literally, you got nothing.

The nothingness is born out in a study that was done by United for a Fair Economy, which is one of my favorite organizations. They do economic analyses of the racial disparities that exist in the United States, and they do that every year. They make the publication available on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. It was United for a Fair Economy that found that while the black community voted in the blue; unfortunately, their finances remained in the red.

I think we've got enough statistics about our situation, but what we don't have is, for some reason, the ability to change the behavior of voters, such that they vote in their own best interests, and not in the best interest of a political party.

For Harriet: Is there reason to believe that black people in the United States en masse will ever move away from the Democratic Party?

McKinney: You can remain hopeful, but it's not just the case of independent voting that is required. It's a critical analysis of our vote, so that we are critically informed before we cast a vote. This is something that, unfortunately, has not been preached. The documentary about my own political life, American Blackout, begins with a quote from Malcolm X that says that the white vote is so evenly divided that it's the black vote that can determine who sits in the doghouse or who goes to the white house. That was back in the 1960s that we have known this, but for some reason the political behavior has yet to substantially change.

For Harriet: Let's go back to the point about political loyalty. Hillary Clinton still has incredible support among black people, and I say, "Still." Its never left. Support for the Clintons, honestly, has not waned, despite the fact that she and her husband are tied to policies that have been catastrophic for black communities. Why do you think that is?

McKinney: Honestly, I can't explain the dysfunctional behavior, which I described earlier. As far as I'm concerned, there probably have been lots of political science research projects around what it is about political party labeling. It's not just the black communities, or black people, that are so afflicted. You have the same situation pertains to white voters as well.

In fact, I remember reading a study that was done in Sweden. That study found that people in Sweden take their political party label as a kind of tribalism, so it becomes embedded in their identities. In order to shake a particular belief system or one's idea about one's identity, one has to be presented with a disorienting dilemma. You would think that the living conditions are disorienting dilemma enough. I remember posting on my Facebook page, Cynthia McKinney Official, that Hillary was requesting ... I think it was $300,000 from a public university for a speaking engagement. Her most vociferous defenders were black people who were saying, "She has a right to make a living," totally missing the point.

If we look at what has happened in Libya today, that is solely attributed both to the leadership of the Secretary of State at the time and, of course, President Obama's administration in general. I have to wonder, is that what it takes in order to secure black support? You destroy an African country? If that's not enough, you look at the current fiasco that's going on in Haiti right now, literally as we speak. With the Haitian people rebelling.

With the 2010 presidential elections, where Hillary herself intervened in the election and said, "Oh, no. You can't have that person as your president, because he's too close to Hugo Chavez." Now, what's going on in Haiti is that the election that was stolen from the Haitian people in 2010,  now the Clintons are intervening again in order to ensure that, for example, Hillary Clinton's brother, who was awarded a gold mine in Haiti, so that the ill-gotten gains can remain.

Is this kind of behavior to be rewarded by black folks?

For Harriet: You mentioned Libya and Haiti. I imagine that those countries, despite the fact that they are black, don't rank very highly on the concern of the average black voter's agenda.

McKinney: Yet another dysfunction for those of us in the US.

For Harriet: Let's get to Obama. What's your assessment of his presidency?

McKinney: Stark silence.

For Harriet: Okay. Many have expressed disappointment, many have been very disappointed in the president's posture toward black America in the speeches that he delivers, not only in black spaces, but also nationally, on national platforms. Do you have any thoughts about his neglect or refusal to engage with the conditions, specifically, of black people in America, in the United States?

McKinney: That was to be expected if one had done one's homework prior to casting a vote. I knew that. I knew what was going to happen, so I'm not disappointed. I'm only disappointed in the fact that the damage that has been done to black America is probably irreversible.

I travel around the world quite often, and there was a time when I could travel anywhere to any country at any time, and as a black American, I was looked up to. Not only because of the culture that black America is known for, but also I was looked up to because it was clearly understood that the policies of the United States went against the interests of black America, and black America spoke out against those policies. Now, you've got, since the advent of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice, and now at the seat of the power, President Barack Obama, you've got these policies that are detrimental to people of color around the world now being carried out in blackface. It's very sad.

For Harriet: Michael Eric Dyson argued in a piece for The New Republic that Hillary Clinton would be more willing to address, specifically, the needs of black America than President Obama. What's your assessment of that?

McKinney: If you're going to listen to the people who told you to vote for President Obama, and now they've got buyer's remorse, the first thing you need to do is figure out, "Well, I need to listen to some different people now."

For Harriet: Fair. Very fair. Bernie Sanders has emerged really, I think, unexpectedly and he's positioned himself as the anti-establishment candidate. Is that a fair description of his position?

McKinney: Well, he's not anti-war, and his pronouncement about the bankers, a pronouncement that I myself have made, and his observations are, I believe, right on point in many instances. However, there's one gaping hole. That is, all of those war-funding bills and bills to authorize war, bills to fund war, and the bills to support Israel at the time of its bombing of Gaza. Those bills in particular, the last ones that I'm discussing, passed with unanimous support in the Senate.

For Harriet: He also has said on record that he does not support reparations. There's been plenty of back and forth about his stance and Ta-Nehisi Coates has weighed in a couple of times for The Atlantic. What should we make of his lack of support for that particular potential set of policies?

McKinney: Black people don't support reparations, so how are you going to expect somebody to support something you don't support for your own self? I've been trying to get money and the justice for black farmers that they deserve. I was the one. It was my legislation that even produced the disparity study that allowed the black farmers to have a legal leg to stand on and that forced the USDA, that at the time had Mike Espy as the Secretary of Agriculture.

This is talking about putting your pieces on the political chessboard, and then moving them so as to benefit the community. That is exactly what was done with Mike Espy. Mike Espy was a fantastic Secretary of Agriculture, but the moment the issue of the black farmers came up and he supported it by having a reputable company perform the disparity study and the findings that came out, then he was moved out on football tickets. He accepted football tickets, so he had to resign his position as Secretary of Agriculture. You're right, he should not have taken the football tickets. Okay. However, there's a whole lot worse corruption going on in Washington, DC.

We lost a critically important advocate, and the black farmers are losing their farms right now. We [have] only one and a half million acres in the United States. The totality of the United States owned by black people. The black farmers have the most pristine virgin soil, because they were denied access to loans so they could buy the chemicals. Now, the state is moving in on their farms because that's the best soil left. We just had a farmer foreclosed on a few weeks ago. The black farmer situation has not been settled, and black people don't care about that either, or else we would be organizing around it. Lord knows I have tried.

For Harriet: Do you think that you can be a radical politician, or that you can really call yourself a radical or a leftist politician and not support reparations?

McKinney: I think you could probably say you are the best politician around if you can get away with saying as little as possible about anything that really matters and you can still win. That is a good politician.

For Harriet: All right. The Black Lives Matter movement has been impossible to ignore over the past year or so. They forced the Democratic candidates to at least pay lip service to their issues and their concerns. They've been able to create spectacles around their organizing, and I do not mean spectacle in a pejorative sense. I mean that they've been able to ... They know how to get on TV, right? They know how to trend on social media. Is there any incentive for the candidates who have paid lip service to Black Lives Matter during the campaign trail to actually keep those promises when they're in office?

McKinney: That's up to the black community. If the black community is not going to prioritize its own interests, then nothing will ever change. The black community has to prioritize its own interests. I wish I had this quote right now from ... I think it was August Wilson who made a quote about if you are not prepared to make your issue the most important political issue and you're not prepared to carry it all the way through to the very end by acting on that issue as if it is your priority issue, then it won't be anybody else's priority issue. You will lose.

The issue is, I absolutely love what Black Lives Matter have done. I love what they have done. For the way black people are treated, and not just black people, but a whole host of people. The 99 percent. The country should not be allowed to go back to business as usual, because business as usual is actually hurting a lot of people. When we interrupt business as usual, that's when you get attention, and that's when your issues become mainstream. When you are able to stop business as usual.
I have people who have been trying to get me to support, which I do support, a general strike across the US, where folks just take a day off. We'll let the one percent, which is actually the one-tenth of one percent, maybe even fewer than that ... We'll let them see what life is like without us. The Latinos did that several years ago, which I thought was extremely effective. The politics of dissent, we have only scratched the surface of what is possible.

For Harriet: Does it feel like there is a growing momentum around the interests of black people? Is Black Lives Matter just the beginning?

McKinney: Well, I certainly hope so. I hope that 1,000,000 conscious, black voters is just the beginning and that they achieve their goal of finding 1,000,000 blacks to register and adhere to a political platform that is drawn up by them, created by them and in the end, exercised by them. I hope that Zaki Baruti's National Black Political Conference is successful in recruiting average, ordinary black people like you to run for office and offer themselves as candidates, so that we get out of this professional trickster who is able to say one thing and do another, and then give you justification for why he didn't do your thing when he got elected. He or she.

For Harriet: I know quite a few black people, and I say, "Black people," because those are the people I care about, who choose to abstain from electoral politics because they do not trust the system. Is that a tenable position?

McKinney: When you hear me say, "Don't vote," then you know all hope is lost. I have not yet lost hope, even though I am extremely disgruntled and disappointed in many respects at our political positioning. This is something that we have to take care of ourselves. For example, in Chicago [with] Rahm Emanuel. I advised the Chicagoans who asked me to not vote for Rahm Emanuel for mayor, because I understood who Rahm Emanuel was and is. Rahm Emanuel, in his first mayoral election, carried every black precinct. Can you imagine? Every black precinct.

McKinney: Yeah. You had the same thing happen in California, as well. Then Rahm was running the second time, [and] there was an opportunity for a black-brown coalition. That opportunity just evaporated because black people went and voted for Rahm Emanuel again, instead of voting for their own power. The same thing happened in California when the issue was...Can't remember his name, but he was the governor of California.

For Harriet: Gray Davis.

McKinney: Gray Davis. That's right. The lieutenant governor was Cruz Bustamante. What should have happened was that blacks should have supported Cruz Bustamante, and then we would have had Cruz as the first Latino governor of California. More than that, the important thing would have been that a new political coalition would've been created. That political coalition was able to seize power and then benefit itself, the same people who had been left out of California politics since the beginning, but the coalition never happened.

The opportunity for us to see ourselves as drivers of our own destiny, as creators of a new set of political circumstances, that is the identity that we have to hold on to. We've got to grab it. It's never going to happen for us if we continue to ask other people to give us a little tidbit here and there, which is what we are doing now.

For Harriet: Is a free and fair election possible in the current system?

McKinney: I think it's possible if we keep our eyes on the system. We have to monitor that system. Of course, we've got electronic voting machines. I am one who has been victimized by the pre-programming of the electronic voting machines. People all over the state of Georgia were voting in our election, and when we asked, "Let's see the election data," because we wanted to see how those votes were cast coming from outside of my congressional district, how they were counted, we had to file a lawsuit in order to gain access. Then, after we filed the lawsuit, the state said, "You can't have the election data, because that's owned by Diebold," which was the company that created the machines. Then, the state's expert witness just testified and said, "The only recompense that you have is that you have to accept that whoever we say is the winner, is actually the winner."

With that, the lawsuit was over and we couldn't raise any more money. We raised about $20,000 that got us through the filing stage, it got us expert witnesses. We were able to fly them up. The bottom line was, we couldn't appeal the judgement and we lost. Now, citizens of the state of Georgia do not have access to election data. They have to rely on the voracity of the election officials announcing, truly, who represented the will of the people in the election. It's up to state authorities and Diebold to make that determination, and the announcement.

For Harriet: This is a point that was really underscored in the documentary about you, American Blackout. It kind of seems like what you're saying, is things are rigged, but it's our duty to fight, as Assata would say. Is that a fair characterization?

McKinney: Yes, and we can follow the system/ Of course, you're not going to get media coverage, because the media are working ... You just have to remember Operation Mockingbird and The Mighty Wurlitzer. If you go back to the Frank Church Committee report. You know that thousands of journalists and publishing houses and newspapers and other publications were on the payroll of the CIA. It was illegal, but it was done. Now, we have this activity switched over to the Office of Perception Management that's housed in the Pentagon, so nothing has really changed.

One of the things that, we also have to do is be discerning enough to understand that if one person gets positive press, we shouldn't run up behind that person and say, "Oh, will you be our leader?" We must understand the reason that a particular political personality is getting negative press, or no press at all. There's a reason for it.

I do believe [that] if we just suit up a team and have confidence that our coach and the referees are not actually being paid from the other side, we can win in the game of politics. We have won before. The reason we won before is because we had authentic leaders, we had followers, we had people who were smart enough, and discerning enough to understand that no matter how badly reputed an individual was, if that person was operating in our best interests, then that person was qualified to be a leader for us. Not just because they're in the bought and paid for media. If we reenact the ways and update those ways with the technology that we have access to today, we can win. Of that, I am absolutely certain.

For Harriet: Do you have any ideas about how we can organize against all of the money in politics in this post-Citizens United world?

McKinney: You know the Montgomery bus boycott?

For Harriet: Mm-hmm 

McKinney: People didn't have a whole lot of money back then, did they? What they had was a sense of community, so they used the sense of community and they used the sense that it may not be better for me, but I'm going to make it better for my children. Instead of riding the bus, they walked. They sacrificed, and they won. That's how I am absolutely certain that we can take whatever it is we have. We can take what we have and we can work a miracle with what we have, but we've got to be willing to sacrifice. We've got to be willing to talk to each other. We've got to be willing to understand that we are a community, and that we need to be a community.

Now, young people don't even look at each other in the face, in the eye, and greet each other. I force young people. I acknowledge them first of all, because I acknowledge their humanity. I acknowledge their dignity. Even when their pants are hanging down and I don't want to see what I see, I tell them, "You need to pull up your pants, because I don't want to see that." By acknowledging each other, we acknowledge our own dignity. We re-affirm our own dignity. If you look away when you see another black person now, what is that? Where does that come from? If that's the kind of community that we have, then we have no community at all.

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