Cory Booker announced his candidacy for the presidency on the first day of Black History Month 2019 for the same reason Obama announced his candidacy in February of 2007. It’s also the same reason that Kamala Harris announced her candidacy for president on Martin Luther King Day. Each is intended to signify to Black voters a sense of comfort and security — a sense that they can count on protection, racial solidarity and change. By invoking their identity to imply a rejection of the current state of this country, Booker and Harris are attempting to garner an automatic acceptance from all those concerned with racism in the United States. However, anything resembling unearned trust is dangerous.
A shared identity doesn’t always mean shared values. Just because more Black people and people of color are seeking the presidency or another position of political power doesn’t mean these candidates will necessarily represent the needs of these communities as a whole. The spaces created between us by class, power and politics are not automatically bridged by race, gender, and other ways we identify or live. However, the political institutions that control our lives take advantage of the assumption that these connections are indeed automatic. We are supposed to assume that having something in common with someone else makes them more trustworthy, and far too many of us do. It’s important that we’re increasingly critical of this ploy during a time of steadily increasing diversity in politics.
When we look closely at Booker, his example shows us just what’s wrong. Ever since he unseated Sharpe James as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Booker has portrayed himself as somewhat of a rebel. This is apparent in the Academy Award-nominated documentary Street Fight, which chronicled Booker’s fight to be mayor. He’d later go on to be featured similarly in another docuseries called “Brick City.” As a politician, it’s important to be a manipulator of media, but some are better at it than others. Booker has had his fair share of heroic headlines. They’ve detailed spectacular events like how he chased after a robbery suspect yelling, “Not in our city anymore! These days are over”; carried a neighbor out of a burning house; and helped residents during “Snowpocalypse.” For these reasons and more, Booker had positioned himself on a trajectory to potentially be the nation’s first Black president before some had even considered Barack Obama.
However, even before he was a senator, Cory Booker was sympathetic to the corporate interests that seek to harm and exploit the Black community he constantly tries to relate to for votes. He has used his political celebrity to his benefit, engaging in anti-establishment performativity. His record makes as much clear: His closeness to the Trump family, which he said he doesn’t regret; his contemptible work with the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos; and his allyship to corporate pharmaceutical interests to kill lower drug prices (among other things) all show he is a politician who easily flips. It seems silly to believe he would suddenly be consistent if elected to the presidency.
Cory Booker used performative heroics and positive media depictions of himself as he will now use his Blackness to connect with Black voters and voters of color nationwide. While he was doing this, many were questioning his sincerity because of the ongoing problems around them in the city. When it comes down to it, Booker’s concern with meeting the needs of capitalistic interests is a key part of his identity as a politician. When it comes to politics, identity is not just about appearance, culture or your body; it’s about your relation to the white supremacist institutions into which you’re integrating. Even those who may enter into these institutions with sincere desires to make a difference will inevitably compromise; the question is how quick and how large the compromise will be.
Meanwhile, Booker seems to disregard racism when it’s convenient for him politically. He failed to simply answer “yes” when recently asked if he believed Donald Trump was racist, saying instead that he doesn’t “know the heart of anybody.”
This brings us to an unavoidable reality: Oppressive institutions need to end, and that will not be accomplished via minor changes in the demographic composition of the White House or Congress. Putting a new coat of paint or a new sound system or new tires on a car with a useless engine does no good. Ultimately, you’re still unable to drive the car where you need to go. Instead, we need something completely different to reach our destination, and it may not even be another automobile.
We don’t need more political actors who are prepared to compromise with the white supremacist political establishment. We don’t need a continuation of racial capitalism with new faces attached. We need the abolition of these destructive forces. The deaths of oppressed people are a necessary part of the mechanisms that make these forces work, and assimilating into these systems doesn’t stop these deaths from happening. Even when we do see new, different and sometimes exciting faces entering into politics, we have to keep this truth close to our hearts. Even the politicians with the best intentions who enter the political system risk giving up their ideals — either partially or completely — to become a cog in the system that has taken countless lives and continues to destroy many. The system itself is finely tuned to push people away from thinking about the greater good of the collective and instead toward more capitalistic selfishness. This is how things stay the same while changing face. While it can be beneficial for politicians who reject the old guard to disrupt politics as usual, seating them shouldn’t be our ultimate goal. We witnessed the continuation and bolstering of Bush-era policy under Obama, and that should have been a lesson for us in why we shouldn’t view identity in a vacuum. Beyond Booker and Obama, we’ve seen this phenomenon play out with Hillary Clinton and, recently, Kamala Harris. Harris has worked tirelessly to strengthen some of the most awful parts of the carceral punishment system, but she’s able to pivot away from her past, often using her Blackness as a shield. Despite her support for the very forces that kill and confine Black people, she attempts to escape intra-communal accountability using race. Because of identity, people often defend the inexcusable since they may feel they can relate to someone due to the fact that they’re vulnerable to experiencing certain types of bigotry. This can take place even if that someone is reinforcing the very bigoted systems that perpetuate violence at micro and macro levels. And, of course, it’s not just Black politicians who use this strategy.
None of this means that we should completely disregard politics and divorce ourselves from what’s going on. On the contrary, it’s time to deepen our knowledge of the systems that harm us, while working to undermine these systems, abolish them and build something new. We must refuse to be easily influenced by a political establishment that realizes the importance of presenting people with leaders who resemble us. Shared identity does not guarantee that politicians will serve our interests. We must insist on more. When we abolish the systems that require us to beg for diversity, we can have something that’s actually different, and not just a hope that things actually changed.