Four White Men

The Role of White Political Party Chairs in Majority Black Baltimore

For the first time in recent memory, Four White Men chair all four of Maryland’s state recognized political parties in Baltimore City. In a majority Black city, with a growing Latinx and significant Asian and Native American communities, what role should these four party chairs play in the struggle for racial justice? As Co-Chair of the Baltimore City Green Party — which holds the core value of Social Justice, including racial justice, as one of our Four Pillars — I attempt to investigate and answer that question in this article by outlining my role and how I am working to bend it toward racial justice.

First, it is important to assess the responsibilities and powers assigned to the Co-Chairs of the Baltimore City Green Party. I will touch briefly on points of contrast with the roles of Chair in the Baltimore City Democratic and Republican parties, and the Maryland Libertarian Party (which appears not to have a local party apparatus), but instead of going in depth on what Ben Smith (D), Glenn Bushel (R), and Bob Johnson (L) should do to move their parties towards racial justice, I call on them to write similar self-critique reflection articles and to participate with me in a public dialog hosted by a local racial justice organization after the November 6th General Election. If the four of us are more than placeholder chairs perpetuating a regressive status quo, it is incumbent upon us to use our party leadership positions to repair legacies of racism and work accountably in solidarity with Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native American Baltimoreans to move our City’s four state recognized parties toward racial justice.

The 2017 Baltimore City Green Party Steering Committee (not pictured: Bonnie Lane, Organizer)

The Bylaws of the Baltimore City Green Party assign specific responsibilities and powers to the Party’s two Co-Chair positions. After Rev. Annie Chambers and Andy Ellis stepped down as Co-Chairs in 2017 to run for Lieutenant Governor and Delegate in District 45, respectively, and I was elected by the BGP membership in December, one of our two chair positions has been vacant for most of 2018. The role of the BGP SC and Co-Chairs are as follows, per BGP Bylaws:

3.2 Steering Committee

[Section A on 9 member SC and B on Membership Coordinator role redacted.]

C.) Composition of the Steering Committee

Co-Chairs

The Co-Chairs shall be responsible for drafting a proposed agenda, working with the Secretary to take and log minutes of General and SC meetings, and keeping accurate records, including a current membership list. The Co-Chairs shall interface with the media, and where appropriate, speak on behalf of the Baltimore Green Party. The Co-Chairs shall also maintain a post office address and telephone. If the Treasurer is unavailable, the Co-Chairs are authorized to write and sign checks on behalf of the Baltimore City Green Party.

It is significant to note that BGP is the only state recognized party in Baltimore that elects Co-Chairs, instead of a single Chair. BGP is also the only party in Baltimore that requires gender balance between the Co-Chairs (which have gone unbalanced since March). By electing two Co-Chairs and making all of their decisions subject to review and revision by BGP’s Decision-Making Members, the Party has built in two of its Ten Key Values, Feminism and Grassroots Democracy. But racial justice, too often subsumed within the generalized Value of Social Justice, is not explicitly built in to the Steering Committee or Co-Chair structure, and so must be interpreted in an ongoing process of prioritization and praxis, especially in the majority Black city of Baltimore.

Prioritizing racial justice in word and deed within the Baltimore City Green Party means making it accountable to Black-, Latinx-, Asian-, and Native-led grassroots organizations and people. What that means in practice is a discussion that must be had between party leaders and their memberships. The results of those conversations should be made as public as possible for the sake of transparency and should inform the ongoing public dialog between the chairs of the four state recognized parties in the lead up to and following the 2018 election. As I prepare for both of those sets of discussions, I will seek input on the following five areas of racial justice praxis: 1) safer spaces, 2) empowerment base building, 3) wedging racial justice policies and expanding the window of discourse, 4) electing anti-racist candidates, and 5) enacting racial justice policies.

First, the minimum baseline from which to assess a party leader’s commitment to racial justice is the extent to which they forward racial justice in arenas within their sphere of influence, such as official party membership meetings. Creating meeting and event spaces in which Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native folks are empowered is essential. This means ongoing training on meeting facilitation, group dynamics, and decision making that emphasizes consensus — not violent majority rule — is consistent, and is proactively preventative as well as restorative in addressing the societal and in-group oppression of Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native peoples. As a member of the BGP Steering Committee (first as a SC Organizer and now as Co-Chair) I have worked to pay expert trainers such as Yasin “Boomer” Southall and Shawna Potter to tailor workshops for BGP members and allies on these topics and to implement these best practices in Green spaces.

Second, empowering Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native American folks in spaces within a party chair’s sphere of influence is not enough if Chairs are not actively working to bring in and empower new Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native people within the party — what I call empowerment base building. Empowerment base building means meeting people from these communities where they are with an honest, open invitation about what the party has been and is, as well as where it is likely headed. As a White man not from Baltimore, this has been a challenge even as BGP’s dues-paying membership has doubled since I became Co-Chair. The disconnect between many in those communities and BGP remains, however, and the Party’s relevance depends on its ability to successfully actualize empowerment base building.

The third priority for anti-racist party leaders should be wedging racial justice policies and expanding the window of discourse. Party co-/chairs have little raw power over electeds and power brokers within our memberships; rather, our influence rests almost entirely in our ability to frame issues, expand the public’s perception of what’s possible, and push racial justice wedge issues that clarify who is or isn’t committed to anti-racist work in our City’s politics to bend the conversation toward racial justice.

Few policy issues more saliently demarcated these lines in 2018 Baltimore than criminal justice policies related to mandatory minimums and bail reform. On the opening day the 2018 Session of the Maryland General Assembly, Greens showed up in force to support the coalition pushing for bail reform and opposing mandatory minimums, an effort that met mixed success due to the ferocity of the members of the coalition and the strength of the communities they represent. To finish the job, BGP is running delegate candidates against establishment Democrat incumbents who protect their bailbondsman donors over their constituents and push failed zero tolerance mandatory minimum bills. BGP will continue to wedge these issues, expand the conversation, and frame community safety and peace as dependent on achieving social justice.

BGP Leaders in Annapolis on the opening day of the 2018 General Assembly session.

Fourth, for a political party to be relevant to the fight for racial justice, it needs to elect anti-racist candidates. BGP’s first electoral victory was Rev. Chambers’ win in April 2017 to represent Douglas Homes on Baltimore’s Resident Advisory Board. As a RAB Delegate, she has pushed back on the rubber stamping of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson’s discriminatory and regressive policies, including the privatization of public housing continued from his predecessor, former Sec. Julian Castro. Building on that initial success, the majority of Baltimore Greens appearing on the ballot this cycle are people of color and all are committed anti-racists. Whether our delegate candidates, specifically, win or achieve success short of winning by surpassing all previous vote totals for Maryland Green delegate candidates, we are planting seeds of change and fundamentally changing the way the game is played in Baltimore by offering City residents a second, progressive option at the ballot box.

Finally, for party leaders to ultimately be successful in moving their parties toward racial justice, they must support candidates in running on and eventually enacting racial justice policies. To that end, one of my first tasks as a member of the BGP Steering Committee was to work with a group of seventeen experts to draft the Maryland Higher Education Equity Act (MHEEA), which includes reparations in the form of tuition-free graduate school, room, board, and books for descendants of enslaved and Jim Crowed Marylanders as well as American Indians and Alaska Natives. When MHEEA was first brought to members of Baltimore City’s all-Democrat General Assembly Delegation, one state Senator called it “ambitious” and “not his priority”.

A year later, that the Democratic gubernatorial nominee includes tuition-free public undergraduate education for all as a central plank of his platform (but not the other racial, gender, immigrant, environmental, and labor justice provisions of MHEEA) is a clear example of how the committed advocacy of Greens and progressives has shifted the discourse in Maryland over the last year. All five Green House of Delegate candidates this cycle support MHEEA and would work to introduce it in the 2019 General Assembly Session if elected.

The priorities of safer spaces, empowerment base building, wedging racial justice policies and expanding the window of discourse, electing anti-racist candidates, and enacting racial justice policies are by no means the only anti-racist work required of Baltimore’s Four White Men. Ben Smith (D), Glenn Bushel (R), Bob Johnson (L), and I must work with our memberships and unaffiliated allies to broaden and deepen racial justice praxis within ourselves and our parties. In addition, we must engage honestly and transparently in a public dialog as peers to hold ourselves accountable to this urgent work. I invite Ben, Glenn, and Bob to that public dialog after the November 6 General Election for the betterment of our parties and the betterment of Baltimore.

Baltimore’s Four White Men need to step up or step off when it comes to racial justice. The alternative is the continuance of centuries of racist violence. We must work to repair that harm by empowering Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native leaders in the grassroots, in office, and in party leadership. Let’s get to work.

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