Meet Mariah Parker, One of the Young, Radical Women of Color Rescuing the Democratic Party

26-year-old Mariah Parker, who won an upset victory for Athens, Georgia, county commissioner, shows how progressive Democrats can bring together the struggles for racial and economic justice.

Eli Day August 31, 2018

On June 7, after winning by 13 votes, Mariah Parker was sworn in as an Athens, Ga., county commissioner. (Photo courtesy of Mariah Parker campaign)

For Mari­ah Park­er, recent­ly elect­ed coun­ty com­mis­sion­er in Athens, Ga., being sworn into office on The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Mal­colm X was sim­ply a way of accu­rate­ly sig­nal­ing her world­view. It’s a view that’s ground­ed in a spe­cif­ic vision of what the world could be — one in which peo­ple of col­or, and black peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar, live free from the grip of racism and eco­nom­ic mis­ery. Of all the vol­umes in the rich tra­di­tion of Black Amer­i­cans’ quest for such a world, few are as deeply cher­ished as Malcolm’s tow­er­ing 20th-cen­tu­ry autobiography.

Parker sees in black Americans’ story a struggle against oppression that is both uniquely their own and one patch in a larger quilt, one made up of tightly knit struggles on behalf of any community that has come under systemic fire.

It’s a vision that’s increas­ing­ly gain­ing steam. Pro­gres­sive and social­ist can­di­dates of col­or, par­tic­u­lar­ly women with the wind of pop­u­lar move­ments at their backs, like New York’s Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, Michigan’s Rashi­da Tlaib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, are run­ning on pre­cise­ly these sorts of plat­forms. And they’re winning.

Pho­tos of Parker’s swear­ing-in quick­ly went gang­busters. In wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed images, Parker’s afro is piled high and heav­en-bound (to bor­row a phrase from poet Hanif Abdur­raqib), and her right hand clenched in a fist rec­og­nized the world over as a sign of one’s com­mit­ment to stand along­side the oppressed. Her left hand rests atop the auto­bi­og­ra­phy, a book wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed through­out black Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, and one of the harsh­est indict­ments of the country’s long war against them.

Though she had no idea this small act of sym­bol­ism would take the inter­net by storm, it’s hard­ly sur­pris­ing that it did. Park­er is smack-dab in the mid­dle of two of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s biggest crises.

First, there’s the widen­ing gap between the pri­or­i­ties of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty high­er-ups and its pop­u­lar base. Sec­ond, there are the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s awk­ward strug­gles to deliv­er a con­vinc­ing mes­sage for address­ing the knot­ty rela­tion­ship between racial and eco­nom­ic oppres­sion. The view held from the com­mand­ing heights and man­age­r­i­al suites of the par­ty seems to be that, at best, race and class issues must be addressed sep­a­rate­ly, and at worst, that the two are at flat-out war with one anoth­er.

Yet the avail­able evi­dence sug­gests black peo­ple feel dif­fer­ent­ly. It’s right there in years of sur­vey data, which con­sis­tent­ly finds black Amer­i­cans deeply con­cerned by both eco­nom­ic issues and the pow­er­ful role racism plays in suf­fo­cat­ing their chances at a bet­ter life. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, black vot­ers rank among the most eco­nom­i­cal­ly pro­gres­sive in the coun­try. It’s also been front and cen­ter in the clear-eyed pol­i­cy plat­forms of orga­ni­za­tions like BYP100 and the Move­ment for Black Lives. And it was there in Mari­ah Parker’s cam­paign for coun­ty commissioner.

From Fer­gu­son to Bal­ti­more, and Philadel­phia to Chica­go, a fresh crop of black move­ment builders have issued a clear demand: the eman­ci­pa­tion of black peo­ple from the inter­wo­ven harms of racism and pover­ty. Groups like the Move­ment for Black Lives and the Black Youth Project have called for repa­ra­tions on the grounds that this com­bi­na­tion has made it eas­i­er to exploit and oppress black communities.

After first tak­ing root in the streets, this gen­er­a­tions-span­ning strug­gle for racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice is start­ing to sweep across cam­paigns for pub­lic office, Parker’s included.

Racial and eco­nom­ic injus­tice have been very inter­twined his­tor­i­cal­ly,” Park­er says. There’s overt forms of vio­lence, like lynch­ing and police bru­tal­i­ty, but then there’s qui­et forms that are less easy to put your fin­ger on, like the inabil­i­ty to obtain cap­i­tal to open a busi­ness or own a home or the inabil­i­ty to union­ize.” Here, Park­er is drilling to the core of the black Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence, where both racism and eco­nom­ic exploita­tion have com­bined to increase the mis­ery index in black com­mu­ni­ties, in ways often sub­merged and thus hard­er to detect. Tack­ling those things at once is so impor­tant because they are the hard­est things to see from the pub­lic per­spec­tive,” she says.

The fact that Park­er, along with oth­er left-wing can­di­dates of col­or, such as Oca­sio-Cortez, find them­selves at this inter­sec­tion is sig­nif­i­cant. We rarely hear the voic­es of those most intense­ly impact­ed by pol­i­cy deci­sion. Women of col­or, giv­en their very notice­able near-total absence from estab­lished media, are the least seen and heard of all.

Park­er, who co-found­ed Athens’ chap­ter of the pro­gres­sive Bernie Sanders-aligned Our Rev­o­lu­tion, is a 26-year-old rap­per, PhD stu­dent and open­ly queer black woman. She ran on a pro­gres­sive plat­form that put racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice cen­ter stage, and won by a razor-thin mar­gin of 13 votes. Athens itself is a most­ly work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ty with a medi­an income that bare­ly ris­es above half the state of Georgia’s.

This is even truer for Parker’s dis­trict, which the Atlanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion describes as an eco­nom­i­cal­ly strug­gling swath … that lacks some of the same ameni­ties that oth­er parts of town enjoyed.” On top of the district’s eco­nom­ic woes, it’s also the most heav­i­ly pop­u­lat­ed black dis­trict in Athens,” Park­er tells In These Times. She goes on to argue that in a strug­gling com­mu­ni­ty with a high con­cen­tra­tion of black res­i­dents, peo­ple don’t view racism and pover­ty as dis­tinct evils with no con­nec­tion, but rather as twin giants that need to be knocked down simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. In speak­ing with Park­er, it’s clear that many of her wak­ing hours are spent con­tem­plat­ing the two, and that she sees a set of prin­ci­ples in Malcolm’s life and words that might help light the way to a bet­ter world.

Park­er says that as an office­hold­er, she hopes to chan­nel Malcolm’s capac­i­ty for being an out­spo­ken agi­ta­tor that pushed the con­ver­sa­tion in a rad­i­cal direc­tion.” Beyond his ser­mons of col­lec­tive black uplift and broad­er social change, Park­er is espe­cial­ly inspired by the fact that in his lat­er life, he was will­ing to incor­po­rate new expe­ri­ences as a means of see­ing where the move­ment need­ed to go in order for the work to get done.” By this, Park­er is point­ing toward Malcolm’s per­son­al evo­lu­tion as a crit­ic of Amer­i­can pow­er. In his ear­li­est days, Mal­colm was a fierce but ide­o­log­i­cal­ly straight­jack­et­ed mouth­piece for the Nation of Islam. That all start­ed to change fol­low­ing his stormy split with the orga­ni­za­tion. In the months after, which now seem to have always been rac­ing toward his even­tu­al mur­der, Mal­colm became increas­ing­ly drawn to the moral force of social­ism and expressed a deep­en­ing belief in mul­ti­cul­tur­al, work­ing-class orga­niz­ing as the best weapon for con­fronting Amer­i­can pow­er. In a May 1964 Q&A host­ed by the Mil­i­tant Labor Forum, he went so far as to say, It is impos­si­ble for a white per­son to believe in cap­i­tal­ism and not believe in racism. You can’t have cap­i­tal­ism with­out racism.” And toward the end of his life, he explained that cap­i­tal­ism needs some blood to suck…and it can only suck the blood of the help­less.” The most help­less in Amer­i­ca would always be the com­mu­ni­ties most men­aced by those with pow­er and cheat­ed out of their fair share of it. That con­di­tion has defined the black Amer­i­can experience.

Whether he knew it or not, Mal­colm was chan­nel­ing an idea with deep roots in black polit­i­cal life. From small-scale plan­ta­tion sab­o­tage under slav­ery to social­ist orga­niz­ing among share­crop­pers for work­place democ­ra­cy in the post-eman­ci­pa­tion south, his­to­ry offers a rich tapes­try of black resis­tance to a world where, as Dr. King once wrote, the insep­a­ra­ble twin of racial injus­tice was eco­nom­ic injus­tice.” A half-cen­tu­ry after Malcolm’s assas­si­na­tion, the fight for that bet­ter world is still on. And the path­way to it, Park­er believes, runs through every­day peo­ple rec­og­niz­ing how America’s chart-top­ping inequal­i­ty, accord­ing to the World Eco­nom­ic Forum, hurts every­one but an elite few. If we band togeth­er to fight against it,” Park­er says, it is to everybody’s benefit.”

Park­er sees in black Amer­i­cans’ sto­ry a strug­gle against oppres­sion that is both unique­ly their own and one patch in a larg­er quilt, one made up of tight­ly knit strug­gles on behalf of any com­mu­ni­ty that has come under sys­temic fire. It’s here that Malcolm’s abil­i­ty to trans­form, his abil­i­ty to stretch his imag­i­na­tion of what’s polit­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble when those who have been cast aside band togeth­er, echoes loud­est. I do believe that cap­i­tal­ism relies upon social strat­i­fi­ca­tion. Be it in terms of abil­i­ty or gen­der or sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion or immi­gra­tion sta­tus, it def­i­nite­ly relies upon oppres­sion of a kind,” Park­er adds. In Amer­i­ca, that has fall­en par­tic­u­lar­ly along racial lines” but it’s impor­tant to build sol­i­dar­i­ty across dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ty groups” to under­stand that the sys­tem hurts everybody.”

Eli Day was an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. He is a writer and relent­less Detroi­ter, where he writes about pol­i­tics, pol­i­cy, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. His work has appeared in the Detroit News, City Met­ric, Huff­in­g­ton Post, The Root, Truthout, and Very Smart Brothas, among others.
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