Cynthia Nixon is not New York’s governor—and if the polls are right, she never will be—but she is already dictating New York policy. The mere thought of the Sex and the City actress has been sufficient to spook incumbent Andrew Cuomo, who behaves as if the office is his birthright and wears Clintonesque fantasies of the White House on his tailored sleeve, into actually governing. (If only he knew exactly what to “govern” about.)
But in the past two weeks, Cynthia Nixon, who remains a long-shot candidate and thus has nothing to lose, has demonstrated that she can nevertheless be shook. Since May 5, when she suggested that black people should be guaranteed lucrative jobs and business licenses in the marijuana industry as a form of “reparations” for the pain and suffering caused during the drug war and its resulting mass incarceration and impoverishment, Nixon has been forced into a running apologia.
Black politicians, Black Lives Matter, and a chorus of black ministers all took her to task for using the r-word. Nixon has pivoted and clarified, and some prominent black voices have come to her defense. Yet somehow, the outrage has only intensified and taken on a bizarre flavor of blithe self-harm.
Over the weekend, a group of black ministers sent Nixon (and the New York Daily News) a demand for a formal apology. By suggesting cannabis industry profits should go to black people—who continue to be arrested for marijuana at a rate eight times that of whites in New York City, and who continue to be almost entirely locked out of the $7 billion legal marijuana industry—Nixon is “pimping” those same black people for votes, one outraged religious leader told The Root on Monday.
The ministers’ affectation is a fascinating display, remarkable for its self-destructive irony. What the ministers are doing to Nixon bears some resemblance to the public shaming and intimidation tactics radical activists pioneered 50 years ago to ensure jobs and benefits flowed from the halls of power to their communities—but in this case, the current display is to ensure the flow doesn’t come.
Cynthia Nixon, in other words, is the target of a reverse mau-mau, a chorus of orchestrated outrage bent on denying benefits to a community that could use them, led by that same community’s so-called leaders.
Forget, for a second, that black ministers have for generations been usually the one and only conduit to black people for centrist Democrats like Andrew Cuomo. And try to forget that whenever the white establishment needed to put a black face on whatever it was trying to sell to black people, the white establishment would trot out a minister and call it a day. Focus instead on the fact that certain faith leaders have been reliable cheerleaders for the drug war.
When Bill Clinton rolled out his infamous 1994 crime bill—his naked and cynical shift to the right, made for unapologetic political expediency, that led directly to a spike in drug arrests and incarcerations—he did it with support from black faith leaders, who said that while they didn’t like everything in the crime bill, they did like its stated goal of protecting children. This is how we got the three-strikes law and mandatory lifetime incarceration, along with a lifetime of guaranteed penury for those same children.
The more accommodating of us have excused the ministers’ poor judgment, suggesting they were misled. A quarter-century later, with the drug war a clear and undeniable part of the same continuum as slavery and Jim Crow, it is impossible to beg the same ignorance. Drug prohibition doesn’t work, and the marijuana industry is here and not going away. What, exactly, is so damaging and harmful about suggesting that black people are owed a debt, and that some of the $10 billion or whatever available in legal cannabis should go to them?
You could argue that a white person can never truly be woke and they should stop trying to be, and it is absolutely true that even the most earnest and self-aware white people need to tread carefully around the r-word. But here’s someone freely admitting blacks have been done wrong, a wrong that continues, and should be compensated.
Nixon was wrong to bend and she will be more wrong if she apologizes, but the ministers are further out of line with their tired piety act. It doesn’t help their people. And so, we should ask, “What’s in it for them?” If you hear a chorus of “amens” at Cuomo’s victory party, you’ll have a clue.