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Democrats would rather mock Ice Cube then grapple with what he represents

In these last days of the 2020 election season, the Democrats should be wary of dismissing the Ice Cube moment, and everything it represents.
Image; Donald Trump, Ice Cube and Joe Biden on a background of red and blue triangles.
It's complicated, but Ice Cube gave voice to some Black men who feel left out and frustrated with the lack of true racial progress. MSNBC

A little while back I had a conversation with a Black Trump supporter named Sean Shewmake on my podcast, “Into America.” We got into why he voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, and why, after three and a half years of the president’s lies, of his winking and nodding at white supremacists, and his spreading of dangerous conspiracy theories, Shewmake plans on voting for Trump again in November. Shewmake is 47 years old and lives outside of Atlanta. He’s a husband, father, real estate agent and spoken word artist. And besides his Trumpyness, he kind of reminded me of a few guys I know.

In 2016, Trump got just 6% of the Black vote, but that number doesn’t tell the whole truth.

He rattled off a list of reasons he supports Trump that you might expect to hear: Trump’s funding for HBCUs, the First Step Act and low Black unemployment rates, pre-Covid-19. Things eventually went off the rails with all of the midflight fact-checking that I had to do. But the conversation was revealing in some important ways, ways that many progressives and Democrats might not fully appreciate. As problematic as I think his argument is, it did make me stop and think. For many Black men like Shewmake, there’s a general sentiment that Democrats have either forgotten them or abandoned efforts to reach Black people, and Black men especially. So, why not give the boogeyman a shot?

I thought about this conversation late last week when word began to get around that legendary rapper Ice Cube had advised the Trump administration on its so-called Platinum Plan for Black Americans, news that seemed to shake parts of the political universe. The backlash was swift. How could Ice Cube, the O.G., who recently said he’d never vote for Trump, ostensibly work with him despite everything we know about him?

For anyone shocked by the revelation, you haven’t been paying attention. Ice Cube has been wading into precarious political waters for a long time now, and he knows his way around. As uprisings swept across the country over the summer after the killing of George Floyd, Ice Cube created what he calls the “Contract With Black America.” He said that he’d be willing to work with any politician from any party to achieve his goals of economic and social justice for Black people. Ice Cube defended himself by saying that he did exactly what he said he would do, that he’d work with any politician who was willing to address the critical needs of Black America, regardless of political affiliation.

“If we’re not in contact or not talking with a certain administration because we’re on another team and they win, then what do we do — just sit back and wait another four years?” Cube said to Roland Martin, host of Roland Martin Unfiltered. “We've been lied to for a long time, 400 years or more, and so one thing I know is we need to do something different. And one thing is never being too one sided, hard-headed, proud to speak to whoever’s in power,” he said.

He went on: “For me, I told everybody what I was going to do and did it. They exploited it. But if I would have did something with Biden they would’ve exploited it, too. That’s just par for the game. The thing is to get movement, the thing is to make sure we move the needle no matter who is elected. Our program has to be pushed through, so non-dialogue to me is not how you do it.”

What I really wanted to get at was how a self-respecting Black man could support a politician who wears his thinly veiled racism so boastfully.

What I really wanted to get at in my conversation with Shewmake, though I never asked explicitly, was how a self-respecting Black man could support a politician who wears his thinly veiled racism so boastfully. When I asked Shewmake directly about how he feels about Trump’s racism, Shewmake brushed it off and pointed to the president’s Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden. He blasted Biden for his past canoodling with segregationists and for his role in the 1994 crime bill that sent countless Black men (and women) to prison and destroyed just as many Black families.

“If Joe Biden is a white supremacist and you still see things that can benefit you or benefit a wider community, then that's perfectly fine. And if you think Donald Trump is a white supremacist, yet you see policies that he can push or pushes that you see beneficial to yourself or to a wider community, there's nothing wrong with that,” he told me. “In 2020, a Black man should be able to choose the white supremacist of his choice. …What kind of sense does it make to tell a party that you all acknowledge took your vote for granted for 40 years, to go out and tell them that right now in this election we're going to vote for you no matter what? What kind of sense does that make when you don't have anything on the table?”

Looking back, as much as Shewmake was riding for team Trump, what I heard, even through all of the MAGA-101 stuff, was something less ideological and more transactional that provided some context of Ice Cube’s recent actions as well.

In 2016, Trump got just 6 percent of the Black vote, but that number doesn’t tell the whole truth. While just 4 percent of Black women voted for him, 13 percent of Black men voted for Trump last time around. The Trump campaign believes that chasm is exploitable in November and that they’ll grow their Black male support. At the same time, the Biden campaign needs strong Black turnout to win in places like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — states that Hilary Clinton lost in 2016 in part because of lower Black voter turnout than in 2008 and 2012.

As complicated as it is, Ice Cube gave voice to what could be a growing number of Black men who feel left out and are frustrated with the lack of true racial progress in this country.

I still remember the day in seventh grade when my friend dug deep into the pocket of his oversize Starter jacket and pulled out what seemed like contraband. We huddled close together as a wave of classmates poured noisily down the hall headed to the cafeteria for lunch. For a long moment we allowed the rush of excitement and rebellion to wash over us. Then he opened his hand and our eyes and smiles grew even wider.

In his hand was a cassette tape with the most flagrant cover art I’d ever seen: a pair of naked white feet sticking out from under an American flag with a toe tag that read: Uncle Sam. It was Ice Cube’s October 1991 album “Death Certificate.” The album was a fiery polemic on the systemic degradation of Black life in America and the self-destruction it often fueled. But it was also a recitation on the seeming abandonment, from all sides, of Black people struggling against those same systemic forces.

“Death Certificate” was controversial for all of its gratuitous violence and homophobia and political drive-bys. But it was kindling for what was burning inside of us. We were young and Black and already schooled on how much of the world saw us as disposable at best and a threat at worst. In one of the songs on the album, “Bird in the Hand,” Ice Cube raps about the inequity of opportunity for young Black men and the struggle to make ends meet.

“Do I gotta go sell me a whole lotta crack

For decent shelter and clothes on my back?

Or should I just wait for help from Bush

Or Jesse Jackson, and operation Push”

George H.W. Bush, a Texas Republican, was president at the time. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was a Chicago Democrat and civil rights icon whose two unsuccessful runs for president drastically expanded the Black electorate and turned Black voters into the Democratic Party’s most loyal base. But Ice Cube felt that Black people had been deserted by both political parties and he made no bones about it.

Almost 30 years to the day of the release of “Death Certificate,” Ice Cube is again stirring controversy with his lack of political allegiance. And in this moment, just weeks from the most high-stakes and contentious presidential election in modern American history, many argue that he should choose a side. By and large young Black boys who grew up listening to Cube’s message grew up to be Black men, some of whom hold views like Shewmake, who are disillusioned with a big tent Democratic Party that seems to have left many out in the rain.

As complicated as it is, Ice Cube gave voice to what could be a growing number of Black men who feel left out and are frustrated with the lack of true racial progress in this country. This is complicated by the fact that he gave cover to an administration that has been openly hostile to the interests of Black people and those fighting for justice. And in these waning days of the 2020 election season, the Democrats and their supporters must be wary of dismissing this Ice Cube moment altogether.