Karen Hunter on Wielding Black Political Power
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Publisher. Best-selling author. Radio talk show host. Professor. These are just a few of the credits to Karen Hunter’s name, and they don’t even begin to encompass the immense power that she wields. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down with Hunter a number of times — on her radio show, as a panelist during an event featuring “disruptors” in media and even over a meal; and with each encounter my respect for her craft has been further cemented.
The first thing I picked up from Hunter were major auntie vibes — she gets pleasure from keeping you on your toes with slick, unexpected comments; but the twinkle in her eye can’t help but reveal a playfulness and genuine love for her folks. It takes but one conversation to recognize that her life and work channel the dynamism and fortitude of our ancestors. She uses her platform — namely, her radio show at SiriusXM — to not only provoke higher thought through candid conversation, but to truly empower her listeners and initiate change in real time. As she often states on air, “The Karen Hunter Show is not a talk show, it is an ‘action’ show!” And she isn’t blowing smoke.
I can speak firsthand to the power of Karen Hunter’s voice and her pull with her audience. To date, no single source of press has driven more sales of CRWN Magazine. People respect her and listen to what she has to say because of her integrity. One very real example of her influence is the 2015 petition she authored calling for the removal of the confederate flag from the statehouse of South Carolina, following the massacre of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Within three days, over half a million people signed the petition. Within one week, Governor Nikki Haley vowed to take down the flag. Within two weeks, the flag was removed. Now that’s power.
“Power is freedom,” as Hunter puts it. “I had a white man at SiriusXM tell me that he wasn't comfortable with my message of power. It makes him uncomfortable. And I said, ‘That’s because as a white man, to you power is domination over somebody. To a Black woman, power is freedom. We come at power from two different prisms. When you think about power, you think about dominating and controlling people. When I think about power, I think about freeing people and educating people.’ That was very telling. I don’t want to dominate anybody; I want to free people.”
Whether in the classroom lecturing at Hunter College, on social media or over the airwaves, education is a central focus of her work. Years ago, inspired in part by an interview with political commentator Van Jones, Hunter introduced #TechTuesdays on her show to introduce her (predominantly Black) audience to American tech thought leaders and familiarize them with conversations happening in the space. More recently, as part of the segment, she invited her listeners on a journey of creating an app intended to increase civic engagement, called The Party of Lincoln.
“The app was created because I was tech-averse. What does technology mean? When people say ‘tech and coding,’ our eyes glaze over, which is why we are not in [the industry]. It’s why we are represented in the two percent or one percent of the tech space, because we don’t understand what tech is.” Hunter went on a quest to demystify tech by focusing on a specific outcome. “We created an app on the radio that they could crowdfund, participate in building, go step-by-step with us, participate in what needs to be in this app, and we made it a political resource — because that was needed. Technology is a solution to a problem, that’s all tech is. And to me, civic engagement was a problem, especially for Black people. We vote more than any other group, but we don’t vote with power or purpose. This app would get you involved in a way that you’ve never been involved before and give you at your fingertips all the resources that you need, including the constitution. So you could register to vote, you could change your affiliation, you could contact your congressperson, you can run for office. And there are civic lessons, because I am all about teaching.”
Hunter isn’t one to mince words, and she has very clear strategies in mind for increasing the Black community’s political power and weight. And while our impact is global, she firmly believes that it all starts at the community level. “All politics is local, and if you don’t care about your neighborhood, and your city council meetings and your board of education meetings — even if you don’t have kids, because that’s going to determine where your taxes go — and if you don’t pay taxes and you’re not voting, then you don’t have power.” She also has choice words for those who say that voting doesn’t matter. “Not voting, is a vote. Sitting home because you don't like the candidate is weak and it’s powerless. If you can say that out of your mouth — that, My vote doesn’t count — then you don’t even understand power. Because why do they work so hard to make sure you don’t vote? If your vote doesn’t matter, they wouldn't put so many billions of dollars into disenfranchising Black people? And they purposefully disenfranchised Black people through gerrymandering, shutting down voting places, when they know you can’t get to them if you don’t have a car, and doing all of these shenanigans for what: to prevent you from voting. Why? Because voting is powerful.”
Surprisingly, Hunter is a registered Republican, a choice that reflects a calculated strategic decision versus an emotional one. “Should we have more parties? Yes, we should, but we don’t right now. And to get more parties would require more people to vote to change individual laws and how elections are run and how parties show up on ballots. But again, because we don’t vote locally, we don’t have the power to be able to give power to other parties.”
Because of the existing two-party system, we have binary choices, and Hunter believes that before we try to “remix” the political structure entirely, we should first master the system that we’re in. “I’m a registered Republican because ninety-six percent of Black people are registered Democrats. What does that mean? It means we have no power to make any change because Democrats take us for granted. Why do you have to campaign to Black people? You get their vote anyway. [Democrats think,] They are going to vote for us anyway because they don't have a choice. The Republicans say, They are never going to vote for us — why do we even bother? We saw that in this recent election of Trump. They don't give a damn about Black people. They had an autopsy when Mitt Romney lost to Obama that said that we have to do more outreach and bring more Black people, more Hispanics and more other people into the party. They ripped up that autopsy and said: nope, we’re going straight to white people. To hell with all these other people. We're going to deliver a message that empowers white people, period, and then won the White House with that message. Which means, they knew that did not have any, they didn't need us. Because we are not in their party. We couldn’t impact their primaries. We couldn’t change the dynamics of their side because we weren’t there. That, to me, is stupid.”
Hunter contends that, with a concerted effort, the Black community could infiltrate the Republican Party and give it an entirely new face. “Two million people called themselves Tea Party members, and that shifted the entire Republican Party. It gave us Ted Cruz and a bunch of other idiots. Two, three million people. There are thirty-eight million Black people, right? We couldn't get three million to join the Republican Party and put up a candidate? When I bring up the idea, people are so angry with me. As if I was talking about their mother. And I’m like, this is strategy. We need to stop playing checkers. I don’t want you to become a Republican, per se. I want you to change the face of the Republican Party the way the Tea Party did. The Republican Party could become the party of Black Power. The Republican Party could become the party of Black LIves Matter. That’s how strong we are. And people know that Black people vote more than any other group. Now imagine if we joined the Republican Party, what kind of candidates we could bring up and support, and how we can change the entire party instantly. We are so in our feelings and emotional about what those party affiliations mean that in the last fifty years we haven’t seen a damn thing from the Democrats. They haven't done a damn thing to move the needle in our community. Period. But we still give away our votes to them, why? That’s bad strategy, that’s powerlessness and I am not peddling that. It may be uncomfortable, and it may make people angry, but I’ll tell you that if you follow my plan, we win. I studied this. We win. But we are refusing to play. Too many of us. But I am not giving up. I am going to keep beating this drum.”
Although she believes the first step is to effectively shift power within the existing two-party system, Hunter does have a vision for what a new party — a “Freedom Party” — could look like. “It looks like a party that is not apologetic. This sounds bad, but I am not concerned with other people's problems. I feel like if the world has identified Black people as a weak link, then we need to shore up our communities. That looks like a whole lot of investment in Black-owned business and Black-owned communities. It looks like a Black-owned police force that comes from the community… They are not coming as an outside operative, coming in, looking at our kids and sons like criminals, murderers and drug dealers. They look at them as Johnny from around the corner, whose grandmother goes to this church.
“It looks like a school system that is more concerned with education and not regurgitation. It looks like a neighborhood where we have neighborhood watches and neighborhood meetings and then there’s talk about what we need as a community, from library to technology. It looks like Miami Gardens that is run by Oliver Gilbert. Who is an amazing mayor of a Black incorporated town that is doing some of the things that we are talking about right now. It looks like a modern day Black Wall Street that didn’t need government handouts. That didn't need any kind of public assistance, but built one of the most thriving communities we’ve ever seen, white or Black, in this country on the same principle.”
As we’ve seen in recent years, it’s important for the Black community to move beyond mere representation and Black faces in office; to truly developing a Black political agenda. Hunter points out that we have much to learn from the Obama presidency. “We had a Black president and didn’t have a strategy for what we wanted him to do once we got in office. Gay people got to get married. Everybody had an agenda but Black people. We were happy to go take pictures — that was “power.” I have seen too many people on social media with a picture of the Obamas at the White House. But what did we ask President Obama for during eight years? What was the agenda? Yes, he was president of the United States, but we had a particular agenda that we couldn’t push forward while he was in office and we never asked him for a thing. We were just so happy that he was there. Now, I think he’ll go down history as one of the greatest presidents we’ll ever have. But not for Black people, and that’s our fault.”
Hunter believes that the agenda should have included clemency for nonviolent drug offenders. “The prison industrial complex was built on the backs of Black people — and he knows the stats. Which is why he works so hard to try and reverse that. But there should have been a very clear executive order to legalize marijuana and then grant clemency to anyone in jail on a marijuana charge or a marijuana conviction. That would immediately put millions of people — fathers and mothers — back into communities. That would have dramatically impacted Black people. Education is a big must, I have some ideas about that as well. But starting with criminal justice reform — that could have been an easy thing over eight years that he could have done undeniably, so that no one could have come in a reversed that. And we could have showed up during the midterms to make sure that the had a congress that he could work with for the first four years. Because two of those years, it was hostile. Actually for six of the eight years, it was hostile.”
Rather than reinventing the wheel or waiting for a savior, Hunter advocates a very practical approach — working with the infrastructure that the community already has in place to enact change. “We have the NAACP, we have the Urban League, we have the National Action Network, the Rainbow/PUSH. There are four organizations that already have outlets in every city in the country. Instead of creating something new, they all need to work together the way they did in the ‘50s, even though they didn't like each other. You had SNCC and the Black Panther Party. You had a bunch of these factions and organizations that… Urban League did not get along with NAACP. They didn't like each other...but they understood that they had a common goal, which was to liberate Black folks.”
At the end of the day, there is no shortcut. It comes down to doing the work, and one of Hunter’s many gifts is galvanizing energy and organizing her community of devotees around a common goal. But she has no time at all for the trolls. “One of my dear friends is Steve A Smith. We go back twenty plus years. He said to me, ‘Karen, you’ve got to let the trolls in. You can’t block the trolls. Because the trolls bring the other people.’ And I said, ‘we are different — you're on TV, you need the trolls. Trolls build your platform. Because trolls do bring more people to fight the trolls. And now you have a bigger audience.’ I am in the business of building. I don’t have any trolls in my space because trolls become a distraction. I spent the first part of starting on the radio, blocking and deleting people. So, whatever follows I have are people that are in. If you come to my page and say anything sideways, or you are snarky and not about this life, I will block you. You don’t even have to insult me. If you insult me, that’s a clear way to be blocked. It’s not because I want an echochamber, it’s because I want to have people dedicated to a mission that I see very clearly can be accomplished. But it cannot be accomplished with a bunch of Judases. Can’t have them. I move a little bit differently than most people. My goal is not to have the most followers or the most this and that. I don’t need everybody. I just need the people who are willing to roll up their sleeves. You don’t need everybody to build something. You just need the people to build something, to build something. Harriet Tubman was out there. She didn’t need a whole lot of people. Matter of fact, her brothers were like ‘Nah, we are good, we are going to go back.’ She was like, ‘Alright, Negro, go ahead. I don’t need you. I’ll free anyone who wants to be free.’ And that’s the kind feeling I have about this. I am not dragging people kicking and screaming. Either you want this or you don't. But those who do want it can move mountains, and we can do that together.”
Observe Hunter for any length of time, and you’ll gather that freedom is a recurring theme — if not the sole focus — of her life’s work. “I value freedom more than anything. I am a serial entrepreneur and a serial creator of things because I am constantly trying to be in a state where I never have to ask anybody for anything, or to ever be at anybody’s mercy.” It’s a sentiment to which many of us can relate. Born in the so-called “United” States, stripped of much of our history as the descendents of slaves; our vision of freedom can get a bit cloudy. Hunter’s version of freedom, too, has evolved over the years. “Financial freedom, to be a millionaire — that was important when I was in my twenties, thirties. But it’s not a monetary thing anymore. For me, it’s to be able to control my own destiny and to be able to impart some wisdom that I’ve learned over the years to other people, so that people around me can be free. A free people can get stuff done.
“Freedom is the message. We can get it, it’s attainable and I think we are in the perfect time to do it... We are in a moment in history that 100 years from now we are going to look back and this is going to be circled in the annals of time. My question to everybody is: what will be your contribution to this moment? It doesn’t have to be getting up in front of the Washington Monument and giving a speech. You could be like Fannie Lou Hamer and just be somebody who is sick and tired of being sick and tired. Who is just willing to do something.”