The killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of the state. Flagrant displays of police brutality against peaceful protesters. Lawmakers who demand an “overwhelming show of force” against “lawbreakers.” A commander in chief who gives speeches about “dominating” those demanding justice and orders law enforcement to tear gas protesters for the sake of a photo op.
A common reaction to these displays of violence and injustice in the past weeks is: This is not who we are. But what if that isn’t true? What if this is exactly who we are? That’s a far more uncomfortable idea to grapple with — and, if accurate, it demands far more radical solutions to America’s current malaise.
There are few people who have wrestled with these questions more deeply than Eddie Glaude Jr., the chair of Princeton University’s department of African American studies and author of books like Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul and Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.
“In order to address this cultural practice of racial inequality, we have to narrate America differently,” Glaude Jr. says. “We have to confront the ugliness of who we are — and who we have been — so that we can imagine ourselves otherwise.”
I spoke with Glaude Jr. by phone last week. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
I think a lot of folks are treating the current protests as simply a response to the killing of George Floyd. But it’s hard to imagine the scale that we’ve witnessed over the past week if it weren’t for something much deeper building up for a long time. What do you see as the root causes of these protests?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
I like to think about expressions of anger or rage in these moments in light of the ancient understanding of anger. Anger is an experience of the diminishment of the person — the experience of contempt and insult and spite. So when it erupts, it’s not about just simply that moment. It’s about accumulated grievance.
What we see here is the blatant public lynching of George Floyd attaching itself to what we saw with Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. It’s what black folks experience with policing on a daily basis, combined with the fact that we haven’t done anything substantively with regards to policing since the 2014 uprising.
And then there’s the stress of a global pandemic that’s literally devastating our communities where we’re watching loved ones die and can’t even be there for their funerals, that we’re losing our jobs, that we can’t pay rent, or the house note that our bills are piling up.
No wonder the murder of George Floyd was the match to light the tinderbox.
I want to talk about some of the different reactions I’ve seen to the protests. I’ve seen a lot of people who look at George Floyd’s murder and look at the way the cops are brutally attacking protesters and are horrified. And their response is: That’s not who we are. That’s not America. That’s not what liberty and justice for all look like.
What do you say to those people? What does this moment say about who we are?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
That kind of willful ignorance is part of the problem. If we bracket the tear gas and rubber bullets and we just look at how police have been responding to protesters with aggression and violence, that’s how our communities are policed daily. Each encounter is fraught with insult and spite.
In moments like these, white liberals clutch their pearls and ask what we can do to change, but then they go back to the same discourse: We need to be tough on crime because these communities are inherently criminal. These folks are co-participants in the erosion of the social safety net, because they believe racial equality is a zero-sum game — or they believe that racial equality is a charitable enterprise whereby they want to do something for us as opposed to actually instantiate a more just society.
So it angers me when I hear that response. Because it’s the same response that has enabled generations of black people — my father, his father, now my son — having to live through this.
In Democracy in Black you write, “America’s democratic principles do not exist in a space apart from our national commitment to white supremacy. They’ve always been bound together, sharing bone and tissue.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
I just call it the lie. It’s part of this ideology that allows us to hide behind a statement of principles and ignore our everyday practices.
We’ve built the country true. All we need to do is look at the built environment to sense who’s valued and who’s not. All we have to do is look at why highways are the way they are, why zoning laws work the way they do, why our cities are so segregated. If we look at our built environment, we see the commitments that have shaped the way we imagine our living together.
My colleague, Imani Perry, in her wonderful book More Beautiful, More Terrible insists we think about racial inequality not as intentional acts of discrimination that evidence themselves in our individual interactions; instead, she insists that we think about racial inequality as a kind of cultural practice — it’s the way in which we go about living our lives, that shapes our choices and our decision-making. And we see it across every sector and segment of our society through disparities in education, policing, housing, the labor market, health care.
So it makes sense to me that when things explode, people clutch their pearls and want to focus in on the one incident and then declare that this is not us. Because to actually confront the complexity is to confront something about who we actually are.
One of the efficient ways in which the American ideology works is that it carries with it an enormously powerful evasion of confronting who we are. The illusion saves us from our ugliness over and over again.
I think a pushback you’ll get here is that things aren’t perfect but at least there’s been progress. Police killings of unarmed black men have fallen since 2013. The incarceration rate for black men has declined by a third since 2006. The black-white life expectancy gap is closing. In other words, life seems to be getting better for black Americans. Isn’t this progress enough?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
There’s this wonderful line from James Baldwin: “How much time do you want for your progress?” White America is always open to patting itself on its back and listing these sorts of incremental improvements. Tell that to George Floyd’s family. Tell that to every parent who has to worry about their child when they leave their home. Tell that to the folks who go to the hospital and the doctor just simply ignores their pain and sends them home with Tylenol. An adult may end up dying in their homes alone because of the way race ultimately determines health care delivery in this country. There’s a reason black lives have been so disproportionately taken by coronavirus.
But we’re always told a version of, at least we’re not in slavery, as they said in Jim Crow. At least, they’re not lynching people like they once did in the context of the early 20th century. But look at how many of us languish in prisons and jails across the country. Look how many parents have lost their children because we’re waiting for America to incrementally leave behind this insidious commitment to the belief that some people matter more than others.
It’s a kind of arrogance that just boggles the mind. It says to me that we are supposed to bear our burdens quietly because we’re getting incrementally better.
I’m beginning to sound angry.
I’m not sure anyone would blame you for being angry right now.
Eddie Glaude Jr.
I just think it’s so important for us to understand how the burden of tinkering around the edges has been borne by a particular community within our society. When we think about all the ongoing compromises with those who hold noxious commitments, who has to bear the burden of those compromises?
I think if we’re going to fundamentally reimagine who we are as Americans, we have to confront that ugliness head-on. We have to stop muting our voices and speak directly to the pain and suffering that it causes.
As you said that, I couldn’t help but think of the Martin Luther King Jr. quote you have in Democracy in Black, which is that black Americans “have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says, and they have taken white Americans at their word when they talked of it as an objective. But most whites in America ... proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement.”
That struck me because it does sometimes feel as if we’re talking about two very different definitions of equality with two very different timelines.
Eddie Glaude Jr.
That quotation is so important to me because it’s at the heart of the problematic liberal approach to racial justice. What King is saying is that white supremacy cuts so deep that white America is not even constitutionally capable of thinking about equality in a deep and nuanced way. And it’s primarily because equality is seen as a set of loose practices of improvement.
In other words, it’s as if equality is a philanthropic enterprise, a charitable gesture. As if equality is something that white people can give to others. But when we began to think about freedom and about standing in right ethical relation with our fellows, that is not predicated upon any kind of philanthropic relationship. As long as we think of racial justice as something that white America can give to other people, we’re caught in the frame — we’re still captured by the belief that some people have more value than others.
King understood this in ’67. He understood that white supremacy cut so deep that it required something more of us if we were going to really get about the business of a more just society.
I want to come back to this idea of what it would mean to live in a more just society. But first, I think it’s important as we talk about Martin Luther King Jr. to acknowledge that his legacy has been invoked quite a bit lately, and not necessarily in the way we’re talking about.
Lately, I’ve seen a lot of conservative politicians and commentators use MLK’s legacy to critique the tactics of the current protesters. To their credit, many of them acknowledge that George Floyd’s killing was unjust. But they are quick to invoke the legacy of Dr. King saying that rioting, for instance, is never acceptable in a free, democratic society.
How do you respond to that critique of tactics?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
The invocation of King by many folk across the ideological spectrum is used to contain black political expression in this country. We invoke him to delegitimize forms of politics. But that has little to do with the actual politics of Dr. King.
It is true that Dr. King was very critical of urban unrest, of rioting. Everyone is using the phrase from Where Do We Go From Here and his later speeches that “riots are the language of the unheard.” But when we look at a very amazing speech he gave at Stanford in 1967 called “The Other America,” he’s very explicit that he doesn’t condone rioting. It is contrary to his commitment to nonviolence.
But then he transitions from his critique of violence as a tactic to a critique of those realities that caused violence in the first place. He says if we’re going to be critical of riots, we need to be as critical of the conditions that produce riots. That means being critical of police brutality. That means being critical of the material conditions that lead to these sorts of explosions.
None of the folk who invoke Dr. King, to my knowledge, have any deep commitment to the underlying philosophical view that leads him to condemn the riots in the first place. They are only committed to nonviolence as a way of constraining and limiting forms of black political expression. At the end of the day, he’s just a tool in their political tool box. They really don’t care about his moral vision at all.
I think one of the reasons Dr. King was skeptical of violent protests was partly his fear of triggering white fear. You mentioned a minute ago that black Americans can’t afford to compromise with a toxic worldview or sit by and wait for white America to recognize them as truly equal. But white people still hold a lot of political power in this country and will hold outsized power for decades to come. And research from the 1968 election indicates that violent protests can create a conservative backlash effect.
How do we grapple with the immense power of white fear in our electoral politics — fear which is often triggered by protests like this one?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
It is true that the reaction to that urban unrest in ’67, ’68 led to the ascendance of Nixon, and then, of course, the eventual election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But there is so much about the political unrest that came out of ’68 that goes so far beyond simply the election of Richard Nixon. It would behoove us to look at black power in that period more closely to get a better understanding of contemporary politics.
We get our history of the black power movement all wrong. In the traditional telling, the civil rights movement peaks in ’63 with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech; then the angry militancy of black power takes over and the movement declines. We know that that’s just a caricature. You wouldn’t have the expansion of black elected officials if you didn’t have a particular political thrust that is rooted in black power. Black and African American studies wouldn’t exist as a field of inquiry if it wasn’t for black power.
The other point I would make is that when we find ourselves making political decisions in light of our fear of backlash, we become complicit in reproducing the very conditions that cause the uprising in the first place. We have to finally confront this nation’s ugliness head-on without compromising. We cannot compromise our description of the problem because we are afraid that it’s going to make white people more racist.
You were criticized the other day for your criticism of Joe Biden’s recent speech on George Floyd’s killing and the protests. And I remember you got some blowback a few years ago for calling on black voters to leave ballots blank in the 2016 presidential election to send a message to the Democratic Party.
How do we grapple with the fact that our electoral politics often gives us choices that force us to compromise on our values in one way or another?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
I had a moment in 2016 where I thought, given the choices we had before us, we could try to push the envelope. I didn’t believe at the time that white America would elect someone so obviously ill-equipped to be the president of the United States. I was completely wrong and I should have known better.
James Baldwin wrote about the election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter had betrayed black America in some ways. His policies of austerity led many black leaders across the country to just simply say that he had turned his back on them. And we saw depressed turnout in that 1980 election. But Baldwin said sometimes blacks will have to vote in order to buy themselves time. I just didn’t pay attention to that in 2016 and we ended up with Donald Trump.
It is paramount that we get Trump out of office. That much is true. But it’s also true that we’re living in a moment that is a combination of the Spanish flu of 1918, the Great Depression of 1929, and the urban unrest of 1968. That means it’s not sufficient to simply get Trump out of office, because to say that all three of those things are simply the result of his election is to simply be naive. We have to hold two things simultaneously: Get him out of office and advocate for bold, transformative visions.
With regard to Joe Biden’s Philadelphia speech, I said he exhibited empathy, he offered a description of the current moment, he put forward some policies, and he was aspirational. All of that is good. But at the level of policy, what did we hear? Did we hear policy that could match the scale of the problems we face? No.
Let’s talk about your vision for what could lie on the other side of this moment. In Begin Again you write, “A moral reckoning is upon us, and we have to decide, once and for all, whether or not we will truly be a multiracial democracy.” What does it mean to actually become such a society? What does that world look and feel like?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
It’s a world in which every human being, no matter the color of their skin, their zip code or where they were born, their gender, or who they love, can exercise what John Dewey calls effective freedom: the ability not only to dream dreams but to make those dreams a reality.
We have to break an economic system that favors producers and insists that workers live in a state of precarity; we have to finally break the back of white supremacy — the idea that white people are valued more than others [that] shapes domestic and global policy. A radical black democratic vision understands how racial capitalism continues to ravage communities across the globe.
In short, we need a new black radicalism. But black radicalism doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. We have to build a world where we can stand in right relation with one another. That is just a way of saying that we must be committed to a politics of non-domination.
What will it take to get there? What are the choices we can make now to move in that direction?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
I think it requires a set of policy decisions that will orient us to each other differently.
We can offer education for our children that isn’t contingent upon one’s income or one’s zip code or one’s color. We can begin to think about a form of policing where communities aren’t overpoliced and underprotected — a form of policing that isn’t kind of shadowed by racist assumptions about the inherent criminality of black folk. We could have policy initiatives that address the racial disparities in health care delivery so that we’re not ravaged by diabetes and hypertension and heart disease because we live in food deserts. We could rethink housing policy so that when a Whole Foods shows up, it’s not a sign that our communities are being gentrified and we’re gonna be moved out of sight.
In order to address this cultural practice of racial inequality, we have to begin to engage in a radical reimagining of the nation. And that’s going to begin with concrete policy initiatives so that we can begin to think about ourselves being together differently.
It’s also going to require us telling a different story about who we are. We have to narrate America differently. We’re not the shining city on the hill. We have to confront the ugliness of who we are — and who we have been — so that we can imagine ourselves otherwise.
We have to short-circuit a certain kind of perfectionist impulse that says that we’re always already on the road to a more perfect union; what we need to be doing is grappling with the choices we’ve made and the society we’ve organized — and then we have to change the built environment to reflect a commitment to equality.
I won’t be there when this happens — I’ll be in my grave. But this is the scale of the transformation that is required. If we’re serious about our history, it means we should be doubtful as to whether we will rise to the occasion. But I have an undying faith in the capacity of human beings to be otherwise.