Against the backdrop of a burgeoning social justice movement (“Black Lives Matter”) and a culturally divisive presidential campaign, the subject of race and its role in American life is as urgent as its been in decades.
In a book published nearly a year ago, Eddie Glaude Jr., William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton, tackled the race problem head-on. Titled Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, Glaude’s book is part memoir, part American history, and part political polemic.
Obama’s election was an illusory balm for a country desperate to move beyond its original sins, Glaude argues. We thought we had turned a corner or left something ugly behind. But the ugliness persists and we’re still groping for a way forward.
A central concept of Glaude’s book is his notion of a racial “value gap” at the heart of the American project. The gap he describes doesn’t manifest in the form of overtly racist attitudes; it’s more pervasive, more insidious. For Glaude, the belief that white people matter more than black people is baked into the country’s DNA and reflected in our institutions, our habits, and the way in which our society has been organized.
“The interesting thing about it,” Glaude says, “is that we’re all doing it, we’re all reproducing it, not just simply white people. We’re all habituated to live in the United States in such a way that the value gap obtains.”
I reached out to Glaude last week to talk about the value gap and about his book, which was recently rereleased in paperback. I was also interested in how Donald Trump’s election changed his thinking, or if it changed it all. Certainly Glaude’s belief that the elevation of a black president might deepen rather than bridge the racial divide appears to have been vindicated.
But his book proffers something positive. As he told me in this interview, Trump’s rise to power offers an opportunity to imagine “a different kind of politics, a politics that’s consonant with the kind of world that we aspire to live in for our children and our children’s children.”
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
There’s something jarring, though not surprising, about seeing our first black president replaced by a man like Trump, whose political existence is built largely on white rage. You’re not especially sanguine about race relations in this country, but how shocked were you to watch this unfold in real time?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
When I wrote Democracy in Black, I was expecting the Republican nominee to be Jeb Bush. And there was no substantive difference in my mind between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. But here you have a guy whose political career began with claims around birtherism and questioning Obama’s legitimacy by questioning whether or not he’s an American citizen. And then there was all the race-baiting and the bombast of the general election and the primaries. I was taken aback, to be honest.
I knew there was something afoot. I knew that everywhere there were people who had not experienced the [economic] recovery, folks who were still catching hell out in Indiana and in the boroughs of New York and in the delta of Mississippi. I knew people were dissatisfied with the status quo. Hillary Clinton represented herself as business as usual. I knew that black voters were disaffected, that Clinton wasn’t getting them excited. I didn’t anticipate the extent to which white voters would double down on someone like Trump, however.
In retrospect, I think this election represents the last throes of a dying understanding of the country. Demographics aren’t destiny, but they damn sure change the bottom line. The reality is that it is not going to be a white nation in the vein of Europe anymore. I think what we see is that anxiety joined with economic anxiety joined with the idea that government is taking things from hardworking people and giving them to undeserving black and brown people, people who don’t attend my church.
All of this anxiety generates a kind of fear that resulted in the election of, by my standards, a neo-fascist.
Tell me about the racial “value gap.”
Eddie Glaude Jr.
So if you look at the wealth gap, even the empathy gap, and underneath that is something I want to call the value gap, which is the belief that white people ought to be valued more than others. And that belief isn’t the expression simply of loud racists — people going around calling people the n-word or committing themselves to the ideology of white nationalism. It’s just the way our society is organized. It animates our political, social, and economic realities.
You can learn the value gap by simply driving around the United States, driving around local neighborhoods, driving around your city. You see the way in which the United States is organized spatially such that certain communities are valued more than others. You can go to your school and you can learn the value gap.
Think about it in this way. At the moment in which we give voice to the principles of liberty and equality that animate the American Revolution, we reconcile those principles with the institution of slavery. Freedom, equality, liberty are accorded to white people who are thought of as white, and black folk and Native Americans are seen as “others,” or seen as less than. That’s a value gap, and it’s clear as day.
Or if you think about it in the context of the Civil War and Reconstruction, you get the so-called Civil War amendments, which in some way makes us a democracy, because prior to that we weren’t. And what do you get in response to even that moment of progress? You get another form of slavery: convict leasing, Jim Crow, segregation in the South. You think about the civil rights movement, just basic arguments on the part or claims on the part of particular folk to be full class citizens of the United States, what do you get in response? You get the call of law and order. You get the tax revolt in Northern California.
And then with the election of Barack Obama, the first black president, what do you get in response? You get the vitriol of the Tea Party and you get a wholesale attack on voting rights with voter suppression laws and voter ID. So in each instance of progress, and there has been progress, there is a reassurance that our society should be organized in such a way that white people should be afforded privilege simply because they are white, that they should be given access to benefits and burdens of citizenship that others ought not.
So the value gap gets us to this critical feature of our society that blocks the way to serious transformation.
This might still sound abstract to some readers. Can you draw a straight line between this value gap and the material disparities that we see today, more than two centuries later, in education, income, unemployment, or incarceration rates?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
Here’s an analogy I use when I’m talking to people about this. I believe the planet is getting warmer. We’ve just come out of the warmest year on record. But if you look at the way I live my life, you would think I was a climate change denier. My car, the light bulbs in my home, everything. Given the choices I’m making, you would think that I thought the climate is just fine. But I’m not an active climate denier. I actually believe that human beings are destroying the Earth.
That’s the way in which the value gap lives. It’s buried in the thought: “Oh, I want to live in a safe neighborhood. I want my children to go to a decent school.” And we know the social science data shows that whenever people say they want their children to go to the best school, that’s a proxy for how many black and brown kids go to that school. So we’re making choices day in and day out to navigate the built environment that’s constantly reproducing the ways in which inequality, racial inequality, has taken root in our country.
We are okay with the fact that, disproportionately, black and brown kids aren’t being educated. It would be unacceptable for folks in Princeton to begin the school year without textbooks. But it happens in the Bronx all the time. It happens in the Mississippi Delta all the time. It happens in the rural countryside of Texas. The fact that certain kinds of resources aren’t available to particular neighborhoods as opposed to other neighborhoods. We’re perfectly content with it, but we’re not running around shouting that we’re aligned with David Duke. And the interesting thing about it is that we’re all doing it, we’re all reproducing it, not just simply white people. We’re all habituated to live in the United States in such a way that the value gap obtains.
This is what makes it such a difficult problem. It’s not just melodrama. It’s not just the “bad people over there.” That’s too easy. It’s all of us.
I interviewed Glenn Loury last year and we touched this topic in a slightly different way. He was critical of “structural racism” as a category of social analysis, and I’ll put the same question I asked him to you: How can we talk about the concrete effects of these historical and material factors without absolving African Americans — or anyone else, for that matter — of their agency?
On the one hand, we have to recognize the reality of the value gap, just as we have to grapple with the living history of slavery and redlining and Jim Crow and all the rest of it. But we also want to encourage people to take responsibility for their condition, however constrained it might be.
Eddie Glaude Jr.
It’s not really a tension. Human beings have always forged lives in the context of social arrangements that have histories that enable and constrain. There’s no such thing as some unfettered individual who can create themselves sui generis, out of nothing. All of us are born upon a stage that we didn’t build. All of us find ourselves utilizing narratives, stories, accounts that we take for granted, that we just assume by virtue of the place that we were born and raised in.
I was born on the coast of Mississippi, on the east side of a town called Moss Point. Every time it rained, our neighborhood flooded because the pipes were bad, because the sidewalks weren’t paved. The baseball diamond had high grass. When my dad got hired as the second African American in the post office, he moved us from one side of town to the other. It was very different. As an individual I’m making choices, doing the things that I love to do like reading or playing Dungeons and Dragons, to live the kind of middle-class life my dad afforded us as a postman. But I was living in a context that was already determined in the state of Mississippi and the country.
So to talk about responsibility over and against context is to assume that individuals are creating themselves out of nothing. And the point is that the US has this enormously burdensome history. My dad could not attend Princeton University. My dad couldn’t vote until 1965. We’re not talking about the 19th century here.
Twelve years after the Fair Housing Act, there’s the Reagan revolution, which sought to undermine it all. Somehow we resolved a century’s worth of practices around race in 12 years. The idea of thinking about what are the historical constraints and contemporary reality that particular people have is reasonable.
I can put it this way. There’s a reason black unemployment is consistently twice that of white unemployment, no matter if there’s an improvement or not. And that has something to do with a history of dual labor markets in this country. There’s a reason black wealth isn’t what white wealth is. That has to do with dual housing markets in this country. Structural racism is a shorthand of all that it. That it somehow limits agency reveals a problematic understanding of what agency is.
You’re equally critical of Democrats and liberals in the book. What’s your beef with the Democratic Party? Have they failed to provide a meaningful alternative to the Republican worldview?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
Absolutely. I think they have failed. We’re still dealing with the fallout of Clintonism. I make the claim that in some ways Jimmy Carter was the first neoliberal president. If you think about his reactions to the economic downturn, to downsizing government, to austerity, we can just go down the line. So much so that when he was elected, Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders declared that he betrayed them. He betrayed black communities.
When you think about the Democratic leadership council, and you think about what motivated that organization philosophically, these are just simply Eisenhower Republicans. They have a cozy relationship with corporate power. What we’ve experienced is a narrowing of the spectrum of American politics, so much so that someone like Walter Mondale would be considered a radical today. And that has something to do with the complicity of the Democratic Party, with their abandonment of workers and unions and black voters. They’ve narrowed the range of what constitutes a viable progressive politics in this country. And I think they should be held to account for it.
It’s not the intended audience of the book, but what’s your message to middle America, to white America, after this election?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
First of all, once we acknowledge the work of the value gap in our own lives and in the society in general, once we see that we have been habituated to believe that certain people should be accorded a certain kind privilege because of the color of their skin while others are held to a different standard, then we can do the work together to try to transform and achieve our country, to echo James Baldwin.
But I do think of the Trump supporter who’s been catching hell, who’s witnessed, just like folks in my neighborhood and folks in my family, that their houses aren’t worth a damn thing anymore, that they’re working harder for less, that all that job creation over the past eight years and before, 95 percent of it was part-time and contractual work. Many of them have entered a brutal market after they lost their homes. They can’t afford higher education because tuition has skyrocketed. They’re worried if one of their family members gets sick that they’re going to lose their home.
All of this is not a result of big government taking things from them and giving it to undeserving others. All of it, the majority of it, is a result of greedy people who want to transfer wealth from the most vulnerable into their pockets. And I think the assessment is, did Donald Trump sell an illusion? Because when you look at his policies, it’s business as usual. In fact, it’s unbridled business as usual.
So I say to middle America, to working-class white America, that there are working-class people of all colors who are catching hell and we all need to just link arms and fight this thing in the best way we know how.
What’s your message to black Americans, to liberals, to anyone who felt alienated by this election?
Eddie Glaude Jr.
My message is that the key battleground is the imagination. Over the past several years, there has been an all-out assault on our radical imaginations. People want us to believe that our only choices are those right in front of us. We have to imagine a different kind of politics, a politics that’s consonant with the kind of world we aspire to live in for our children and our children’s children. That’s going to require us to break loose from old models. It’s going to require an impiety, an ability to step outside of crude and staid understandings of tradition.
Sometimes to be heard you’ve got to sing out of key. We have to imagine a new kind of politics. The one good thing that comes out of the election of Trump is that he’s flattened the political landscape.
He’s opened up space for us to think anew.