Picking up the Threads of Struggle

An interview with
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Two years ago, the Baltimore Uprising pointed the way towards a new, militant antiracist struggle. Today, the young movement must adapt to the Trump era.

A rally in solidarity with the Baltimore Uprising in Minneapolis, MN on April 29, 2015. Fibonacci Blue / Flickr

Two years ago, the Baltimore Uprising exploded following the police murder of Freddie Gray. Since then, Black Lives Matter has become a major political force in the United States, developing an economic and political platform and continuing to pressure local governments and the justice department to reform racist police forces.

In this episode of The Dig, Daniel Denvir sat down with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professor of African American studies at Princeton and the author of From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, to talk about racism in the twenty-first century — what it is, what it isn’t, how to fight it, and how not to.

This transcript has been edited; you can listen to the full interview on Blubrry, iTunes, or Stitcher.


DD

Van Jones famously called Trump’s election the product of a “whitelash,” meaning backlash to people of color and their social-economic advancement. Do you agree?

KT

No. On one level, it doesn’t make any sense. If there’s an assumption that the election of Trump is somehow revenge for the role people of color played in electing Barack Obama, then it doesn’t make much sense of the tens of millions of white people who voted for Obama, not once but twice.

It feeds into this erroneous narrative that somehow Obama’s presidency was a benefit to African Americans that came at a particular expense of ordinary white people. That is a really unfortunate — if not terrible — misreading of what the last eight years were about.

When we look at what the actual Obama presidency did mean to African Americans, you can see eight years later black unemployment is still twice the rate of white unemployment, 38 percent of black children live in poverty, 55 percent of black workers make under fifteen dollars an hour, the overwhelming majority of them being black women. You can go down the list of persisting inequities that define African American life after not just the rise of Obama but really the highest concentration of black political power in American history.

We have to have a more complicated understanding of what happened in the election. Race in this country is always tightly wound with economic issues. It’s very difficult to disentangle those two. People have tried very hard to suggest that it was either race or class in the debacle of this presidential election, but we have to look at how those issues reinforce each other.

DD

Since Trump first emerged as a leading candidate, there has been this liberal trope that the Left is apologizing for racism by making an argument that places racism in political, economic, and historical context. It seems like a telling reflection of the neoliberal worldview.

KT

It’s not just the neoliberal worldview; it’s the particular way that race has historically been understood in the United States. Race has complicated the meaning of America and what the United States is supposed to represent. There’s been a constant struggle over how to define and understand its role in American lives, and what we’re witnessing is just another iteration of that. For liberals, there’s a reluctance to really grasp the systemic aspect of just not race but class and inequality in the United States.

For the Left, there is an understanding that race in many ways is constitutive of American democracy. The country is founded on the genocide of its indigenous population, built its wealth through the brutal subjugation of black slave labor, and perpetuated that wealth hundreds of millions of times over to the violence and expropriation of immigrant labor.

It’s almost impossible to understand the dynamic of race without understanding its correlation to class. There is no coincidence that Donald Trump’s over-the-top vitriol directed at immigrants — at Arabs and Muslims, and at African Americans, with his sort of obtuse description of the “black” inner city —comes in combination with a completely draconian austerity-driven budget.

It’s really to help explain why this sort of budget is necessary: “We have to redirect resources to law enforcement because our inner cities have turned into veritable jungles run by black and Mexican gang-bangers, rapists, and people who are out of control. We have to redirect tens of millions of dollars from domestic spending to foreign policy and war against the crazed Muslim terrorists.”

You can’t actually argue for the type of budget that he is putting forward without a deeply racist characterization of the world.

DD

You’ve argued that racism is sometimes not a function of individual white people’s power, but rather the opposite: the wages of whiteness are, for many working-class and poor white people, becoming incredibly thin.

KT

The whole framework of privilege is really problematic because it reduces issues of power, of control, and authority to individual difference. It’s almost as if everything that is different about groups of people is then dubbed as a privilege. If you’re able-bodied and someone else is not, then your able-bodied-ness becomes a privilege. If you’re cisgendered and someone else is not, then that difference is transformed into a privilege.

It’s not to say to that there is not oppression. The understanding of oppression is deeply rooted in the Marxist tradition. Lenin talked about special oppression. The working class was oppressed, but there were people within the working class who faced additional oppression because of factors that they did not control — gender, race, ethnicity, religion, national status. There is a long tradition on the Left of understanding that oppression absolutely exists and is central to the perpetuation of capitalism.

Oppression changes individual working-class people’s experience in the world. The experiences of working-class black women are not the same as they are for working-class white men. Because of the compounding impacts of multiple oppressions, it makes for a harsher outcome for black, working-class women. But the absence of those particular oppressions experienced by black women in the life of a white working-class man doesn’t necessarily equate into this thing that we call privilege.

DD

Another problem with the concept of white privilege is more strategic: most people like the idea of having a little bit of power in the world. Do you think it might be more politically powerful to convince white, working-class people that they are oppressed and have shared interest in changing things?

KT

Most white people or ordinary white people don’t think they have power over anything. The insistence that they are has a negative impact in the sense that it makes it seem that the broad left has no sympathy, empathy, or understanding of what it’s like to be an ordinary, working-class person.

The thing that’s frustrating about these conversations is that people immediately assume that you are downplaying the significance of race. Racism is real, it’s pervasive, it is probably quite rooted in the experiences and outlook of most white people.

The issue for me is not whether white people are racist — I assume that most people are. The issue is whether or not it’s immutable. That becomes a problem because it’s anti-historical: people’s ideas are constantly in flux, which is the only way we can understand any sense of progress in American history.

We have a situation where it’s actually in the interest of ordinary white people and ordinary black people — what we roughly calculate as the 99 percent — to join together. How does 1 percent of the population maintain such control and authority over a massive, massive opposition? To me it comes down to a strategy of divide and conquer, a deliberate strategy of deploying racism systematically to undermine the struggles of ordinary people.

One of the examples of this dynamic is the way in which welfare as an entitlement for poor people was ended. Last year was the twentieth anniversary of Bill Clinton signing the Work And Personal Responsibility Act, which ended welfare as an entitlement. There was a huge ceremony in the Rose Garden, and Clinton surrounded himself with several black women who had been on welfare.

What Clinton knew — but what most people probably did not know — was that the majority of people receiving welfare were white women. But there was no point in bringing white women to that ceremony because the whole impetus for ending welfare was that this was a program for undeserving black women mainly interested in having babies and living off the dole and getting something for nothing. Bringing a bunch of black women to the signing ceremony fulfilled that idea, but the legislation didn’t just dramatically affect the lives of black women — it also dramatically affected the lives of working-class white women.

That’s the way racism in a “colorblind” society operates. When the political establishment uses rank racism as a way to sell the police, to sell the judicial system, and to sell the concept of law and order, it has a disproportionate impact on black people who are then disproportionately policed, disproportionately imprisoned. But to spend $80 billion a year to maintain this system has an impact in the lives of all working-class people, both in terms of where that money could go that can actually improve the quality of people’s lives but also through the normalization of violence, the normalization of policing, the normalization of living in a society that locks up a huge percentage of its population.

You can see the way that racism has a particular impact in lives of the nonwhite people, but it also has a cascading impact in the lives of white people. Whether or not white people realize that is a question of consciousness.

It’s important to say that none of these things are automatic and none of these things will resolve themselves. This is why we talk about the need to rebuild a political left that engages in politics and debates and actually puts forward a vision of what we want — not just an identification of what we think the issue or the problem is.

DD

Your book opens with a quote from Fredrick Douglass: “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by endurance of those whom they oppress.” Today, struggle is on the upswing both among black Americans and Americans more generally. To what do you credit the upsurge in struggle?

KT

In my book, I talk about the relationship between the disappointments of black millennials in the administration of Barack Obama and the rise of Black Lives Matter. People believed Obama, they campaigned for Obama, they thought that the election of Obama would actually transform conditions for black people in the United States. When that didn’t happen, it not only created deep wells of disillusionment, but it created a wave of anger as well.

That in combination with the persistence of police violence and the daily grind of unemployment, underemployment, and under-resourced public institutions produced a different kind of consciousness, one that rejected the idea that we can just elect these problems away.

It created the space for a different kind of consciousness and the confidence to do something. One of the reasons why Ferguson exploded was because of the history people had there with a police force that was becoming more and more disconnected from the concept that they were acting as an impartial state agency. It suddenly became clear that there was a kleptocracy in the county seat and that the stormtroopers, if you will, were the police.

So the public execution of Mike Brown and then the transformation of that execution into a lynching by leaving his body uncovered for over four hours, signaled to young people that there’s no longer any pretense that the police are public servants. They have the capacity to transform into death squads, and if you don’t do something about it, then this stuff with Mike Brown is going to become a regular occurrence.

There were particular dynamics in Ferguson that can be located in cities across the country, which is why the movement was able to generalize so quickly from a local attempt to get a cop indicted into a national uproar about police abuse and violence and the inability for the state — the most powerful state, the most powerful government on the planet — to rein in its police.

I don’t think that dynamic was just relegated to black communities. There’s a tremendous overlap between young white people who worked on Obama’s campaign in 2008 in the explosion of the Occupy Movement.

People believed that Obama would be a breach with the devastating neoliberal order from the Clinton regime of the nineties into Bush. The way the country was dragged into an illegal war in 2003, the collective shrug of the federal government in the face of the hurricane of the Katrina catastrophe, when New Orleans is allowed to drown because it is a black city, and then the near collapse the United States and the global economy in 2007 and 2008.

Obama was politically adept at figuring out which way the wind was blowing and crafted a campaign that responded to that and exploited it all the way to the White House. But with big expectations and big hope come even bigger disappointment.

Then when you get Occupy and the struggle around the execution of Troy Davis, both helped create the conditions for a movement to emerge against the murder of Trayvon Martin and the police misconduct that was bound up in that. The infusion of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and their reporting on police brutality. Then Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, which narrates and explains this entire political period that a generation of young people have come of age in.

All these things work together to create the conditions for the emergence of a political movement. The complicating factor is that it’s happening in the context of a fractured, divided, and politically inept left. People are trying to overcome that deficit, but it means that the movement starts on a certain level and has to politically mature in order get to the point that will be necessary to challenge this particular kind of administration.

You can understand what happened to the black movement, the most important movement of the 1960s. You have the deliberate efforts of the political establishment to redirect black politics into the Democratic Party, to remake the Democratic Party as a “legitimate arena for activism and for politics” as opposed to the streets. The point was to move from protest into formal politics. So you have what some have described as cooptation of the movement and the development of a small but important black middle class. Black people can now buy homes, you open up pathways for African Americans to go to college, open up the civil service so that African Americans can get stable middle-class jobs.

You essentially give people a stake in the society. That five hundred thousand people participated in urban, armed uprisings throughout the mid-sixties was indicative that people were not invested in the system and were locked out from it.

Then you have the sort of brutal physical repression of the movement itself, where black activists are jailed, exiled, or killed by the federal government. Then you combine that with the ramping up of law and order, you grease the wheels of mass incarceration, and then, politically, you help to roll back and undermine all the structural logic that emerged from the 1960s.

Stokely Carmichael gives us the language of institutional racism to understand what has happened to black communities. Even characterizations that I don’t necessarily agree with — like the idea that African Americans were an internal colony in the United States — give a structure and form to black disenfranchisement and inequality, when others were describing this phenomenon as products of defective culture, as products of moral lapses.

In the 1970s, you begin to see the retreat from this. If you identify structural inequalities, then that demands structural responses. If, however, you can transform that narrative into one of personal irresponsibility as the main feature of black oppression and black inequality, then that calls for personal transformation — not robust public policy.

If you put all of those things together, it has a depressing impact on political organizing and political activism. There are episodic outbursts that pierce that general political framework — whether it’s the Los Angeles rebellion in 1992, the emergent global justice movement at the end of the 1990s and along with it, an emergent movement against racial profiling — all of which is destroyed and wiped out by the terrorist attacks on September 11. You have to rebuild those networks, that consciousness, that confidence that was beginning to come together at the end of Clinton’s reign in the 1990s.

We are now seeing the revival of that political awakening. These things never disappear completely. They can be driven underground, but the basis of it is still there. But then you have fifteen years of new garbage heaped on top of it. In that sense, you get an even deeper radicalization but it is emerging within the context of a left that is not yet in a position to give it any direction.

We’re at the very beginning of this process, and you can see that the radicalization is quite deep. If you look at Black Lives Matter, Occupy, the fact that the Democratic Socialists of America has twenty thousand members: all of these things point to that. There’s no getting around the rebuilding of the Left. It doesn’t mean that it’s a slow, one-by-one numeric process. It’s something that can happen in leaps and bounds. We saw that the day after the inauguration of Trump, when three to four million people come out in protest.

This is completely unprecedented in the era of American history. That is something that can be built on and built on quite quickly.

DD

What has the rise of a black political elite meant for most black people?

KT

There’s always been a class division amongst African Americans that expresses itself in various ways. Most people talk about it through what’s referred to as the politics of respectability, which is the idea that if you perform middle-class norms, that is a way to become integrated into a wider society and to live a normal life. What’s different over the last fifty years is that you combine those conventions of personal responsibility with actual political power and a platform to espouse them.

You see this in places like Philadelphia with Frank Rizzo or Chicago with Harold Washington. You had black majority populations ruled by white political machines that were still relying on patronage relationships, which meant that white people held a disproportionate power. That was a flagrant antagonism in black communities that would express itself through these annual conflagrations.

There was the belief if you have African Americans govern the cities that would have a calming effect on them. Let a black political establishment manage municipal fiscal crisis and not white people. That strategy was largely effective. The best example is someone like Wilson Goode, the first black mayor of Philadelphia, who literally dropped a bomb on a black counter-cultural organization called MOVE, killing eleven people including five or six children — and then he’s reelected two years later.

The idea that a white mayor could drop a bomb on a black political organization and politically live is crazy. But a black mayor could do it. That captures the disorienting and disorganizing impact that black political officials have had in the last forty or so years, while at the same time being in this position to articulate this culture of poverty, personal responsibility framework as a way to understand black poverty and black inequality.

DD

Mayor Michael “Pull Up Your Pants” Nutter.

KT

Exactly. And Barack Obama was a master of this in terms of using his very public bully pulpit. Before the rise of Black Lives Matter, he helped to really preserve the space where you could talk about lack of parenting, black morality or a lack thereof, black work ethic, black parenting, those sorts of things, as a way to understand what was happening in black communities — in a very destructive way.

This is the impact of the emergence of this black political class. It hasn’t been greater opportunities for working-class black people, greater jobs, less police brutality, greater and better housing. It hasn’t been any of that.

It has quieted the emergence of any struggles around these issues, until of course the rise of Black Lives Matter and the explosion in Baltimore in April 2015, which symbolically and rhetorically closed that idea that black faces in high places can resolve the issues experienced by ordinary black people. You had a black mayor and a largely black-run city, a black police chief, a black director of the board of education, half the city council is black; indeed. half of the police officers who picked up and beat Freddie Gray to death were African American.

When Baltimore exploded, a black woman, who was the mayor of the city, called another black woman, who was a commander of a national guard unit, to put down a rebellion led by young black people. That crystallized the logical conclusions of that strategy.

This isn’t to say that strategy of fake racial solidarity will go away, but it can no longer be introduced as the key to solving urban black working-class distress.

DD

The rise of black faces in high places also did a lot of work to legitimate the dominant ideology of colorblindness, the notion that we live in a postracial society.

KT

Colorblindness is not just about the behavior of this or that individual and whether or not they acknowledge race as a factor. It was a political effort to undermine the central politics that come out of the 1960s: a recognition that black inequality and oppression is structural. That it is built into American capitalism and thus demands a structural response on all levels.

The War on Poverty and Great Society programs were responding to not just the altruistic impulses of Lyndon Johnson but also to black demands that shaped the discussion. There’s a systematic effort to undo this over the course of the 1970s that looks at the devolution of American cities and rising crime rates and rising drug use and the persistence of poverty even after — as they like to say — the billions and billions that were spent in Great Society programs to basically say, “Look, we’ve done all of this and the cities are still falling apart. This must be something beyond the control of government, beyond the capacity of our public programs, this is about a defective people, whether they’re black, whether they’re Puerto Rican.”

That’s a very attractive argument when taxes are going up because the business class has demanded an end to taxation, so we’re going to tax ordinary people, not corporate America. It fed a common sense about what was happening in the United States, and it became a way to undermine the weak but important anti-poverty programs that came of age in the 1960s. All this could be done without ever uttering “race” or any racial epithets.

It’s part of what is really important about Stokely Carmichael’s intervention around institutional racism, because he deliberately talks about how it’s actually not about the intent of the individuals, it’s about the outcomes. If we want to understand whether racial inequality is among us, we can’t base it on what people say, we have to base it on what they do and what the outcomes are.

DD

How does today’s struggle compare to and draw from the movements of the 1960s and 1970s?

KT

It depends on when in the sixties. We’re at the very beginning of developing the kind of networks and organizations that will be necessary to take on the political establishment. That process played itself out in the late 1950s and early sixties as well.

One of the consequences in the United States is this lack of organizational continuity from one period of upsurge to the next. In the 1930s, you have a very intense communist movement that is deeply rooted in working-class organizations and struggle, which is systematically rooted out in the 1940s and 1950s through McCarthyism.

The Left that comes of age in the 1960s was largely coming of age without the benefit and experience of those struggles of the 1930s. Of course not completely — everyone wasn’t rooted out in the 1950s — but in terms of big organizations and the big organizational understandings and conclusions that could be drawn from those struggles. It’s very difficult to pick those threads up again.

A similar dynamic takes place at the end of the sixties with the cooptation of part of the movement and then the brutal oppression of the other part of the movement. It is not just an instinctive antipathy towards African Americans, but the ruling classes have a much longer memory and understanding of the potential impact of organizations and activists than we do.

There was an understanding of the need to crush those movements. There’s a reason why Assata Shakur, who’s seventy years old, is still on some terrorist list with a $2 million bounty. It’s not because she poses any threat to the US government or the US state, but the idea of Assata certainly does, and you can see that in the movements today where she has taken on a kind of iconic status.

The absence of those connections means that we are starting from scratch to rebuild the Left. That’s not just a numeric question of, “Well, if it weren’t for that, we’d have this many people versus that many people.” It’s about politics. It’s about political debates having to be won on a very basic level — the main one for the American left being the orientation one has towards the Democratic Party.

In terms of actual struggle, it would depend on when we were talking about. 1967, ’68, ’69 was the sort of high point of struggle in the postwar period. We are of course nowhere in that hemisphere. In terms of a similar process of radicalization that was taking place at the beginning of the 1960s, evidenced by the student movement as a starting point and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was about young people becoming radicalized and having a sense that they could actually challenge the system and they were willing to do so.

We see evidence of that in quite a dramatic way today. But I would say they’re not parallel: there’re no illusions that there’s an American dream today in the same way that there was in the early 1960s.

People are deeply cynical about the United States, deeply cynical about the government and the state in a way that didn’t exist then. That has a historical cumulative impact, which probably means that there’ll be a much deeper and broader radicalization. Whether or not that actually turns into a political challenge, a politics, or an organization, not just the recognition that there’s inequality that is grossly demonstrated by the state.

DD

Some Black Lives Matter groups are focusing organizing among black people and as a corollary Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is organizing white people as allies. What’s your take on the role of this kind of organizing?

KT

I come from a political tradition that absolutely respects and defends the right of the oppressed to organize in whatever way they determine is the most effective. If that means that women’s demands are organized separately, that black people’s demands are organized separately, Latinos’ demands are organized separately, then I support their right to do so.

In saying that, it doesn’t mean that I think it’s the most effective way to organize. There might be a period where people feel like they have to gather themselves in that particular formation, but what I never hear is the basis upon which we move from separate organizing to multiracial organizing. That has to be an important part of the discussion.

On one level, there’s a basic issue of math: it is true that when black people get free, everyone will get free. But black people cannot get free alone.

So I am curious to know the trajectory people think they have to go on to get from that sort of organizing to multiracial organizing. It is important to organize on a multiracial basis. Not because it’s easy or anything like that. It’s often difficult and frustrating as really most organizing is — that’s why it’s called “struggle.”

But if we’re going to build a mass movement able to confront the political and economic establishment in this country, then we will have to take up that challenge. I think a lot of the resistance to it is based in this cynical idea that people are impervious to change, that their ideas are static, and that we just simply can’t work together. That is anti-historical. It may be born out of some people’s experiences, but we have to challenge each other and learn how to overcome those kinds of division if we’re going to have an effective mass movement.

DD

The notion that racism is immutable is sort of awkwardly compatible with biological racism.

KT

They are two sides of the same argument. A lot of people will talk how race is socially constructed, but often act in ways that assume its essential nature and characteristic, which always has to be challenged. It’s a basic sort of understanding of how the world and life itself operates. Things are constantly changing and that includes people’s politics, their experience, and their political ideas.

If you’re not going to do that, then you do actually have to articulate what your plan is for taking on the political and economic establishment. We can’t just organize on the basis of rhetoric. We have to organize on basis of politics and ideas and what can mobilize the greatest number of people.

If you don’t have anti-oppression, antiracist politics at the center of your organizing, there will be no movement. Those things have to be at the center of organizing otherwise we’ll never even get to any discussion about mass organizing. We have to talk in terms of what it means to build a mass movement.