Bill Moyers: The argument you make in your book, Democracy in Black, is that if white working people, poor white folks, could see themselves in the same fix as poor black working people — if they could each see that they’re in the same boat of neoliberalism, we’d get the politics that you advocate.
Eddie Glaude Jr.: This is what we can’t seem to see because one of the insidious dimensions of our current politics is to attack that very possibility, is to exploit the differences between us, to exploit the fears, to cultivate them, to stoke them in order to benefit the status quo, to maintain the status quo.
Moyers: You write that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama — all Democrats — advocated in one way or another policies that made things worse instead of better. In 1994 the first President Clinton signed a landmark crime bill that imposed stricter prison sentences and provided more money for building prisons. Those measures helped fuel an explosion in our prison population and disproportionally affected African-Americans. Two years later, he signed legislation, ended the federal guarantee of direct cash payments to the needy, and limited payments to five years. In time, that increased the number of poor children in America. Yet Bill Clinton got reelected.
Glaude: Yes, it’s a paradox. In terms of our public political discourse, we rarely tend to think about race or talk about race at the same time that we’re talking about economics. We rarely tend to talk about race and culture and economics. We tend to keep these things separate. So whenever race comes to mind we want to think about some form of intentional prejudice.
And even when people are thinking about structural racism, we’re still thinking about bad outcomes for black folks as opposed to really understanding how economic realities are affecting disproportionately black folks — that there’s a correlation between being black and being poor, and how do we talk about that in our politics?
On the one hand you have people like Reverend Sharpton and others who will organize in response to racial injury and then couch it in light of a bourgeois aspiration: “We want a piece of the pie as it is.” Or you’ll get Bernie Sanders talking about the pie being wrongly constituted but not giving attention to the racialized dimensions of how it’s wrongly constituted because we don’t tend to think in this country out loud of race and political economy together.
And so what we’re seeing now I think, in full view, are the contradictions of class and ideological contradictions within black America. They are in full view. And the old way of thinking and mobilizing around race isn’t quite sufficient. It doesn’t quite capture what’s on the ground. It certainly doesn’t speak to Brownsville. And it certainly doesn’t speak to the delta of Mississippi.
Moyers: So how do you explain that Hillary Clinton racked up the black vote in the South? She got 86 percent of the black vote in the South Carolina primary and in the New York primary, recently, she got 75 percent of the African-American vote. How do you explain that?
Glaude: I want to make a distinction between the black voter in the Democratic primary and black people. So there is a presumption that the black voters in the Democratic primary represent black people or black communities as such. We probably should drill down into the numbers to look at the number of black people participating in the primary itself before we make that kind of generalization.
Moyers: Well, here in New York, only 17 percent of the eligible voters turned out in the Democratic primary.
Glaude: Right, so what are we generalizing? That’s the first thing.
And then the second thing is to think about the black political class and what they’re doing and how they’re mobilizing. And when I say the black political class, I’m not just thinking about black elected officials, I’m thinking about black pastors and preachers, black community leaders. What are they doing and how has Hillary Clinton worked with them? So it becomes for me an interesting moment to indict and perhaps convict the black political class.
And third, I think we haven’t done a good job, and I’m talking about those of us in the academy, of figuring out how to offer a language of analysis for race and political economy so that people can have a means of assessing policy initiatives on the part of certain candidates, of assessing rhetoric in relation to their own experiences, as opposed to simply saying, “I’m not going out and vote.”
Moyers: There’s something, there’s tension in the American political system that requires your rhetoric to offer hope and your performance to deliver results. And the rhetoric and the results are often at odds with each other.
Glaude: Right and in political science literature, that takes on a particular resonance in black communities. So you have that disjuncture between the rhetoric and how one governs, campaigning and governance. But in black communities, the political science language is that we are a “captured electorate.” So because we can’t go anywhere else, the Republican strategy is: we just need to get a certain percentage of black votes, or we can suppress the turnout of black voters, we can undermine democratic possibilities.
But the idea for Democrats has been simply: let’s turn them out, let’s get them to the polls in large numbers with no real commitment to delivering on policy, because we know they can’t go anywhere else.
And I’m of the mind that the last thing we need in the context of the crisis that we are experiencing as a nation, across communities, vulnerable communities in particular — the last thing we need is another candidate who is committed to the economic philosophy of neoliberalism. We need someone to challenge this thing at its core. And we do that in organization.
Where would we be if it wasn’t for what Black Lives Matter activists who decided to challenge, and make everyone uncomfortable? We wouldn’t be talking about criminal justice today if it wasn’t for them. Bernie Sanders wouldn’t be who Bernie Sanders is if it wasn’t for Occupy. What those folks did in Zuccotti Park. So there’s a way in which the situation is dark, as you rightly describe. But we have to stake everything, stake everything, on our ability, at least for a moment, to change the course, understanding that it very well may be futile.
Moyers: So are you calling for continuing protests and demonstrations against the political system?
Glaude: On some level, yes. I’m calling for wildcat strikes in public schools. I would love to see across the country, high school students walking out of their schools that are failing them, and local college professors holding forth, having class out in the park, in public parks, with these students. I would love for Occupy to reimagine its own way of struggling. I would love to see a metastasizing of what we’ve witnessed in North Carolina, ground zero for the Koch Brothers, to see what the Forward Together movement has been doing, and what Moral Mondays have been doing. I would love to see a proliferation of — let me say it differently: a radicalization of labor, as workers across the country coming together and saying in some ways, going back to a Melville formulation, “I prefer not,” to invoke Bartleby the Scrivener, right? “I prefer not!”
Glaude: Turning our backs on the status quo. And turning our backs is just a euphemistic way of saying we need to become traitors for democracy.
Moyers: And this is where your book really causes a lot of people to get nervous.
Moyers: In the latter stages, when you say, “What are we going to do about all of this? What are we going to do about it now in this political year of 2016?” And you call, for what you call, a “blank-out campaign.” What is that?
Glaude: The blank-out campaign? This is when in the 2016 election we need to turn out in massive numbers and vote down-ballot, but leave the presidential ballot blank.
And it comes out of my reading of fiction and of politics. You know, one of my favorite authors is Jose Saramago. He wrote the novel Blindness, the Portuguese writer, Blindness. He wrote another novel, Seeing. And in Seeing, the heart of the plot is that there is a massive election, and people turn out in massive numbers, and then they go to count the ballots and 80 percent of them are blank. And then they say, “Something must have happened.” And they do it again, and they hold another election, and the same thing happens. And they’re called the blankers. And what they did is that they engaged in a bloodless revolution. They used the democratic process to say, “These aren’t our choices.”
And then I said, okay, that’s fiction, how can we talk about this in the real world? And so I go to the 1998 Puerto Rico plebiscite and folks didn’t like the language of the choices, and so there was a movement to write “none of the above,” and “none of the above” won by 51 percent. And so I’m saying, we have to create a civic power outage. Black folk have been captured. Our participation in the democratic process has been distorted because of the value gap and these habits. We need to do something dramatic.
Moyers: Do you think black folks will go for this, given the fact that they haven’t had the vote for very long? And even now, after they got it in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act, the Republicans are trying to take it away again.
Glaude: Yes, I mean this is the key thing. That’s a key question. One of the things — I don’t believe that black people died for the vote. That to me is heretical. I don’t think one person gave her life for a vote. They gave their lives for freedom, for a more just world. And so what I’m suggesting is that we need to think about voting strategically, and tactically, not giving up the vote. It’s too sacred. So I’m saying go to the polls. And I’m saying vote down-ballot; affect this election. But we have to change how we orient ourselves to the democratic process. And we have to change, we have to short circuit, how the Democratic Party orients itself to us.
So then usually when I’ve said this, people go, “Oh my God. What are you suggesting?”
Moyers: Yes. Because —
Moyers: — “none of the above” is Donald Trump’s middle name.
Glaude: Yes, and guess who would choose him. It would be Democrats. Because the blank-out campaign would not be necessary if the Democratic Party would just simply put forward concrete policies to address the concerns of black communities.
So this is the thing, why should black people bear the burden of holding off the fascist or neo-fascist tendencies of the right? Why should it be our principal responsibility? If the only thing the Democratic Party has to do, if the only thing it has to do, is to put forward a serious and genuine agenda to address the value gap and the habits that sustain it, and it refuses to do so, then what does that say about it? What does it say about those who lead it?
Moyers: There is this sense that if you don’t vote for a flawed candidate, you will get an even more flawed candidate.
Glaude: Right. And that is one of the most efficient ways to keep us from being curious about what’s possible. We’ve been talking about the imagination. We’ve been talking about the way in which the black radical tradition, as one instance, has been in some ways redacted from our national story of the black freedom struggle, as if Dr. King’s bust was destined to be in the White House or something. And so part of these moments, when people make that kind of move, it’s really aimed at forcing you back in the box.
So whether the blank-out campaign is feasible or not, it’s a provocation designed to get us to think outside of our current options. What the Clinton campaign, and what the Trump campaign, and what the DNC and the RNC, what they’re trying to do, and what they’re trying to sell us all is that our only options, our only choices are those right in front of us. And it seems to me that if democracy is going to be salvaged in this country, we’re going to have to do something much more dramatic than that. We’re going to have to choose something much different than that. And so we have to figure out how to reboot this thing.
Moyers: You’re going to threaten the Democratic Party.
Glaude: That’s what — we need to threaten it to the core.
Moyers: You call on African-Americans to free their political imaginations from the stranglehold of black liberalism. And you say, “The triumph of black liberalism happened even as the material conditions of black life deteriorated, and as the institutional life of black America collapsed.”
Glaude: Right. So in some ways part of what I’m trying to tell a story about is this contraction of black politics. I love to talk about with my students the richness of black public life at the turn of the 20th century. When you think about black associational life, you’re talking about the founding of the NAACP and the Urban League, but also the National Associations of Teachers of Colored Students. You’re talking about black sororities and fraternities. You’re talking about the National Negro Congress, the Council on African Affairs. You had new characters emerge on the scene: Garveyites; black communists; black pan-Africanists; along with black liberals who had pan-African sensibilities; DuBois, in his earlier phase, organizing pan-African congresses. Black political life was rich and variegated, and had depth as we were building the institutional culture that would produce the children of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. We often think about World War II as the site of radicalization, but actually this early period of ferment was the fertile ground that those children were raised in.
And now what do we have? Black institutions are collapsing. We’ve witnessed the disappearance of black churches. We’ve witnessed the emergence of a theology that is perfect for neoliberalism. Let’s call it the prosperity gospel.
Moyers: God wants you to get rich?
Glaude: Yes. It’s perfect for the period.
Moyers: What’s happened to all these institutions that you’re talking about? Because as you say, the collapse of black communities, black neighborhoods, black institutions, black organizations, you know about it, but it’s largely invisible in the news, in the newspapers, on the evening news. Most people don’t know what’s happening to the institutions and organizations you are describing.
Glaude: Well some of it is happening because of the effects of ongoing integration. We know the once venerable black press, from Pittsburgh Courier, and the Chicago Defender, the Black AP, is a shell of what it once was. And now we see other places, Morehouse, and Howard, and Tuskegee struggling as the Harvards and the Princetons and the Yales and the Amhersts and the Williams are offering financial aid packages such that, even if you wanted to go to Morehouse, you could go to Princeton for free.
The landscape has changed. But it’s all in the name. And E. Franklin Frasier talked about this in his wonderful text Black Bourgeoisie, where he talked about the world of make believe, the world that black folk had to create as a result of segregation, would begin to crumble as integration happened. But the strange thing, the ironic thing, is that integration is just a pipe dream. We know for most of American society, integration hasn’t happened.
So the free spaces, those free spaces where we could cultivate the capacity to understand ourselves otherwise, where we could be imaginative and bold without the white gaze, where we could imagine ourselves as civically engaged, those spaces are collapsing. I used the metaphor of us being on a tightrope. You have institutions that were created on the conditions of segregation at one end, and the dream of post racialism at the other, and these institutions are unraveling, but we’re still on the damn rope. Right? We’re still on the rope.
Moyers: I need to talk about fear. You write that Americans experience several racial, moral panics in the latter half of the 20th century, all related to the fear of black criminality. So my question is where does the white fear of black men come from?
Glaude: You know, it’s a hard question to answer. I think it’s actually rooted in a host of stereotypes about who black people are and who black men are in particular, stereotypes that — and all stereotypes have some modicum of truth in it, right? But rooted in justification for slavery, and white supremacy, or Jim Crow. So there’s a way in which you can justify a particular sort of treatment by attributing something naturally, or biologically, to the people who you’re subordinating. So black people needed to be enslaved, because they were childlike. They couldn’t manage the burdens of citizenship. Or black people need to be policed, because they are inclined to steal, to criminal behavior.
Moyers: Does this fear keep us from talking openly about race?
Glaude: Oh, absolutely. And what’s so striking is that black fear of triggering white fear keeps us from talking openly.
Moyers: How’s that?
Glaude: You know, it’s part of that common sense. You know, you’re from Marshall, Texas, and so there’s this sense in which you know, you’re taught how to navigate these spaces. So you’re concerned about making white people feel uncomfortable. So you’re in these spaces, I’m at Princeton. You can imagine some folks at McKinsey, or some folks at Harvard, or wherever, and they have to be in these spaces, and so you can’t — you hear that off color joke, but you don’t say anything. You suppress the kind of cultural way in which you might be in the world; it doesn’t show up. You dress a particular sort of way, so that you don’t make anybody feel uncomfortable. So in that moment in which you hear something, and you know it’s not right, you make the decision not to speak directly to it. Or you engage in the kinds of contortions that I talk about President Obama doing.
And remember, I said President Obama actually reverses the code switch, and the kind of code speech. He doesn’t engage in the racial dog whistle to trigger racist commitments. He engages in the racial dog whistle to allay racial concerns: “No I’m not the Manchurian Candidate of black revenge. See, I’m a good one.” And we’re always doing that kind of stuff.
Moyers: So that fear affects our talk, doesn’t it?
Glaude: Oh yes. So we’re always dancing the racial jig, as I call it.
Moyers: You started out in Moss Point, Mississippi, which is a very poor community. I started out in Marshall, Texas, which was a poor community. You’re teaching at Princeton, and I’m living in the heart of Manhattan.
Moyers: What’s our obligation, we privileged people?
Glaude: To leverage our skills to open up space, for the most vulnerable, for the people who made us possible. And to breathe our last breath on behalf of them. To give everything we can, to give them the possibility of not only making their dreams a reality — not only being able to dream dreams, but to make those dreams a reality.
A colleague of mine, Imani Perry talks about this — they can always point to the exception. I’m an exceptional negro. And then I become the basis for judging all the folks who didn’t make it. Apparently something’s wrong with them, when in fact I just, I rolled the dice.
So you have some of us who have emerged, who have been successful, we’ve gotten a piece of the pie. And our argument has been, if you just make the rules fair, we can get our pie just like you got yours, as opposed to the game being wrong. As opposed to the game being wrong, and immoral. And what you have is a black political class that all of this has happened on their watch.
I say to my friends all the time, “If you’re on a bus, and even if you’re not driving it, but you know the gas pedal is stuck, and you see us going over a hill, and you’re not opening your mouths screaming at the top of your lungs, then you’re just as culpable.”
Moyers: But you can’t blame Eddie Glaude for wanting to teach at Princeton.
Glaude: No, not at all.
Moyers: I’m not in Marshall and you’re not in Moss Point. I mean this human tendency is maybe working against us as much as racial habits.
Glaude: Yes. But no matter where I am, I’m Juanita’s child. And my mother had her first baby in the ninth grade, she cleaned toilets for a living, until she came to supervise the cleaning detail of Ingalls Shipbuilding. No matter where I am, I have to put forward a conception of the good; a robust idea of community and mutuality that reflects the toil of my mama. So I don’t begrudge you for being at the height of your career, or I don’t feel the guilt of teaching at Princeton. I feel the obligation of opening up the space for everyone to actualize who they are, to become who God called them.
Moyers: The book is Democracy in Black. Eddie Glaude, thank you so much for joining me.
Glaude: Thank you so much for having me.