I’m holding in my hand what has been called “one of the most daring books of the 21st century,” a “book for the ages,” “bracing,” “unrelenting.” The title is Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, and it breathes with prophetic fire.
Its power comes because the author does not begin with “pristine principles or with assumptions about our inherent goodness.” Rather, its view of democracy, as he writes, “emerges out of an unflinching encounter with lynching trees, prison cells, foreclosed homes, young men and women gunned down by police and places where ‘hope, unborn, had died.’”
Democracy in Black is rich in history and bold in opinion, and inconvenient truths leap from every page. For example, and I’m quoting the book again, “black people must lose their blackness if America is to be transformed. But of course, white people get to stay white.”
The book opens in Ferguson, Missouri, with the author talking to three, dynamic young black women, newly born to activism, and it closes in the intimacy of the reader’s heart, where each of us wrestles with the question of whether we can indeed change the habits of racism and create together a new politics based on a revolution in values.
The author is Eddie Glaude Jr. Glaude was raised in the Deep South, in Moss Point, Mississippi, and still remembers the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross at the fairground. He’s now a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University, where he also chairs the Center for African-American Studies. This is his third book, and he’s a member in good standing of the black establishment, which he rigorously calls to account in Democracy in Black. – Bill Moyers
Bill Moyers: Professor Glaude, welcome.
Eddie Glaude Jr.: Well, thank you for having me.
Moyers: Why did you start this book in Ferguson? Why did you go out there after the terrible incident there?
Glaude: I thought it was a kind of spark; the spark that could in fact inaugurate a substantive change in African-American politics, in particular, and perhaps another dimension of fundamental change in American politics, more generally. I had to see it apart from all of the cameras. I wanted to see the young folks and see what they were doing on the ground because I thought, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, like the young folk of the 1960s —
Glaude: — yeah, SNCC. You know, that these could be in fact the shock troops of the next phase of the struggle for democracy in this country.
Moyers: What did you take away from that? Were your expectations met?
Glaude: What I came away with was the extraordinary courage that emerges out of particular circumstances; that it explodes. You don’t know what human beings are capable of. That these young folk dared to stare down the weaponry that we saw on television, and that they would do so in a way that wasn’t captured by the old traditional theater of civil rights marches where some black preacher is at the front. But these were young folk, many of them coming out of “the hood,” that these weren’t middle-class respectable people, as we say. These were young folk who had been struggling to find jobs, young folk who often had tattoos on their arms, earrings in their ears.
Moyers: Where do they stand in this long story of struggle that you write about, not just Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, but all the way back to Harriet Tubman?
Glaude: I like to see them as part of this extraordinary black freedom tradition, and more specifically, the black radical tradition. What we’ve witnessed over the last few decades is an all-out assault on the black radical imagination. And that is that our idea of what constitutes legitimate forms of political dissent in this country has been so limited, it has been so narrowed to party electoral politics, to a tweet here or a Facebook post there, or some march here or there, but the idea of everyday ordinary Americans stepping out of the established frame for political dissent and daring to challenge the state up front with their bodies, with their minds and with their mouths, they stand in that tradition. Oftentimes they’ve been cut off from it because of the narrative, so they have to reinvent it. Because we tell ourselves a story of African-American politics that’s always, at least it seems to me, that’s always kind of bound by this idea that America is the shining city on the hill.
Glaude: Yes, of course they would, because it allows folk to be comfortable in the very thing that’s at the heart of the problem of the country.
Moyers: But white Americans prefer the Martin Luther King model, the Martin Luther King of the march, the Martin Luther King of nonviolence, to those radical practitioners of an imagination that would go beyond just collaboration with whites.
Moyers: What is at the heart of the problem of the country?
Glaude: The value gap.
Moyers: Value gap?
Glaude: The value gap. We talk about the achievement gap, we talk about the empathy gap, we talk about the wealth gap, and the value gap is this: the belief that white people matter more than others. And to the extent to which that belief animates our social arrangements, our political practices, our economic realities, under different material conditions, as long as that belief obtains, democracy will always be in abeyance in this country.
Moyers: But you write that this value gap — the belief that white lives matter more than black lives — goes all the way back to the foundation. As Martin Luther King said toward the end of his life, that white supremacy is the great barrier to democracy.
Glaude: Right, but the idea is that we have to tell the truth. And when I tell people about the value gap, and I’m thinking about this in light of Black Lives Matter, the phrase calls to mind this assertion on the part of these young folk that they matter, that black people matter. Well, I believe the price of that ticket has already been paid. I don’t need to assert that I matter. I know that. And these young folk who exhibited all of this courage, and boldness, and imagination and creativity in the context of their rebellion, of their protest, they know that.
Moyers: Who doesn’t know it?
Glaude: The folks who believe that they matter more. The assertion of Black Lives Matter is really white people don’t matter more than us. I’m trying to speak to the fact that from the very founding, that the principles of democracy have been colored, disfigured, undermined by this assumption that because of the color of your skin, you should be accorded something different.
Moyers: An assumption written into the basic documents of the country, into the basic institutions of our founding fathers owning slaves.
Glaude: This is the radical claim at the heart of the book — that I reject the idea that at the heart of racism, at the heart of the racial problem in this country, that there’s a gap between our ideals and our practices. This is the 1944 Gunnar Myrdal formulation from the American Dilemma.
Moyers: The Swedish social scientist.
Glaude: That the problem with America is that we don’t live up to our creed. And usually the region that bears the brunt of that problem is all too often the South. And as I tell my students all the time, Flint, Michigan is not in the South. But this idea, that the problem is a gap between our ideas and practices, and all we need to do is align them. And I say, what if it’s the case that we’ve built the country true? That it’s not a gap between our ideals and practices, that the value gap is absolutely essential to who we take ourselves to be. And our task is to retrieve the language of liberty, and freedom, and equality, to remove it from this idea of American exceptionalism and give it new life, in which every human being is accorded dignity, no matter their zip code or the color of their skin.
Moyers: How did you become who you are? Given where you grew up, in the long and lengthening shadow of white supremacy, where your life didn’t matter to the powers that be as much as their own children’s, how did you become who you are?
Glaude: My dad was the second African-American hired at the post office in Pascagoula, Mississippi. So my dad, knowing he had precocious kids, moved us to the west side of town. And I was playing with my Tonka truck outside as we were moving in, and an older white guy neighbor called me the N-word, and I grabbed my Tonka truck and ran inside. And I saw my dad’s eyes, and I saw the anger and rage that was so familiar to me. And he ran outside and he handled his business. I don’t know what he said to the guy. I know the For Sale sign was up pretty soon.
But it was an indication of how my dad raised us. I remember when I was in the fourth grade, a teacher was, I thought, harassing me and I got up and I yelled, “You’re a racist” and I walked out of the classroom. I was deathly afraid of what was going to happen to me when I got home. And my father, this man who rarely said a word, who rarely showed emotion, said, “What did she say? What did she do?” And I told him, and he said, “Every time someone says anything like that to you, you do the same thing.” And then I went to Morehouse —
Moyers: Morehouse College, Atlanta.
Glaude: Morehouse College. So I was dipped in deep waters of race men. I was educated in this space.
Moyers: Did your father and mother talk to you about white supremacy?
Glaude: Not at all. I didn’t even know SNCC had a presence in my hometown growing up, until Stokely Carmichael, who later would become Kwame Ture, and Ivanhoe Donaldson, who just recently passed, that they were in my hometown. I didn’t know that until I got to graduate school.
Moyers: As radical activists?
Glaude: As radical activists. I didn’t know that there was a movement to desegregate the swimming pools in my town. I didn’t know that. I was always integrated. I was going to the Optimist Clubs. I was playing Dungeons & Dragons with Ron Krotoszynski. In some ways I integrated Moss Point in these kinds of spaces. But I remember when Eyes on the Prize came on and my father just jumped up and started cussing and walked out.
Moyers: The PBS series?
Glaude: Yes, when it first came out on PBS. And I remember my dad watching and just started cussing and got up and walked out. My dad was very clear he didn’t like white people, very clear. When they shot out the sliding door in the back of the house; kids behind us shot out the sliding door with a pellet gun. My dad responded with a 12-gauge shotgun and blew off a limb of their oak tree and said, “Shoot back here again.” But outside of me knowing that he was rageful, that he didn’t suffer white people easily —
Moyers: But in your own home, you didn’t discount your life?
Glaude: No, I was busy listening to Al Green; having fish fries every Friday, because they were devout Catholics; reveling in a cultural space that isn’t obsessed with what white folks think. And it’s really an empowering experience. And then I left and went to Morehouse, and then had my first conversion experience.
Moyers: There. How so?
Glaude: I read Malcolm X’s autobiography, written with Alex Haley. And I said, “Ah! The language for my father’s rage. I got it. I see it now.” And it’s at that point that the analysis of the world changed. Everything changed. I began to reread my experiences back home in a very different way.
Moyers: Now that you’ve taken this long look at the history of racism in America and seen yourself in the context of it — your life, your privilege, your teaching, the politics of today — you conclude that we are in crisis.
Glaude: Yes, a crisis of imagination. We can talk about the fact that my colleagues at Princeton have said that we’re no longer a democracy. We’re an oligarchy. We can talk about the evil levels of inequality that define not only the United States, but the world generally, where the top 0.1 percent is garnering all the gains while the 99 percent are struggling to imagine tomorrow, and that’s not just simply black and brown folk. All this is a reflection of the ugliness of the world in which we inhabit. But because the imagination is the battleground, many of us can’t see beyond the reality of now. It’s almost as if one of the most insidious dimensions of our current politics is to arrest our curiosity about what could be otherwise. And so we find ourselves stuck with these choices. Stuck with a billionaire as the voice of the locked out, Trump. Stuck with Hillary Clinton. As if we can’t imagine otherwise. So it is a crisis that I think, at its core, if we don’t resolve we will not survive.
Moyers: You don’t think the prominence of Obama, as president of the United States, is symbolic enough to affect these habits of racism that you write about so powerfully in your book?
Glaude: I think it has some bearing. I would be wrong to suggest that the symbolic significance of his presidency will not have an impact. My son came of age — in 2008, he was a baby basically — now he’s an activist at Brown University. So he grew up with an African-American in the White House, but he also came of age politically with Ferguson, with Sandra Bland, with Laquan McDonald.
Moyers: Your son is not free of the intrusion of the world we’re talking about. Tell me that story about your son.
Glaude: So I had just recently got a call saying that I had been elected the president of the American Academy of Religion, the largest body of scholars of religion in the world. Country boy made good, right? Then I get a call from my son an hour later. And I could hear it in his voice. I said, “What’s wrong?” And he says, “I was in the park doing an assignment for my urban ethnography class with my girlfriend. And I’m sitting there taking notes, and a police cruiser drives by slowly and then he hits a sudden U-turn, and turns on his lights, and drives up on the sidewalk. He gets out. He flashes the flash light at my feet, and then at the bushes, and then at my face. And I say, “Officer, can I help you?” And the officer says, “Who are you, and why are you here?” And he says, “I’m a Brown student and I’m doing an assignment for my urban ethnography class.” And the officer says, “Well, the park closes at 9:30 p.m.” And he says, “Yes sir. I know, but it’s only 7:30 p.m.” And as he’s saying that, the other officer, his partner, comes around the cruiser with his hand on his weapon. And they both lean into him and say, “The park closes at 9:30 p.m.” And he puts his hands up, taps his girlfriend, who had her headphones on, and says, “We don’t want any trouble. We’re leaving. We’re leaving now. We’re leaving now.”
So his body was in the wrong place. And I’m sitting there and I’m hearing my baby tell this story. He’s my only child. And you know, James Baldwin writes in The Uses of the Blues, whatever we think “the negro problem” is, it is basically the effort of negro parents to keep from taking root what white people believe about our children; to keep it from taking root in the soul. I had to figure out what to say to my baby, because I could have lost him. Not one white parent in this country has to go through that, I don’t think.
Moyers: If he had been angry, you would have lost him.
Glaude: Yes, if he had an Eric Garner day, and said, “I’m not going to take this anymore,” I probably either would have lost him, or had to go up and post bail for him. So at that moment, I had to figure out what I was going to say to him; because at that point you can go internal, and focus on the internal wound. So instead of having him go inward, I simply said, “Now imagine what would have happened, how often you would have to experience, that if you lived in a different zip code.” Because you have to take it from going inside, and turn it outward so you can engage in this justice work.
And it wound up being the case that he was one of the organizers of a student protest at Brown.
Moyers: Turned his own anger into something positive.
Glaude: Right, this justice work.
Moyers: It’s hard to do.
Glaude: So here’s a young man whose political vision, shaped by a black man in the White House, but whose existential life, whose experiences have been overdetermined by the reality of black suffering all around him. And because he’s aware, he sees it. If you think we saw the expansion of the black middle class and the black upper class in the nineties. At the same time we were seeing, in interesting sorts of ways, the expansion of the black poor, extreme poverty.
So if you think just because we have a Robert Johnson, or an Oprah Winfrey, or a Jay-Z, or a Beyoncé, that somehow that’s changed the conditions of the most vulnerable in our communities, then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you.
Moyers: I just read this morning that the rate of unemployment among blacks is actually higher today than it was in 1954.
Glaude: Yes, absolutely. Thirty-eight percent of black children are now growing up in poverty. In my home state of Mississippi, 50 percent are growing up in poverty. If you look at the housing bubble collapse, 240,000 homes lost in black America. Now the wealth gap between white wealth is 13 times that of black wealth. You look at what has been the impact of mass incarceration in our communities. What has it meant for three strikes you’re out? What has it meant for mandatory sentences? What has it meant, broken windows policing? When you look at places like DC, and places like Philadelphia, and places like the South, how many young African-American men and women find themselves in some shape, form or fashion, involved with the carceral system, the carceral state. And then when you think about this incredible ritual of public grieving — of these black parents, and family members, and friends, having to bury their loved ones who have been killed at the hands of the police — all of this is on the watch of the first black president. So this is what’s happened. The scripts that we had before — the underlying reality has changed so fundamentally that the traditional scripts don’t align. So the fact that we have black people in high places, that doesn’t really change the fundamental reality.
Moyers: But you don’t lay these, do you, at Obama’s feet?
Glaude: I don’t lay it at his feet. I lay it at the feet of an economic philosophy that has captured Democrats and Republicans.
Moyers: Talk about that.
Glaude: We know the story of the DLC — the Democratic Leadership Council. We know that story.
Moyers: That was the group that Bill Clinton helped to create back in the 1990s to move Democrats toward money, toward corporate power and Wall Street, because they were tired of being seen as New Deal, and called big spenders.
Glaude: Right, and we know what that meant. They said, in some ways, Democrats have to distance themselves from their traditional base. They have to contain labor, and they have to contain black folk. And what has that meant? That has meant triangulation. That has meant taking the policies of the Republican Party. That has meant becoming cozy with Wall Street. That has meant turning one’s back on the most vulnerable in this country. And so Democrats bear the blame and the responsibility. In some ways, I like to say that the first neoliberal president was Jimmy Carter. We talk about austerity —
Moyers: You go further than that. You say that Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, were what Herman Melville called “confidence men.”
Moyers: What do you mean by that? That’s three Democrats in a row.
Glaude: Yes, selling the snake oil of hope and change. That somehow, by electing them, they were going to change the frame, that they would close the value gap and uproot those habits. If we locate white supremacy, or racism, or the value gap, only with people who are loud racists, folk who are running around with hoods and yelling the N-word, then you’re going to miss it. We learn race by simply walking around New York City, walking around Princeton. Just the way the space is organized, we’re being socialized into the habits of race. So if you can come in and dance around the edges, and these people made all of these promises.
They knew they could not be elected without black voters. African-Americans came out for President Obama in 2008 at 95 percent. And then when as a constituency we said, “Speak to our suffering. Give us concrete policies.”
“I can’t be the president of black America, I’m the president of all America.”
Nobody asked you to be the president of black America.
Moyers: You did not expect him to be the president of black America?
Glaude: We expected him to speak to a constituency that voted for him at 95 percent. See this is the thing, because of the way in which race works, it distorts how we participate in the democratic process. And these Democrats, it’s a shrewd hypocrisy. They play on our fears. Because they say, “Look at those other guys, look how much worse it would be.” And then they don’t have to deliver a damn thing.
Moyers: You write, “The most disturbing example of our inability to talk substantially about race is how President Obama handles the subject. He constantly contorts to avoid the racial landmines of American politics.”
Glaude: Yes, he does it all the time. I just have these moments in my head. Remember when John Edwards was running for the presidency in 2007, Senator Edwards at the time. His big mantra was poverty. Edwards of course got caught out there for all the things that he did, and there was this huge press conference in New Orleans. Edwards was going to endorse Obama, and Obama said, poverty’s going to be on my agenda for the rest of the campaign. And then we didn’t hear another word.
There was a moment in the election cycle, they move from Iowa and New Hampshire and they’re going to South Carolina, and he puts together his black think tank, and all of a sudden these issues — we just heard it recently — black folk are on the national scene, we’re talking about black issues. Once you get out of South Carolina, got to bank to the center. And then you get into office and we have to assume that they’re going to do whatever they’re going to do behind closed doors, without any level of accountability. We’ve just got to trust that they’re going to do it.
Moyers: Now there are people listening to us who will say there are other constituencies that any politician has to balance as he walks the tightrope of American pluralism.
Glaude: Yes, I wonder if they would say that with regards to the LGBT community and how much he’s been pushed in that regard. I wonder if they would say that with regards to the Lilly Ledbetter [Fair Pay Act]. I wonder if they would say that with regards to other constituencies that have made interesting inroads in his campaign. Would they say that to the fact that he bailed out Wall Street?
Moyers: Are you saying that the black voters who put Obama in office haven’t been pushing hard enough or consistently enough?
Glaude: Well, this is part of the challenge. There’s been a kind of reticence. There’s been a reticence because of the right-wing backlash. He’s the most-threatened president ever; don’t want to give fodder to the right wing in terms of their attack and obstruction of his policies. But there’s a sense in which some folks have muted their voices in relation to President Obama.
But at the end of the day, whatever you think about my position on President Obama; whatever you think about his policies over the last eight years, the fact remains that he’s about to go home, and we have to deal with the ruins. He’s going home. And when you look at communities like Chicago, and you look at communities like Philadelphia, you look at a city like Detroit, you turn your attention to the Delta, you turn your attention to Houston, you look at what’s happening in black communities, and brown communities around the country, we have to attend to the ruins. And the symbolic significance of President Obama, it’s over. Now what are you going to do?
Moyers: One of your moving passages is about how the president responded to the killing of Trayvon Martin. He said, “We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us.” Now what’s wrong with that?
Glaude: It’s a nice way of talking, but when you actually get to the content of it, it becomes a matter of our hearts only. The thing that was interesting about that press conference is that he dropped a seed for My Brother’s Keeper.
Moyers: The organization.
Glaude: Which is his initiative around mentoring for black and brown young men, and has been pushed by others to include women in that. But that’s just a private-public partnership, aimed at speaking to structural realities that reproduce poverty and precarity for a particular community of concern. He said he wanted to look at “stand your ground” laws. What happened to that? He said we need to increase training — whenever you hear about increasing training for police you should wonder and worry, as my colleague Naomi Murakawa talks about, because that simply means more money, more funding for police. It doesn’t translate in changing the nature of policing itself.
When you look at the content of what he offered in response to a wannabe cop who killed a young kid, or in response to police officers choking Eric Garner for a loosie, a cigarette, it was a Band-Aid for a bullet wound, for a gunshot wound. And we’re supposed to be satisfied. I’m not satisfied.
Moyers: You say he, Obama, “joined Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, other Democratic confidence men who presented themselves as people who would challenge the racial order of things but neither changed the racial habits at the heart of the country.” Can a president do that?
Glaude: Yes, I think so.
Moyers: Can change the racial habits at the heart of history?
Glaude: I think they can use their bully pulpit, and really force the country to confront the way the habits evidence themselves. We did it in the military. When the military was segregated we did it and it’s probably one of the most integrated institutions we have in the United States. We could do it with public education if we were committed to educating all of our children. What would it mean for the president to say ‘historically we have double-digit unemployment in communities, because we have had historically a dual labor market in this country.’ There’s a reason why the unemployment of white Americans is at 4.3 percent, for black Americans now it’s at 10.1 percent unadjusted. There’s a reason for this. And it’s not because black people are lazy. Some are, because we’re human beings, we have lazy human beings. How will we address this and do it in a way that isn’t the equivalent of asking an academic like myself or an equivalent of John Hope Franklin to lead a commission, a conversation about race that’s so heavily politicized that we can get anything out of it? And I’m thinking about Clinton’s conversation on race during the Bill Clinton years.
So part of it is to take specific instances and in my mind there are three areas: it’s education, it’s jobs and it’s criminal justice; three issues where we see the habits that undergird and sustain the value gap and we address them directly.
Moyers: Because many black kids go to bad schools, you would change the school systems.
Glaude: Right, but right now what do we have? We have the kind of greed that you’ve been talking about for all of these years. Because what we see is the effort on the part of most folk is just simply to transfer public dollars into private hands. They’re not really interested in educating our kids. And they’re balancing the budgets of their municipalities on the backs of school districts in black and brown communities. And so they’re not interested in educating our children.
Moyers: And you say that black folks suffer more when these austerity measures are passed, could it be something else? I mean, you talk about your father going to work for the post office, I know many black folks whose first jobs that paid anything were with the United States post office. But with Republicans and Democrats too cutting government, there’s more than just an austerity policy at work there.
Glaude: Absolutely. Growing up in Mississippi when my dad was hired at the post office, that’s high cotton. It afforded us a middle-class life. He put his kids through college as a result of that. Think about the middle class in a place like Washington DC, the black middle class in a place like Washington DC, that’s worked for every aspect of government. And then you see the disappearance of private sector jobs, those manufacturing jobs, but as they’ve tried to starve the beast, as the narrative of big government is bad has taken root, we’ve seen a shrinking of government. And those public sector jobs are disappearing and as well as an attack on public sector unions. So the security that the unions provided for those jobs, they’ve been weakened. And what’s so striking about that is that in the moment in which we were asking and clambering for President Obama to put forward a bolder stimulus package, he starts debt mongering. He starts worrying about the debt and starts cutting, freezing wages and cutting jobs, disproportionately impacting black and brown communities that rely on public sector jobs.
Moyers: And you say that black communities around the country today are in deep, deep, distress. But they’re invisible unless there’s an outburst, as in Ferguson, or Baltimore or Flint.
Glaude: Right. Our communities are invisible because the people who inhabit them are disposable.
Moyers: And does that go back to your original thesis that black lives are less valuable than white lives?
Glaude: In policy and in practice, I really do believe that. Think about it, people are worried about OxyContin. They’re worried about the epidemic of heroin, and this is a public health crisis. But think about what happened in the eighties and nineties, when crack was ravaging our communities. And what was the response? It wasn’t empathy.
Moyers: It’s interesting you don’t talk as much about empathy and compassion as the instrument of change as you do actual policy. The way to change the habits of the heart, you say, is to enact policies that require change.
Glaude: I honestly believe that the moral argument takes root, is given content in the way it’s translated in policy. So the idea of the value gap is this: the idea is that the value gap distorts who we take ourselves to be. I think democracies require particular kinds of people. Democracies, if they’re to work, require certain kinds of dispositions, people who are committed to a notion, a robust notion of the public good, a sense of connection with others, a sense of mutuality with others. What the value gap does, it distorts our characters. It disfigures who we take ourselves to be so that we can’t be the kinds of people that democracies require.
And so, this is not about America living up to its ideals. That’s too abstract. It’s about us becoming the kinds of people democracies demand. And we’re only going to do that by concrete action. You change your habits by not picking up the cigarette. You change your habits by placing your shoes in the same spot as opposed to waking up every morning trying to figure out where they are. The wonderful thing about habits is they’re not permanent. They’re plastic. But we have to do something. We have to do something deliberate in order to change them. We can only do that not by high-sounding, lofty appeals to principles but by changing our daily day-to-day actions.
Moyers: So give me one example of what could be done specifically and concretely that would help change the habits of racism.
Glaude: Well, I think one of the things that we could do, just really clearly, is commit ourselves to allowing every child in this country — every child — to experience preschool, kindergarten. To be educated. Because the data is clear, that if you give children an opportunity to learn at early ages, that that becomes the way in which we can begin to address the education gap. That’s one thing. The second thing, I think we could easily make public education, and I’m not sounding like I’m endorsing Bernie Sanders here, but I think we should easily make public education free for everyone around the country, for everyone. Begin to change because the revolution of value involves what? Changing our demand of government, changing our view of black people, and changing what ultimately matters. We can do that in very small steps. And each small step becomes a huge step in my mind.
Moyers: So I remember, growing up in East Texas, attending public schools, using the public library, using the public parks, using the public swimming pool — which was segregated — going to a state university that was public, and $40 dollars a month tuition, driving down the public highways, stopping in a public park, using a public toilet. Everything was public for me. My father never made more than $100 dollars a month in his life, including the last month of his working days, but I never felt deprived because there were all these public resources. Once black folks began to enjoy the same access to those public facilities, public attitudes toward them changed.
Glaude: That’s absolutely right.
Moyers: The fight over the swimming pool was after I left. In the 1950s it was finally integrated and when it did, the number of white kids using the public pool just plummeted.
Glaude: And think about all of the private schools that were founded right after 1954.
Moyers: When the Supreme Court issued its Brown v Board of Education decision.
Glaude: So this is the value gap. When we think of the issue of race in this country, in just simply these kind of easy kind of formulations, that we’ve just got to do better, then we don’t understand the depth of the problem. We have to look the ugliness of who we have been, and who we are squarely in the face if we’re going to do this, if we’re going to achieve our country. And in the interim, I have to, along with a whole bunch of other people, raise our babies. They have to come of age in a society that oftentimes views them as disposable. We have to do what my parents did for me: to give me the resources, the existential armor, to endure a society that we’ve just described.
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.